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The past, present, and future of Rockstar’s world-conquering Grand Theft Auto Online

GTA Online
(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

From the very beginning, Rockstar North wanted Grand Theft Auto 5’s multiplayer mode to faithfully replicate the GTA experience online, with the same level of quality as singleplayer. "We used the game’s architecture, geography, and mechanics as a foundation and wanted the same kind of wide array of activities, and the ability to build on them to create new experiences," says Rob Nelson, co-studio head at Rockstar North, reflecting on the GTA Online journey so far. 

"We’ve always wanted to build these immersive, complex living worlds to hold our stories, regardless of whether it’s for a single player or multiple," he says. "We had created complex systems for weather, traffic, population, and more, to give people as much freedom as we possibly could to create unique experiences. 

"And creating online versions of these worlds has shown us how to deepen and extend those experiences in new ways. By letting players share the space together, and through activities like heists, we help people create stories of their own, and over time they become more connected to the world." 

Grand Theft Auto Online has been around since 2013, on Xbox 360 and PS3, and the original release seems almost simplistic compared to what exists today. When it first launched there wasn’t all that much to do, but now there are countless distractions, from running guns to robbing banks. 

I ask Nelson how the game people are playing now compares to the studio’s original vision. 

"It’s in line with our initial ideas, but six years on from launch, and even longer since we initially conceptualised it, it’s grown deeper and evolved in more directions than we sketched out," he says. "GTA Online players are comprised of a series of smaller audiences that like to play it in different ways. So with the foundations in place we started creating updates that served each of these audiences."

Bask in robbing

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

There have been a not-insignificant 31 updates for GTA Online since 2013. Some, like 2014’s I’m Not a Hipster add new clothes, cars and jobs; others, such as 2015’s long-awaited Heists, change the game entirely. "As we became more confident that fans would understand how these updates would connect to the regular world of GTA Online," says Nelson. "It freed us up to create even crazier updates."

Cunning Stunts, which added wild Hot Wheels-esque tracks to the game, with boosts, corkscrews, and jumps, is perhaps the best example of this. While exaggerated and larger than life in its own way, Grand Theft Auto V’s singleplayer is at least rooted in some kind of logic or realism. But in the anarchic GTA Online, Rockstar can do anything it likes, whether it makes sense or not. 

Parity between singleplayer and multiplayer has been a priority for Rockstar for years, and this is particularly evident in its most recent game, Red Dead Redemption 2, which blends the two even more seamlessly than GTA V. I ask Nelson how making content for a solo player compares to creating it for many. 

"You are trying, wherever possible, to ensure that players can feel central to the action and essential to whatever is going on," he says. "Particularly at the highest level with something like the heists. You’re trying to design inside an open world for players that may be very distant from each other. 

"But at the same time you want the action to feel like it’s moving forward for everyone at roughly the same time. When it works it feels incredible and we’re really proud of what we created for the Heists content, and how we’ve managed to push those ideas forward between the original set and the structure of the Doomsday Heist. And we think we can improve on them even further."

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

One of the most impressive things about GTA Online is how Rockstar has managed to squeeze six years of content out of one world. Los Santos and Blaine County, the countryside surrounding it, are big, sure, but not that big. I ask Nelson if having this relatively limited space to work with makes releasing GTA Online content, while ensuring it feels fresh and exciting, is a challenge for the team.

"It’s not really a limitation, because it’s a framework to create in," says Nelson. "It’s really about getting creative with every corner of the world so that players can see aspects of its design with fresh eyes, and building architecture and other parts of the game with a view to having multiple possible uses for them.

"We can go ‘into’ the world by creating additional interiors like the Maze Bank Arena, missile silos, or the underground bunkers. But we also have the opportunity to change the topography in major ways, like the Diamond Casino & Resort building. There’s a lot more we can do with the world we’ve made before we’re going to feel like we’re pushing the limits of what it can handle.

"We have great people at every level of the company who play the game all the time and who are constantly coming up with new ways to add to the world. It’s a credit to the entire team, from the initial world-building that sets up the universe, through to scripting, animation, and the mission design."

One of the most interesting developments in GTA Online didn’t come entirely from Rockstar. The role-playing scene on PC has grown in popularity recently, with people running custom servers that let you play the game like a kind of bizarre life simulator, including getting a job and following permadeath rules.

"It’s fascinating," says Nelson when I ask him how Rockstar feels about it. "People are taking it far beyond traditional game structures and we love seeing what people get up to. They’ve essentially had to break the game down to do it, but it shows that not only are people constantly looking for ways to create different kinds of immersive experiences, but that others enjoy watching what they do. We’ve always wanted people to role-play. Even in the singleplayer games we’re providing an opportunity to play as a character in a specific kind of world.

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

"As we have developed our online worlds we’ve wanted it to be an opportunity for players to role-play as their own characters within the structure of that world we’ve built. In Red Dead Online we took another step by giving players specific roles, but we think there’s a lot of ways we can improve that experience."

So some players like to role-play, but what other kinds of GTA Online players are there? I ask Nelson what Rockstar North has learned about player habits while working on the game. “The most interesting thing, but maybe not surprising, is that what people say they want isn’t necessarily what they want.

“Sometimes we will release an update and see a lot of negative social media feedback. But we learn by the way that people are engaging with it that it’s actually really popular. We’ve always been trying to deliver something our audience will enjoy and we’ve learned a ton about the game through player habits.

“Player feedback is always a part of our overall decision-making process in terms of guiding the moving parts of any given update. We often have the larger concepts we want to pursue from update to update as part of our near-to-long- term planning, but the team is constantly looking at player data or the feedback the community sends us to see how we can improve what we’re building as we go.

“We try to learn lessons from everything we do and apply them to the next project, so the first place GTA Online design has and will continue to have an influence is the design of Red Dead Online. The games have a different feel and pace, but creating passive mode for GTA Online was really helpful when we were designing the defensive playing style for Red Dead Online. We now have an amazing opportunity to evolve two very distinct worlds in different directions."

Looking to the future

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

As for the future of GTA Online, Rockstar has no immediate plans to stop working on it. "We try to keep plans going roughly a year out, but we want to have the flexibility to be responsive to any changes," says Nelson. "So we choose not to telegraph that entire timeline to players. That said, players should feel confident that we have a ton of brand new ideas still to come. It’s been six years and we just hit record player numbers and we are all incredibly grateful to everyone who’s been with us along the way. 

"In terms of what’s coming up, Halloween should be a lot of fun this year and we’ve got really exciting plans for later in the holiday season and beyond."

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story. He lives in Yorkshire and spends far too much time on Twitter.