How GTA Online Taught Us to Be Careful What We Wish For

The long wait for GTA 6 forces us to reexamine the ironic consequences of the GTA Online dream.

GTA Online
Photo: Rockstar Games

As we all continue to wait for any official information about GTA 6, news has broken that GTA 5 has surpassed the 140 million units sold mark. Perhaps more impressively, reports reveal that 2020 was the most successful sales year in GTA 5 history outside of the game’s release in 2013. While that success can be attributed to a variety of factors, there’s little doubt that the game’s stunning longevity is largely due to the popularity of GTA Online.

I don’t remember exactly when I first dreamed of an online Grand Theft Auto game, but I’m certain it wasn’t too long after I played GTA 3 in 2001. Around that time, my friends and I started asking the simple question, “What if we could play that with each other?”

That question grew more complicated as the GTA games did the same. Vice City‘s real estate mechanic inspired dreams of online wars for the control of the city, while San Andreas’ greatly expanded the scope of GTA’s sandbox from a size and activity standpoint. GTA 4 actually featured numerous online modes, but its collection of rigid multiplayer matches and simplistic free roam option often fell short of offering the full “GTA but with friends” experience that fans had wished for.

Then, it finally happened. In 2013, Rockstar confirmed that GTA 5 would feature exactly the kind of multiplayer mode that fans had dreamt of for years. Actually, with its expansive online map, progression system, various modes of play, and community options, GTA Online’s reveal suggested that it would be something greater than anyone could have ever wished for. Little did we know that the finger on a monkey’s paw curled somewhere in the world shortly after this trailer’s release:

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GTA Online’s problems were evident from the very first time many of us tried to play the game. Actually, it’s very much worth emphasizing the word “tried.” GTA Online’s servers were such a mess at launch that you’ have roughly as much luck now trying to buy a PS5 against an army of bots as you would have had logging in to GTA Online when it launched in 2013. Shortly after all that happened, Rockstar issued the standard apologies, worked some server magic, and fixed a variety of bugs. It took a few weeks, but we finally got to a point when you could log on to GTA Online at will and experience a mostly stable version of the game. 

That’s when things got really interesting. As it turned out, sharing your GTA experience with others meant that you’d be playing with people who saw you as just another NPC in their sandbox. It wasn’t long before you started to hear reports of players mercilessly attacking others in the game’s open-world. It was generally amusing the first few times, but for some, these trolls essentially started to dictate the way that you had to play the game just to stay alive in the world. What’s worse is that many of them had already started relying on hacks other cheats that devastated an already uneven playing field. 

Players could theoretically turn to GTA Online’s various missions, races, and other activities to escape the open-world mayhem, but those offered little relief. Many of GTA Online’s initial activities were essentially variant’s of the campaign’s most basic missions but without any narrative stakes to elevate them. Their simplicity was made that much more apparent by the game’s underdeveloped initial progression system which left players little to do with the money they were earning and forced everyone to wonder what, exactly, “RP” was.

Don’t take my word on GTA Online’s bad old days. In a 2017 interview with IGN, Rockstar’s director of design, Imran Sarwar, admitted that GTA Online’s “launch and first eight or nine months” were not successful. To make matters worse, he says that things reached a point where the developers themselves were “not excited enough by the updates we were making.” The game was rapidly losing players and Rockstar was still devoting considerable resources to hunting bugs and keeping the servers alive. 

That’s where I left GTA Online in 2014. I knew it was possible to have fun in the game, but I was convinced that the mode would end up being a Sea of Thieves style experience that would essentially require you to play with the right group of friends in the right state of mind if you were going to get anything substantial out of it. It felt like Rockstar had ultimately created an elaborate way to kill some time while we waited for GTA 6.

Of course, that’s not what happened. GTA Online went on to earn almost $1.5 billion just four years after its release. It’s estimated that GTA Online earned nearly $600 million in revenue in 2019 alone. Suddenly, talks of GTA 6 were limited to wild online conspiracies and an endless parade of rumors of that marched on as it became increasingly clear that GTA Online was rapidly becoming the face of the GTA franchise. 

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What happened to spark such an historic turnaround? It came down to a few factors. 

First off, GTA Online did get better. Just a couple of years after its release, GTA Online’s content updates were not only more frequent but far more substantial. That’s especially true of one of the game’s 2015 updates which finally added the ability to participate in campaign-style heists with your friends. Those kinds of features contributed to the idea that the spirit of GTA 5 lived on indefinitely within GTA Online.

Not long after, GTA Online became the centerpiece of an unexpected rise in role-playing streams and YouTube videos. While the mode’s chaotic nature and expansive toolset made it an instant hit in the YouTube community, a new generation of creators were crafting characters, scenarios, and the kinds of storylines that felt painfully absent from the mode’s early days. There certainly seems to be a correlation between GTA’s increased sales over the last couple of years and the willingness of the game’s community to make their own fun and share their almost fanfic like adventures with others.

Yet, if you’re wondering how GTA has managed to become the second-highest selling game of all-time, and why it’s regularly on the best-selling games charts seven years after its release, then you have to talk about the title’s expanded progression system and the growing importance of the game’s microtransactions. 

GTA Online lets you place elaborate bets in a casino before you hop into your rocket-propelled supercar and go back to work as the CEO of a criminal enterprise. However, all of those things come at a price. GTA Online not only features one of the more extensive microtransaction systems in gaming but one of the more subtly wicked ones. Most major GTA Online content releases typically feature high-end pieces of content typically initially reserved for the game’s “whales.” For instance, buying the best office in the mode’s CEO update would have cost you 4 million in-game dollars (without any of the accessories). If you wanted to buy a microtransaction card that would instantly reward you with that much in-game cash, it would cost you about 60 real-life dollars. 

If you’re thinking “Wow, that’s about as much as GTA 5 costs,” then you’ve stumbled on the fiscal brilliance of the game’s microtransaction system. GTA Online‘s updates are free, but each typically introduces a ton of new items waiting to be purchased. While even the larger updates are not nearly the size of a proper new GTA game, it’s certainly possible to spend as much time with any of them as you would on a new GTA single-player game if you’re trying to unlock everything without spending money. Unlike GTA single-player games that sometimes leave you with a ton of cash and nothing to spend it on, GTA Online often leaves you feeling like you can never quite have enough money.

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GTA Online is hardly unique in that respect, but few games come close to matching the “FOMO” feeling that it inspires. Actually, in a game all about characters, customization, and creating opportunities, you’re don’t just feel like you’re missing out by not being able to sail around on a yacht or afford the hottest new vehicle. What would be simple cosmetics in other live service games becomes much more substantial in GTA Online.

Believe it or not, though, this isn’t necessarily an indictment of GTA Online’s microtransactions nor is it a rant against the quality of the online mode itself. No, the most worrisome element of GTA Online’s success at this point is what it will do and has already done) to GTA 6 as well as those who never really got into the mode in the first place.

The earliest days of the GTA Online dream can be attributed to a desire to share our GTA campaign experiences with others indefinitely. In some ways, GTA Online grew to offer that experience, but it came with ironic compromises. You could play with others, but that means having to play with others. You can accomplish fantastic things not even possible in the campaign, but you’ll often essentially have to keep buying GTA games to instantly access them. You can experience infinite new stories but you are often required to write, direct, and act in them. 

GTA Online growing to be (in many ways) exactly what I dreamed it could be has led me to reexamine my wish. What I and others may not have fully appreciated at the time of GTA’s earlier days was that there was a pleasure in bouncing around a world of largely curated content that a community-driven game may never be able to replicate. It’s part of the reason why Skryim is one of the most successful and beloved games of all-time but not everyone who loved Skyrim is interested in The Elder Scrolls Online. Those kinds of online expansions aren’t simply “what you love, but more of it.” There is a beauty to the illusion of freedom in an open-world single-player game that may have felt prohibitive at a time when we wondered if a multiplayer game could ever offer such an experience but seems necessary at a time when too many games rely on the assumption that you want to be online all the time and constantly playing with others.

Over the years, Rockstar has made it very clear that our hopes for GTA 4-style single-player expansions for GTA 5 are largely in vain, despite the fact they once teased single-player DLC that was initially supposed to be released in 2014. Sometimes, the company is diplomatic about that content shift by stating that their decision to focus on GTA Online content just kind of happened organically. Other times, company representatives like Imran Sarwar throw cold water on the whole thing by suggesting that GTA 4’s brilliant expansions only happened because of a “big deal in place with Microsoft that meant we were obliged to make the expansions.

Would we be playing GTA 6 if it wasn’t for GTA Online? Maybe not, but the success of that mode has almost certainly left us with a world where Rockstar has barely talked about a new GTA game in over seven years but has released versions of GTA 5 and GTA Online across three different generations of game consoles

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We’re reaching a point when GTA 6’s release is just as likely to be fuelled by the hypothetical diminishing returns of GTA Online‘s revenue as it is Rockstar’s creative ambitions. While Rockstar has stated that they feel part of GTA Online’s success can be attributed to the idea that it offers a little something for everyone who likes different elements of the GTA games, GTA Online has never and will never offer an entirely new story with entirely new characters set in an entirely new world that is entirely ours to experience exactly as we see fit. No matter what new update comes out, how many great RP stories or told, or what possibilities some incredible new toy opens, GTA Online will never be GTA 6 as we imagine that game based on the precedent set by the previous releases in this incredible franchise.

And yet, there is this GTA game out there packed with fresh (and often exciting) content that you’ve never played if you stopped playing the game after finishing the GTA 5 campaign. It’s out there, but at the same time, it isn’t. Like the zombified remains of a former lover that we’ve wished back from the grave without considering exactly what we were asking for, GTA Online lingers temptingly outside the door even as we know that what we’ll find when we open it is exactly what we asked for but perhaps not what we really wanted.

GTA Online continues to thrive thanks largely to its popularity amongst those who continue to pay for the game, but years later, it’s starting to feel like those who don’t play the mode as they wait for a proper new GTA have also been paying for too long.