Honor Among Thieves: Fixing Grand Theft Auto Online

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Michael De Santa: Now to keep a low profile and get on with our lives.

Trevor Philips: As friends.

Michael: What, do I have a choice?

Trevor: No, not really.

Michael: Alright, then. As flawed, awful, totally uncomfortable, poorly matched friends. Absolutely.

Grand Theft Auto V is probably my favorite game of the last console generation. I bought it twice, once for PlayStation 3 and once for Xbox One, invested (yes, invested) hundreds of dollars into the online component. But after nearly seven years online, there's a lot to fix, with the constant weight of additions overlooking some basic updates that are very necessary. When World Of Warcraft launched in 2004, it changed Blizzard to the point they were able to start BlizzCon and make over a billion dollars per year, leading to their purchase by Activision. After seven expansions, the game has held a stranglehold on an incredible 62 percent of the market. I can see Rockstar transitioning to primarily online games, they've already eschewed single-player downloadable content in favor of online updates for both Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption II.


I wrote once before about the direction of Rockstar's creative efforts, but this isn't really about that, it's more about the way Rockstar North can make changes to the game in order to revitalize and futureproof the game.

THE SERVERS

OK, so the servers aren't a huge problem, but there's a ton of room for improvement. I think there's a simple way to balance the servers out, but it would take an incredible reimagining of how the game is played. As of now, the game has no discernible rhyme or reason when it comes to the servers, with level 9 players fighting against level 1000 players, some of whom have spent thousands of dollars on vehicles and weapons, and most of whom have spent thousands of hours on missions. This is why I propose a three-level filtering system: level one to filter by level, level two to filter by time spent and level three to filter by money spent. By doing this, it encourages even play and discourages griefing, in which more advantaged players bully less powerful players. It's not a cure-all, but it would be a major step to balancing out gameplay.


THE MAP

The map of Los Santos and Blaine County is massive, but you wouldn't know it based on where most of the gameplay is. Los Santos is the main city, as should be expected, but Paleto Bay, Chumash, Rockford Hills, Mirror Park and Sandy Shores are largely ignored unless you choose to move mission hubs to that area. These were major locations in the story mode, but don't matter nearly as much in online play. Considering the updates that have been released, it's baffling to realize most of these locations are all but unused. Chumash is the stand-in for Malibu, Paleto Bay is the stand-in for Morro Bay, Rockford Hills is the stand-in for Beverly Hills, Mirror Park is the stand-in for Echo Park and Sandy Shores is based off Desert Shores, but these locales were ignored when it came to expansions that made sense for the areas, like the Beach Bum, High Life, Executives And Other Criminals, I'm Not A Hipster and Gunrunning updates, respectively. The arcades, nightclubs and clubhouses have brought a lot of depth to the world, especially to the ports of Elysian Island and the streets of Vinewood, but the rest of the map has been ignored. Although the temptation to do more, more, more is always present, I feel there's plenty of potential in what's already there.


THE GAMEPLAY

My main issue with GTAO is the lack of togetherness the game seems to have. Rather than having a family of organized crime all trying to build the empire, there are 24 usually competing entities that randomly attack each other. Griefing is all too common, but I think there's a way to fix this. Aside from the changes mentioned above, lobbies should be filled by gang affiliations as well as the server rules proposed above. This was a very early addition to the game that allowed players to add each other to groups but never was really expanded on. I think this should be revamped to allow no more than four members of a gang in a lobby at one time. In theory, this would allow six gangs to operate in a lobby at a time, aiming toward similar goals. To this end, limiting how many CEOs/Presidents are active in each game diversifies those teams and goals, The changes to the map don't do much if you can't interact. As of now, there's no real reason to invite players to any of the owned locations, but I think there's a way to change that. Adding level bonuses for friendly interactions with other players encourages honor among thieves. There's a rudimentary system letting you know when players are getting too violent, but keeping track of this in the game would be interesting. One of my favorite GTAO memories is encountering a lower-level player, helping him escape a robbery, then playing golf. It was a simple, unrehearsed, unscripted event that was very human. GTAO has so many chances to do this and I think another way to do this is by removing players' businesses and residences from the map. Running into another player and having to decide if this player is friend or foe is a really fun gameplay element that could be more than a shootout. Hiding those properties also adds a fun wrinkle of finding each other's nightclubs and arcades more organic and could lead to possible events like home and business invasions if developed correctly.

I've had a lot of fun over the years in GTAO, but it's time to grow into the console MMORPG this game could truly be. As we approach the seven-year anniversary, I hope we can see many more.


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