Take-Two's next hit game could pose a risk to its most popular title — 'Grand Theft Auto'

Key Points
  • Take-Two's "Red Dead Redemption 2" is expected to be a hit when it's released.
  • That might not be good for the company's flagship game "Grand Theft Auto."
A man walks past an ad for the Grand Theft Auto V video game in Hong Kong.
Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

The "Grand Theft Auto" video game franchise has redefined records in the gaming world, but even with the series' lofty lifetime numbers the "GTA V" edition — released four years ago — is something special.

It was still one of the industry's top three selling titles in 2017 — and its online mode continues to draw an increased number of players and was the single-largest contributor to recurrent consumer spending (microtransactions, subscriptions and other post-release digital content) in Take-Two's just-released fiscal third-quarter earnings.

But an upcoming, and much-anticipated, title from the same company could actually do some damage to its bottom line.

On Oct. 26, Rockstar Games — the Take-Two owned creator and developer of "GTA" — will release its next title: "Red Dead Redemption 2." It's showing all the signs of another smash hit.

While that's cause for investor celebration, it's also raising concerns that it could cannibalize the player base of "GTA Online," the company's golden goose.

"If you play 'Red Dead,' I would think the overlap is about 100 percent with 'Grand Theft Auto,'" said Eric Handler, an analyst at MKM Partners. "I think it's inevitable there's cannibalization."

Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick isn't as worried. "GTA Online" has continued to grow, despite several other popular online games emerging since its release, he said. "Red Dead Redemption 2," he told CNBC, will simply add to the company's digital bottom line.

"Any title competes with all titles, whether they're brought out by the same [developer] or a competitive one," he said. "Right now there are many other great titles on the marketplace [but] 'GTA Online' just had its best years ever. ... I think the [competition is] any consumer entertainment property and I wouldn't take that competition lightly. But I think 'Red Dead' will stand alone."

Rockstar Games announces new game Red Dead Redemption 2.
Source: Rockstar Games

You'd expect a CEO to say something along those lines, but analysts concede there could be something to Zelnick's thinking.

"Red Dead Redemption 2" is an action game set in the Old West, compared with the urban setting of "GTA," which lends itself to different styles of gameplay. And Rockstar has had 8½ years since the last "Red Dead" game (and more than four years since "GTA V") to rethink the experience.

"Rockstar doesn't like to repeat itself," said Handler. "I'm guessing 'Red Dead Redemption Online' will be very different than 'GTA Online,' because they've already made 'GTA Online.' They like to think outside of the box and create an entirely different experience. You can probably toggle back and forth between the two and whichever one you play it will be a unique experience."

While excitement is riding high for "Red Dead Redemption 2" — so high that an announced delay in its release take knocked Take-Two's stock — it's important to note that the game isn't a juggernaut on the level of "Grand Theft Auto." The last game in the "Red Dead" series sold 15 million units. "GTA V" has now sold more than 90 million copies.

And, analysts note, the game's Old West setting could work against it.

"To the extent that players who are currently playing 'GTA Online' decide to play 'Red Dead Redemption Online,' there will be cannibalization," said Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "However, I'm skeptical that a multiplayer western will be as fun as a multiplayer organized crime game, so we'll see."

Some gaming enthusiast sites have suggested the game could feature a battle royale mode, similar to the staggeringly popular "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," which has 30 million players on PCs and has sold 3 million copies for the Xbox One. Though Rockstar — and Zelnick — aren't yet discussing details about online modes for "Red Dead Redemption 2," relying on the game maker's track record and a few short teaser videos to create demand.

"Our view is if you put something out that's fantastic, consumers will show up for it," Zelnick said.

Of course, it could be that "Red Dead Redemption Online" results in a significant increase in overall online players for Take-Two, which is what investors (and the company) are hoping for. "GTA Online" has generated more than $500 million in revenue, according to a lawsuit against Take-Two by former Rockstar North President Leslie Benzies. Adding "Red Dead" to the mix (and the continued growth of "GTA Online") could push it to the next level.

"If they keep on delivering fantastic consumer experiences, these two combined could ... do $750 million to $1 billion of gross revenue," said Handler.

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