The Scottish games developers behind the highly controversial yet critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City have announced first week sales of $500m, on over six million copies. The figure - with $310 on the first day - not only sets a record for video games, beating Microsoft's Halo 3, but surpasses that of any entertainment product, with the violent-crime-pays game also boosting flagging sales of the Playstation 3 and XBox consoles by up to 50% in the week.
It's a long way from Lemmings - the try-to-save-as-many-lives-as-you-can game - which brought the developers to prominence in the early 90s. Then based in Dundee and called DMA, the studio was approached by Nintendo to be part of the 'dream team' for the launch of the N64, but ended up in 'development hell' on their N64 title, Body Harvest, so turned their attention to creating the first Grand Theft Auto for the PC. It was a similar fusion of driving game with roleplay narrative, except the body harvesting aliens were replaced with more straightforward criminals and joyriders.
A series of acquisitions has left Rockstar North under the ownership of Take Two Interactive, who in turn are currently under a hostile takeover bid from video games giant EA, trying to buy them for $2billion. But the developers of Grand Theft Auto - and other controversial titles such as Bully (be a school bully) and Manhunt (be a, erm, mass murderer) are still based in the UK, with offices in in Edinburgh and Leeds.
For its blend of sex and violence in high-rendered 3D, the Trainspotting of the video-game world has received wide criticism and calls from conservative Christian attorney Jack Thompson in the US to ban the game, who even took to writing to the mothers of Take Two's executive board pleading for them to make their sons act. The ability to not just pick up prostitutes in the game, but to run them over, maim and kill them after virtual sex has caused widespread concern, especially with the game released in the same week that the new UK Criminal Justice Bill made it illegal to own images that contain "an act which threatens or appears to threaten a person's life" in a sexual context (one also wonders if this will apply to Basic Instinct and Bond film GoldenEye).
The publishers argue that it is up to the players to decide what they do in each game - it provides the means for players to runover countless civilians, or attack prostitutes, but it is their choice. Furthermore, they say that the game has received unparalleled high critical acclaim
with many reviewers describing it as the game of the decade, and some pointing out psychological maturity with the main character become increasingly unsatisfied with his brutal lifestyle as the game continues. Either way, with the breathtaking graphics pushing the genre closer to reality, the critics are unlikely to move on, any more than the film industry is likely to stand back from a sector which makes so much money, and is largely free from piracy (in consoles, at least). Steven Spielberg just last week announced details of his first collaboration with EA - Boom Blox - a kind of tennis-meets-Jenga game for the Wii (pictured).