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The "Finance & Felony" of 'Grand Theft Auto Online'

The Micro-Transaction Plague

A generously honest description of life in Los Santos.

The single most divisive feature of Grand Theft Auto V isn't in its graphics or its gameplay; it isn't the unforgiving ferocity of the San Andreas law enforcement or the relentless repetition of overplayed pop classics blasting out of passing car stereos; it isn't even the offensive standards of driving among Los Santos' motorist community. The fable of deceit and corruption that forms the game's story portrays a faithful overture to the cold-hearted lust for financial profit that riddles GTA V's online component like a communal illness that just keeps coming back to ruin everyone's day. Grand Theft Auto Online is GTA V's packaged multiplayer mode, which piggybacks off the name of its numbered counterpart before careering into the distance, laughing hysterically as it spirals off on its own power-mad tangent. The veterans amongst Rockstar's audience will remember the good ol' days, when popping open the box of a new instalment of the Grand Theft Auto series would be affectionately accompanied by a complex sequence of button mashes that bestows every locked feature right from the off. A complete turnaround from the glory years, Grand Theft Auto Online treats its players like employees as it tasks you with endless hours of hard work swallowing wayward bullets like pills and completing menial tasks of debilitating repetition before it finally submits to you some slight reprieve, often in the form of some disproportionate new resources that are only marginally superior to what you had before. Grand Theft Auto's latest online manifestation is less like a care-free, socially desensitised RPG treating its players to some irresponsible de-stressing, and more like a sociopathic chairman of a sweatshop dangling food for a starving workforce—it uses a carrot-and-stick method to put you to some serious work.

If you tear aware the deep-seated outer layer of high-budget marketing and immense financial investment, GTA Online's insides look a lot like a conventional MMO rather than the usual mashup of stress-free cathartic gaming. New players will find themselves at the bottom of the chain in an open-ended online cityscape, and once they've exhausted the deceptively story-driven introduction, they're dropped into this vast world of psychotic, aimless lunatics with more GTA dollars than sense. The immediate impression I certainly got having made it this far in the game's progression is the inconceivable degree of murderous intent exhibited by almost anyone else in the game besides me; even when harmlessly nestled in the side of the road rifling through my pause screen might I be abruptly ripped from my options menu to find myself catapulted into the sky by a cackling Italian teenager in an ambiguous orange anti-personnel vehicle.

That isn't to say I don't appreciate the immediate ambience GTA Online provides; I honestly do enjoy the tense anticipation in deciphering whether or not that heavily-modified gunship passing overhead is set to remorselessly blow me off the face of the Earth. Limited as my lifespan may be in this eternally hazardous realm, it's Rockstar's operational response to the game's success that really shatters the immersion. Truly capitalist in nature, success within the game is dependent on players taking one of two paths: either turn days to weeks playing day & night until you have enough money to buy something useful, or invest your real-life money into the game's persistent micro-transaction system. No matter your choices, GTA Online gives you nothing for free. The extent of work needed to afford the good stuff is so severe as to make micro-transactions a genuinely proportionate alternative, and to add work to labour, the cost of those optional purchases can go so far as to exceed the already extortionate price of the game itself. So extreme is the demand for GTA Dollars that some rather creative methods of exploitation among players have emerged. To trick the game's kicking of idle players away from their screens, for instance, the sly among the game's participants have taken to leaning their controllers on their own weight to farm post-match reward money as they automatically cycle through the matchmaking system. Naturally, those willing to invest their real-life cash may find no obstacle in Los Santos' apparent inflation, but for less hardcore players like myself, amassing the funds to up and buy a massive orbital-capable military facility with accompanying mobile command centre & armoured sky fortress is as unachievable in the game as it is in real life. Suffice it to say, Rockstar have been keenly manufacturing more and more content to shoehorn into the game, and each one has indeed been free in the conventional sense, but once loaded, players are expected to spend hours upon hours of their time amassing the funds to even access the meat of this new material whilst helplessly staring at it from a distance. What's more, the game's attitude towards showcasing these new DLC packs is almost sadistic as it pesters you at every turn with another mid-game advert, notification or phone call, urging you to quickly pop off to the property website and buy the sprawling new underground bunker complex (the game readily allows me to insure my car and pay my utility bills, but nothing can be done to sue Agent 14 for telephone harassment).

I won't pretend like I don't enjoy bumbling down the motorway of an online-enabled Los Santos in my rusty 4x4, showing off the ludicrously expensive punk shirt and ripped jeans I worked so hard for. Frankly, having other trigger-happy players roaming both land and sky in their various instruments of war brings an unpredictable, if surreal, sense of life to the game. What's more, GTA Online has an overwhelming variety of match types and content to occupy your time with, but somewhere down the line, Rockstar clearly adopted the MMORPG model in the games’ continued development, which is a far cry from the Grand Theft Auto experience gamers have come to cherish. I'm not alone in finding it pretty darn disconcerting playing a highly competitive game that lends a mountainous advantage to those with thicker wallets. By trying so intently to create and cater for a dedicated MMO community, the series sits in an uncomfortable position between two vastly different worlds, and because of this, Rockstar's third attempt at a truly online Grand Theft Auto is as lovable as Marmite. A bold move indeed; the subject is still objectively divisive amongst the gaming community (a light browse of the comments on Rockstar's social media posts will testify to that) and Grand Theft Auto Online finds itself struggling to juggle the needs of both conventional console gamers and serious MMO careerists.

Of course, Rockstar is just one cog in the colossus of video game manufacture that follows the pattern; EA Games, for example, under severe fire with their re-established Star Wars Battlefront series, which also hides its nicer features behind locked doors with money-shaped keyholes. My personal culprit of choice is Konami with Metal Gear Solid V (here we go, lads). Deviating slightly, micro-transactions by Konami's standards are honest and inoffensive within the main game, offering little more than protection from other players or some nostalgic character skins, but the game also taunts you with higher-tier unlockables that are nigh-on unachievable to the average player. Metal Gear Online 3, however, is MGSV’s online component, and once again players are faced with ludicrously extortionate micro-transaction opportunities on cosmetic features that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Carrot-and-stick micro-transactions have become a standard procedure for companies in need of a little extra income, and in most cases, these aren’t much more than aesthetic pleasures or nostalgic nuances, but must we submit to a universal "pay-to-win" conformity when devs see high demand? One might argue that with the super-charged evolution of the games industry comes the need for greater funding, but if that extra funding has to be blackmailed out of us at the expense of sportsmanship among players, perhaps now’s the time to unite against a corrupt dystopian future for our beloved community.

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