You may have heard of a little game called GRAND THEFT AUTO V (GTA V). The latest installment in the time-honored franchise, GTA V was critically acclaimed for its satirical storyline, dense open-world, and chaotic freedom. But if you’re anything like Rockstar, you’ve probably forgotten about the main game. Indeed, unless you’re playing the single-player campaign for the tenth time, you’ve likely moved on to GTA: ONLINE (GTA: O).

GTA:O, the multiplayer mode for the game, was released shortly after the release of the single-player component. It received a mixed response at best, but continued profits have encouraged Rockstar to focus on it exclusively.

Since the game was released, many have been waiting for more single-player content. The GRAND THEFT AUTO series is praised for its open-world single-player gameplay, so surely Rockstar had something huge up their sleeves.

Three years later, Rockstar hasn’t touched the singleplayer game. Instead, we’ve received yet another content update for GTA:O. This time, we got poorly designed RC car races.

[GTA: ONLINE] Behold: the future of GRAND THEFT AUTO.

After watching the Tiny Cars trailer, my heart sank as I asked an uncomfortable question: Is this the future of Rockstar? Is this the beginning of a slow shift from a single-player, story-driven focus to a mediocre multiplayer one? Thankfully, this isn’t a unique question. Many have noticed a stark shift in Rockstar’s focus over the past few years, most notably their treatment of GTA V, but are these fears justified?

What does the success of GTA: ONLINE mean for Rockstar’s future? Why is it so successful when so many seem to despise it? What does this mean for the industry as a whole? Well, let’s take a look!

What is it?

I first booted up GTA:O the day it was released. When it actually worked properly, it felt like a mediocre, free-to-play, action-mmo. You could customize your character, explore the sandbox with other players, and go on repetitive missions to make money. There was even a threadbare story holding it together. After a few weeks of play, I was eventually overwhelmed by the poorly optimized servers, the infuriating bugs, and the shameful amount of hackers that infested the game like parasites.

In about three years, not much has changed.

My experience with GTA:O can be summarized in the amount of time I’ve wasted in the lobby trying to connect with other players. When a mission finally begins, you can pretty much guarantee someone will go off on his own and get your team killed. Granted, you can always play the game with friends, but that would mean subjecting them to this shoddy mess of a game.

[GTA 5] I’m not that cruel.
Restrictions and “balance” butcher the flow of the game

GTA:O is a poor man’s attempt at capturing the spirit of the series in a multiplayer form. In order to balance the game (and encourage microtransactions) most of the interesting weapons, cars, and outfits are gated behind either mindless grinding or a price-tag.

Let me give you a snapshot of how GTA:O restricts you: I was in a firefight with another player. We got into our cars and chased each other down the highway. I seized an opportune moment and destroyed the car, leaving the player stranded on the road before finishing them off. I then received a bill for thousands of in-game dollars and was marked as a “bad sport.”

Yes, GTA:O punishes you for destroying another player’s car.

Sure, this discourages players from griefing others by destroying their hard-earned property, but all this does is open up new ways to troll people. Watching giant tanks run over players is a common sight in the game. The most efficient way to deal with this (short of exploits) is to blow up the tank, leaving you in massive debt as you pay for the damages.

Rockstar’s commitment to “balancing” things only makes sense in a game built on grinding and microtransactions. If the game was more freeform, more chaotic, a wacky free-for-all with no consequences and a limitless supply of toys to play with, then none of this would be necessary. Instead, we have a GRAND THEFT AUTO game that punishes you for blowing up vehicles and forces you to worry about car insurance. It is this vicious circle of restrictions necessitating more restrictions to achieve a flawed sense of fairness.

Bugs, grinding, and mechanics aside, there’s a much bigger reason why GTA:O is so destructive to Rockstar.

They’ve focused entirely on GTA:O

You may be wondering how a simple multiplayer mode can jeopardize the future of a company. Well, in and of itself it doesn’t. There’s plenty of mediocre, price-gouging multiplayer modes out there, and they’re not necessarily hurting anything. The problem is that Rockstar has decided to focus solely on GTA:O as opposed to anything else. GRAND THEFT AUTO is defined by its strong, single-player sandbox campaigns. GRAND THEFT AUTO IV set the bar for single-player DLC, offering new characters, new stories, and new features. Since the release of GTA V, fans have been clamoring for more wacky, violent, story-driven adventures within the world of San Andreas, but it has become clear that Rockstar has no interest in this.

Tiny racers was just the latest in a long string of tacked on content patches. Their only purpose is to bring people back to the game for a few weeks and hopefully get them to spend some more money. Meanwhile, the single-player mode is languishing in obscurity, as YouTubers and internet media have no reason to talk about it. It’s not a stretch to say that, as of now, GTA V is known more for its online component than the core game itself.

When people think of GTA, they used to think of quirky characters, satirical writing, and a sense of unbridled freedom. Until recently, the last thing they’d think of is this:

Though to be fair, the microtransactions are a pretty good parody of American culture.

 

Which brings us to the worst part of GTA:O…

They have no incentive to stop

GTA: ONLINE received mixed reviews. A quarterly report from 2015 claims GTA: Online has over 8 million players per week, despite vocal complaints on its quality. As I’m writing this (10 AM on a Saturday) 77,174 people played GTA V on steam in the past 24 hours, though it’s unclear how many of them are playing online. Regardless of its actual popularity, GTA:O has generated half a billion dollars in profits as of April 2016. 

This is where the problems start.

Your opinion is irrelevant

People have been complaining about GTA:O for years. It’s the butt of countless jokes on the internet and is met with near-universal scorn from all but those who play it regularly. That being said, it’s difficult to gauge the popularity of a product or practice in the gaming industry. In the age of the internet, you can never tell what constitutes widespread outrage, and what’s simply a vocal minority. This makes meaningful debate impossible because we have no clue what the majority really thinks.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume GTA: Online is the bane of the gaming community, and that all but the most die-hard fans despise it and wish it would go away.

It doesn’t matter. Our opinion is meaningless in the face of profits.

You may have heard of the term “whales.” It’s basically developer-lingo for people who have enough time and money to spend thousands on microtransactions. They’re the driving force behind so-called “free-to-play” games, and the mechanics of these games are built from the ground up to incentivize this behavior. As a result, whales generate 70% of the in-app purchase revenue from the mobile gaming market alone. So what does this mean for us?

If they’re making so much money, why do anything else?

This is a growing problem, and it’s already spreading beyond the mobile market. I’m the kind of guy who tells people to “vote with their wallet,” but that doesn’t really apply here. These games are not being fueled by you and me. It doesn’t matter how much of the player-base hates GTA:O, or how much money the average person spends on it. Millions could despise it, but the whales could still keep it afloat. Our complaints are drowned out by microtransactions. The source of a consumer’s power is their money. When the average gamer isn’t contributing to the majority of revenue, then what power do we have left?

Rockstar beat the system with a strategy that prints money regardless of their effort. For those hoping for Rockstar to return to their roots as creators of quality single-player content, take a look at the past three years and ask yourself, “Why should they?” GTA V was originally slated to include single-player DLC, but these plans were dropped in favor of expanding the online component. Rockstar has already announced plans for an online mode in RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2. We’re already seeing a change in the company’s priorities. It’s not a stretch to say we’re going to see more shoddy online modes at the expense of quality single-player content. A company will go where the money is.

Some of you may think I’m overreacting, that I’m interpreting too much from the success of one game. But remember, GTA is their flagship series, and they haven’t touched the single-player mode since its release. If that doesn’t indicate a change in priorities, I don’t know what does. It’s also worth noting that Rockstar, as a company, has changed since the inception of GTA ONLINE.

Rockstar is already changing

On January 12, 2016, Leslie Benzies, president and lead designer of GTA, left Rockstar. He was an integral part of the GTA experience, revolutionizing the industry with the release of GTA III. He also had a hand in almost every Rockstar hit since, from RED DEAD REDEMPTION to L.A. NOIRE. He was on a mysterious sabbatical from the company for over a year before his departure, and would later go on to sue the company for unpaid royalties.

Yes, this is actually Leslie Benzies, and yes he does look like an actual rockstar.

 

Benzies claims he discovered “numerous deceptions” and attempts by Rockstar to push him out of the company. Further investigation shows his departure was less than amicable. While the departure of a high-profile developer is nothing to panic over, the context and alleged behavior of Rockstar raises more than a few questions. When you consider the company’s sudden embrace of microtransactions and the stark, sudden shift from single-player to multiplayer content, a disturbing pattern begins to emerge.

None of these facts concern me on their own, but we can’t look at them in a vacuum. Rockstar pushed out the man who helped make the company what it is, all while shifting GTA V from a single-player sandbox to a mediocre multiplayer cash-cow. I’m not expecting Rockstar to change overnight, but we may be witnessing a new chapter for the company and they have no reason to go back.

The Point

Not to sound philosophical, but no one knows what the future holds. The best we can do is look to the past to determine what could happen next. If past is prologue, then Rockstar will continue to create shoddy, bug-riddled multiplayer modes and invest more and more resources in them at the expense of the single-player campaign.

I like to end these articles with a call to action, or a piece of advice, or something optimistic. I’ve got nothing here. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe Rockstar’s future games will place the focus back on single-player, sandbox content. Perhaps the departure of Benzies was an unfortunate coincidence and has nothing to do with a shift in the company’s priorities.

But I don’t think so.

A company’s job is to make money. Hopefully, passion and creativity come into play at some point, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than making a profit. Making a quality product and making money aren’t mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, we’re in an age where it’s easier to make money by appealing to a small group of whales than by making a good game.

The “Moby Dick” approach has to stop

This problem goes far beyond Rockstar. Many believe the biggest problem in gaming is streamlining: watering down a game to appeal to the most people. While that’s certainly a problem, the real crisis lies in the other direction. It’s one thing to streamline your game to appeal to the masses. It’s another thing to cater to a destructive minority that can do nothing but stagnate the industry. The rise of whales, and the industry’s ravenous response to them, is only a bad thing for the average consumer. These games aren’t made for us. They’re made for a small group of people who are willing to spend thousands of dollars for an in-game hat. Even if you’re one of the countless people who casually play GTA:O, the game was not designed for your continued enjoyment. It’s a skinner-box for a completely different demographic.

If this is the future of gaming, then there’s no place in it for the average gamer.

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