GTA6 Needs to Push the Boundaries
More than ever, this is the game that could sink the franchise
The Grand Theft Auto series is nothing short of a games industry legend. No one could have predicted that 1996’s top-down chaos simulator from Scottish developer DMA Design would eventually become Rockstar’s golden goose that has spanned three generations of consoles, selling 145 million copies and raising an estimated US $6 billion in revenue. As rumours begin to fly about the next title in the series and when it might release, so too do discussions about what it might look like. The open-world game market is far more diverse than it was in 2013, and there is no shortage of developers willing to try new and unique ideas. The stakes for Grand Theft Auto 6 are incredibly high.
The Road So Far
Grand Theft Auto (DMA Design, 1996) had rather humble beginnings — a top-down, open-world shooter designed for the PlayStation and PC, it resembles the current state of the series in themes only — those themes being lawlessness, violence, and irreverent humour and satire. If there is anything today that resembles the original Grand Theft Auto, aesthetically at least, it would be Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012). DMA Design followed up their first game with Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999), and for the first time the series embraced 3D acceleration technologies of the time. GTA2 is, in my mind, probably the most underrated game in the series. It is mostly forgotten today, with the first game being remembered as “classic GTA”, while the “GTA Trilogy” (GTA3, Vice City and San Andreas) is remembered bringing the series into the modern era. GTA2 is sandwiched between the two, and is unfairly forgotten. Go play GTA2. It’s unique, and a lot of fun. But I digress.
Grand Theft Auto III (2001) was the beginning of GTA as we know it today — a fully realised 3D open-world, structured narrative, and voiced actors. GTA3 looks primitive by today’s standards, and the so-called “open-world” feels positively claustrophobic now, sitting at only 8 km² compared with GTA5’s 75 km². Still, context is everything, and in 2001 GTA3 felt like a brave new world.
DMA Design were eventually absorbed into Rockstar as Rockstar North. Vice City (2002) and San Andreas (2004) arrived not long after, and each made their own unique contributions to the series. Vice City refined the story-telling and world-building, and unlike GTA3, felt much more alive — less like a game and more like a living world. The next release, San Andreas, revolutionised not only the GTA series, but gaming more broadly. The game world was significantly bigger and more diverse and it was the first game in the series to really embrace a lot of RPG elements — the protagonist, CJ, needed to eat, could go to the gym, and his physical appearance would change based on his lifestyle. San Andreas is rightfully regarded as a high point for the series. While the game world of San Andreas didn’t introduce many new ideas (just a few more North American cities), what it did do was present a living, breathing and interactive world. Along with its open-world contemporaries like The Elder Scrolls, San Andreas was part of a generation of games that captured the imagination and the human desire to escape.
Grand Theft Auto IV was a slight departure from the norm for the series. Although it retained the Guy Ritchie-style crime drama with a comedic twist, GTAIV was, on the whole, much darker in tone than previous titles in the series. GTAIV great strength was its narrative, and its tone is far more representative of the Red Dead Redemption games. In a rather odd development, the map size of GTAIV was also notably smaller than San Andreas, however each square kilometre was so densely packed with extra detail you would hardly notice it.
This brings us to the most recent title in the series, the eternally enduring Grand Theft Auto V. GTAV was released in 2013, shortly prior to the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. GTAV’s release date straddled the two generations of consoles, and it was followed by a PC release several months later. GTAV expanded the multiplayer element like no other title in the series with Grand Theft Auto Online. It also increased the size of the game world by a staggering amount, making it well and truly the largest in the series. The financial model of GTA Online combined with the series’ trademark brand of open-world bedlam has seen it become Rockstar’s golden goose. Now, with a next-generation refresh coming for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X, GTAV will be the first in the series (and one of very few games) that has spanned three generations of consoles.
Why is GTA6 so important?
When the GTA series first appeared, the concept of an open-world game was far from uncommon or new, but the Rockstar’s approach was unique. Open world games were primarily the domain of RPGs like the Ultima series or The Elder Scrolls (one could argue that later GTA games qualify as RPGs as well, however). Today, open-world games make up a significant portion of the market, and even games that are not marketed as open-world games often have many open-world elements.
Even since the release of GTAV in 2013, the benchmark for what makes a great open-world game has been raised several times, even by Rockstar themselves with Red Dead Redemption II. Before, Rockstar’s biggest competitor was themselves. Today, even indie devs are making incredibly deep and immersive open-worlds, and sticking to a safe formula isn’t going to cut it anymore.
It’s important to note that “cutting edge” doesn’t necessarily mean “big”. Elite: Dangerous is a 1:1 scale recreation of the Milky Way galaxy, with something like 400 billion star systems that players can visit, but the core gameplay loop is identical regardless of what system you are in. What truly makes an open-world game stand out is when it feels alive. Rockstar need look no further than their own game Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar Games, 2018) for this. The game world is huge, yes, but the things you can do in it are what make it feel alive. You can go on a hunting trek in the mountains, living in a tent and cooking freshly killed venison. You can get in a bar fight in Saint Denis. You can ride a train. You can play poker all night. All these small details, some of them completely inconsequential with little to no impact on the game world, help to make the game world feel alive. This is one of the biggest criticisms leveled at Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red, 2020), and an entirely justified one as well. Night City looks amazing, and on the surface it feels amazing too. But the immersion is only skin deep. You can’t sit at a ramen bar in Japantown. You can’t go get a drink while you discuss gigs with your fixer. You can’t go and try on new threads at a clothing store (like you can in San Andreas, for example). A world that lacks this sort of immersive “icing on the cake” soon begins to feel more like a game than a world.
Rockstar have established themselves as a developer at the cutting edge of open-world design, and if GTA6 is any less than cutting edge, not only will it damage the series’ reputation, it will hurt Rockstar’s bottom line.
Cutting edge open world, got it. What else?
To Rockstar’s credit, they have evolved the GTA series over time. The narrative is core now, and one of the great highlights of GTAV is watching the plot unfold from three different, dysfunctional perspectives. But what was great in 2013 has been surpassed in brilliance, several times over. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015) is a masterclass in videogame story-telling. The core of the game is a deep narrative full of twists and turns, but padded around it are dozens and dozens of richly developed side quests. The Witcher III is still heralded as a gold standard of story-telling, one that many games are still aspiring to, and several have surpassed. The problem for GTA6 is, with such high expectations, this sort of story-telling is going to be considered the absolute minimum.
Another expectation is content. While multiplayer in GTAV is jam-packed with content, the same can’t be said of single-player, and despite claims every few years that “single player is dead”, gamers prove over and over again that we still very much appreciate rich single player content. Red Dead Redemption II recently expanded the Red Dead Online component to incorporate more single player elements, and Rockstar is going to need to consider how they can keep individuals engaged, who might play games as a means to escape social interaction rather than seek it out.
Of course, the big question is — how will Rockstar, and more importantly their corporate overlord Take Two Interactive, monetise the game (especially for those pesky single player gamers)? This is a much more prickly topic than it might seem at first. For two decades, studios have been slowly but surely incorporating greater degrees of monetisation into their games, but in 2017 Electronic Arts stepped over the line with Star Wars Battlefront II. Not only did they incorporate some of the most flagrantly predatory monetisation the industry has ever seen, they did it to a beloved franchise. This combination of factors was the spark that the industry needed. The backlash against EA was astounding, even to those who had predicted it. But it didn’t stop with EA, and the reaction snowballed into a wider backlash against videogame monetisation that continues to have repercussions today. One of the most common marketing taglines a game can have these days is “no microtransactions”. Even EA used it with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019), a game that made a few small steps towards repairing their shattered reputation.
GTAV was not immune to scrutiny during the fallout from Battlefront II, but managed to mostly avoid major backlash due to a balanced ecosystem that still provides meaningful and engaging gameplay for players that don’t want to fork out additional cash. Still, aggressive monetisation is far from a forgotten spectre, and game companies continue experiment with new ways to squeeze every penny from each release. The threat of another monetisation backlash looms, and there are genuine concerns that, this time, it will be Rockstar and Take Two that will step over the line.
The reality is, monetisation, microtransactions, live service games — these are all realities that are here to stay, and a major reason why the industry continues to thrive. Nobody (no one reasonable at least) is suggesting that Rockstar should release a game with no monetisation at all. All they want is a game that has plenty of meaningful content for the base price, with no requirement or undue psychological pressure to make gamers feel as if they need to spend more to get a complete product.
One of the biggest criticisms of Rockstar, and a real hot-button issue in the wider industry, has been the issue of “crunch time”. Almost every studio has admitted that, in the lead up to release dates, employees often work 70+ hours per week in order to ensure a game is fit for release. Rockstar has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to crunch time. While this may not adversely affect the quality of the game, Rockstar needs to take a stand against the practice. It’s the sort of value-based decision that consumers respect, and the sort of decision that commands consumer loyalty. Consumers in 2021 are intelligent, informed and they want products that are ethical from the ground up. As such a major industry player, Rockstar could well and truly set a standard that would change the games industry for the better — namely, they should increase employee salaries to a liveable wage and support employee unions that can stand against practices like “crunch time”. I highly doubt this will change, especially under the gaze of Take Two Interactive. But it would be a smart financial decision. You can’t put a price on a loyal consumer, and these are the sorts of things that consumers in 2021 respect.
The “political” question
The GTA series has had a long history of lampooning culture and society with irreverent, satirical humour peppered with insightful underlying critiques of governments, law, race and equality. However, the years since GTAV’s release have been some of the most tumultuous in decades, and the issues of contention in that time have consisted mostly of themes around which the GTA series has traditionally based itself — race, sexuality, violence, political correctness, law and order, equality, and so on. This is a potential minefield for Rockstar. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, how will they approach discussions around police brutality, like they have so many times before (notably in San Andreas)? Will Rockstar decide, for the first time in the series history, to give the protagonist a non-male voice? There’s no doubt in my mind that Rockstar can employ the sort of writers that can make a compelling story irrespective of race, culture or gender, but will they actually do it, considering that it would no doubt result in a juvenile dummy-spitting from a large portion of their consumer base? I’d like to think that Rockstar will continue the series’ history of being a champion of counter-culture and the downtrodden, but the cynical part of me says that the shareholders won’t like that, so it won’t happen. We’ll see.
The X Factor
Ugh. I hate that term. But it’s a suitable one. Importantly, GTA6 needs that je ne sais quoi that makes it stand out from everything else on the market. For Grand Theft Auto it was freeform, Carmageddon-style bedlam that no one had seen before. For GTA3 it was a fully realised 3D world. Vice City, a banging 80s soundtrack (for me at least). San Andreas, an interactive world like no other. For GTAV, it was GTA Online and the behemoth that that has become.
What will it be that defines Grand Theft Auto 6? The industry has learned a great deal from Rockstar over the years, but does the master still have more to teach its many apprentices?