When first I played GTA Online back in the Xbox 360 days it felt like an afterthought, a chance to play some random good-for-nothing in GTA 5‘s sizzling alt-Los Angeles, securely cloistered away from the events of the all-important singleplayer story. Having built yourself a no-name crim, you galloped around cranking out cash and XP by means of glorified sidequests handed down by headliners such as Lamar. Skip forward to 2023, and as Alice0 observed when we discussed Rockstar’s GTA 6 announcements this morning, GTA Online is effectively an MMO with ten years of updates, expansions and community projects under its belt. The no-name crim has become the star attraction.
GTA Online is a perennial Steam chart-topper encompassing a wealth of scripted and spontaneous funtimes, sprinkled across official and unapproved third-party servers. Its offerings range from multiple-part co-op heists and Dr Dre cameos to Just Causey engagements featuring rocket cars and orbital strikes, custom-designed racetracks, amateur photography clubs, clashes between street gangs of green or purple space aliens, and so, so many hacks and cheats.
It’s a significant money-spinner, too, with in-game microtransactions and a GTA+ subscription service that rake in hundreds of millions annually, according to such figures that have been divulged. While the main game continues to be a strong seller, GTA Online has long since eclipsed GTA 5 as a topic of discussion and perhaps even as a source of revenue, not least thanks to player communities like the game’s armies of role-players, who have taken Rockstar’s creation in directions the developers never dreamed of. As such, the big question I have ahead of the first GTA 6 trailer in December is: how should Rockstar approach straightforward GTA sequels in a world that now contains a thriving GTA MMO? And what on Earth should Rockstar do with GTA Online in the wake of GTA 6?
I’m only starting to think about these questions, as we ramp up to next month’s reveal. Amongst other things, I’ve spent a lot of today trying to puzzle out how much the two projects will be in competition. The obvious route for Rockstar is to keep GTA Online going as a separate experience, rumbling onward with the existing pattern of upgrades and additions, at least until pressure to comprehensively rework the supporting technology becomes irresistible.
This would be my and probably most other players’ preferred option, but it might not be the one that earns the fattest stacks for publisher Take-Two. If GTA 6 has a comparable multiplayer open world component, it’s hard to imagine it being as awash with features and activities as GTA Online, which is the result of a decade’s worth of expansion and tinkering. If the new game isn’t quite as well-received, there’s the risk of players drifting back to their well-trodden haunts in Los Santos. At the very least, Take-Two will find itself in the tricksy position of supporting them side-by-side, and having to consider whether the latest GTA features make their way into the still-popular older game.
It’s a tendon-ripping stretch, but Rockstar and Take-Two could nip this possibility in the bud by “doing a Counter-Strike 2” – that is, “replacing” GTA Online with GTA 6’s online offering and requiring players to buy the sequel if they’re to carry on playing, with services such as the Rockstar Games Social Club carrying across, together with any microtransactables and unlocks you’ve bought or earned. Rockstar have never done anything like that before, and for good reason. It’s an aggressive, scorched-earth approach that has provoked angry reactions from Overwatch 2 players especially, and there are some obvious ways it wouldn’t work for GTA.
GTA Online, after all, isn’t just a collection of modes, maps, characters and skins but a proper world – a sprawling and sociable expanse of West Coast dust and tarmac, baked motorways and chilly mountains, hillside mansions and palm-strewn beachsides, with a history as busy and vivid as that of any vintage Minecraft server. Attempting to “2.0 launch” GTA Online as GTA 6 Online would mean abandoning all of that, because GTA 6 will introduce a new setting – rumoured to be a revamped and modernised Vice City – which will surely be the foundation for its multiplayer features.
There are many things I’m keen to learn about GTA 6, and not just because GTA is a license to print traffic. Another thing Alice0 reminded me of this morning is that, for all those montages of GTA Online players running a taxi service or playing Scalextric in the sky, the game can be a real grind. Its world remains monotonously in service to the almighty dollar, whether you entertain ambitions of becoming a Los Santos CEO or not – small wonder that they’ve sold so many Shark Cards.
I’m interested to know how Rockstar approach the relationship between microtransactions and grinding right now, where their infamously materialist flagship series is concerned. It’s probably too much to ask that they’ll rein in the monetisation elements. But considerations of that sort come second to the notion that in the decade since GTA 5’s release, GTA has grown from a series of games into an online service that has quietly become the most interesting way to play. In the absence of any actual “GTA killers” (sorry, Saints Row), GTA Online is GTA 6’s greatest rival.
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