5 Marketing Lessons from the Launch of Grand Theft Auto V

Last week saw the launch of what was probably the most anticipated video game of 2013: Grand Theft Auto V. In the first three days the game sold over 16 million copies, pulling in more than $1 billion in retail sales for Rockstar Games. That’s some serious cash flow.

Regardless of your opinion on video games or the Grand Theft Auto series, you can’t argue with the numbers. Clearly Rockstar Games is doing something right. Here are five marketing lessons we can all take away from the launch of GTA V.

1.       Invest lots of time and money in your product. Grand Theft Auto V cost more than $250 million to make and was in development for four years by a team of 250 people. It was a major investment that clearly paid off, and the final product is superb. From the intricacy of the graphics (sports cars glisten in the sunlight and trees rustle in the wind) to the open-ended nature of the game world (you can play golf or play the stock market), GTA V truly pushes the limits of what’s possible with video game technology.


Now, we don’t all have a quarter of a billion dollars to spend on product development. But regardless of budget, the lesson is the same: don’t rush your product to market until you’re sure it’s the best it can be. If you have an outstanding product, it’s going to sell itself.

2.       Embrace controversy. Ever since the release of the first title in the series, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has been criticized for its supposed glorification of crime and violence. Detractors have accused the series of everything from encouraging violence against women, to promoting stereotypes, to causing school shootings. Whether or not these accusations are correct is beside the point; the point is, all this controversy has intensified interest in the game.

Too often, marketers and business owners are afraid of creating a stir at the risk of offending people. But when it comes down to it, controversy sells. The right kind of bad press can do wonders for a product. Just be careful not to cross the line (a line which is very difficult to define).

3.       Create plenty of anticipation. The marketing team at Rockstar Games knew anticipation for GTA V was going to be high and they did everything they could to bolster it. The first trailer for the game was released nearly two years ago, along with a press release confirming its setting. A second trailer was released in November 2012, introducing the game’s three protagonists. Throughout 2013, several more trailers and press showings were rolled out, accompanied by a TV spot and giant murals in LA and New York close to the launch date. This slow and selective release of information allowed anticipation for the game to build, culminating in hours-long lineups when it was finally released.

 4.       Turn one product into multiple products. Product add-ons and special editions are nothing new, and Rockstar Games used both to great effect with the launch of GTA V. The company partnered with several retail stores to create special editions of the game that included unique packaging, a game map, and codes to unlock bonus content. They also collaborated with Sony to release a 500 GB PlayStation 3 console that came with a copy of the game and a pair of GTA V branded headphones. Strategy guides were sold in select stores, and GTA V t-shirts were made available online. Moral of the story: don’t settle for releasing just one product if there’s a market for more.

 5.       Leverage the power of your community. Your community of fans is your greatest marketing asset. Rockstar Games has spent a lot of time building up a strong community following, and they know how to leverage that to their advantage. In fact, much of the hype surrounding GTA V came from fan-generated discussions on online forums and social media, with little to no effort on the part of Rockstar. One clever bit of marketing the company did do was to hold an online casting call for five fans to appear as characters in the game, which generated a great amount of publicity and added to the hype online. All this goes to show that if you spend time building a dedicated fan base, they will do much of your marketing for you.

All of us have at least one thing in common with the characters in the Grand Theft Auto franchise: we’re driven by the almighty dollar. Thankfully there are much better ways to make money than by stealing cars and robbing banks. As the people at Rockstar Games have demonstrated, success can also come from hard work and smart marketing. And given a choice between the two routes, I’d definitely go with the latter. Much lower risk of getting shot.

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