'Grand Theft Auto V' stands ready to break records
"Call of Duty" might be the video game industry's 500-pound gorilla, but on Sept. 17, it faces its biggest threat yet.
That's when Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive Software will release "Grand Theft Auto V," the first new full game in the series in five years—and analysts expect it to be one of the biggest releases of the year.
Life to date, the GTA series has sold more than 125 million copies—a staggering figure that few franchises can match. And there's no doubt on Wall Street that the release of "GTA V" will result in a huge revenue boost.
Like "Call of Duty," every "Grand Theft Auto" release is the gaming industry's equivalent of a blockbuster Hollywood opening. In 2008, "GTA IV" took in $310 million, which (at the time) set an entertainment industry record, topping the first week gross of any film or music event.
Slideshow: Grand Theft Auto controversies
Fans line up for their copies of the game, with several retailers offering midnight launches. GameStop plans to open most of its stores at 9 p.m. on the 16th to celebrate the event (though it won't release the game until 12:01 a.m. the following day). Past launches have had people lined up dozens deep to be among the first to get their copy.
"It will be an inflection point for Take-Two in both the September as well as December quarter," said Colin Sebastian of Robert W. Baird & Co. "This is the vast majority of the entire company's profitability. Take-Two is a more diversified company now than it was five years ago, but in non-GTA years, they struggle to make a modest profit."
That anticipated profit has led investors to buy the stock over the past 13 months. The value of Take-Two shares has increased 122 percent since Aug 1, 2012.
While the publisher is being conservative in its early guidance for the game (implying it will ship 12 million copies in the first two weeks), Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter expects the number to be closer to 14 million units. Sebastian estimates 15 million.
(Related: 10 video games to watch this holiday season)
Those numbers will likely increase as the holiday season hits, making it a battle between "GTA V" and "Call of Duty: Ghosts" for bragging rights as to which is 2013's best-selling game.
"I think those two will be pretty close," said Pachter. "Activision has done about 20 million units consistently in the calendar year. For GTA, that's a stretch. No GTA game has sold that many units in that compressed a time frame. ... But the installed base [of consoles] is unprecedentedly large this time around."
(Read more: Nintendo cuts Wii U prices for holidays)
The landscape for gaming has changed since 2008's "GTA IV," though. It was around that time that multiplayer elements started to become more critical to players. No game capitalized on this better than "Call of Duty," which now boasts roughly 25 million players shooting it out in its online servers.
Single-player games, a focus "GTA" experiences have excelled at, aren't exactly out of favor, but they haven't had the same sort of longevity in the sales charts.
"The difference today is a six-hour game, like 'Call of Duty,' becomes a 500-hour game, since you play 10 hours a week in multiplayer." said Pachter. "That competes pretty heavily with the 80-100 hour [single-player] experience of 'GTA'. I wonder if multiplayer has sucked up the large percentage of people who have 80 hours per week to play a game."
"GTA V" hopes to compete with its own take on multiplayer games, offering online cities which players can choose to explore alone or with up to 15 friends. These will be initially populated with more than 500 missions—a hefty figure for any title. Rockstar says they'll also be frequently updated with new content created by both the developer and the community.
Blending user-generated content (a growing and popular trend in the industry) with a shared world that's not filled with random strangers shooting at you could be a respite from the chaotic battles of games like "Call of Duty" and EA's "Battlefield."
Pachter remains skeptical.
"I think the multiplayer is kind of stupid," he says. "I think it's not the kind of game that lends itself to multiplayer. ... It's a perfect single-player game, but ... I don't see how it gets people excited for multiplayer. It's not strategy. It's not military. And it's not a game where the weapons matter."
Sebastian, though, thinks players will embrace the new elements.
"GTA Online has all of the right ingredients to be successful," he says. "There has been some good consumer buzz from what Rockstar has shared so far. I'm inclined to be fairly optimistic about the multiplayer success."
Of course, it wouldn't be a "Grand Theft Auto" game without its share of controversies. The series, historically, has pushed the limits of what's shown in video games—and if the ratings description from the ESRB is any indicator, its developers plan to do so again.
There's torture; implied fellatio and masturbation; the ability to smoke a marijuana joint or do cocaine; and "a brief instance of necrophilia."
Not surprisingly, "Grand Theft Auto V" is rated M and meant only for mature audiences.
—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com.