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Grand Theft Auto: The controversy, the money and the impact

A window display advertises Grand Theft Auto IV April 28, 2008 in New York City.
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Rockstar Games famously keeps a tight lid on its "Grand Theft Auto" games, but there are generally three constants to each new release.

Something in the game will outrage activists. The game will make a staggering amount of money. And it will incorporate parts of pop culture that raise its coolness levels even higher among players.

In the 12 years since "Grand Theft Auto III" first hit shelves (and the game really became the industry force it is now), it has had plenty of highs and lows - and an impact on the videogame landscape that few titles can match.

Here's a look at some of its most notable moments and achievements.

—By Chris Morris
Posted September 13, 2013

The Controversial

Hot Coffee
Image Source: Wikihow.com

"Hot Coffee"

This Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas mod, discovered by enthusiasts, unlocks a playable, interactive minigame where the game's lead character has sex with his girlfriend. It opened a Pandora's Box of controversy when it was exposed. Politicians (including Hillary Clinton) quickly got involved, suggesting new regulations be put on the video game industry. In the end, the game was yanked off store shelves so the code could be removed and publisher Take-Two Interactive Software faced class-action suits. (Those suits were settled in 2007).

The Controversial

Image Source: Rockstar Games

Hookers

Given the gritty setting of GTA games, it's not too surprising to find prostitutes among the population. But when they first appeared in "GTA III," players were surprised to find they could hire the hookers for a rendezvous, which typically took place in the backseat of a car. Doing so would restore a player's health, but cost them money. Players quickly found out, though, that they could beat the street walkers to death after the encounter to get their money back.

The Controversial

Image Source: Rockstar Games

Violence

"Grand Theft Auto" games are often homages to mob or gangster films—and as such, are loaded with violent missions. Rockstar has never shied away from gritty action in their games. That has made the series a target for some activists, like attorney Jack Thompson, who dubbed them "murder simulators." New York City officials weren't happy when the city was chosen as the inspiration for "GTA IV's" locale. The Parents Television Council has repeatedly condemned the game.

Financial

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The sales

When "Grand Theft Auto IV" hit shelves in 2008, it sold approximately 6 million copies worldwide in its first week, grossing over $500 million. It went on to sell over 25 million copies. The franchise, as a whole, has sold more than 100 million copies—and is the most significant revenue generator in the Take-Two catalog. Analysts expect"GTA V" to sell 14 million copies in the company's second fiscal quarter (which ends 13 days after the game goes on sale).

Financial

Image Source: Rockstar Games

The PS2 years

The PlayStation 2 had a lot going for it, but without "Grand Theft Auto," it probably wouldn't have been quite as big as it turned out to be. Smart thinking on the part of Sony executives led to a deal with Rockstar and Take-Two that made the PS2 the exclusive platform for "GTA III" and "GTA: San Andreas." When both games became must-haves, Microsoft and Nintendo could do nothing but stand on the sidelines.

Financial

Image Source: Microsoft

The $50M Microsoft deal

By the time the Xbox 360 was on shelves, Microsoft refused to miss out on the "GTA" gravy train again. Given the installed base of the platform, it wasn't hard to convince Rockstar and Take-Two to release "GTA IV" on the Xbox 360 as well as Sony's PlayStation 3, but the company went another step further, paying a reported $50 million for exclusive first rights to two downloadable packs- "The Lost and the Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony."

Pop culture impact

Samuel L. Jackson accepts award for the Best Performance By A Human Male for his role in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. December, 2004.
Chris Polk | FilmMagic | Getty Images

Celebrity magnet

The cast list of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise is one that any director would envy. Rockstar regularly calls on Hollywood heavyweights to voice its primary characters. Among those who have worked on previous games are Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Liotta and Michael Madsen. It's also a series that likes to bring back famous voices that people might have forgotten about. "Grand Theft Auto V" will feature 80s pop star Kenny Loggins as one of the in-game DJs.

Pop culture impact

Image Source: Amazon

The soundtracks

You spend a lot of time driving in "Grand Theft Auto" games—and just as in the real world, when you drive, you listen to the radio. Instead of loading the game with a dozen or so songs, though, "GTA IV" offered 20 music stations, which played over 200 licensed tracks. (The two add-ons to the game brought another 50 songs). "GTA V" will offer 15 music stations with 240 licensed songs (and, according to Rockstar, the equivalent of 20 movies worth of additional score music).

Pop culture impact

Image Source: Rockstar Games

The open world

Before "Grand Theft Auto," there wasn't a lot of freedom in games. You might be able to choose the order of missions, but if you wanted to just explore the world, it wasn't possible. "GTA" encouraged that and gives you lots of ways to do so. You can fly planes, drive tanks or ride jetpacks. You can steal an ambulance and respond to emergency calls. Carjack a taxi? Pick up fares to earn extra money. Rockstar dubbed its game a sandbox for players - a term that has stuck as other developers have copied the formula.

Pop culture impact

Image Source: Rockstar Games

The depth

"GTA" games are long. "GTA V," for instance, is expected to have nearly 100 hours of gameplay in the main story. But the game rewards those to explore with hidden surprises - like a beating heart within the Statue of Liberty (something players can only access through a side door marked by a sign reading "No Hidden Content This Way." Developers also occasionally slip in references from some of their favorite films as well as nods to past installments of the game.