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Why Grand Theft Auto Online is Crazy Enough to Work

Rockstar is taking an ambitious approach to GTA multiplayer, aiming to strike a balance between open-world mayhem and carefully crafted structure.


I'm watching four members of Rockstar North pull off a heist in Grand Theft Auto Online. This is hardly some two-bit job; it's a carefully orchestrated mission where each player assumes a different role in an effort to infiltrate a secured storage yard and make off with a truck full of high-value merchandise.

It's going well. Two of the players have managed to jump in the truck and endure a white-knuckle freeway chase stretching from the grimy warehouse district of Los Santos to an unassuming patch of farmland in the Blaine County countryside. As they drop off the truck, the other pair of players--the ones who've been tailing along providing invaluable cover fire--pull up beside them in a zippy sports car. Smiles abound as the group revels in its successful heist. Just when it looks like everyone is about to pile together and cruise into the sunset, the player behind the wheel says, "Sorry! I've only got two seats. But I do have this for you." It's here that the driver flips his partners the bird and peels off in a cloud of dust and laughter.

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That, ladies and gentlemen, is Grand Theft Auto Online in a nutshell. GTA Online is Rockstar's effort to marry the carefully crafted structure of mission-based multiplayer with the unpredictable, anything-goes nature of an open-world experience. It's a delicate balancing act to be sure, but if our first look is anything to go by, Rockstar has already hit its mark.

GTA Online is Rockstar's effort to marry carefully crafted multiplayer with the anything-goes nature of an open world.
First, a bit of context. Grand Theft Auto Online is not a standalone retail product; it's included with copies of GTAV. Some narrative overlap connects GTA Online with the story campaign, including a handful of shared characters. In fact, you can even switch between the two modes by selecting your multiplayer avatar from the very same character wheel used to jump between Michael, Trevor, and Franklin in the main storyline.

But GTA Online is its own beast: building your criminal empire in this part of the game requires navigating through a very different dynamic, with earnings and progression separate from those found in the story campaign. In fact, Rockstar's aim is to spin this off into its own separate entity altogether. That's why GTA Online is being built on a separate development schedule, and why it will release shortly after GTAV on October 1 via a patch to the main game. But don't worry; you'll be able to get yourself suitably hyped up thanks to a countdown timer Rockstar plans to include in the game prior to the patch.

The whole thing takes place within a world that aims to feel far more alive than any of Rockstar's previous multiplayer offerings. Switching over to GTA Online, you're immediately dropped into a world shared by 16 players. No need to match up with other people using some free-roaming lobby--merely jumping into GTA Online is enough to tell the game you're ready to free-roam alongside other players.

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Who you get matched up with is where things get fun. Rockstar has designed a free-roam matchmaking system that takes various factors into account, such as prioritizing friends and crewmembers, and ensuring that nearby strangers of the appropriate skill level are used to fill space when the situation calls for it. It's not quite like Destiny or The Division in the sense that new players are swapped in for old ones as you move about the map, but the game does ensure that players can all easily fast travel toward each other when a mission is set to begin, and that players who finish a mission together resume a free-roaming session as part of the same group.

The whole thing takes place within a world that aims to feel far more alive than any of Rockstar's previous multiplayer offerings.
Many of these missions are simply ambient events you can trigger on the fly. Let's say you run into one player and decide to challenge them to a race. You pull open the map, drop a waypoint--user-created events and game modes are a big theme in GTA Online--and the two of you are on your way. But be careful, because you might just pass by a third player with a six-star wanted level fleeing from a swarm of cops. Nothing ruins a street race like colliding head-on into a police cruiser.

Those types of serendipitous encounters are one of the ways Rockstar is hoping to make the world feel more alive and unpredictable, while the potential for adversarial behavior between players is another. Maybe you and some buddies want to throw on a couple masks and hold up a convenience store for a quick bit of cash. Easy money, right? Well, the player who physically receives the money from the cashier gets to decide how it's split between the team. If your buddy stiffs you on your share of the profit, you can either chase him down and steal it for yourself or keep your hands clean by hiring a hitman to take him out--it's your call. The game even tracks who your rivals are and lets you know when they've come online so that you can exact a little vengeance.

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As a free-roaming experience, Grand Theft Auto Online is full of all these little opportunities for running into other players and mucking about in the sandbox. (Pro Tip: Deposit your money into your bank account as often as you can. When another player kills you, they can snatch the wallet right from your dead body.) But there's more to it than unorganized chaos. Like GTAV's story campaign, GTA Online features a mission progression where a series of larger and more elaborate heists offer you the chance to pad your bank account and cement your status as a master criminal.

These are missions unique to multiplayer and as such they've been designed for a cooperative style of play. One of the missions Rockstar showed was a large-scale operation requiring a crew of players to sneak into an airport, take out a crew of armed guards, and fly away in a military cargo plane. If that weren't challenging enough, the players also had to fly it clear across the map and successfully land the thing in a ramshackle airstrip out in the middle of nowhere.

It's an open-ended mission, which is a theme Rockstar is aiming for with these multiplayer heists. You've got the overarching goal (steal the plane) as well as a few suggestions for which roles might be good to designate beforehand (lookout, sniper, transporter, etc.) and from there it's up to the players to determine the best way to proceed. Do you approach the airport by boat, or parachute in by helicopter? Do you stop off at Ammu-Nation and buy a customized loadout of guns before the job, or rely on the one guy carrying an entire army's worth of weapons to hand over a few of his extra guns for the good of the group? Either way, you'll need to work as a team to get the job done--especially when you consider that you've got a finite pool of shared lives before it's mission over.

Rockstar wants to ensure that the challenge in these heists comes from actually stealing stuff rather than trying to organize a group of friends through some clumsy party lobby system. All you need to do is wander up to a mission marker, invite some willing friends along by pulling open a quick menu, and they'll be instantly teleported over and ready to get going--even if they were just in the single-player story. These pre-mission screens also let you tweak variables such as difficulty level and time of day.

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While heists are the centerpiece missions of the game, there are plenty of smaller, more ambient missions out there to take on. This includes things like assaulting a gang hideout, stealing armored cars you happen to run into on the freeway, or just going out for a nice game of golf with your friends.

Seeing the game in action, I was impressed by just how seamless the transition was between free-roaming around the city and assembling a crew to embark on an organized mission. Hardly any time was spent navigating menus or setting things up. It's clear that usability and preserving a sense of flow is a huge priority for the team at Rockstar North. Moreover, the missions seemed to do a great job of giving the players just enough direction without smothering the group dynamic. Each job feels like a sandbox within a sandbox, where players are free to improvise within the larger construct of the mission.

It's clear that usability and preserving a sense of flow is a huge priority for the team at Rockstar North.
While sneaking through airports to spirit away massive airships is all well and good, there is a greater purpose to all of these missions. At the heart of GTA Online's progression system is an economy that allows for some very interesting ways to invest your money. You've got the standard purchase options that any GTA veteran will expect to see, including weapons, vehicles, and a slew of player homes. But GTA Online also allows for some very creative investment options.

Take vehicles, for example. Now that player-owned vehicles occupy a permanent place in the world--they no longer disappear into the ether when you leave them somewhere--you can insure your fleet of cars to make sure all the money you've spent on upgrading them doesn't go to waste should you happen to encounter any wayward rockets. Things are sure to get even more interesting sometime after launch when the stock market is implemented: Instead of protecting cars, you'll be able to engage in a bit of lighthearted market manipulation by investing your money in a car manufacturer and running around town destroying every one of those models you come across. Suddenly that company is going to be pumping out a whole lot of new cars. Nice time to be a stockholder, eh?

Even those familiar investments, like purchasing an apartment, have been reworked and expanded for GTA Online. Say you're hanging out in your high-rise apartment enjoying the view down below. You spot a flurry of red and blue lights in the distance and decide to see what's going on. So you switch on your TV, tune into the news, and suddenly you're watching your friend fleeing from the police in real-time thanks to the news helicopter flying directly above him. Beyond little touches like this, you can use your apartment for more practical uses, as well--like getting your friends together to go over the details of a heist in your planning room or keeping a watchful eye on your 10-car garage using a closed-circuit security camera feed. Hell, you can even take a shower to wash off the blood after a particularly brutal mission. It's borderline ridiculous just how much Rockstar has done with these player-owned properties.

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Yet the arc of player progression doesn't end there. With each mission, you'll be racking up a form of experience called RP, or reputation points. The greater your reputation, the more characters you'll meet. The more characters you meet, the more favors you can call on. If you're fleeing from another player, you can call up a buddy to hide your radar blip. If you're looking for work, you can have them send you a list of cars to steal. And if you're truly desperate, you can call up a private security company to quite literally bring in an airstrike.

What's crazy about all this is that you can call in these favors whether you're messing around in free-roam, or competing in an organized deathmatch or race or any of the other match types. Rockstar is aiming to make these systems as universal as possible, blurring the lines between what makes sense in the open-world and what works within the confines of a proper multiplayer mode.

Rockstar is hoping to extend the life of these multiplayer modes by way of user-generated content, giving players the tools to create their own match formats and share those game modes with other players. This system is still very much a work in progress; it will launch sometime after GTA Online with the ability to tweak various rules and parameters in races and deathmatches, but Rockstar wants to expand the suite of tools to allow for far more creative, emergent game modes as time goes on. If they can deliver on this promise with a mission editor that's both powerful and easy to use, it'll be incredible to see what type of content the most creative players out there will be able to come up with.

It's an ambitious goal, but one that's par for the course. Grand Theft Auto Online represents Rockstar's effort to deliver on the multiplayer GTA we've all been dreaming of since the beginning, balancing the unpredictability of an open world with the social framework of a multiplayer progression system. But perhaps more exciting than that is Rockstar's admission that this is going to be a testing ground for new ideas and gameplay systems. They want GTA Online to evolve and change over time, with the freedom to experiment with crazy new features and toolsets--hence the reason it's been given its own title independent from all the expectations of GTAV. But no matter what GTA Online eventually morphs into, one thing's for certain: October 1 can't get here soon enough.

Want to know more more? Find out about the team making Grand Theft Auto Online in our lengthy interview with the head of Rockstar North, Leslie Benzies. '

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