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Grand Theft Auto V shows why the games industry needs to go the way of the music industry

September 17, 2013
Obsession
The Cloud
September 17, 2013
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Some people will do anything to get their hands on an early copy of the new Grand Theft Auto.Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto V, the fifth in a series of joyously violent games in which players control crime syndicates and wreak havoc upon cities, is among the most eagerly anticipated games ever released. It went on sale today and is expected to rake in $1.6 billion in sales in its first year, handsomely repaying its $270 million production budget. But some gamers have already been playing it for days, after several retailers broke an embargo set by its publisher, Rockstar Games. In Britain, a few customers who placed early orders on Amazon received their copies in the post on Saturday, Sept. 14, three days before retailers were allowed to sell the game. Another British retailer has been selling the early version for £75 ($119), a 50% markup over Amazon’s prices.

French retailers also sold the game early. Maxxi Games, a retailer in the République neighborhood of Paris, summoned customers via its Facebook page on Saturday:

It’s going on right now!!!
Come pick up your game at the nearest Maxxi games
It’s AVAILABLE!!!

Other shops were more subtle. Le Figaro reports (link in French) that Trader Games, also in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, told its Facebook followers to “come now” and “not say more,” though that post has since been removed (broken link).  Salomé Lagresle, a French games blogger, reported via Twitter on what buying the game on Saturday was like. “There’s a line all the way down [Boulevard] Voltaire. The impression is of buying contraband in opaque bags,” she wrote, and added that “To get the game, you must pay cash, go into a room at the back of the shop, and you come out with a purple bag.”

Another French tweeter was more explicit: “Fuck, we’re not waiting for the 17th.”

Rockstar has not responded kindly to the leaks. Early videos from the game have been taken down at the publisher’s request. Some websites report that people who played the game early on Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console and posted videos of it online had their accounts banned.

These problems stem from the fact that even though the technology used in creating games like Grand Theft Auto is cutting-edge, the technology for selling them is somewhat archaic.  While music is increasingly sold in digital form, big-ticket games like GTA still come mostly in shrink-wrapped boxes. If games publishers want to guarantee a single release date—which helps both build buzz and protect against piracy—they need to move to a digital-first distribution model, argues games writer Matt Martin. Making a download available at the same instant worldwide would prevent anyone from getting an early copy.

Yet if the industry is stuck in the past it’s also because gamers themselves seem unwilling to change their habits. In an online poll by GTAforums.com, a site for aficionados of the Grand Theft Auto series, just 12% of respondents said they would buy GTA V as a download.

That is perhaps because the industry’s efforts have so far been heavy-handed. When Microsoft announced the new Xbox in May, it was instantly subjected to a barrage of criticism because the console required players to connect to the internet once every 24 hours, an impracticality for many gamers. It also placed limits on how players could share or trade games. Microsoft eventually had to backtrack.

A more sensible approach would be to make digital versions of the game cheaper and turn physical copies into something of a collector’s item, as the music industry has done. Indeed, Rockstar has published a deluxe edition of GTA V. But it didn’t make its digital edition any cheaper.

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