Grand Theft Auto V came out in September 2013 on PS3 and Xbox 360. It has since been released on current consoles as well as PC, and it would be an understatement to say it’s made developers Rockstar a metric fuckton of money. For a six-year-old game to continually be among the most-played games and in the sales charts across all three platforms is no mean feat, and repeating GTA 5’s success will be a challenge like no other.
So how to go about it?
There’s been a lot of speculation going back several years about what form a future Grand Theft Auto title should take. I don’t have any sources, this is just my opinion. So take everything from this point with a grain of salt.
The formula for GTA 5’s success was based on its online mode, and that’s been where the real money has come from for Rockstar. Online has kept people interested and returning, and most importantly, spending money on in-game cash and items. But Grand Theft Auto games weren’t built on multiplayer, and even in the case of GTA 5, it wasn’t what hooked people in in the first place. The core of any GTA game has, and always should be, a great story. It wasn’t until Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that the series even featured a multiplayer mode, albeit a very limited one which was a bit of fun but nowhere near the scale of GTA 5.
The story for any GTA game needs several key elements to come together: character, location, era, and destination. Each element influences the others, as characters become defined by the era and location they reside in, and the destination they strive to reach changes depending on who they are and where they came from.
The setting and era need to be nailed down first. GTA 5 has done exceptionally well with a modern setting (or modern-ish now, given the game is into its seventh year of life). But previous entries in the franchise have used the recent past – the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s. It would be tempting to suggest that an historical setting, even a recent decade, would cause the game to find more of a niche audience, as players who want their games firmly rooted in the modern day might drop out. But the success of Red Dead Redemption II, while admittedly not on the same scale as GTA 5, should show that historical settings can play very well when there’s an interesting world with lots to do and some great characters.
There’s a lot of nostalgia flying around at the moment – especially for the 1980s and 1990s – and Rockstar could absolutely tap into that. Doing so would not only open up the game to the significant market which exists right now for a nostalgic setting, but would ensure GTA 6 would stand apart from its predecessor and not look like simply an updated version of what people have already been playing for the last few years.
Differentiating itself from GTA 5 will be a big task, and the physical location will be a part of that too. I’ve heard “rumours” (which, let’s be honest, are 99.9% bullshit) that there might be a return to Vice City on the cards. But to me that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Vice City is Rockstar’s version of Miami, where Los Santos (the setting for GTA 5) is their version of Los Angeles. But LA and Miami are both cities on the coast, with beaches, in a sunny, tropical part of the country. The look and feel of those cities is different, but not radically so. Not as different as, say, New York or Chicago would be. Given that Rockstar’s New York analogue, Liberty City, was the setting for GTA 4 I think that’s an unlikely candidate. I’d be wary of another tropical setting if the game is to truly step out of GTA 5’s shadow.
Practically everyone speculating on GTA 6’s location has been looking at past settings, thinking Rockstar might take the series back to one of its prior locations. But games should, where possible, try to push forward, and the United States is far bigger than California, Miami, and New York. It would be great to see a Midwestern city like Chicago or Minneapolis parodied in the next game, or a version of a city with history like Philadelphia or Boston. A city based on Washington DC could be a great choice too. It could even go to one of the big Southern metropolises like Atlanta, but I think after a game set in the balmy, sunlit California (sorry, I mean San Andreas) it would be interesting to have an autumn or winter setting somewhere to the north, where players could see snow.
A setting based on Detroit, for example, could highlight the decline in former industrial areas of America. And with Detroit having major crime and gang problems in the real world, it would be an interesting setting. A Washington DC analogue could focus more on decadence, elitism, and political corruption. And a setting with a Chicago theme could tackle the Mafia and organised crime. There are dozens of potential US cities which could serve as settings that would be different from what’s come before, but not so different as to be offputting to fans.
Leaving the United States entirely isn’t something I think would do well. GTA is, in a peculiar way, a distinctly American entity, not least with its huge emphasis on firearms. Placing the next title in Europe or South America might seem interesting, but I think it would lose too much of what makes a game “Grand Theft Auto” – as opposed to a generic action-shooter. Watch Dogs Legion (due out sometime before April 2021) is supposed to be set in London, so if Rockstar released GTA 6 any time around or shortly after that, it would draw immediate comparisons – and perhaps some criticism – if it were to use the same or a similar setting. Certainly since GTA 3 in 2001, the series has so wonderfully parodied the United States that leaving that behind entirely seems unthinkable.
But perhaps a split setting or a dual setting could work. In a way, San Andreas tried to accomplish this with its three cities. There were missions which took players from one city to another – across what was for the time an absolutely huge map – but generally, most missions took place within one city. In GTA 6, there could be two major locations – one in the United States which would serve as the player’s home base, and another in Europe, Asia, or South America which the player could visit for part of the game. Attempting something like this, and particularly finding a way to transition smoothly between two large open environments, would be ambitious, but it should be something next-gen hardware could handle.
While a split setting might work well from a story perspective, one thing players have enjoyed about GTA 5’s online mode is that there was one map, one open world, which everyone was traversing. If GTA 6 has two separate – albeit linked – locations, that potentially raises challenges when it comes to the online mode, and while these challenges could be overcome, anything which risks narrowing or splitting the playerbase ultimately carries a risk of reducing the mega-bucks Rockstar has been making.
Personally, I really liked GTA 5’s three-protagonist approach. Being able to switch between characters on the fly was great, and the interaction between the characters gave the story more depth than it would’ve had if we were just seeing the others as NPCs. So it would be great if GTA 6 could retain that idea, at least in some form. Certainly two playable characters could work, and it would potentially allow for co-op play. And yes, making one of the protagonists a woman, or giving players the ability to choose their character’s gender à la Mass Effect, would be a nice touch. I guess that’s not essential, but there’s no reason not to.
Finally, the character’s destination comes into frame. What’s their story arc going to be? Where are they going to end up at the end of the campaign? In past games we’ve seen players building a criminal empire of sorts, buying up business interests, earning more and more money, and essentially becoming the kingpin of their virtual city. There’s no need to stray too far from that formula, but some changes again to help the game stand out from its illustrious predecessor would be good. San Andreas dealt with street gangs, GTA 4 saw players tackle Russian/Eastern European organised crime, and GTA 5 most recently saw heists and corruption. Other entries in the series also saw heavier involvement of the Mafia. Organised crime is a theme running through GTA, but so is corruption. In a Washington DC-themed city, players could deal with corrupt politicians and a corrupt government, and that could be a fascinating parody of our current times. There could also be an exploration of drug cartels, or of Asian organised crime syndicates. In short, there’s a lot of organisations the game could explore without retreading too much old ground.
Here’s the thing: there’s no conclusion to this article. Until the game is officially announced and we know the rough outline of its setting and protagonist, there’s not much more to say except to fantasise about my “perfect” GTA game. The map should be big, but not so big it becomes a chore to drive from place to place. It should be diverse, with a city but also rural areas to give some variety. I’d really like to see a brand new setting, one that GTA hasn’t explored before. A Washington DC-themed city would be my first choice if I had to pick, but there are so many great options for cities to parody across the United States that almost any could be exciting. Time period-wise, I think the 1970s, 80s, or 90s would work well – it would be modern enough that players wouldn’t feel overwhelmed, but distinct enough to ensure the game wouldn’t be viewed as just a copy or iteration of its predecessor. But at the end of the day, if the writing is good, if the story is engaging, and the vehicles and guns are fun to play with, the game will be great.
From a purely financial point of view, I think an awful lot of people who enjoyed GTA 5 are going to jump into its sequel just to see what it’s like – and to get something new after a long time playing in the same sandbox. In that sense, almost anything Rockstar produces should be profitable. It would be up to them to turn that around and reproduce what GTA 5 managed, but I think with careful management of GTA 6’s online mode, that’s certainly a likely prospect.
Whenever it comes out, I’ll definitely jump in and see what they have in store!
Grand Theft Auto V is available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. All Grand Theft Auto titles are the copyright of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.