On December 4, 2023, Rockstar Games revealed the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6. It was just twenty-four hours later that the trailer surpassed 100 million views, breaking records and dominating newsfeeds and social platforms all over the world. It became an overnight sensation, sitting at the forefront of every publication and gaming brand in the business, and setting expectations extremely high. But with all that in mind, we’re eager to answer one important question: why is Grand Theft Auto so popular?
For Rockstar Games, the release of the GTA 6 trailer was another day in the office. But for the world, it was a cultural phenomenon. It was a paradigm shift that immediately lifted the bar for games the world over – and it was all made possible through a trailer that lasted just one and a half minutes. It told us so little but enthralled so many millions of people. Why does GTA specifically have that power over the industry?
Grand Theft Auto burst onto the gaming scene in 1997, and within a decade, a further five major titles had been released. It quickly became a household name, selling millions of copies and shining through despite controversies surfacing regarding the series’ obsession with lewd comedy, violence, and the glorification of crime. It was revealed in 2023 that the franchise had sold almost half a billion copies since it was kicked off in the late nineties and that 185 million of those sales came from 2013’s Grand Theft Auto 5.
For a decade, Grand Theft Auto 5 has sat at the top of the charts, earning Rockstar Games billions of dollars. It remains an immensely popular game on social and streaming platforms today, and since GTA 6 was revealed, there has been a noticeable uptick in the player count and streaming figures for GTA 5.
That’s all well and good, but why does that mean GTA is as powerful as it is today? Other franchises have been around for just as long, sold as many copies, and had as many iterations as Grand Theft Auto, but they don’t have half the pulling power that it does. Why is Grand Theft Auto so popular?
There’s Nothing Better
Firstly, it’s important to stress the quality of a Grand Theft Auto game. With the launch of GTA 3 in 2002, the franchise went 3D and never looked back, altering the standard for open-world adventure games and setting the bar for the industry. It was an epic shift that rewrote the rulebook, giving players unparalleled freedom and a memorable experience that would roll over into 2003’s Vice City, and 2004’s San Andreas.
In each new iteration, things improved exponentially. When Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008, Rockstar moved onto the next generation of gaming, proving that it could produce a gritty, emotional, and intensely realistic game. In 2013, Grand Theft Auto 5 was released, and it quickly became regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.
From the sumptuous visuals to the immensely detailed open world environments, and from the far-reaching, immersive stories to the sheer depth of side content available, Grand Theft Auto effortlessly ticks every box when it comes to game quality. Rockstar Games spares no expense when it comes to developing a GTA game, and with each new iteration, the development window – and budget – widens massively. It has taken ten years to reveal GTA 6, and what was shown is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
That’s one of the leading reasons why GTA is so popular.
The Value of Nostalgia
It’s estimated that around 61% of gamers are aged between 18 and 54. It’s these gamers who have grown up on Grand Theft Auto. They’ve forged experiences across several GTA games, transitioning from Vice City to San Andreas to GTA IV, and then to GTA 5. For them, each Grand Theft Auto game carries them back to those memorable moments spent during days gone by, driving around wide, open cities, customising characters, and generally wreaking havoc on a virtual population.
That’s why, when GTA 6 was revealed, comparisons started tearing around like wildfire. There were millions of gamers instantly pulled back to the noughties – to Vice City. In their mind, it’s like coming home. It was the same vibe when Grand Theft Auto 5 was first revealed in 2011 – we were teleported back to 2004’s San Andreas. For GTA 5, the core setting was Los Santos, a reimaging of the ‘starter city’ from the 2004 smash hit.
For many gamers, nothing beats Grand Theft Auto when it comes to the core gameplay experience. It’s freedom at its very best. There are no limits, no restrictions, and the replayability value is off the charts. Most GTA fans have spent thousands of hours exploring the franchise. Given the huge gap that is between games now, each new one can’t help but evoke feelings of nostalgia: ‘I can’t believe I’m finally getting another GTA game!’
It’s That Hunger
It’s important to highlight that very concept – the immense wait. It has been ten years since GTA 5 was released, and before that, there was a gap of five year wait after GTA IV had been released. If you take a look at franchises like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, you can see the disdain that players have for them, because they release so regularly. It doesn’t allow developers time to innovate or produce anything ‘different enough’, and that’s a huge issue.
They might sell well, but when was the last time an Assassin’s Creed or a Call of Duty trailer secured 100 million views in twenty-four hours?
Everyone was so hungry for GTA 6, and when Rockstar Games finally dropped the trailer, it was like an explosion took place. It erupted, picking up millions of forwards, shares, and reposts almost instantly. It became the single-most talked about thing in the world, and what’s more impressive is that Rockstar Games didn’t even market the game. It just let the sheer anticipation of the game’s existence take hold and burn a hole in everyone’s minds.
Everyone knew it was coming, but nobody knew how successful that reveal would be.
Will It Ever Change?
So, why is Grand Theft Auto so popular?
It’s the base quality of the series, for starters. Rockstar Games doesn’t create anything less than perfection in Grand Theft Auto, and that’s true from the visuals to the soundtrack, and from the voice acting to the side missions. It’s the sense of nostalgia that we get when we see the Grand Theft Auto branding flash up, especially when Rockstar leans on old locations that we explored several years before.
And of course, it’s because we’ve all waited so long for it. Every time a new Grand Theft Auto game launches, a cultural change takes place, tens of millions of people connect and rejoice, and another generation of gamers is introduced to a vast, diverse, and immersive open-world epic of a game.
It might never change.