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'Grand Theft Auto V' seen driving to $1 billion in revenue

Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013 | 4:20 PM ET
The 'Grand Theft Auto V' release party
Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013 | 8:00 AM ET
New Yorkers anticipate the newest installment in the series.

"Grand Theft Auto" is one of the most violent, controversial video game franchises—the "first-person-shooter" style game features bloody violence, scantily clad women, carjackings and every variety of offensive rogue behavior. Five years after the last game in the franchise launched, Take Two Interactive's Rockstar games launched "Grand Theft Auto V," the brand's most highly anticipated game yet.

This latest iteration of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise, features gangsters swimming with sharks. With a budget reported north of $260 million, it's not only one of the most expensive video games ever, but also one of the most expensive pieces of content ever produced, pricier than nearly all of Hollywood's costliest films.

The game's launch came the same day as the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shooting, and just hours after reports that shooter suspect Aaron Alexis often played violent video games.

(Read more: Alexis had access card for Navy Yard; investigators look for motive)

Leon Neal | AFP | Getty Images

While these kinds of horrific shootings always raise questions about a regulatory crackdown, such events have no history of impacting game sales.

MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler said: "I don't think that the Navy Yard shooting will stir up debate again about violence in video games. Unfortunately that tends to only happen when a kid is involved as a shooter. I haven't heard of any outcries, all has been quiet during this tragedy. The overriding thing is that this is someone who had a mental illness, not someone who played video games."

One gamer we spoke to outside a GameStop in Los Angeles last night said that these kinds of realistic, violent games could be a safe way to avoid real-world violence.

"First-person shooters just don't do it for me anymore, that's why I'm excited about GTA, cause it gives you a different perspective. It's not just people running around shooting each other—you can steal cars, rob banks, so all the stuff you wish you could do and get away with in society," said gamer George Lizama.

And now, "GTA5," as it's called, is expected to be the biggest video game launch of the year, and one of the biggest video game releases ever. Monday night tens of thousands of video game fans showed up at the 4,000 GameStop retailers that opened their doors to sell the game when it went on sale at midnight.

The gamers we spoke to at the Los Angeles GameStop couldn't wait—one saying she'll play for a couple hours before school, another saying he'd stay up all night and play until he left for work.

The violence in the game isn't a deterrent, but rather something the gamers we spoke to found "realistic" and "funny."

(Read more: 'Grand Theft Auto V' stands ready to break records)

Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia projects the game will sell 7 million units, $400 million worth—in its first day (including presales), putting it just behind record-holder, Activison's "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," which sold $500 million worth of games in its first day last year.

By the end of Take Two's first quarter, at the end of March, he projects 18 million to 20 million units will sell—generating revenue of more than $1 billion.

Why is the audience so huge compared with the last game in the franchise?

"You've got an install base that's three times larger; you've got a game of five years so the appetite for this particular game is very strong, as evidenced by preorder activity; and also one thing that's different and incremental, is we have more online content," Bhatia noted.

That online content should help the game continue to deliver returns for Take Two for years to come. Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Justin Post called the game a "key digital driver" for Take Two's fiscal 2015, saying the base case is a conservative $250 million digital revenue opportunity.

Bhatia said, "if you want to really enjoy the game, you may buy new cars, new weapons, things like that, that you pay for that are very profitable, for Take Two."

He went on to say the digital content is a win-win—it keeps the game fresh for consumers and margins are higher for the game maker.

(Read more: Grand Theft Auto controversies)

The question for the rest of the video game industry, which has suffered persistent and dramatic declines over the past few years—Will this suck the air out of the room and eat into rival video game sales?

On the downside: Consumer spending on games has fallen off a cliff as the amount of digital content—both add-ons to traditional games, and stand-alone apps and games—explodes. Will people be willing to shell out $60 for Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag," which goes on sale Oct. 29, and Activison's "Call of Duty: Ghosts" on Nov. 5? On the upside, the one thing people are spending money on is the big-name franchises, of which all of these three qualify.

The wild card: The new consoles from PlayStation and Xbox, scheduled to be released this fall. The new "GTA5" is designed for the current, older consoles. But Bhatia said the majority of people will still be playing games on the existing consoles over the next few months.

(Related: 10 video games to watch this holiday season)

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.