GTA 5's sales are absurd, but don't defeat the industry's addiction to annualization

GTA 5 has, by my math, made nearly $2 billion since it released last month. That's absurd. That's more than absurd. That's put-it-in-a-straitjacket absurd. That's lock-it-up-in-Arkham-Home-for-the-Criminally-Insane absurd. That's kill-it-because-otherwise-it'll break-free-and-blow-up-a-hospital absurd. It's absurd. Truly absurd. It's so absurd that our office actually argued for like an hour over whether or not it was possible when it was revealed. But, honestly, it's not absurd enough to kill annualized game releases.

When Take-Two revealed the sales numbers (29 million units in 30 days), many were quick to point to it as an example of the benefits of lengthy game development cycles. In a matter of weeks, Grand Theft Auto sold more than any Call of Duty game ever had. And that's some good evidence. While the industry seemed to live and die by the yearly Maddens and Calls of Duties and Assassin's Creeds, games like Grand Theft Auto can make billions of dollars in a matter of days. Or so the thinking goes. But after doing a little digging, I think it's safe to say that while GTA 5's sales are impressive (and absurdly so), they're still far from disproving the profitable benefits of yearly sequels.

Grand Theft Auto 4 has done quite well for itself since it launched in 2008--over the years the sales have snowballed into a monumentus 25 million copies sold. But games that size take a long time to make, and it's been five years since Nico Bellic first blew up Liberty City. How many copies has Call of Duty sold in that same period? Well, it's time for some MATH! Let's start with Modern Warfare 2; it was a huge hit in 2009, eventually going on to sell around 22 million copies. The next year was Black Ops, which came in at just under 20 million units sold. Modern Warfare 3 sold somewhere in the ballpark of 13 million copies the year after that, and Black Ops 2 sold a shocking 24 million in 2012. None have hit GTA 4's 25 million, but combined, they utterly eclipse that total.

Overall, that puts the Call of Duty games that have released since Rockstar's last Grand Theft Auto at nearly 80 million--and that's without counting the amount of money the publisher made on Map Packs, or handheld spin-offs, Call of Duty Elite, or anything else it managed to monetize in the past five years. As it stands, Grand Theft Auto 4 isn't as profitable as five years of Call of Duty--it was barely more profitable than one big one.

So let's go back to Grand Theft Auto 5, which, yeah, ABSURD! I have no idea how much it's going to sell when the dust settles--I can do some math, telling you that GTA 4 ended up more than doubling its first-month sales in the long run, and GTA 5 will likely do the same, but that ignores factors like the end of the current generation and PC releases and software droughts. Oh, and you can't forget that this next Call of Duty (and Madden, and Assassin's Creed) is releasing on both current and next-gen consoles, amplifying the sales potential by… like… a lot. I don't know, I'm not a math doctor.

What I do know, though, is that the age of annualization is far from over, absurd sales be damned, so long as five years of Call of Duty is bigger than four years of GTA.

Hollander Cooper

Hollander Cooper was the Lead Features Editor of GamesRadar+ between 2011 and 2014. After that lengthy stint managing GR's editorial calendar he moved behind the curtain and into the video game industry itself, working as social media manager for EA and as a communications lead at Riot Games. Hollander is currently stationed at Apple as an organic social lead for the App Store and Apple Arcade.