Every few months, like clockwork, one of two headlines pops into existence. Either Grand Theft Auto 5 has extended its lead as the best-selling video game of all time with 5-10 million new copies sold, or Grand Theft Auto 5 is one of the best-selling games in a given month despite first debuting in 2013.
The latter headline happened this week when NPD released new sales numbers. GTA 5 is a top five best-selling title once again for the first time since August 2019. By last count it has sold 120 million copies, dwarfing pretty much every other game in existence by a significant margin.
Every time this happens, I find myself asking the same question. Why? Why this game? Why is it this successful? And even as a 10 year industry veteran and analyst, I still cannot for the life of me crack this mystery.
Let me be clear, nothing else is even close to the success of GTA 5. Here’s the list of the top 20 best-selling games of all time:
There are a lot of different things happening with this list, but to extract a few points:
Minecraft and Tetris are above GTA 5, and yet they are available on a zillion platforms and they have never been priced anywhere close to $60. The same is true for PUBG, which is priced much lower.
Games like Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, Wii Fit, Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8 are so high mainly because of bundle deals with various Wii, Wii U or Switch consoles.
The first time you even start getting to a game on this list that is bundle-free and somewhat comparable to the AAA GTA 5, it’s probably Skyrim at 30 million copies sold, by last count, though I’d guess it was higher after a few more re-releases. And yet that is still just a quarter of what GTA 5 has sold in the 6+ gears. Red Dead Redemption 2 was a massive hit for Rockstar as well, and even that’s only about to crack 30 million at the bottom end of the top 20 list.
So, why has it sold this many copies, and why does it continue to sell so many copies to this day? As I said, this is something I have been trying to understand for years now, but I don’t have all the answers. As best I can tell:
GTA 5 Is A Perfect “Default” Game – Let’s say you’re an average gamer and have picked up X or Y console at some point in its lifespan. What’s the first game you buy? For many players, the answer has been GTA 5 with a frankly absurd attach rate. It has something for everyone. It has a solid single player story campaign, or a single player “goof around” sandbox if you want to play it that way. It has a grindable, healthy online mode in GTA Online, although you can also just mess around there too if you want. Within these modes there are deathmatch shooters, car races, co-op heists, it’s a huge range of activities. It’s potentially hundreds of hours of content from a franchise everyone knows and likes. And so, instant buy.
It Was Cross-Gen, Cross-Platform In A Big Way – GTA 5 was massive when it was first released near the tail end of the PS3/360 generation. And yet Rockstar then came out with a “next gen” remastered version of the game shortly just a year into the new console generation, which had a lot of people re-purchase it for the new platforms. And then they finally did a PC release alongside that as well, which expanded its reach even further. The timing of all this was perfect as it got to be a massive seller on two console generations within a year of each other, and forced many players to buy two copies, at least.
GTA Online Is Bigger Than Anyone Realizes – You really do not hear all that much about GTA Online on a day to day basis in this industry, and yet millions of players are spending millions of hours and dollars on the mode every single year. Rockstar has completely left single player content behind to do nothing but support GTA 5 MOBILE Online with frequent updates, and while there have always been controversies ranging from cheating to microtransaction prices, GTA Online is a slumbering giant in the industry that most people like myself continually ignore despite its massive playerbase. It also has the benefit of rewarding players who “work” in the mode to build a fortune through pure grinding rather than relying on random RNG and drops like many modern day loot-based games.
These are the main reasons I can think of, and honestly, it’s still not enough to make 120 million copies, 4x the sales of its closest comparable rival, make sense to me. I simply don’t understand that scale no matter how many contributing factors I can come up with. I am open to more theories but this remains one of the weirdest records in the video game industry and really, all of entertainment, as I believe that GTA 5 has now made more money than any book, album or movie in history as well.
How? How are you doing it Rockstar?