- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) - There’s no Burger King tie-in or special flavor of Mountain Dew. No commercial directed by Peter Jackson; not even an action figure.

The run-up to Grand Theft Auto IV has been considerably less ballyhooed than last year’s over-the-top Halo 3 debut. Yet when GTA IV parks on store shelves today, the latest entry in the controversial video-game franchise could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history — and one that many people may not even know about.

Analysts predict Take-Two Interactive Software and Rockstar Games’ open-world, action-driving game will easily top last year’s record-breaking $300 million first-week sales of Microsoft and Bungee Studios’ first-person shooter Halo 3 — and without a similar marketing bonanza.

With the introduction of GTA IV on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Rockstar seemingly is steering in one direction: the down low.

“Rockstar wants to control the message all the time,” says Sam Kennedy, editorial director for the gaming site 1UP.com. “Outside of the official trailers they released, people haven’t seen a lot of game-play footage in advance of GTA IV shipping. They want to build that hype.”

Take-Two and Rockstar declined to comment for this story, but following a 90-minute demonstration of the game in January, GTA IV writer and Rockstar Vice President Dan Houser said the infamous game developer, which also is responsible for the Manhunt and Bully games, was being overly protective for one very important reason.

“We want people to be really excited and not know everything by the time they play the game,” Mr. Houser said. “Of course, we want them to understand what they’re buying, but we want there to be surprises along the way.”

The silent treatment is a savvy business move, according to Steve Fowler, vice president of strategy for the Ayzenberg Group, a company that specializes in interactive entertainment advertising and marketing.

“Halo 3 took the approach of going after a less core consumer, but they had an ulterior motive,” Mr. Fowler says. “Microsoft was using Halo 3, their biggest property, to try and sell more Xbox 360s. Take-Two and Rockstar are free of that constriction because GTA IV is on both platforms, so they’re only motivated to be true to what their game is and sell copies of their game.”

Thus far, Rockstar’s advertising campaign has consisted of several outdoor elements — billboards, bus wraps, building murals, phony wanted posters — spread across North America and Europe as well as a few viral videos featuring satirical commercials for fictitious GTA businesses posted online. GameStop and Microsoft also have aired their own TV commercials featuring the game.

The less-is-more approach also might have something to do with the controversial series’ M-rated content. GTA IV anti-hero Niko Bellic, an immigrant-turned-gangster from Eastern Europe, isn’t exactly one of the Mario Brothers. As Bellic, players can hijack cars, earn cash for criminal activities, flee from police, drive drunk, kill innocent bystanders and patronize strip clubs.

“If you look at their marketing, that’s not a selling point at all,” Mr. Fowler says. “They’ve gone with this comic-book look and feel. It’s not about graphic violence. It’s not about profanity. It’s more about the feeling, expression and the emotional attachment to the characters and the world.”

The drama extends beyond Liberty City, the game’s fictional locale, and into the real world. Video-game publisher Take-Two, which owns Rockstar, has been subject to a hostile takeover bid from Electronic Arts since February. Take-Two has been holding out, refusing to enter formal talks with EA or any other suitor until tomorrow, the day after GTA IV goes on sale.

Huge first-day GTA IV sales certainly could boost the value of Take-Two’s shares. The lack of a Halo 3-sized advertising campaign isn’t expected to affect sales, according to video-game analysts. Unlike the Xbox 360-exclusive Halo 3, the ninth GTA game is being released on the same day for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, a first for the 10-year-old gaming franchise.

Michael Pachter, video-game analyst at Wedbush Morgan, estimates sales to be “about 9 million” in the first few months. By year’s end, he says, “it’ll be somewhere between 11 and 13 million because more consoles will be sold before the holidays.”

Such sales would beat the record held by Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the previous GTA console game, which sold more than 9 million copies when it was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, according to NPD Group, which tracks video-game sales. To meet the demand, retailers such as GameStop and Best Buy are opening their doors at midnight for “special GTA IV launch events.”

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