Backlog pieces cover media that I’ve always meant to play or watch, but for some reason have never experienced, until now. These articles will often be a blend of both review and commentary, but not wholly either. A verdict may be rendered, but more as an examination of quality weighted against reputation.

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I finally got around to playing GTA Online. I have thoughts, but first:
Some Backstory

Rockstar Games released their magnum opus, Grand Theft Auto V, five years ago this September. Since then, it’s generated well over $6 billion in revenue for publisher Take Two, and sold north of 95 million copies as of May 2018. That’s enough to make it the third highest selling video game of all time behind Minecraft and Tetris, and easily the most profitable – due in no small part to Shark Card microtransactions, but I’ll get to that.

I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there, waiting in line for four hours outside of GameStop for the GTA V midnight release with at least a hundred other anxious patrons. We stood and waited in the waning hours of a musky Virginia evening, until at last we were allowed inside to collect our pre-orders. I watched grown men clamber over one another, yelping and wild, throwing their money at pasty-faced teenagers, who buckled behind their registers. I saw them drag their deluxe editions across the parking lot in a frenzy, and screech away in a cloud of smoke to waste away the remainder of the night in the electric hue of their televisions. I was there, Gandalf, when the courage of men failed.

Alright, enough of that.

The midnight release was fairly routine, actually. The hype surrounding GTA V was stratospheric in its enormity. Everyone wanted the game. And people turned out to buy it. Until September 2013, Activision had been dominating yearly sales-charts with each new release of Call of Duty – since Modern Warfare 2 broke records by earning $310 million in it’s first 24 hours, each yearly release seemed poised to surpass the last. Black Ops released in 2010 to $360 million in 24 hours, Modern Warfare 3 launched to $400 million in 2011, and Black Ops II had a $500 million launch in 2012. It took each of these games over two weeks to cross $1 billion in total revenue. These are astounding numbers, and clearly evident of the market dominance that CoD had during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

But that was about to change.

Activision was in a tough spot after Black Ops II. Infinity Ward, which was at one point their premier studio, had been gutted beyond recognition after the departure of studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella – the two men responsible for CoD in the first place. The studio had two years to deliver something new after MW3, to build it from the ground up (conceptually), and hopefully start a new sub-series under the CoD banner. So the pressure was on, but Rockstar had been teasing bits and pieces of a new Grand Theft Auto for months prior to release in 2013 – as is their MO.

While Infinity Ward was showing off the artificial intelligence used for the fucking fish in their new CoD, Ghosts, Rockstar refrained from the exposition circuit and instead released new trailers for Grand Theft Auto V, and the exciting new game mode: Grand Theft Auto Online. It was unprecedented.

Both Red Dead Redemption and GTA 4 had online components, but now players could form gangs, stage heists, own apartments and garages and hangars to store vehicles. They could accrue their millions in dirty money and treat the hyper-realistic Los Santos as the digital playground of their criminal dreams.

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The hype paid off – sort of.

If you remember, the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One were both unveiled and released in 2013. They were new and powerful, but expensive. In a year of games that saw Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us release within several months of one another, the average consumer was content to let the year play out as the swan song for the seventh console generation. What better way to cap it off than with the most popular video game franchise of all time: Call of Duty Grand Theft Auto?

Both titanic franchises released in the fourth quarter of the year, but GTA V’s launch was unprecedented. So much so, that no video game or entertainment product of any kind has surpassed it since. It launched on September 17, 2013 and within 24 hours grossed $800 million. In one day it earned $300 million more than the launch day of BlopsII, and within three goddamn days it earned $1 billion in worldwide sales – something that had taken every single CoD release over two weeks to accomplish. A truly stunning opening, by an equally stunning product.

Metacritic (the Rotten Tomatoes of the video game industry), still has the game at a solid 97/100 aggregate score. So, not only was it a massively selling product, but a massively well-received product.

Rockstar and Take Two had retaken their throne at the top of the video game industry, and haven’t relented since, having sold over 80 million more copies worldwide since those record-breaking first three days.

Activision bowed out in November of 2013 with Ghosts, widely considered to be the game that severed Call of Duty from its prestige status. Ghosts sold well, yes, and Activision was quick to point out that $1 billion worth of the game was shipped to retailers on launch day, but the game itself didn’t actually sell (as in, to consumers) $1 billion. Sales were actually down compared to Black Ops II, which Activision was quick to blame on a shifting marketplace with the release of the PS4 and Xbox One – uncertainty which Rockstar avoided handily.

So, after such an impressive debut and dozens of hours of content bursting from the single-player campaign, and one of the greatest open world environments ever created, the world and all its gamers sat eagerly for the GTA Online servers to go live. That’s when the true fun would begin.


An Underwhelming Launch

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We had about two weeks with GTA V‘s single-player. We had to learn the map of San Andreas and the Los Angeles-inspired Los Santos – all the nooks and crannies, the hiding spots, the racetracks, the Ammu-Nations, the stores, stunt-jumps, the cars. Everything. And we did. We prepared ourselves for October 1, 2013, when GTA Online would go live.

The trailer promised fighter jets blazing past the windows of high-rise apartments, and gang warfare in the streets below. The whole map to use at our discretion, and the promise of participating in the campaign’s stellar heists with our close friends.

So what happened?

The servers went up and it was pandemonium. Players would get kicked as soon as they joined a session, glitches abounded, money and progress would be erased between missions or play sessions. The scope was there, obviously. The whole map was open to explore and contact-missions were plentiful. There were races and deathmatches, spontaneous mayhem and tense police chases. But after a week or so, we wondered: Is this it? Missing from Online was heists, or any elaborate and well-paying mission. Money glitches were common, and so were the people willing to exploit them. People would suddenly appear to have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal with no feasible way of having attained it.

Money was hard to come by, and so was the fun.

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Rockstar was planning on releasing new downloadable content via free updates. Beachbums released in late 2013, as well as the Deathmatch & Race Creators update in December. Good, more customization, but no heists. Aside from some snow around Christmas-time, and a rock-solid meta, the lack of deep gameplay was apparent. I didn’t know anyone to play with on PS3, so it wasn’t long until I quit GTA Online altogether. In fact, around the first time Los Santos saw snowfall, I was introduced to one of the more heinous pastimes of bored GTA Online players: Greifing.

Then in its infancy, GTA Online had bored players running amuck with their ill-ill-gotten glitch-money by buying high-level gear and rampaging against weaker players – especially solo players.

So I left frustrated and bored, wondering why I never bought the game for Xbox 360, and whether or not we’d ever see heists. I figured that once more content was released, I’d hop back in to check it out. And I did, briefly, once the game was re-released on November 18, 2014 for eighth-gen consoles. I bought a copy for my Xbox One, hopped on over a weekend with a friend, hit level 16, saw that aside from cars and matchmaking updates nothing had changed, and set it down again.


Four Years Later

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Here’s where I get to the “why” of my post today. The backstory was necessary, I promise. Because since I last set GTA Online down, there have been a plethora of industry-changing updates to the game. I’m not kidding. GTA Online saw regular updates and the implementation of Shark Cards, which – when purchased by the player with real money – grant their in-game avatar a certain amount of the game’s digital currency. Try and find a current multiplayer game that doesn’t have microtransactions of some sort – it’s impossible.

The reason that GTA V is such a sales-behemoth is due in large part to Shark Cards and exorbitantly expensive in-game status-symbols. What you own is what you are in GTA Online. You can now become a powerful CEO, VIP, Motorcycle Club President, Gunrunner, and . . . Club Owner? Yes, Club Owner! There are flying cars, fighter jets, and flying motorcycles. There are anti-aircraft vehicles, stealth-craft, radar jammers, and DeLoreans. Oh, and heists.

The content that has been added for players to grind for is astronomical. The barrier to success in GTA Online is money – plain and simple. The high-level gear costs millions of in-game dollars, and is required for many of the dlc’s material. There’s no cost to sign up for the new content, other than buying a retail copy of GTA V, but within the game you need to fork over serious cash to even participate.

So, understand this – it’s either grind pissant-level missions for $10-$20 thousand, or pay real money and get up to $8 million in an instant. That may sound absurd, but Rockstar has managed to emulate the status-seeking culture it so effectively satirizes in the game’s presentation. GTA V is a property that has earned $6 billion in revenue since its launch. Even if the game remained at the initial retail price of $60 US, its 95 million copies sold would only equate to $5.7 billion. Today, a new copy of GTA V will set you back $30. Trust me, the microtransactions are transactioning.

And it shows in the game world. Visiting any shop in the game will shock you with the exorbitant pricing. Thousands of dollars for haircuts and other customization options, with newer content being priced higher with every release. Cars that costs over $4 million, a jet-powered assault-motorcycle that costs millions of dollars. Mobile command centers, essential for certain businesses: Millions of dollars.

Working as a CEO or a Club Owner will net you at maximum a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s assuming you have a solid crew to play with and after the cost of running the operations to begin with. But, it is still possible to grind for your millions, even playing solo – which is what I did over the last week.

But, aside from all my griping over microtransactions, it’s apparent that there’s never been more content to explore in the game. There’s more of everything: Missions, races, vehicles, customizables – it’s deeper and more fully realized than it’s ever been, and it keeps getting bigger.


A Tale of Grinding and Griefing

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I hopped back into GTA Online and decided, once and for all, that I would commit myself to the game. I’d spent ages on Reddit and the Fandom Wiki studying survival guides and the payout-algorithms for missions. I did all the requisite homework as to how the game has come to operate in my absence.

Some things changed radically, but one fundamental truth reared its ugly head in every public play-session: Griefers.

For those unfamiliar with griefing, it boils down to this: A particularly deranged and undoubtedly lonely individual sees fit to assert their dominance in a game-world as compensation for the lackluster or embarrassing set of circumstances in which they live in the real world. If you’ve seen the World of Warcraft episode of South Park, griefers are the dude with the wrist-brace, alone in a barren apartment, suffering the cheeto-dust air and guzzling energy drinks until inducing kidney failure.

They come in all shapes and sizes, but their motives and motifs are the same. They have obtained an advantage in a game-world, either by grinding away their days and nights or by paying real-world money via microtransactions, and abuse that “power” on players of lesser status – namely by killing them repeatedly without warrant.

And that’s what I experienced.

I started slowly, booting up GTA Online in an Invite-Only Session – which means I would have the entire world to explore on my own. And that’s what I did to reassimilate myself into the meta. I relearned the cell-phone, the inventory menu, the missions, the driving, and jumped from level 16 to level 45 in a few days of solo-grinding.

And make no mistake, it was grinding. Sweaty armpits, red-eyed grinding. I repossessed cars, sold drugs, fought off rival gangs, and once I had the requisite funding, got a high-rise apartment and better guns and cars. I saved up to unlock VIP work, and would alternate between high-yield missions and VIP missions until I’d saved up my first million, then bought an office building to become a CEO. I’d accomplished so much in only a week, playing off and on and never skimping on vehicle upgrades and weapon modifications. I wanted to do it right. I knew that soon I’d be smuggling guns and drugs and cars, owning nightclubs and a yacht. The allure of all the game had to offer had consumed me, glazed over my eyes and focused my efforts in a single direction – toward wealth.

What a fucking rush. Even playing solo.

But once I was a CEO I knew that I’d have to switch to a public session to participate in all business deals. That’s the catch. In order to truly succeed as a CEO, as the President of a Motorcycle Club, as a NightClub Owner – you have to throw yourself at the mercy of the public and hope like hell that some level 940 player doesn’t insert the noses of his fleet of fighter-jets so far up your ass that your face could melt steel beams.

I threw myself at their mercy. I was wrong to do so.

I’d spent a fairly decent amount of time leveling up, raising my stat-levels and fine-tuning my skill. I was nothing, not even a minor nuisance to the aforementioned level 940 player.

My first mission as a CEO in a public session started well enough. As a CEO you can’t hide yourself from other players, but you can recruit them and pay them to help you complete missions. It’s a paltry sum compared to what they’d earn by killing you outright, but some people – some – are decent in their hearts.

After assembling a small crew of associates to help me deliver a package of illicit goods and turn a profit, Mr. 940 flew in like the angel of death and obliterated us. Time was running out, we had to deliver the package soon or we would fail to make the sale. So we spawned, not far from where we’d died, and 940 made another pass, killing all of us in a bombing run. Several of us tried to fight back, others ran (myself included), but the breadth of his destruction was inescapable.

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The mission was failed after several more attacks.

I’ve since tried a few more missions solo, in public sessions, but have often encountered the same problem. Griefers, enabled by wealth and tools of destruction (dubbed “grief-machines” by the community), make succeeding in the game an almost unbearable nuisance if they cannot be avoided.

I’m teleported back to my time as a solo player in October of 2013, with only a handgun and a few grand to my name. Those that didn’t accrue wealth quickly back then were punished by griefers. Those that would grind the hardest and the longest and obtained the best materials would occasionally devolve into a madman prowling the streets and skies of Los Santos.

So in many ways, no, the game hasn’t changed. There’s more to do, more to see and more to buy, but at its core the game remains a satirical slant on basic American idealism. It’s an incredibly potent capitalism simulator, and an intriguing element of the philosophical debate over which influences which, art or life.


The Verdict

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I’m still hooked. I can’t help it. I want the money and the cars and the yacht. I refuse to pay for them with Shark Cards, out of both principle and the fact I have bills to pay. In many ways I regret not sticking with it over the years, but I’m glad to have so much available right off the bat. It isn’t really that much once you examine it, though. There’s blatant repition and the meta is only as deep as you engage with it – drive, shoot, buy, steal, and watch TV. But what a product for $30.

As it stands as a cultural landmark, GTA V and GTA Online are impossibly well-realized. Rockstar hasn’t had to release a game in five years, surviving exlusively on the sales revenue of GTA V. Microtransactions are now a staple in the games-industry, and that isn’t changing any time soon. The game is proof-positive that the way forward is through both multiplayer-online, and in-game stores, whether we like it or not.

It’s fun, yes. Still fun, I should say. After five years, multiple releases, and continued support, there’s never been more to keep you occuppied or to spend your GTA$ on. But after experiencing heists – which are engaging and lucrative – and suffering the still too-spongey input and wonky car-physics, I’m left asking after all this time the same exact question.

Is this it? After every lost connection, grind session, and rage quit, is it still just cars and guns and money?

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Yes. Wonderfully so. It’s the untamed primal aspects of our collective psyche, blood-soaked and wild-eyed, driving supercars in the slanted shadows of skyscrapers in a flash of violence and sex. It’s both corrupt and pure, and is absolutely worth playing again and again.

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