Outlaw and Order in GTA Online

Outlaw and Order in GTA Online
In October an ambitious new service rolled out online — and immediately crashed when the servers collapsed under its unprecedented popularity. And that's not even where the (admittedly absurd) comparisons between Obamacare and end. The former entered a crowded playing field with the ambitious goal of bringing the uninsured masses into the system and GTA Online, in a way, could do the same for single-player-only gamers.

Playing online once promised to bring gamers together — but instead led to a schism. Hardcore fans buy Call of Duty or Gears of War strictly for that infinitely replayable mode, but many single-player gamers got turned off by multiplayer's endless variations on deathmatch and capture the flag and the plague of griefers who stake out respawn points, teabag corpses, torment newbies and harangue headsets with sexist, racist and homophobic slurs. (Yes, massively multiplayer online gaming offers more gameplay originality and co-operation, but even a perennially popular MMO like World of Warcraft remains niche.)

As advances in storytelling and open-world-building played out in offline titles like Skyrim, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us — and gamers reject tacked-on online modes — there's been a decline in multiplayer games with the 2006 peak of 67 percent of console games offering online multiplayer falling to 42 percent last year. That's left an opening for someone to create a multiplayer game that appeals to single-player gamers.

Enter Rockstar, makers of the most popular single-player series ever. Grand Theft Auto V is a triumph, but it remains an evolution of GTA III's 12-year-old revolution. However, if you think Rockstar's playing it safe, then you haven't yet ventured outside of the single-player city.

GTA Online, which looks like the same intricately constructed Los Santos but is its own unique experience, was a big gamble — and an unnecessary one. They would've made a billion bucks in three days without this free add-on and saved themselves the headaches of the trouble-plagued launch.

Rockstar's metropolises have always been described as living, breathing cities — but the keyword is "felt." Aside from you, all of the police, prostitutes, gangsters and girlfriends you interacted with were AI. But in GTAO, the avatars are actual people — and people are dicks.

Technical issues can be resolved, but people problems aren't fixed with adding more servers, optimizing code or balancing the economy. Rockstar's real revolutionary idea is their struggle to reduce griefing without kyboshing fun. That's a monumental task in any game, but particularly in one called Grand Theft Auto, which has raised an entire generation on the pleasures of being a free-roam rampaging bad guy.

Rockstar first attempted to "fight the good fight" in 2010's Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer mode, which had become a thematically appropriate but still irritatingly lawless landscape, by making griefers "most wanted" and sending an AI posse after them. For Max Payne 3 they created a "cheaters pool" forcing everyone using "nefarious methods" like hacks, mods and other exploits to fight each other and not spoil everyone else's fun.

With GTAO, where free-roam multiplayer immediately turned into a murderous hellscape, they've created a good sport/bad sport system intended to keep jerks on their own servers. They've also allowed bounties, which you can revenge-slap on someone who keeps killing you; passive mode, so you can wander without being killed until firing your own weapon; and voting to kick jerks off your server.

The system has major flaws — getting glitched off a co-op mission can result in bad sport tags, unfairly kicking someone is its own form of griefing, and because bad sport applies to blowing up personal cars (albeit not players), you even can be busted defending yourself.

Still, the efforts are appreciated because GTA Online is exactly the kind of game to bring single and multi-players back together. Along with free-roam access to the entire sprawl of Los Santos and surrounding countryside, you can join up to 16 friends and/or strangers to go biking, golfing and play tennis or rob stores and escape cops. You can buy garages and houses, form crews and take jobs and missions to make money. You can race on streets, off road or in water and the air. Eventually, you'll be able to do co-op heists, too. There are death matches and capture the flag for purists, but Rockstar is adding a content creator, allowing players to design their own twists.

Will this be enough to woo single-player gamers? It helps to be freely attached to the fastest-selling game in history and include so much MMO-style diversity for non-traditional players. But it's all an experiment.

"Grand Theft Auto Online is going to be something brand new for us: a fully realized and living world for multiple players that will continue to grow and take shape over time," Rockstar posted at launch. "The ultimate shape of GTA Online will be determined as much by you, the player, as by the work we put in. What you like and don't like, what you play and what you want will determine how the game develops and what it turns into."

So Rockstar will do their best to get griefing under control but, ultimately, it's up to us to keep Los Santos from turning into Lord of the Flies.