PASSENGERS on Edinburgh’s No. 14 bus may have been puzzled at the huge posters promoting a computer game – Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) – which were briefly plastered recently on the front of a nondescript office block at the top of Leith Walk.
For although this building doesn’t look anything like the world’s leading entertainment studio, that is exactly what it is. It is the home of Rockstar North, the studio behind the latest release that earned an extraordinary $1bn of ‘box office’ income in the first few days following its release in September, comfortably eclipsing the year’s biggest Hollywood hit, Iron Man 3.
And maybe that should not be quite so surprising, because the adventure provided by GTAV is so much more engaging than any two hour movie. Despite its title you can now do much more than just drive a stolen car - and get involved in activities like tennis, yoga, hiking, racing on sea and on land, flying planes and parachuting, golfing, cycling, diving, hunting, and lots more.
You take on the persona of one of three criminals and then spend days engrossed in a huge range of experiences, while being entertained by one of its 17 radio stations, and apocalyptic news bulletins from ‘Weazel News’.
The experience is an adult one, rated 18, and its underworld populated by petty crooks, prostitutes, strippers and gangsters is not for kids.
By coincidence, when GTAV took over as the best selling computer game, it supplanted another Scottish-developed game: Minecraft which although originated by Swede Markus Persson, was developed in its Xbox version right here in East Lothian by 4J studios. They’ve announced that will also develop the game for all the current and future Sony and Microsoft consoles. 4J has sold eight million copies so far this year, yielding $160m in revenue.
Minecraft, in which the players build a their own world out of Lego-like blocks is not so much a game as a flexible environment development tool. In contrast to GTAV its biggest audience is the under-16s, and after they tire of all the other games they seem to return regularly to Minecraft. Teachers have observed how children work better together when sharing Minecraft environments with each other and that it equips them to tackle problems in logic, ecology or geography.
But this recent commercial success of these two games titles has been contrary to the wider trend. Back in 1997, when the original GTA was released, there were six big studios in Scotland developing games for the console market.
After the ignominious crash of Dundee’s giant Real Time World studio in 2010, only New York-owned Rockstar has the scale to tackle major console titles - GTAV had a development budget estimated at £170m, way more than any Scottish company could possibly afford.
Modern smart phones and tablets are now so powerful that many people are no longer buying dedicated games consoles. Instead they download casual games for a few pounds directly over the internet to play on their portable device.
Over 35 billion games have now been downloaded for the iPhone and iPad. A few years ago, casual games - such as the huge hit, Angry Birds - could make a significant impact, but now so many new games are being released it is extremely difficult to break through.
It is estimated that 50 such games are released each year by Scottish based companies – about one every week. But unlike Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft, you’d be hard pressed to name any of them.