Class A thugs: why Grand Theft Auto Online marks a new beginning at Rockstar

GTA Online

If GTA V’s singleplayer campaign is the gateway drug, it seems Online is where players will get a shot of the really hard stuff. With GTA Online that feeling of dashing or driving around a living world is no longer illusory; promising a persistent and continually expanding world, it’ll be the reason to return to Los Santos long after GTA V’s final cutscene is played out.

Plenty of what we see in the video released today is unsurprising. Player customisation is de rigueur for this sort of thing, as is the ability to form crews, take part in missions together and earn a reputation. Earning (and spending) money along the way, building a property empire and splurging cash on fast cars will all be enhanced, online parts of what Grand Theft Auto has always been.

What’s truly new is the expansion of that world. In the past, Rockstar has spent years (and hundreds of millions of dollars) building a meticulously detailed game world, only to stop and move onto another. GTA Online will bring a sense of permanence to Los Santos, and every future expansion of its borders will give players a fresh reason to return over weeks, months and years.

Limitations have hardly been an issue in Grand Theft Auto before, of course, but the places Rockstar has realised so wonderfully – Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas – have always been finite, regardless of their scale. Even with the advent of GTA IV DLC, Rockstar never extended Liberty City’s borders, giving us new things to do within them instead. The promise of an ever-expanding space in GTA Online almost makes GTA V’s singleplayer campaign appear restrictive in comparison, however spectacular it turns out to be.

And how far will Rockstar take the player creation aspect of GTA Online? Creating spawn points, defining weapons and tinkering with objectives in multiplayer deathmatches and races is surely only the beginning for the player’s influence on this expanding game world. While it’s unlikely Rockstar will ever go ‘full Minecraft’ on us with GTA Online, we’ve all seen how powerful turning players into creators can be.

The millions playing GTA Online after it goes live on October 1, given the right tools, can create extraordinary new places and things. Rockstar can then turn from creator to curator-in-chief, defining the ruleset before allowing the community’s imagination to run wild. This is Rockstar, once so secretive and cooly aloof, opening itself up a little, letting players become a fundamental part of its products, not mere consumers of them.

We’re moving into an era of constant connection, from dumb discs in boxes to dynamic service-led entertainment. GTA V and GTA Online might share Los Santos and a set of core mechanics, but they demonstrate very different philosophies. The former is what Grand Theft Auto has always been, a vibrant videogame playground with plotlines, progression and, eventually, an end. The latter is a beginning, and the start of what Grand Theft Auto will become – an open world in the truest sense of the term.