What a difference four years can make.
When Rockstar first released Grand Theft Auto Online in October 2013, it was easy to see the potential. Throwing 16 players into the same shared space, the mode had a little something for everyone. At its heart, players could grind through multiplayer shootouts and races to raise cash for new weapons, vehicles, and real estate. But beyond that, players had a wealth of other activities as well. Maybe your friends gathered for a base-jumping excursion, played a round of golf, or cruised the streets starting trouble with other players or robbing liquor stores. Early technical difficulties made getting too many of these activities a chore, but over time Rockstar stabilized the experience.
If a player just returned to GTA Online for the first time in years, they could be forgiven for hardly recognizing it. After dozens of free updates, the game has expanded in multiple directions to accommodate the many different play styles that have emerged in the community. Now, 30 players can roam together in one shared open world. Daredevils have a series of death-defying stunt races to enjoy, made both by Rockstar and the larger community. Those interested in criminal enterprises join a pre-existing organization or start one of their own to run guns, sell contraband, and smuggle illicit goods across Los Santos. Gearheads spend time and money tricking out cars with the deep customization options. Those with cinematic eyes create films with the Rockstar Editor. Players routinely roll through the city in weaponized vehicles, and the wealth of fashion items means you rarely come across two players with the same look.
Rockstar’s relentless work paid off. Remarkably, Grand Theft Auto V continues to appear in NPD sales charts every month. User engagement numbers for GTA Online also keep climbing, making it one of the most successful shared-world experiences of the console generation.
As Grand Theft Auto Online moves into its fifth year of service, I spoke with Rockstar director of design Imran Sarwar about the remarkable evolution of the shared world, why the studio shied away from creating single-player expansions for GTA V, and how the release of Red Dead Redemption II will impact the future of the popular mode.
Over the last four years, GTA Online has grown in so many directions that it services a lot of different play styles, from cooperative heists and illicit business ventures to competitive multiplayer and racing. Since its launch in 2013, how much of the content was pre-planned as a part of the grand vision and how much was determined by examining how players were engaging in the game?
We intentionally kept the initial concept fairly broad, which was to replicate as much of the Grand Theft Auto experience as we could in an online environment using the shared architecture of the world as the platform, adding some sort of permanent experience to conventional multiplayer modes. We had discussed the idea of doing heists and other more structured content, but our initial attempts at them were not very good. To be totally honest it did not begin very well at all. The launch was rocky, which we expected, but perhaps worse than we expected, and one of the first big innovations we had promised, Heists, were not looking like they would live up to our own standards and had to be completely redesigned from scratch, delaying them several times as we started and restarted various attempts to make them good enough. GTA online was slowly failing – and quickly losing players – right up until the middle of 2014. The updates were not interesting enough, and as a company, we did not realize how challenging it was going to be to have a team that essentially ran a content service, not make normal games.
Heists were the turnaround – along with improvements in the game’s core stability – they were a huge hit and gave us an understanding of the kind of complex missions that were possible. Using the information we gained from seeing how different players spent their time inside Online, we started developing new ideas that would deliver something for everyone. Businesses would cater to traditional GTA players but build on the cooperative mission gameplay we used for Heists. Bikers and Lowriders gave something to those who wanted to fully immerse themselves in the fiction of the world. The more comfortable we were pushing beyond the traditional GTA concepts and experimenting more freely, we were able to introduce things like Cunning Stunts, the Special Vehicle Races, and adversary modes like Power Play, Tiny Racers, or Slasher. These days our player numbers are bigger than ever and we have a range of gameplay to suit if not every GTA player, then at least a wide variety of them – we’ve also been improving the fundamentals of the game the entire time. A game on this scale will never be perfect, but it simply runs better, plays better, and has fewer other issues now than it ever has.
Given all the effort that’s gone into the game in the past four years, it’s one of our biggest regrets that we lost millions of players in that first year that have never experienced how much we have improved and added to the game since the early days.
Grand Theft Auto Online has proven itself a consistent destination for gamers, with GTA V continuing to stay in the Top 10 sales charts a jaw-dropping four years after its launch. To what do you most contribute its success?
We put that down to a combination of factors. At a fundamental level, there is this amazingly detailed, living open world that works for both a single-player story and a shared multiplayer experience. We put a huge amount of work into the single-player experience and have subsequently put a huge amount into the multiplayer experience. Both have been both pretty evolutionary and polished. The other real strength of GTA Online is the diversity of the gameplay in the world. You can treat it like a traditional GTA world and explore on your own, or take a friend to the movies or play a game of tennis. Then there is the wide range of relatively structured activities like classic missions or Heists, through to running a business or forming a biker gang or just attempting a few Freemode challenges. And of course, at any moment you can jump in with friends (or strangers) and invent something of your own – creating your own metagames using props inside the world, teaming up to do a series of convenience store robberies or just stopping traffic to create carnage. We love checking out the latest crazy videos when people discover some new way to play in the world.
What’s the most surprising or interesting thing you’ve seen the community do in the game?
It’s probably the limits to which people are pushing the Rockstar Editor and Director Mode to make movies. Some of the more abstract or visually playful movies we’ve seen are really pushing not just the limits of the Editor, but also expectations about what a game can provide to players. There is a huge range of creations, from homages to great films through to incredible stunt compilations that use the vast range of new props added over the last two years. We built these tools to give fans everything they needed to make amazing content, but the creative community has pushed the limits of what we thought the tools could do.
Related to this are the incredible communities within the broader player base that always continue to amaze us. An incredible example of this is the Biker MC’s of Los Santos and their different “chapters,” which live the life of biker gangs within the broader GTA Online world.
Another example is the stunting community, who dedicate massive amounts of time to perfecting insane stunts around Los Santos. This isn’t just landing an impressive jump (which is cool in its own right), this is linking together multiple parkour-style car and bike tricks from spot to spot, for one seamless line of tricks executed with deep levels of control. This sort of emergent gameplay and committed roleplaying always surprises and impresses. Another great example of a stunt is the “Liquor Hole” skydiving stunt, where players thread the needle by skydiving through the sign above the Liquor Hole store. That takes true dedication and skill.
With both GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar made excellent, dedicated single-player campaign-style expansions in Episodes from Liberty City and Undead Nightmare. Grand Theft Auto Online has integrated narrative elements to setting up criminal enterprises, but most of the tales generated from GTAO are more emergent in nature. Was it a tough call to move away from more scripted experiences or do you view this as a natural evolution of open-world design toward giving players more agency over their play experience?
No, it was not really a conscious decision, it’s just what happened. We would love to do more single-player add-ons for games in the future. As a company we love single-player more than anything and believe in it absolutely – for storytelling and a sense of immersion in a world, multiplayer games don’t rival single-player games. With GTA V, the single-player game was absolutely massive and very, very complete. It was three games in one. The next-gen versions took a year of everyone’s time to get right, then the online component had a lot of potential, but to come close to realizing that potential also sucked up a lot of resources. And then there are other games – in particular, Red Dead Redemption II. The combination of these three factors means for this game, we did not feel single-player expansions were either possible or necessary, but we may well do them for future projects. At Rockstar, we will always have bandwidth issues because we are perfectionists and to make huge complex games takes a lot of time and resources. Not everything is always possible, but we still love single-player open-world games more than anything. I don’t think you could make a game like GTA V if you did not like single-player games and trying to expand their possibilities!
For Rockstar fans saddened by the fact that GTA V didn’t receive story-focused single-player campaign expansions, what GTA Online content would you recommend they check out?
I’d recommend any of the updates that give you the chance to interact with characters from the main storyline – Lowriders puts you in touch with Lamar and his crew, Bikers has the Lost MC helping you set up shop, Lester helps facilitate Heists while Trevor makes a cameo appearance, and Agent 14 guides you through building bunker businesses in Gunrunning. But for the best combination of gameplay and additional character interaction you can’t go past the Smuggler’s Run update – not only are the missions a lot of fun, but Nervous Ron is still extremely nervous about having you as a business partner and he hosts a whole new episode of Blaine County Radio Community Hour on Blaine County Talk Radio.
How does your design approach change when you must constantly factor in cooperative and adversarial play as opposed to creating single-player experiences?
There’s a technical challenge simply because the number of variables increases exponentially, especially when you’re dealing with a cooperative experience on the same level as a single-player game. This was one of the reasons Heists were initially so difficult to get right. Every player had to feel like they were having a unique experience inside the overall mission, rather than just feeling like you’re a backup gunner along for the ride. Adversary Modes are a lot of fun to design because you are dialling back the scripted experience in favour of literal games. We take our inspiration for those from all different kinds of places, from traditional shooter games to American football to darts!
Many online adversarial games stick with a handful of game modes. GTA Online offers dozens. Which has proven most popular with players over the years?
Of the earlier modes, Slasher and Deadline are still really popular, alongside classics like Hunting Packs and Cross the Line, which still has a dedicated following. Every Adversary Mode finds a dedicated fan base over time.
Adversary Modes often involve asymmetrical gameplay, which lets us get really creative and experiment with what players have to do in the mode – or do to each other – to win. Hasta La Vista is a great early example: players on highly manoeuvrable bicycles being hunted down by powerful but unwieldy semi-trailers in the Los Santos river basin. Before Adversary Modes, there were the more typically symmetrical Versus Modes, but Adversary Modes turn the player’s expectations on their head, giving them the chance to take a break from their Lowrider car meets or criminal empires and take a step into another world within this world.
One of my favourite things to do in GTA Online is checked out the clothes other players are wearing. The myriad fashion options for self-expression are deeper than any other game, and Rockstar continues to expand this with each content expansion. Do you have a dedicated team that constantly works on new fashion offerings, or does it happen more organically?
It’s a bit of both. We have a team that is constantly researching and designing new clothing for all of our games. For GTA Online, that means being constantly on the lookout for appropriate clothes from specific subcultures or from the latest fashion trends. We try to ensure there’s an even balance of male and female clothing options with every update.
Rockstar made the conscious decision to not charge players for large content drops like Gunrunning, Import/Export, Further Adventures in Finance and Felony, etc. Yet we still see criticisms that too much of the new content in GTA Online is aimed toward high rollers who either spend hundreds of hours in the game or invest in Shark Cards. What is your response to those complaints?
Every single evolution ever made in the GTA franchise has been treated, at the time, with derision and criticism by sections of the fanbase, including moving the game to 3D, having a talking protagonist, having an African-American protagonist, making the Episodes, and having thee playable characters. GTA Online is no different. GTA has stayed relevant because we are obsessed by continuing to evolve and iterate, but whenever we do that, people don’t like it – so all we can do is make what we believe are great experiences.
With GTA Online, we decided to give our players access to all updates for free, because it kept our players together and allows to make their own choices about what they want from each update and in what order. Everyone has access to everything and no one is forced to pay a lump sum for items they may not want or need. With both GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, we sold DLC and unfortunately both times, it fractured the audience and helped to kill the games much faster than they deserved. With GTA Online, if there’s content people don’t like or want, they can simply ignore it and do something else, while still being in the same core world as everyone else. For us, this model works and has let us keep expanding the experience. Given the huge amount of stuff we have given absolutely for free, including Heists and all the modes, and all the clothes which cost almost nothing, I really don’t think we can be accused of gouging the player base – people can happily play and never spend a dollar, aside from buying the game.
In addition to those regular large updates, we are always offering additional bonuses and discounts for players, which not only exposes them to fun new items and modes they may not have considered owning or playing, but it means that simply by jumping into the game in the weeks prior to an update, you can quickly earn enough cash to buy the items you want when a new update arrives. The vast bulk of our millions of players are playing their way to the items they need. Forcing people to buy regular updates the size of something like Heists or Gunrunning would almost certainly elicit similar pushback to the criticism we receive for the way GTA Online works, and would definitely not have given us the ability to deliver content at this level of quality to millions of players in the same way.
How much longer do you plan to add new expansions and updates to GTA Online? Will this live on in tandem with Red Dead Redemption II when it launches next year?
We don’t yet have a fixed end point in mind, but the rollout of updates may change a little in order to encourage players to try Red Dead Redemption II when it launches. It would be great to have players splitting time between two incredible worlds, but we shall see how things evolve. One of the enjoyable things about working on a project like this is that you can iterate quickly, and change and evolve plans fairly quickly too, so we don’t have to be as clear in our plans as with other projects.