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Why Animators Should Care About The Recording-Breaking Debut of “Grand Theft Auto V” [UPDATED]

[UPDATE—Sept. 20, 5:20pm ET] Grand Theft Auto V has now exceeded $1 billion in sales in 3 days. No entertainment property in any media has ever achieved that mark in such a short period of time.

Publisher Take-Two Interactive reported that first-day sales of Grand Theft Auto V topped $800 million, a record for the video game industry. Actually, it’s probably a record for any cultural industry in history. To my knowledge, no piece of music, film or other art has ever made $800M in a single day. But if we wish to confine the discussion to videogames, the previous record holder was Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which generated first-day sales of $500M last November.

This fifth installment of GTA launched on September 17 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The sales figure is worldwide, although it excludes the upcoming launches in Japan and Brazil. The $800M figure equals sales of between 13-14 million units of the game, which is quite an acccomplishment considering that the last installment in the Grand Theft Auto series sold about 13 million unit over an entire year.

GTA:V took five years to develop and cost between $200-250 million, which is as expensive as any big-budget animated feature. Its earnings will easily top the highest-grossing animated feature of all-time, which would be the $1.06 billion gross of Toy Story 3.

It’s been fascinating to watch the ascension of games as a cultural force in early-21st century entertainment. It is an art form that requires new programming technologies to produce and new devices to consume, yet also relies heavily on traditional constructions like narrative storytelling and character animation. The latter is why we care, and why we will care for a long time to come. Even as immersive entertainment experiences displace older forms of media, the role of the animator only continues to grow in prominence.

Game publishers like Take-Two Interactive (and its subsidiary Rockstar Games which made GTA) obviously understand the value of graphics, otherwise they wouldn’t continually push to improve the complexity of their visuals and the nuance of their character animation. But there is still room for graphic improvement, and especially, greater believability in the character performances.

When will developers begin recruiting topflight feature film animators en masse and elevate interactive media to even more fantastic heights? The time when game producers start valuing the contributions of animators at least as much as feature film companies currently do can’t be far off, and competition for talent between game developers and film studios can only be a good thing for the animation community.

The following review of GTA:V not only provides a good sense of the gameplay, but also shows the incredible amount of animation that is contained within the game world: