Grand Theft Auto Online was a feature approached by many gamers with much enthusiasm – the opportunity to share the chaos of GTA with friends and other online players. However, when it released – several weeks after launch – that enthusiasm had been dampened somewhat, both by the news that the servers would launch unstably and that there would be microtransactions within the game.
And thus it launched; no one could access it properly for the first few days, and those that could often lost their characters and progress not long after. That got fixed, thankfully, and soon millions were enjoying the GTA Online experience – in slow cars, with very little ammo and no homes, barring those who had used exploits and now had everything. No worries, though, the Stimulus package was still coming – $500 000 for every player who had played GTA Online prior to the patch would ensure that we all had a good platform to play off. When that released, I had a cheap garage and two hijacked cars, and about $60 000 in my character’s account, having not exploited any money glitches or cheated in any way. I considered that a lot of money, but I was nowhere near the car I wanted, nor the house. Thankfully, after the $500 000, I had enough to get both – my apartment being the most expensive in the game, and my car being the in-game equivalent of a convertible Audi R8 Coupé. This – for me, is where things started to go downhill.
Apart from the obvious crashes and freezes, very little else had been fixed. Glitches were still rife throughout the world of online Los Santos, and were a constant disruption to cohesive play. Worse still were the network errors, which caused players in the same mission to be dropped into different free-roam sessions after the conclusion of the mission, or to be constantly timed out or kicked when trying to join friends. To this point, these issues still exist, as fellow ITF Gaming writer, Brady and I experienced when trying to get into a lobby on a lazy Saturday afternoon, only to be confronted with timeouts and join failures.
The missions and races had reduced payouts and RP gain, meaning that the multiplayer was reduced to a glorified grindfest. Ammo costs were exorbitantly high – meaning that it would cost me $70 000 to fill my ammo to max. Considering that most missions only paid two or three thousand GTA$ and involve shooting (and thus, using ammo), I wasn’t actually gaining anything but a couple of levels from doing them. Additionally, the players who played more than me were hitting levels between 50 and 70 now, and tanks were starting to pop up. As such, many of the exploiters or level grinders now had the money to buy Buzzards (attack helicopters) and tanks, which were used with the sole intent of griefing other players online.
This brought up my medical bills, as well as my ammo costs, as the most effective way to be rid of a griefer was to blow them up with the ridiculously expensive sticky bombs. GTA Online was no longer fun; many of my online friends had the displeasure of hearing me give one of the plethora of griefers a piece of my mind and I was no closer to having a good, sustainable way to counter them or progress in-game.
The heists – the selling point of GTA V, and supposedly the way in which online players were going to rake in the most money, had still not been released, and for players that didn’t grind mundane missions for hours on end, cash flow was becoming less and less reliable. Playing online was very rarely fun without friends and silly stunts involved, and the entire experience was becoming predictable and stale. One thing remained consistent throughout the entire time I had on GTA Online: when I didn’t have enough money for something, GTA Online was more than willing to offer a path to the PlayStation Store to buy more virtual dollar bills.
Red Shark Cash Card ($100,000) – R25.00
Tiger Shark Cash Card ($200,000) – R35.00
Bull Shark Cash Card ($500,000) – R70.00
Great White Shark Cash Card ($1,250,000) – R405.00
Whale Shark Cash Card ($3,500,000) – R359.00
Take a look at the Great White Shark Card, the highest microtransaction which was available at launch. This card sells for R405.00 digitally. Ignoring the fact that R405.00 is more than half of the price of a new game, and that you can find many 6-month old games for that much, let’s rather take a look at what you can get in-game for that $1,250,000.
The most expensive car in the game, the Truffade Adder, which is the generic equivalent to a Bugatti Veyron, will set you back a million GTA$, while adding customisation options to it can set you back a further one or two hundred thousand GTA$. In real money, from the rate at which the Great White Shark card goes for, that means that the car itself sells for about R324.00 – approximately four fifths of the player’s investment. This price is significantly larger in comparison when you purchase the Whale Shark Cash Card, but the notion that in-game items can be that exorbitantly expensive is absurd when you consider that most DLC packs sell for R135 or less, and an expansion like Dragon Age: Awakening, which added 9-10 hours of gameplay to a game, was never as expensive as this almost trivial insertion of in-game funds to a virtual account.
Cue Christmas Eve, my friend and I are driving through Los Santos, and suddenly a bounty is set on his head. I miss the notification message indicating the amount, but I see the telltale red marker indicating he has a bounty. We pull over to the side of the road, and I shoot him, expecting to get a maximum of $9,000 which we’ll split. Suddenly, my 4-digit bank balance becomes 9, and splitting that figure between my friend and myself doesn’t make it look any less insane. I’m the owner of over 150 million GTA$, and I don’t know what to make of it.
Thinking it was a glitch, I deposit it into my bank account and leave the lobby with my friend. We soon establish that this was either a hack or an exploit (a bit of digging found out it was the latter) and decide to throw caution to the wind, buying all the things we couldn’t afford to that point and enjoying our new-found wealth. In essence, the injection of money made GTA Online the enjoyable multiplayer sandbox experience that it was supposed to be. Yes, there were still the griefers, the god-mode hackers, and the profanity-spewing children, but we could finally enjoy online Los Santos without worrying that our insurance bill was going to ruin our saving for the silencer for our SMG – a silencer that cost more than most in-game houses in the name of “game balancing”.
Basic multiplayer balancing regimes dictate that a game is only fun while progress is evident – meaning that the player needs to have a reason to keep playing. Progression is usually that reason – in Call of Duty and Battlefield, you unlock new equipment and perks, in any conventional MMO or RPG, you gain new abilities and more power, and in racing titles, you gain new cars and upgrades. These keep the game fresh, enjoyable, and dynamic. GTA Online was reaching a point of stagnation where it was impossible to gain meaningful progress without grinding for tens upon hundreds of hours, and even then it was likely you were just paying for your ammo – unless you were investing in the prohibitively expensive Shark Cards.
This exact model is why freemium (which are free, but have in-app purchases) mobile games, and games such as Spartacus Legends or Dust 514 are often considered detrimental to the gaming community. The outrageous scale of the transactions, crossed with their necessity for progression and constant bombardment of advertising, mean that they become parasitical and often lead to players uninstalling these free-to-play games. The fact that such a model is implemented in a triple-A quality production title – albeit more subtly, and in a limited fashion – speaks volumes on greed.
The game disguises this model cleverly, hiding the need for paid-for transactions behind needlessly expensive ammunition costs and plainly excessive car customisation charges. Many a time, armouring the vehicle you just bought – an upgrade that has to be unlocked through tireless levelling before you can purchase it – is near half the price of that vehicle, super cars excluded. In the same vein, attachments often cost more than guns, to the point that silencers and sights are almost half the price of a limousine. The glitches and exploits have made these upgrades accessible to more casual players who don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on a game they may never play again – however reprehensible the means in which the money is obtained may be.
Rockstar have since issued an intent to clamp down on hackers and exploiters who manipulate in-game glitches (which Rockstar themselves have not yet fixed) to acquire vast sums of money, and they have systems in place which are meant to detect these players (who are often just chumps like my friend and I who stumbled into a lot of money and decided to keep it). No warning has been made to clamp down on hackers who actually do imbalance the game with god-mode and other hacks – instead of some pseudo-economy which translates to lining Rockstar’s pockets in an attempt to have some fun. Furthermore, no statement of intent has been made to fix the plethora of connection or in-game errors which GTA Online players experience on an alarmingly regular basis.
That’s not to say GTA Online isn’t remotely enjoyable, nor is the intention of this piece to demonise Rockstar – who have given us an incredible game in GTA V, and some free content in the Beach Bum pack and Social Club benefits. Instead, through how my career in GTA Online has progressed, it’s clear that there are more pressing faults – connection, gameplay and reward-based – which are crippling the online experience, and which aren’t be addressed due to the horrendous microtransaction policies being derailed by a plethora of exploiting users. The irony is that through their misdemeanours in Rockstar’s online world, these users have unwittingly made GTA Online into the shared anarchy of the Grand Theft Auto experience that we initially thought it would be.
Rockstar are a massive company, and it would be naïve of me to think that anything other than profits are at the forefront of their intentions, but that should not come at the expense of quality. GTA Online, while rejuvenated by the cash injection, is still a broken mess, with actual hacks being almost omnipresent in lobbies, connection still being debatable, and gameplay still being hindered by issues that Rockstar have failed to fix or components that have yet to be introduced, more than 4 months after launch.
For a multiplayer component that isn’t particularly rewarding, I’ve sunk a lot of time into GTA Online, mostly to play with friends – if Rockstar’s automated systems ban me or I get reset, GTA V is getting shelved. Mainly, it’ll be because any hard work that I’ll have put in will have been for nothing, but it’ll also be due to the fact that I’m not willing to get treated like a criminal after I’ve paid nigh-on R800.00 for a full retail game because I didn’t buy a Shark card and I stumbled into a lot of money. GTA Online won’t have been ruined because of the exploits running riot in Los Santos – it will have been ruined because Rockstar were too busy lining their pockets to fix the real issues and make GTA Online an experience that people want to put money into.