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Published: Wednesday, 4/30/2008

Grand Theft Auto IV: Gamers expected to race into stores

Grand Theft Auto IV video game
boxes are displayed on a rack. Grand Theft Auto IV video game boxes are displayed on a rack.

LOS ANGELES - There's no Burger King tie-in or special flavor of Mountain Dew. No commercial directed by Peter Jackson, or even an action figure.

The run-up to Grand Theft Auto IV has been considerably less ballyhooed than last year's over-the-top Halo 3 debut. Yet GTA IV, the latest entry in the controversial video game franchise, which parked on store shelves yesterday, could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history.

Analysts predict Take-Two Interactive Software and Rockstar Games' open-world, action-driving game will easily top last year's record-breaking $300 million first-week sales of Microsoft and Bungee Studios' first-person shooter Halo 3 - and without a similar marketing bonanza.

Jason Carpenter, manager at Best Buy on Monroe Street in Toledo, said sales yesterday were strong.

"It's been the biggest video game release this year," he said.

Added Mike Zorn, manager of the Perrysburg Best Buy: "There was a lot of demand for this game. People were very excited about it."

With the launch of GTA IV on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Rockstar is seemingly steering in one direction: the downlow.

"Rockstar wants to control the message all the time," says Sam Kennedy, editorial director for the gaming site 1UP.com. "They want this to be seen and perceived exactly the way they want. That's why - outside of the official trailers they released - people haven't seen a lot of gameplay footage in advance of GTA IV shipping. They want to build that hype."

Take-Two and Rockstar declined to comment for this story, but following a 90-minute demonstration of the game in January, GTA IV writer and Rockstar vice president Dan Houser said that the infamous game developer, who's also responsible for the Manhunt and Bully games, was being overly protective for one very important reason.

"We want people to be really excited and not know everything by the time they play the game," said Mr. Houser. "Of course, we want them to understand what they're buying, but we want there to be surprises along the way."

The less-is-more approach might also have something to do with the controversial series' M-rated content. "GTA IV" anti-hero Niko Bellic, an imigrant-turned-gangster from Eastern Europe, isn't exactly one of the Mario Brothers. As Bellic, players can hijack cars, earn cash for criminal activities, flee from police, drive drunk, kill innocent bystanders, and patronize strip clubs.

"If you look at their marketing, that's not a selling point at all," says Steve Fowler, vice president of strategy for the Ayzenberg Group, a company that specializes in interactive entertainment advertising and marketing. "They've gone with this comic book look and feel. It's not about graphic violence. It's not about profanity. It's more about the feeling, expression, and the emotional attachment to the characters and the world."

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