GTA Online – A Missed Free to Play Opportunity?

The next-gen (or is a year long enough to start calling the PS4 / Xbox One “current gen”, and relegate the older consoles to “last gen”?) version of GTA V was released this week, and by all accounts Rockstar have done themselves proud again.

GTA V was already an excellent game, but as well as the graphical improvements you would expect from a generational leap, they’ve also added a bunch of new content to help sell the idea of “double dipping” to people who already bought it 14 months ago.

As with most (or all?) next gen games, GTA V is also available to buy and download directly from PSN and Xbox Live, doing away with the need for a disc. What I am surprised by, is that Rockstar didn’t seize this opportunity to really try something very new for the franchise and allow players to download the multiplayer component, GTA Online, as a standalone free to play (F2P) title.

My reasons as to why this would have been a good idea are:

  • There’s a portion of the audience who are still going to be resistant to double dipping. Allowing them to see the graphical leap first hand could sway them. Essentially F2P GTA Online would be a huge demo for the single player improvements.
  • GTA Online already has in app purchases (IAP) of currency, and an economy of consumable items and vehicles. Having consumable IAP in a £55 game is a stance that never goes across entirely well with a core audience. Having them in a F2P title is expected.
  • It would allow the game to reach its largest possible audience – I doubt a single console owner would not download it – which strengthens the appeal of the game for those who would be willing to purchase IAP. Nothing kills an online title quicker than empty servers.
  • GTA Online has had 14 months “in the wild” during which Rockstar have stabilised servers, added content and tweaked their balancing based on analytics data. Essentially this makes the PS3 / Xbox 360 version a long “soft launch”.
  • Speaking of balancing, the current version of GTA Online makes it harder for players to earn money than it was when the game launched. It is clearly being positioned in a way that to get the very best kit in the title players are strongly encouraged to buy.
  • It would fully separate GTA Online as a title from GTA V. Though I believe this is Rockstar’s intention (hence it not being called GTA V Online), that its delivery system is “comes free with a copy of GTA V” means that the two are inevitably linked in the minds of players. Separating them completely makes GTA Online its own thing, that can run on as a game-as-a-service without any conceptual difficulty in the minds of players.