Not everyone who plays video games on the regular enjoys the treadmill that some call "the grind." It's not an easy to define feature, either. Some MMOs infamously employ "the grind" as a quest that requires you to kill X amount of statically respawning enemies, with the amount oftentimes being large and time-consuming. More recent games employ it in different ways, such as replaying the same mission or quest in order to obtain more of the same resource, such as Orcs Must Die! Unchained, Warframe, and Grand Theft Auto Online.
Personally, I can enjoy a good grind. I'm not too big on Massive Multiplayer Online games, but I've gotten a fair good amount of hours in Warframe, and for the longest time GTA Online was an enjoyable romp for me as well. And that's kind of funny, because I've always felt on a personal level that whomever was mostly in charge of maintaining the infamous Online portion of GTAV didn't seem to care all that much about the players as long as they obediently played the game and maybe occasionally bought some Shark Cards.
With what happened recently to a large amount of players, I felt the time was ripe to explore why Rockstar doesn't seem to care. Why is it that not only I, but so many others on various social media express that they feel like just a number to Rockstar Games, yet continue to play GTA Online? And what is it exactly that they have been enduring? Considering the amounts of DLC the game has put out so far after launch, the prevailing complaint can't be lack of support, can it?
The MoneyIt's a complicated problem, existing around a very simple system. There is only one resource that matters in GTA Online, and it's GTA Bucks, or GTA$. You buy weapons, ammo, vehicles, yachts, properties and even business ventures with it. It is the cornerstone that provides you access to all the new content that comes out for the game, at no initial cost to you, as long you own a copy of GTAV. If you have the benjamins to pay for it, you can enjoy the content.
To obtain this valuta seems eerily similar on the surface to premium currency in other online games. Except, those games usually have a side currency for some of the content that is largely (or sometimes solely) earned by playing the game, while the premium currency for the large part can only be obtained by exchanging some of your real life money for it. GTA$ is a unified currency that represents both of these, meaning that earning this currency should be as equally viable as purchasing it for real money.
In a cynical way, this is actually true. The new content requires exuberant amounts of GTA$, with every new DLC seemingly costing more than the last one, further devaluing the GTA$ currency. Much of the newer content usually requires 1 million GTA$ on up, with it not being shy as some parts outright require 6 to 8 million. Compare this to payouts from missions and business ventures, which tend to stagnate around a profit of 80,000$ per 20 minutes. To earn more would require better organizing with friends or associates, whom then only earn a minor fee every few minutes while the large profit goes to the leader or "CEO."
On the other hand, players can also purchase Shark Cards with their real money to skip that hassle and immediately gain more currency. But seeing as how the most expensive Shark Card costs about 120% what the original game costs and only earns you about 8 million in GTA$, it should be obvious that the value proposition is completely off the hook. Just to write that out in full, the Megalodon Shark Card would cost me €74.99 while the game itself costs €59.99, at the time of writing.
That GTA Online DLC certainly has to be worth it to justify such a price tag or investment of time, right?
The ContentThere are generally three base angles that the content can be split up from. First off you have the surface level "toys," by which I mean guns, clothing, cars, boats, airplanes, and helicopters.
This part of the content is pretty straightforward. Rockstar frequently announces new weapons and vehicles, oftentimes accompanied by other types of content at the same time. You go to the right store or go to the in-game's faux-internet and order from there. Usually it's the vehicles that tend to rake the largest price tag, with some vehicles easily reaching up to the 4 million range on no merit other than their design and brand name. They're straightforward moneysinks, though it seems Rockstar does take the time to make sure most of them are properly balanced. Though there are always some cars that clearly outperform others, especially the ones in the slightly cheaper price range.
The second type of content is missions. These range from fun combat modes to races that have gotten quite crazier as time goes on. Neither mode particularly suffers from exuberant balancing issues that skill couldn't largely have compensated for. Combat missions usually are PvP and most of the time involve predetermined sets of weapons, though that can be made an exception with custom missions. Races are a little bit more iffy, as some races offer the option for players to bring their own car, assuming it's in the right class. When upgraded, they'll almost always outperform the default options provided. But again, skill is still a factor in these races and a horrible miscalculation can kick you right back to last place and leave you out of a chance for first place forever. That said, the payout for these missions tends to not be that great, with none of them rivaling the potential profits that business ventures can provide.
Business venturesAs the third type of content, these businesses are the most egregious example of where the content becomes cyclical and almost exploitative.
It starts with becoming a CEO, where buying a business from Maze Bank enables you to purchase a Cargo and Vehicle Warehouse. Special Cargo missions let you purchase illegal goods and sell them for a profit, with profits rising when sold in bulk. Vehicle Warehouses in turn enable the Import/Export missions, where you source vehicles for free but end up paying for any damages. Once a buyer is found for these cars, you can invest varying amounts of money in order to raise your end-profit once sold.
Motorcycle Gangs introduce a new mechanic in the shape of businesses. After buying a clubhouse, the owner can purchase up to five small businesses that each produce a different illegal good, ranging from drugs to counterfeit money. These business require resupplies frequently, which can be done through missions or simply coughing up more GTA$ for it.
The business with the most content, and coincidentally the one requiring the most money, are the Bunkers at time of writing. Priced between 1.1 and 4 million GTA$, the Bunker serves as the ultimate tool to survive a nuclear blast, doubling as a business where staff can be hired to make weapons that can be resold akin to Motorcycle Gang Businesses or to develop upgrades for select weapons and cars. To make use of these upgrades, you will be required to purchase and outfit a Mobile Command Center. The MCC is a semi-trailer with a price range between 1.2 and 2.7 million and for an additional fee can be equipped with bays that will allow you to modify the aforementioned guns and weapons. These modifications come with their own costs, of course. And they're not cheap, either.
Of all the businesses, the most reliable one that is also profitable is arguably Import/Export. Players with sufficient driving skill can make about 80,000 GTA$ per sale, with a cooldown of 20 minutes.
The Gripes With the EconomyThe problem with all of this isn't that apparent. The first few business ventures I've mentioned aren't that costly, though the latter ones certainly are. But all of them offer this fallible proposition that they're all businesses that will allow you to earn back your investment. Short of Import/Export, most of these business have a terrible turnaround in regards to money earned through time investment. In turn, this only makes the Shark Cards more alluring, which are on their own an already terrible investment.
A €75 Shark Card at best will pay for one or two pieces of DLC, assuming you ignore all of the new cars that came out as well. You can buy an in-game Yacht for €75 that barely does anything (and I know it doesn't, I own the most expensive one) and is a hassle to either reach or leave from. Simple shirts and other clothing easily cost you five figure numbers in GTA$ for no real reason and any car upgrades that work through increments are not additive.
But what's the alternative? Even if you get together with a team of three highly skilled friends and go hard on the most profitable business venture, you still barely earn enough yourself to unlock some of the content. Meanwhile, your three friends are being shafted in terms of time as well, as they only earn about 5,000 GTA$ every few minutes, an amount that gets reduced every time the CEO gets killed. If you sell specific sets of cars in Import/Export, they maybe get a larger kickback, which is still hardly worth it. And did I mention that if anyone gets a network hiccup, they disconnect and possibly ruin the mission? In fact, if you Export four cars and someone disconnects (and GTAO's netcode is very notorious for it) the car assigned to them explodes. Any invested money in that car is gone.
What's worse, every single person who endures this grind is practically laughed at by those who found a better alternative.
HackersAn infamous sort, hackers have been prevalent in online games ever since someone found a way to walk around in mid air by executing a simple line of code that they insert in their currently-running game. Some are peaceful and use their hacks for the benefit of their fellow players or at least to their amusement. Others are destructive, unfairly dominating or disadvantaging their opponents or mere passer-by's.
In GTA Online, they've flourished under an already-existing third form that was previously far more restricted to underground business ventures. If you look in the right places, your favorite online game will have a hacking tool for it that nowadays is conveniently sold for an accessible price that in turn will allow you, a layman, to achieve things others could only dream about. This role has further expanded in GTA Online.
GTA Bucks cannot be traded between players. There's an option to give a fellow player a small cut after you've earned something, but it's negligible. Hackers have found out a way where they instead can drop bags of money on anyone they like. In the past, reports have surfaced of people easily garnering 50 million GTA$, but more recent events have urged hackers to boast about the fact (with evidence) that they have banked money in the billions. Now imagine you, frustrated at how bad the money-economy for businesses and Shark Card value is noticing that there are hackers willing to drop 50 million GTA$ on you, for just five dollars.
These hackers will sell you the same currency that Rockstar overprices for a smidgen of the price. All you have to do in return, as instructed by most of them usually, is to immediately buy whatever you desire with those newly attained GTA$. Most suggest you buy various expensive cars with it, and then sell them when you have something in mind you'd like to actually buy. This practice is also known as "laundering" by some. And they have largely gone unpunished.
Efforts by Rockstar to ban these players has only resulted in some being kicked out, with some simply opting to re-buy the game somewhere cheap and do it all over again. Especially when they're earning something from it, it's a no-brainer. But most of the time, they aren't even caught. This is exemplified by what has occurred recently.
As mentioned earlier above, there has been a wave of bank "corrections" that takes about half of the earned money from many players, if not more. Most affected are players who legitimately earned their millions through grinding the Import/Export missions. Some have spent months grinding these missions, just so they can afford the new pieces of DLC coming out over time, something that would otherwise have cost them real money up to and past what the game itself costs. Meanwhile, as reports about this have surfaced on various Social Media, several hackers and those who associate with hackers (remember, you don't need to be a hacker to receive hacked cash) boast about all the millions and billions they still have in face of this wave of "corrections."
Like a Salmon, Swimming Against the CurrentIt's not the first time that legitimate players have been punished for the actions of hackers. Not everyone who receives hacked GTA cash did so willingly, knowing full well that Rockstar may find out and punish them for it. There's also a theory going around that Rockstar uses their overpriced DLC, not to entice players to buy Shark Cards, but as a weak attempt to take money away from hackers. But whichever way you turn this business model, these high prices punish legitimate players and Shark Card purchasers the most, and reward the ones that cheat.
And that's not even mentioning the fact that most of these business ventures are grindy to an almost unenjoyable extent. Most of them come with the risk that random players can, for a small and pitiful profit of usually 5,000$, come mess with your business venture. They can blow up your Special Cargo, shoot at your Export Car (which reduces its value), or simply shoot at you while you're engaged in a mission. Or worse, they can shoot you out of your Export Car and add it to their own vehicle warehouse. Not to mention any hackers that simply choose to blow everything up that is currently spawned. Remember the Bang Bang Bang cheat from GTA III? Well, it's that but everyone and everything except the hacker blows up.
As a regular player, you're hardly encouraged to keep playing the game for its own enjoyment. What other players don't seek to take away for whatever reason seems to be taken away by default. GTA V single-player boasts so many fun and intricate little details and interactions that simply don't exist in GTA Online, despite it taking place in literally the same engine. Meanwhile your friends don't have your level of patience and have moved on to another game. A few years ago it might've been enticing for them to go have a romp with you in Los Santos, but today the game has simply turned into a grinding system that involves maximizing profits or trolling.
When Take Two then also targets mod platforms that in no realistic way threaten GTA Online's business economy, it really begs the question whether they haven't just lost their minds completely to the purest form of greed and capitalism. Willingly forgetting that the players they are milking for money and fame are actual human beings who want nothing more than to simply have a good time playing video games. Maybe that is a little dramatic, but at this point GTA Online is still in the top ten most-played games on Steam and is doing so with a business model that feels exploitative towards its own loyal playerbase.
ConclusionIf you've read all this and in turn asked whether this article is simply me saying that "GTA Online ****s right now," I'd say you're entirely correct. The recent "balance correction" urged me to write this opinion piece, though it only fed an existing sentiment I was wrestling with for some time now.
I am absolutely certain that the team behind developing the actual content is a capable team of developers. These new races and modes that come out are interesting and oftentimes challenging. It started with street races and has ended up with stunt races taking place in aerial tubes that lead you into death defying stunts using spectacularly looking top tier Super Cars and sometimes even Rocket Cars! The businesses, as cynical as I may be about their effectiveness, look stellar and absolutely fit within the universe of the game. The voice actors sound like they wholly believe the role they are in. Even the resupply missions for the Bunker are quite fun and unusual. I would dare say that it all might even be immersive, in terms of design at least—certainly enjoyable.
Which makes it a shame that it is overshadowed by a business model that insists you incessantly repeat these same bits of content, over and over until they drone in your head and turn you absolutely annoyed at them. Or save yourself the pain by buying a Shark Card. You end your day with a poorly done Vehicle Export where incessant gunfire chewed away 20,000$, one fourth of your expected profit commission. It almost made me throw my controller across the room.
When we then have to reflect on the fact that Rockstar at no point has shown any desire to make any of this easier or more rewarding, and cheaters truly prosper in this Wild West of car thievery, it inspires a sense of dread on what may be to come for Red Dead Redemption 2.