Why GTA V won't die

Seven years after its release, GTA V is now available on next-gen consoles. Multiplayer mode balanced the single-player parent and Los Santos became a city with more soul.

Rockstar Games
"Los Santos is a beautiful place," - says Liam, a 20-year-old who goes by the nickname Penguin and has spent, by his estimate, many hundreds of hours in the city since Grand Theft Auto V was released in 2013. The game has sold at least 135 million copies worldwide to date, giving the city in the game a potential population seven times larger than the Greater Los Angeles area on which it is based. "I actually live in LA, so it feels like home".

For the hundreds of thousands of people who log into the game each month, the game has achieved something remarkable. After seven years, the city of Los Santos has transformed from a one-man sandbox for criminals to a constantly refreshed environment where groups of up to 30 people can play together in creative ways. "I couldn't get bored of GTA myself," - Liam adds.

Debuting in 2013, The City was designed to accommodate both a scripted single-player story mode and undefined multiplayer matches. Now considered two games that came in one box, both GTA V and GTA Online are set to see further releases with the announcement of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X in 2021. This will be a third-generation release - following the game's initial release on Xbox 360 and PS3 and subsequent releases on PC, PS4 and Xbox One - and will be the first time players will be able to download the game online without a single-player storyline.

In 2020, the number of players logging in each month increased, surpassing even Rockstar's newest competitor, Red Dead Online. According to the studio, at the turn of the year GTA broke its own record for the number of players in a month - thousands joined the game during the lockout when the PC version was given away for free on the Epic Games Store in May. Rockstar doesn't usually reveal how many players this actually is, other than to refer to it as a "record". But the number of players playing on Steam - just a fraction of the total across all platforms - reached 260,000 players at one time in February (the highest number since the first month of the PC debut).

Despite its reputation for random, amoral violence, GTA has survived thanks to constant updates that have found new ways to ensure people can connect freely, says Liam, one of the moderators of the r/GTAOnline subReddit, which has nearly 800,000 subscribers. Liam recently joined the in-game stunt crew along with another Reddit user, Jordan, and said: "The game keeps me interested because of the friends I've made."

Visit Los Santos online today and it's a quirky experience. The game, in story and multiplayer modes, originally aimed for gritty realism. But after 7 years of continuous play, it's now in equal measure a time capsule from the mid-Obama era - where one-off hits like "A.D.H.D" by Kendrick Lamar, are still on repeat on the radio - and a weird mess of science-fiction, thanks to an anarchic set of upgrades.

The teaser trailer for the PS5 re-release begins by announcing a return to the familiar neighborhoods of Los Santos and the lives of story mode protagonists Michael, Trevor and Franklin. However, it ends with Tron racing bikes, jet packs and miniguns. Fans say Los Santos Online now works better than ever, even though there's a growing rift and a widening gap between single-player and multiplayer.

Isaac, 19, has been playing it since the beginning, one of a group who got their hands on the game as teenagers and are now of college age: "Although the cultural satire has aged, the gamification of Los Santos has turned a realistic interpretation of Los Santos into more of a backdrop for the chaos of flying Deloreans, hovering bikes and tanks in the city, biker gangs roaming the northern parts of San Andreas, with bunkers of James Bond villains scattered around the countryside, lying dormant laboratories of weapons and government technology.

It may be easy to forget for fans who have spent years playing Online since the last time they touched the storyline, but GTA Online was initially bust. Early reviews praised the story mode, but GTA Online was classified as something that should have been in open beta, but instead promoted itself as a finished game, and then quickly went bust.

The add-on, which was free to play, likely had no positive impact on initial sales, says David Cole, principal analyst at DFC Intelligence, a games industry research firm.

"The launch of GTA Online was an absolute mess," - Isaac says. "You'd be lucky if you could stay on a single server for more than an hour before it crashed, which prompted Rockstar to release a $500,000 in-game 'Sorry' stimulus package." Certain over-powered vehicles, such as the LAZER Jet and Rhino Tank, would unseat new players - setting the stage for years of excessive "griefing" - "but the ultimate problem with the release of GTA Online was the lack of any meaningful content.

For years, players found it almost pointless to play the game - grinding through GTA Online to accumulate cash, weapons and cars - with no real payoff in terms of story progression or gameplay, Isaac says. But GTA found its purpose with several major updates in 2015 that forced players to work together to pull off heists, allowed players to form biker gangs, and enabled mafia hierarchies by letting players hire each other. There were also new landmarks, including nightclubs that can be owned and operated and casinos that can be visited or robbed.

"There are so many things to do, even outside of the story missions, that I know a lot of people who
use the game as a way to relax," says Esther Wright, a lecturer in digital history at Cardiff University. Teams and modders have started playing the game in unexpected ways, from making Machinima movies in-game to playing the role of police officers. "Even I went through a period where I did almost nothing but load the game and see how fast I could get to 5-star Wanted level, and then how long I could last. There's something about it that makes it feel more alive than most open world games since."

Why does Los Santos feel natural where other digital cities fail? Apparently it's as hard to understand as whether real cities are vibrant or boring, even for players who have spent years exploring the virtual world. There are plenty of big-budget multiplayer games that offer co-op missions, side quests, gambling, sports, and all the rest, but they don't hold the audience's attention. Just look at Star Wars, with decades of baked in lore and goodwill, which has repeatedly fought to get a self-sustaining MMO off the ground.

Rockstar, the ultimate rulers of this libertarian domain, remain all-powerful and remote: sometimes dropping stunning, world expanding updates with little notice, other times banning players from engaging in seemingly reasonable activities, such as betting big on in-game races, without explanation. Fans are frustrated, but they acknowledge that the developers are improving the game year after year.

Wright says that by 2013, Rockstar had been doing this long enough that GTA V and Online already felt like a "greatest hits" album. "Trying to figure out how to make the world seem alive - and the world react to the player - is something that Rockstar has done over the course of basically all of its games leading up to this point. You can see elements of this in games like Bully and, of course, all the previous GTA games. It's like they've taken all the best bits of things that they've tried to work out in different games and then combined them in a way that just works."

Now it seems like it may have been a masterstroke to launch, fail, and tweak in a window when fans were still enamored with the single player mode. GTA V, the single-player mode, bought enough time for its ugly, chaotic, initially pointless child, GTA Online, to eat its parent and take over as the main reason for Los Santos' existence. Liam calls GTA's combination of single-player and multiplayer "an incredibly smart choice to give players time to fall in love with the story mode characters." Red Dead Online's frosty reception since its release last year has shown that fans are no longer so forgiving and expected the studio to have a vibrant world out of the box.

The initial $265 million that Rocktar spent on building Los Santos, the story mode, and the initial draft of GTA Online paid for itself within hours of release when the game reached $1 billion in less than three days. Including the cover price and in-game purchases, the game is estimated to have earned $6 billion in 2018 - making it by a mile the most profitable piece of entertainment ever produced, even before another 45 million in game sales and the full introduction of in-game microtransactions, such as the new Los Santos casino, where players controversially pay to spin a wheel to win in-game prizes.

"Other games would love to emulate GTA V, but it's easier said than done," - Cole says, speculating that the rare open-world games that could follow the same path are Zelda, Sony's Horizon games or The Witcher. "Other companies will likely follow a more muted approach. For example, what Fortnite has done. Fortnite looked like a disappointing mid-level game, and with the success of PUBG, Epic changed direction and added a free-to-play battle royale mode. Battle royale mode became the game, everyone forgot about the years of development on the original. Adding modes like battle royale is much easier than developing a complete open world online."

All of this means bad news for anyone hoping for a big, bold sequel release in the near future. Fans are accusing Rockstar of milking GTA V - and without any solid new elements announced for the PS5 re-release, they're starting to get impatient. All the YouTube comments on the release trailer are roughly the same impatient banter: here we go again? But the studio is unlikely to take a chance on a new installment while Los Santos continues to entice fans. In fact, some fans crave GTA Online's map expansion before anything else, and the decision to separate GTA V from Online in the next generation opens up the possibility of continuing that world indefinitely. Cole predicts a ten-year gap between V and the next major release - setting a possible release date of late 2023.

For now, we have the cannibalization of the city in GTA V. What it has gained in the process is "soul," says Jordan, 28, who has been playing the series since its 2D incarnation in the 1990s. "And I don't mean the artificial life the developers have created to fill the streets, but the soul present thanks to millions of players. Every imaginable age, race and background plays this game because it offers something for everyone."

"Want to treat it as a crime simulator and make millions? No problem. Want to be directionless, jump in after work and unload by jumping off of Mount Chiliad and massacring a bunch of NPCs? Be my guest. Want to play by yourself and pretend you're the star of GTA 6? Easy. Want to connect with complete strangers, make real life connections and give yourself your own direction and purpose in the game? You can do it, and that's what I recommend everyone do to make GTA Online the best online game ever: use your imagination and creativity to take advantage of the freedom the game has always given us."

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