GTA Online: From Gangster’s Paradise to Microtransaction Money Pit

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Up until just recently, Take-Two Interactive were getting away with a lot of questionable decisions. Despite being as large as EA or Ubisoft, they would often get a free pass while the two most polarising publishers in the industry would get widely lambasted for making many of the same business choices.

The reasons are unclear, but it might have had something to do with them publishing one of the most beloved series’ in gaming history. Grand Theft Auto is their biggest moneymaker and has been for years, helping them to fund the rights for other IPs and publishers, such as 2K, which was formed as an amalgamation of different studios they had acquired. They’ve almost stealthily been widening their net over the years, coming across as the people behind the curtain (holding bags of money).

Strauss Zelnick
Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick. Source: CNBC

Take-Two never seem to take the spotlight, either. Whenever the wheels of the hype machine are in motion, their name is seldom found near the marketing materials for a new game. They instead elect to let the developers take the spotlight, which you can see whenever anything new comes from GTA – the Rockstar logo, which carries a whole lot of weight, can be found proudly emblazoned whenever a new trailer or teaser image drops.

Stranger still, the only social media presence they have is a LinkedIn page which is just a dumping ground for press releases. Any Facebook or Twitter accounts in their name are either fakes or operated by a bunch of drowsy monkeys:

Take-Two publisher

Take-Two publisher

It’s almost lucky for Take-Two Interactive that their social presence is so lacking – the current storm raining down on them would make even the heartiest of digital marketing managers up and quit.

After they forced .black, the creators of the wildly popular and beloved modding program OpenIV, to shut everything down and give proceeds to charity, the backlash has been severe. Bethesda should be thanking Take-Two for taking the attention away from their controversial not-paid-mods-but-actually-paid-mods program.

With recent reception to the game on Steam being “Overwhelmingly Negative” and bringing the overall reception down to “Mixed” as a result, users have been flooding the page, hellbent on having their voices heard:

Steam GTA V 1

Steam GTA V 2

That last review sums up the problem with having an almost invisible parent company. It was Take-Two, not Rockstar, who issued the cease and desist letter (Rockstar have actually openly supported mods in the past). It was Take-Two, not Rockstar, who want to even more aggressively push microtransactions into the GTA Online experience.

Since its almost hilariously incompetent launch (I never want to get in a car with Lamar ever again), GTA Online has been gradually fine-tuned, updated, and improved. Slightly light on content at launch, it’s now a sprawling playground of violence and nonsense, offering some of the unlikeliest new game modes, heists, and add-ons.

This all came with a price, however. A hefty one.

GTA Online Shark Cards

Shark Cards, GTA Online’s form of microtransactions, weren’t seen as a big deal by many when they were first announced. As has been proven time and time again when it comes to anything under the Take-Two umbrella -including NBA 2K and WWE 2K, which offer two of the most galling examples of paid shortcuts in the industry right now- they got a free pass.

The relative ennui over GTA Online’s microtransactions has allowed for a slow but steady increase in their prominence. When it first launched, GTA Online didn’t make it seem like a necessity, instead pitching Shark Cards as an alternative for those who didn’t have time to grind. In the early goings, in-game currency wasn’t hard to come across with the game lavishing players with handsome amounts for relatively easy jobs. Sure, a new player wouldn’t be able to buy a penthouse from the word go (owing to GTA Online’s RP system), but a luxurious simulated lifestyle was always within touching distance.

You would struggle to say the same now.

The Shark Card system works in tiers, ranging from $100,000 ($2.99 USD) for the Red Shark up to $8,000,000 ($99.99) for the Megalodon Shark. The latter is an almost staggering amount of money to pay (almost twice the actual retail value of the game itself), but it doesn’t get you everything. Not even close.

For a hundred of your hard-earned dollars, you can buy three of the game’s most expensive cars and come up just short for a fourth. Your $100 won’t stretch to the Luxor Deluxe, however, and you will be left short-changed after snapping up the Galaxy Super Yacht, too. It’s a little bit where clothing is concerned, but with shirts going for tens of thousands of dollars, it doesn’t always offer great value.

A popular argument to defend these microtransactions is that they’re all for cosmetic items, which has been repeated countless times for other similar games.

This doesn’t hold any water with me.

GTA Online is a game all about status, getting the shinier thing before your friends get the shinier thing. The objective is accumulation; amassing as much luxury as you can. No matter how many copies it continues to sell, the fact remains the same: GTA V is almost four years old. Even the most easily of pleased of gamers would be finding tedium in the gameplay by now, so when the only realistic motivations to keep playing are gated off behind pseudo-paywalls (with increasing inflation), you give the player one of two choices: either grind for days at a time or take the quickest route possible.

GTA Online

Those who grind are faced with mind-numbing repetition, no matter how many friends they have in tow. This is one of the things that turned me away from the game back in 2015, when I’d finally had enough of short gains for such a big investment of time. With recent updates skewing the experience more and more towards taking shortcuts, it’s easy to empathise with anyone who’s been lured in by Shark Cards. And there have been plenty.

It’s well-documented by now that GTA Online has generated an impressive amount of revenue from its microtransactions. $500 million, to be exact. Strauss Zelnick, Take-Two’s popularly hated CEO, isn’t satisfied, though:

“We are convinced that we are probably from an industry view undermonetizing on a per-user basis. There is wood to chop because I think we can do more, and we can do more without interfering with our strategy of being the most creative and our ethical approach, which is delighting consumers.

“We’re not going to grab the last nickel.”

With the spotlight currently shining so blindingly on Take-Two, it might be time to take a closer look at the people behind the curtain and realise they’re just as bad as the others, if not worse.