Yesterday, Rockstar Games treated us to the first in-game footage of Grand Theft Auto 6 (GTA 6). Set in Vice City, GTA 6 looks set to raise the bar for open world realism, complete with cutting-edge visuals wrapped in the gritty satire the legendary studio is known for. However, there are some caveats.
GTA 6 will launch, at earliest, in 2025. Not only that, GTA 6 will also be a console launch exclusive to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, with no Windows PC version even mentioned yet.
Grand Theft Auto launches are always an moment in gaming history. GTA 5 is one of the most successful video games of all time, with billions of dollars in revenue generated and influence spanning decades. Its console exclusivity will be a boom time for PlayStation 5, but perhaps, potentially, disproportionately so for the Xbox Series X|S, if Microsoft can play its cards right.
Here's why GTA 6 presents an incredible, once-in-a-generation opportunity for Xbox.
A console exclusive millions will (finally) upgrade for
There's been plenty of commentary about Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S hardware sales over the past year. Sony's PlayStation 5 has surged ahead, often with triple-digit crowd year over year in some territories, while Microsoft has even seen declines year-over-year by comparison. There's not a universe that exists where declining sales is a good thing, but it might not necessarily be as terrible for Xbox as is often made out.
This generation is decidedly weird compared to previous ones, and a large part of that is digital backward compatibility. We know that video game consoles have wafer thin hardware sales margins by themselves — the business model revolves around selling software and services. Additionally, console owners are now tied up digitally to specific ecosystems more than ever. Few people want to switch from iPhone to Android or vice versa, and potentially lose access to the digital content they've purchased on Google Play or iTunes respectively. The same is true for Xbox and PlayStation, and other similar platforms. This is why Xbox's hardware sales stats might not necessarily be as dire as many like to make out.
CEO Satya Nadella discussed during Microsoft's last quarterly earnings reports how Xbox's console "engagement" continues to increase, even though Xbox Series X|S sales aren't even outpacing the Xbox One generation. How is this possible? The truth that nobody really wants to admit is, you could still consider the Xbox One to be part of this generation. The Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One S and X all share an operating system and primary feature set. All those big service games enjoyed by the casual audience are still present, and fully updated. Fortnite on Xbox One is still updated, Call of Duty games still release on Xbox One. Minecraft is still updated on Xbox One. Roblox, Overwatch 2, FIFA, Apex Legends, GTA Online itself, and various other service games are still heavily maintained on the previous console generations. We don't have access to Steam-style surveys for the Xbox console install base, but given Nadella's previous comments, it's fair to assume that millions of active, paying Xbox users, are still on Xbox One. For Microsoft, it may be more economical, given the wafer-thin hardware margins and stock limitations, for casual players to stick around on Xbox One for their microtransactions — while more spendy enthusiasts upgrade.
And of course, the same is undoubtedly true for Sony and the PS4. Of course, it's probably arguable that Sony has given its user base more reasons to upgrade than Microsoft, though, whose first-party output hasn't exactly set the world on fire. And that's where GTA 6 really comes in.
Grand Theft Auto is a cultural phenomenon. The trailer as of writing already has 55 million views on YouTube, after being live for barely half a day. It'll probably be on its way to half a billion in the coming weeks. There's no video game franchise in all of existence that can even come close to this. Ten years of waiting, ten years of hype —GTA is a generation-defying, universally-appealing game that will be transformative for the industry. Everybody, everywhere, all of the time will be talking about GTA, and it'll only be playable on current-gen console, with no option for PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, or mobile players to join in the fray.
Millions of casual players who are happy to stick with Call of Duty or FIFA on their PS4 or Xbox One will be considering, possibly for the first time, to upgrade to a "current-gen" system. Millions of youngsters who defy the game's doubtless 18+ rating as millions of us did as kids will also probably be seeking a console for the first time. Millions more will probably be weighing up the pros and cons of each console, while also heavily factoring in price. With some of those younger, and more casual players, Xbox and Microsoft potentially have a unique advantage.
The most affordable "companion" console for GTA6
FOMO (the fear of missing out) has increasingly been at the fore of industry discussions in recent years, although it's nothing exactly new. Video game companies are now selling premium "early access," sometimes anywhere up to and over a week, for compelling upcoming Xbox games and upcoming PC games. Despite outcries regarding the practice, it's clear that millions of users, disposable income or not, take the bait.
Sony has arguably created a more compelling sales pitch for its PlayStation console line up than Microsoft for a variety of reasons, but few are perhaps more compelling than Sony's approach to PC gaming. Microsoft has gone all-in on day-and-date PC simultaneous launches for its exclusives, fully embracing the model that it's a software and service seller first. The casualty of this is its Xbox Series X|S install base, potentially, since users can stick to a chosen platform, whether it be Windows PC, or even as far back as Xbox One, to play many of the latest games. Through pure serendipity, GTA 6 presents a perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity for Microsoft to piggy back upon, and generate sell-through for its own console ecosystem.
If I'm a PC gamer primarily, or a casual player, or a sneaky youngster tricking a parent into getting me GTA 6 despite its age rating, the Xbox Series S might be the best option for millions of gamers out there. By virtue of price alone, the Xbox Series S could represent the most affordable entry point into the GTA 6 world, which is doubtless going to have a hugely successful online service game component.
Perhaps there's a universe where Microsoft actually lands the GTA 6 marketing rights too, however unlikely that might seem. Perhaps there's a universe where the Xbox Series S gets price cuts, and GTA 6 bundles, complete with Xbox Game Pass to boot. Perhaps there's a universe where Xbox Game Pass comes with bonuses for GTA 6 Online, much like Microsoft's deal with Riot on League of Legends. But of course, none of this is set in stone.
What say you, Microsoft?
I know from talking to people at Microsoft that a large amount of investment was committed to improving developer tools, and optimizing the Xbox Series S this year. The high-profile delay for Baldur's Gate 3 on Xbox Series X|S, caused by the Series S, likely being part of the reasoning. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft is also desperate to ensure GTA 6 swerves similar issues as well, given the tight spec sheet present in that console.
Indeed, it's no secret that the Xbox Series S delivers on price, but compromises on resolution and performance, in a lot of cases. I would argue that Microsoft needs to work with Rockstar as much as possible to ensure that GTA 6 performs well, at the bare minimum. But beyond that, there's a huge opportunity for Microsoft to piggyback on this cultural moment in history, in a world where it has committed its own Xbox exclusives to PC day and date. GTA 6 may be one of the last opportunities Microsoft has to capture a new generation of Xbox console gamers coming in from PC, iPad and Nintendo Switch — users that aren't already de-facto locked in to the PlayStation digital ecosystem.
If I were Microsoft, this is one opportunity I would pull out all the stops to take advantage of.
Get the Windows Central Newsletter
All the latest news, reviews, and guides for Windows and Xbox diehards.
Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!