gta v
Take-Two Interactive reported weak earnings yesterday, and it was predictably vague about when its Rockstar Games label would ship Grand Theft Auto V, a street-brawling, free-for-all title that could be one of the biggest games of the year: when it ships. Analysts say that simple math suggests Rockstar will ship the game before March 31, 2013.

For gamers, that’s good news. The Grand Theft Auto series has a cult following that has gone mainstream. In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV sold more than 6 million units in its first week, grossing more than $500 million in revenue. Expectations for GTA V are likely to be higher than that, given the huge growth in the installed base of consoles since 2008. Game fans are salivating at every rumor.

Strauss Zelnick, the chief executive and chairman of Take-Two, said on the analyst call yesterday that the Rockstar team was making “substantial progress” on GTA V, but he declined to disclose a release date for the game. At the same time, Zelnick only slightly lowered the expectations for annual sales for the fiscal year, even though the company missed its target by a long shot in its first fiscal quarter.

Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities, said that he does not believe Take-Two can hit its target for revenues in the year ending March 31, 2013 unless it ships GTA V. Take-Two is targeting revenue of $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion for the year, with 55 percent of that figure coming from Rockstar (about $963 million) and 45 percent ($788 million) from the 2K Games label. For Rockstar, the Max Payne 3 title is expected to generate no more than $250 million in revenues, and the company’s older catalog of games could generate $150 million. That leaves $563 million in revenue for the fiscal year that Pachter believes could only come from GTA V.

But the chances for an announcement are declining. Rockstar made no announcement at E3 in June, and speculation is mixed about whether it will announce the game later this month at Gamescom in Germany. Pachter expects that a preholiday release is less likely but still possible, but a first calendar quarter release in 2013 might be likely.

Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Research, agreed that GTA V is likely to ship in the current fiscal year. Atul Bagga, an analyst at Lazard Capital, added that the management guidance suggests GTA V will ship in the first calendar quarter of 2013. Whenever Take-Two makes the announcement, the stock will probably take off, said Colin Sebastian, an analyst at R.W. Baird.

Take-Two could always delay the game and lower its earnings in the future, but that’s a pretty big bomb to drop on a stock that has been battered this year due to missed expectations for games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Max Payne 3. But Zelnick has always been willing to take short-term hits in favor of long-term investment, and the Rockstar leaders, Sam and Dan Hauser, are the ones in charge of production on GTA V. And they’re not known for shipping games early.