Monday, October 7, 2013

Five Ways to Improve Grand Theft Auto Online!

It may come as a surprise to you, but there was a brief window of my life where I was an avid World of Warcraft player.  Yes, I know, the roleplaying-and-writing nerd played the legendary MMORPG for a bit - shocking, huh?  I really only played the Cataclysm expansion, and had retired long before Mists of Pandaria came out.  What was initially enjoyable and challenging became repetitive and pointless once grinding for gear became a central focus; if I wanted to try something different for a change, I had to go through a bajillion steps I'd already undertaken...

...Whatever.  We all know the MMORPG score.  It's a formula designed to make players into addicts, and to drag out the experience so as to consume time, thereby extending the value already present in the game and squeezing more paid subscription days out of users.  Consider the months of work it takes to get a character to level 85 90 just so they can begin the process of getting geared up appropriately!

So, when Rockstar Games announced an MMORPG-caliber Grand Theft Auto, inventively titled "Grand Theft Auto Online," I was skeptical - especially since it was built into GTA 5.  But, I love me some GTA 5, and the ensuing industry standard launch-day-apocalypse got me thinking it might just not be terrible.  Once I got in game, I discovered its capacity to be fun and engaging without half of the gearing-up bullshit most MMORPGs deal with.  I fucking love Rockstar to begin with, and GTA 5's unprecedented success coupled with GTAO's availability has presented them with a chance to seriously contend with WoW and its dozens of would-be competitors.

That said...There's room for improvement.  Here are five ways GTA Online needs to be upgraded in order to realize its potential as a breakthrough MMORPG hit!

#5:  Special Skills

In Rockstar's GTA 5, our three protagonists each have a special talent; Franklin, for example, can slow time down while he drives so that players can execute insanely complicated techniques.  It's true that GTA Online can't capitalize on such "bullet time" mechanics, since all participants have to be on the same clock, but that doesn't mean there can't be special abilities.

Here's one example:  A character with a sufficiently high Stealth score could have an ability which, when toggled, removes the player's icon on the radar for a short time; say, one millisecond for every point of Stealth the character has.  A Stamina special might be a double-speed sprint, causing enemy fire to be less likely to hit; or, perhaps, a character's health regeneration might advance beyond the halfway point.

Unlocking these skills would require a bit of game balancing:  Perhaps a side-quest or two has to be completed?  Of course, characters could only know one ability.  Maybe they could delete it and/or overwrite it, but - again - it should not be a task undertaken lightly.

#4:  Improved Customization

Following up on our fifth entry; Rockstar, let's face facts.  I don't so much mind this "hereditary" system you whipped up for character creation, but let's get at least a little organized.  Different heights?  Body shapes?  C'mon!  This is the best chance we, as players, have ever had to interact with the crazy-ass world you've created.  Let us have a little control over ourselves?  Please?

Another thing:  This system of picking what your character does with their time, and having that decide what a character is capable of?  I dunno.  Wouldn't it just be easier to use a stat-building system?  I guess it was nice when I was rolling up my character, and it helped my sense of immersion, but then I found my character's clothes changing drastically and erratically based on half an hour here or there?

While we're on the topic; make customization options a little less based on rank?  Like clothes - having a random-looking shirt unlock at rank 80 when a button-down high-end suit unlocks at 10 just makes no sense, to me.  Why is it so hard to have an RGB-style color wheel for clothing?  That would be awesome!  Instead, I'm 90% satisfied with the attire my character started with, and I feel no inclination to change it.  I dunno.

#3:  Make Money Make Sense

Okay, Rockstar, now we're gonna get into one of the biggest annoyances there is in this game - Money.  It's not that you don't kick out okay money per mission, depending on the mission.  A friend and I spent, like, half an hour chasing a car literally across your continent for a measly $1K when a ten-minute run can net me upwards of $5K, but that's beside the point.  When I died at the hands of another player who just popped up and killed me as soon as I left a mission, then killed me two or three more times when I respawned, I lost a few hours of work.  And I don't just mean the money from the mission I was on - I mean I lost a couple thousand out of my bank.

I'm told (we'll get there) that this has been addressed in a patch.  Maybe; I've been careful not to die, since.  But, even deaths during missions or - get this - deathmatches have the perception of overwhelming loss.  I appreciate feeling a need to conserve ammo, but I shouldn't feel like using my SMG is a travesty!  It just feels like resources are too scarce - and, to top it off, it even feels like I can't carry around much ammo.

I mentioned earlier how games like World of Warcraft exploit the need to get gear (and gold) in the interest of making players spend massive amounts of time and therefore expend their monthly subscriptions; GTA Online is free, so why not be a bit more liberal with the...Oh.  Oh, yeah - they want you to pay for your in-game money.  Still, have fuckin' mercy.

#2:  Improve Matchmaking!

Rockstar, I honestly don't know which to make the #1 or #2 suggestion here, but I feel like this is a problem that follows, at least for me, from the one I'm making number one.  Now, I play on X-Box 360.  I play on X-Box Live.  In fact, I only bought X-Box Live Gold so I can play GTAO.  I'm not really regretting that decision, but I am slightly annoyed because - either for XBL-specific reasons or GTA-specific ones - I can't seem to find a good match.

I get that a simultaneous session is limited to 16 players.  I'd heard rumors it might be at/get to 32, but at least for now it's 16.  I understand that, and that's acceptable to me.  What makes no sense, however, is that - in my pursuit of a 16 man death match - I feel like I am constrained to only the 15 other people I'm in a session with, plus or minus my online friends.  There are suggestions, vis-a-vis the "skill-matched players" panel, that matchmaking looks for more than just a dozen-and-change people, but I don't feel it.

Let me pull another example from WoW:  When I search for a random dungeon or PvP map (think "mission" or "Deathmatch," or "Race" in GTAO), WoW searches over each and every server in my region for any player looking for any suitable game.  This allows it to query literally millions of players, and - in Raid Finder's example - usually lets me into a 25-man raid within a minute or two.  Neat, huh?  Forming up an in-game team in WoW is easy; I don't know how to do something so essential in GTAO.  Who is that talking over my XBL headset?  Why doesn't the game tell me who, at least, has an active mic?

Why isn't GTAO the same way?  Is it just XBL?  I don't think I should feel like I'm limited to 16-20 potential candidates when I'm searching for a 16-player match.  Given the way Rockstar's servers were overwhelmed, I feel like I should have thousands of possible players - teammates, or enemies.  I get that some of these gripes come off as spoiled PC gamer gripes, but let's be real here - some of these problems were solved back in Everquest.

#1:  Tell Me What I'm Doing!

Seriously, Rockstar, here's the deal:  GTAO has incredible potential.  I get that you haven't released Heists yet, as Heists in GTA5 are reminiscent of "end-game" raiding to me.  I get that you can't make it too easy for players to acquire new assets.  What I don't get is why it feels like I'm signing up for game sessions with the objectives list covered up.

Let's start with the "Missions" that you can sign up for.  "Missions" is a very vague term - many of them are player-versus-player missions!  Two teams fight over one McGuffin.  In principle, this is a great idea!  But, it's also PvP.  When I think of "Missions," I think of PvE - Player Versus Enemy.  Still other "missions" are called "Last Man Standing," which is actually a form of deathmatch.  Meanwhile, Deathmatches come in many shapes and sizes - that's good!  But they aren't well-categorized - that's bad!  Do I land in a team match, or every man for himself?

Moving on, now we'll look at the actual job rewards.  What the hell is "JP?"  Nobody seems to know.  How much money and reputation will you get for a mission?  No idea, it varies from assignment to assignment (good!), and you aren't told anything in advance (bad!).  What are your objectives?  Well, you're sometimes assigned to chase down a car that spawns halfway across the map on you, doesn't give you a GPS reading, and - even if you assign one manually - moves so that by the time you reach where the car once was, it's halfway across the map again!

And then you get a pittance of $1,000 for chasing it?

Worst of all, however, I think is the lack of communication from Rockstar to players on the matchmaking issues they've experienced.  Never mind what's gently called "Disappearing Character Disorder!"  How about a solid explanation as to why GTAO created a disastrous bottleneck in the first couple missions?  How about details on what jobs are available when?  How about a cohesive story line for our silent protagonist?

How's this for an idea, my oh-so-beloved Rockstar - how about, when I post this article to your twitter feed, you guys actually read and respond to it?  Hah!

Jesse Pohlman is a writer and gamer hailing from Long Island in New York.  He's an independently published author, as well as an educator and ski bum.  Check out his Amazon Author page and buy a book, stop by his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter.  Or, y'know, just anonymously gripe in the comments section.