In a year full of headlines about Apple, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, it's possible to think that the forces that shape the future of what we'll play and where we'll play it is now solely in the hands of the people who make plastic and metal boxes. Or maybe it's in the hands of the platform makers, not just the architects of the 3DS, the iPad, the Kinect, the PlayStation 3, but also people like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, get to call the shots.
It would be easy to think that the people who "just" make video games don't have a big say anymore, that they'll just be rolled by whatever decision a company like Apple makes.
Uh-uh. The announcement today of the obvious, that Grand Theft Auto V is coming, is a reminder of the forgotten truth that game creators can be king-makers. GTA's caretakers at Rockstar Games can put crowns on heads with their new game. They can change things in a big way. All it will take is their decisions about where we'll be able to play their GTA V. If a machine can run GTA V—especially if it's a machine that wasn't expected to—a lot can change.
There are very few game machines I can rule out for GTA V. It's a safe bet that this game will be far too complex to run on a Nintendo 3DS or a Wii. Cross those two off the list. Rockstar can't crown them.
What of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? I consider them the most probable candidates, but when the new GTA comes out is a big factor here.
Consider the timing: the trailer for GTA V hits next week. Rockstar always makes trailers that consist entirely of in-game footage, so don't expect some sort of text-only, concept-art-laden teaser trailer. That's neither their style nor the kind of the thing a company builds hype for for a week, which is what they're doing today by promising next week's trailer.
The GTA IV trailer came out in March of 2007, almost a year after that game was officially announced and, at the time, a planned seven months before an October release. The game got bumped back to April of 2008, so they were targeting about a half-year gap between a first glimpse and a playable game and had to settle for a year. That would seemingly put GTA V on track for a late 2012 release, at the latest, and therefore would make it a must for the 360 and PS3. There's next to zero chance we're getting a PS4 or an Xbox 361/720 next year, so GTA V on the current high-def consoles is a given.
Let's pause a second as someone in the audience shouts about how Rockstar tends to not ship two big console games in a year. I hear them saying that Rockstar already has Max Payne 3 for March. True. When I saw Max Payne 3 last month, Rockstar people told me it was a joint effort by a bunch of Rockstar studios. That's the case for most Rockstar games; they even had many of their studios work with the non-Rockstar Team Bondi on this year's L.A. Noire. But the new Max Payne, according to what Rockstar reps told me, is being made by a combo of Rockstar Toronto, Rockstar Vancouver, Rockstar New England and Rockstar Leeds, and maybe others (plus the NYC Rockstar Eye of Sauron, of course, since they oversee everything).
Not on the list of developers for Max Payne 3: Rockstar North, the lead development studio for the GTA games. That crew made GTA IV for spring of 2008, then toiled on the surprisingly large two additional episodes for the game, which finished coming out in October 2009 (I'm not counting the ports to PS3, because I don't think they spent much added time on them). Rockstar North then worked closely with Rockstar San Diego to bring spring 2010's Red Dead Redemption across the finish line, which gets us to the theory, that, say, 30 months after the release of RDR, in late 2012 they'd be ready with GTA V. I can live with that theory.
Alright, so we've got a 360 and PS3 version likely. That doesn't shake up anything. Let's get to the potential king-making:
Wii U: Nintendo's next console is supposed to come out some time after June 2012 and is supposed to be at least as powerful as the PS3 and 360, if not significantly more potent. Nintendo also says they are serious about working with outside game companies and removing one of the few problems the red-hot Wii had of not getting the best high-end third-party games. There'd be no better follow-through on that promise than if GTA V launches day and date on the Wii U as it does on the 360 and PS3 (actually, the superior follow-through by Nintendo would be to get the game first, but that ain't happening). If Rockstar commits to a Wii U GTA V, Nintendo loses its rep for shunning big third-party franchises and they're suddenly a player for the hardcore, red-meat gamer.
Vita: Can Sony's new handheld, hyped as a pocket-size PS3, really power a game like Grand Theft Auto V. The Vita. Man, is that what the V in GTA V really stands for? The Vita is a beast of a system, but open-world GTA games require the kind of constant data-streaming that sucks battery life and forces the kind of compromises that made the GTA's on Sony's previous handheld, the PSP, impressively open-world but necessarily more simplistic in graphical complexity than their console counterparts. The Vita's twin-stick controls justify it as an exceptional handheld gaming machine. Rockstar would be making a big statement about its place in gaming should GTA V be on it, but it's a stretch.
iPad 3: Yes, I'm serious. In a couple of weeks, we'll be able to play Grand Theft Auto III on iPad 2s. The game was made for twin-stick controllers, but Rockstar has adapted to an entirely touch-based interface. (And it works!) They've also said that game will eventually run on single-core iOS devices, presumably including iPad 1. GTA III was a PlayStation 2 game. The iPad 3, an inevitable if unannounced product from Apple, will surely be announced next year. iPads have been closing the gap on gaming portables in a hurry and are creeping into current console horsepower territory. The degree to which iPad 3 narrows that gap affects the likelihood that GTA V could come out on iOS. Add in the idea of iPads that output to TVs and you have a potential radical shift in home console options for the next Grand Theft Auto.
The PC, specifically, your browser: PC gamers will lament the fact that it should be a given that GTA V will come to PC, but they should note that L.A.Noire will and Red Dead Redemption didn't. I'm not talking about a traditional PC release, though. Over the past year or two, we've seen companies like OnLive and Gaikai push the idea of streaming gaming, high-end gaming coming through your computer or mobile device, without the need of a dedicated console. The best showing of that so far have been a myriad of Gaikai demos, running streaming versions of Mass Effect 2 in Facebook and FIFA 12 playable through YouTube. If GTA V streams through your browser... if you can play it through Facebook, well, things will change. What do we need those consoles for again? Oh, yeah, for those of us in houses without blazingly-fast Internet.
There is one thing in common with all of the above scenarios. Rockstar doesn't need anyone. Everyone else who makes video game platforms needs Rockstar. They get to choose. Where will we be able to play GTA V? I expect any smart platform holder will be knocking on Rockstar's door to find out if there's a way they can get in on it. We're at a moment where almost anything is possible and Rockstar gets to lay the crown on whichever heads it chooses. If Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Satoru Iwata and the rest of gamings' intentional and accidental czars aren't ringing the phone at Rockstar HQ, they're fools. Or they just don't want to be the king.