Rockstar, Microtransactions and the Future of Gaming

I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 5 since the day it came out four years ago (somehow it’s already been that long), and during those four years my time spent in-game has racked up to a whopping 35 days — 35 full, real-time days. And that’s just playing online, without taking into account the three times I’ve completed story mode. Unhealthy, perhaps, but you can’t say I haven’t earned my money’s worth.

The reason I’ve spent so much time logged into this virtual city of Los Santos, a thinly veiled duplicate of L.A., isn’t complicated: it’s an insanely fun game with so much to do and so much to see, with fine details which, even four years later, continue to impress. Drive north out of the city and stop at a diner in the middle of nowhere; you’ll be able to read an entire menu tacked onto the window which could just as easily be missed by every single player. GTA 5 is, put simply, still better than most new games hitting the shelves, whether for its physics, graphics, AI, gameplay, story or replayability.

Where GTA 5 has differed compared to previous installments in the franchise is with GTA Online. It was the first GTA game to come out when online gaming had really established itself among even casual gamers, and so developers Rockstar decided to focus heavily on an online function which vastly improved upon GTA 4’s inchoate multiplayer capabilities.

It got off to a bumpy start, but it’s now pretty much the only part of the game people play. This is, of course, partly down to how much fun it can be: with up to 64 player lobbies it can be wonderfully chaotic, and it’s so easy to lose hours driving around with friends, starting crews, completing jobs and racing custom cars.

But what it increasingly comes down to is Rockstar’s complete disregard for its single player mode. Where in previous games we had downloadable content which gave us new story missions to play, we now exclusively have online updates. Rockstar just isn’t interested in anything else. They claim it’s for our benefit, our enjoyment — and sure, there’s a lot of fun content online and it’s nice to see the game in perpetual motion instead of going bland and stale — but really it’s for that one thing which rules and ruins so much: money.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is now more of a business than it is a game.

With shark cards, which allow players to purchase GTA dollars to spend on cars or houses or whatever their avatars’ fake hearts desire, Rockstar have reportedly made over $500 million dollars. That means on top of all the physical game sales, a game which after four years remains near the top of the best sellers chart, they’ve absolutely shattered their projections. At least we can only assume so. That amount of money is unprecedented; $500 million in microtransactions means $500 million of real money spent on fake money. Absolutely crazy.

Is that necessarily Rockstar’s fault? You could certainly argue that no-one’s been pressured into buying these shark cards, that it’s been an individual’s choice to splurge their real, earned money on some fake money to buy a fake car. But the fact is Rockstar have pressured players, albeit in a very subtle, clever way. It’s gotten to the point where new online content is so expensive that there’s simply no choice but to purchase fake money if you actually want to use any of it and play the game the way they’re trying to make us play it.

Take, for example, new vehicles. Pretty much any new car is going to set you back at least $1 million pre-modifications, which will be at least another $150,000. In the latest ‘Smuggler’s Run’ update, there are a bunch of new vehicles which cost upwards of $2 million — but get this — you can’t even buy them without first purchasing a hanger which costs another $2 million!

Frankly, just the fact that selling a fully-modded supercar which retails at $750,000 only nets you $140,000 is egregious.

The real damaging thing here isn’t, oh dear, a bunch of gamers can’t afford a new fake car. It’s how greedy it’s made Rockstar, which worryingly looks to be setting a precedent for future releases. They can deny it all they want, but that’s what they are. They’re greedy, and that’s the only reason they’re releasing so much content.

Yes, they’ve made an incredible, expansive game, but they’ve ruined it by placing already satisfied monetary requirements above their customers’ enjoyment. They keep releasing these updates featuring new things to buy and new missions to complete, but they’ve made the balance between job payouts and content prices so astronomically disparate that’s it’s virtually impossible to buy any of it without either spending real money or cheating.

The game has become a grind. Sure you can mindlessly buzz around without playing with the new toys so tauntingly dangled before our noses, but it becomes very repetitive and essentially no longer fun to play, because anything else feels like work. It costs so much to become a CEO, or a motorcycle club president, or to buy a bunker or a hangar.

And then it costs a lot to buy the equipment you need to make any money by being these things. And then it takes a lot of not particularly fun, grinding hours to do stuff like steal shipments and sell them off — during which time other players can simply kill you and steal the money you’ve been working your ass off for (there was a little trick which allowed players to hop into an empty lobby to deliver these shipments but, sure enough, Rockstar patched it. It wasn’t even a cheat, guys.). If you are lucky enough to make $1 million, that might just be enough to buy a car.

Offering players new things to do is understandable as it gives a game repetition value, but Rockstar are now hiding beneath the guise of being ‘for the players’ when in reality, like so many rapacious corporations, they’re unequivocally in it for themselves. At the risk of dabbling momentarily in politics, this is capitalism beginning to falter. Out on the high street, an independent coffee house will put care into a cappuccino because they care about your business, but the moment Starbucks have ousted the competition with their deep pockets and stop having to actually earn our business over rivals, they stop giving a shit.

Rockstar probably do still give a shit, but not as much as they let on. They know people are invested, on the hook, and their heads have been turned by this green-making machine.

On face value there are perhaps more important things to get upset about in this day and age, but at the same time this is an issue with more import than just vexing a casual gamer. Peek behind the curtain and it’s the latest example of corporate greed subjugating genuine artistry and taking advantage of consumers.

Rockstar remain a brilliant game developer who I’m sure will continue to produce impressive titles, but where will the line be drawn? Will the future of gaming, like so many things, become bent on alienating its customer base as it descends indifferently into the lucrative abyss of microtransactions?

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