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Rockstar, GTA Online, and the case of the staggered release
by Mike Rose on 10/07/13 10:54:00 am   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


We've come to expect server issues whenever a massively online multiplayer game launches now. With so many players looking to get in on the action as early as possible, MMO developers rarely have the resources to duct-tape the beast together, and it can be weeks after launch when a game finally begins to settle down and become fully playable.

This month has seen a particularly interesting example of this, and raised questions about how games are critiqued. GTA Online, the online portion of Grand Theft Auto V, launched two weeks after the main spectacle, and is available to play through the menu system of GTA V. It throws players into an online version of San Andreas, filled with co-operative and competitive jobs to complete with friends and strangers.

Of course, anyone following along with its release will know that my first paragraph very much applies to GTA Online. It's a week later, and the online game is still having massive issues - over the weekend Rockstar was forced to take the cloud servers offline for a brief period, such that many players weren't actually able to even attempt to join a game. My own personal experience has involved finally managing to slug my way through the tutorial after two hours of disconnecting and reconnecting, only to find that my character has disappeared.

But it's not GTA Online's server issues that I'm interested in talking about here. Rather, it's the staggered release of the online component of the game that I find intriguing. Rockstar has given the following reasoning for the staggered release: "We want it to be known as a different entity, a separate thing, and it'll grow on its own. It'll be GTA Online; it's not part of GTA V."

As you'd expect, other theories for the staggered release have been floating around too. Some people have suggested that it might have been a play on Rockstar's part to keep people from selling the game on after they'd finished it, therefore keeping the value of the game high for as long as possible. The other theory, and the more interesting theory, is that Rockstar knew that GTA Online wasn't ready for the torrent of players it would receive, and Rockstar wanted to ensure that the launch of GTA V was focused on how great the single player is, rather than forums filled with people moaning about how GTA Online simply won't work properly. The company even strongly hinted days before the launch of GTA Online that they simply weren't ready for the number of players that were about to attack their servers.

This, then, brings up an interesting question: If GTA Online had been launched alongside GTA V, would it have received less critical acclaim, and lower review scores? And if this were the case, does this mean that the press should have held their scores back until GTA Online was launched, or at least, should they be revising their scores now? We can say that review scores mean nothing, but GTA V is currently the second highest-rated game ever on Metacritic - therefore, if launching the online component of the game at the same time as the single player would have brought their score down, that's actually a fairly big deal.

I genuinely have no idea what the answer to that question is. My own personal belief is that we should be looking at a package as a whole when we critique it, and therefore GTA Online should indeed be taken into consideration when reviewing GTA V as a whole, given that a) it comes as part of the whole product, and b) it can only be accessed as part of GTA V. I decided to ask people on Twitter how they felt, and numerous arguments were made in various different directions.

Argument 1: GTA V and GTA Online are separate entities

This was a common argument. Essentially, since Rockstar has sold GTA V and GTA Online as different products with different names and features, a number of people felt that they should be critiqued separately, whether that be as two separate reviews, or simply separate articles. Even Rockstar has said this (see the previous quote above.)

My issue with this argument is that, well, it's rubbish. It's essentially saying that Rockstar gave the multiplayer component a special name, and therefore it isn't part of GTA V, even though they reside on the same disc, and GTA Online has to be accessed through GTA V. It's buying into Rockstar's sales technique, which is as follows: "This part of the game doesn't fully work as described, so regard it as something completely different that doesn't detract from the main spectacle."

GTA V and GTA Online are not separate - the GTA V box even says "Featuring GTA Online" on it. If you could buy them separately, then fair enough (and maybe one day in the future, this is Rockstar's plan) - but for now, this argument holds no water. This is simply a case of people forgiving the multiplayer because it launched at a different time.

Argument 2: Should we really be penalizing Rockstar for adding an online mode?

Some people suggested that Rockstar chose to add a massive multiplayer mode to GTA this time around, and let's be honest, they really didn't need to - GTA V on its own without GTA Online is worth the admission price, and GTA Online is just a cherry on top, albeit a slightly mouldy cherry that keeps disappearing and reappearing on top of random objects throughout your house.

I understand the logistics behind this argument, and I think it's the argument that holds the most water - as shown with the raft of perfect review scores, GTA V can indeed hold its own as a single player game. But saying "the single player is fantastic, so let them off the broken multiplayer" steps into very muddy grounds, as it becomes more of a personal preference than an objective viewpoint.

Consider this example: When Battlefield 3 launched in 2011, reviewers and players alike slapped its multiplayer around with all sorts of praise. It was one of the best multiplayer shooters ever, and it still has reams of players logging in to this day. But if you ask someone to describe Battlefield 3 to you, they'll most like say: "The multiplayer is fantastic, but the single player is dire."

Indeed, the single player campaign of Battlefield 3 was not well received, and as a result, many reviews marked the game down. Check out the game's Metacritic page, and the further down the scores you go, the more often the single player campaign is mentioned as a negative. Some publications really took the awfulness of the single player to heart, and the scores they presented the game with show this.

So let's apply the GTA Online staggered release question to Battlefield 3 then, but reversed: If the single-player portion of Battlefield 3 had been released a few weeks after the multiplayer component, would Battlefield 3 have received better reviews and better player satisfaction?

If the answer to that question is "yes", then it means that Rockstar has essentially sold GTA V and GTA Online in the following way: Release the part of your game that you know is fantastic and works like a charm, and hold back the bit that isn't so great - then weeks later, you can put out the bit that isn't so fantastic, and sell it as being a free update. That way, people will care less!

The bottom line is this: If GTA V had launched with GTA Online, it would not have a Metacritic of 98 right now. Reviews would talk about the issues, players would be discussing how the Online portion lets the rest of the package down, and it would not have been such a widely successful launch for Rockstar. It's pretty hard to question whether this would have been the case - just look at other games, like the aforementioned Battlefield 3, that have shared similar fates.

What's the answer, then?

It's a massively fascinating case of a developer holding content back to maximize the impact of a game's launch - whether Rockstar purposely meant for it to unfold in this way or not. The original question of whether reviewers should be holding back their thoughts until the full package is out is actually a red herring, because I can tell you straight off: They aren't going to hold reviews back, because they have hits to cash in, and embargos to meet. I'm not going to pretend that I'm above any of this - if I had reviewed GTA V, I no doubt would have done the same thing - but it just goes to show how striving for traffic can cause problems for giving consumers the full picture.

There are two real solutions. The first involves doing separate reviews for the single player and online portions of the game, and is the route most publications are taking. The problem with this approach is that it's making GTA out to be a special case. Barely any other games get this treatment (once again, Battlefield 3 was treated as a single review), and it's only happening because the embargoes for the single player and online portions were different - again, going with Rockstar's wishes, rather than what is useful for consumers.

The other solution is that, when the embargo for one portion of a game goes live, rather than writing a full review with a score, a publication could easily leave the score off, explain that they are reviewing the single player content, and note that the online portion of the review, along with a score that wraps it all up in a neat bow, will be available in due course.

This, in my eyes, is the most preferable solution - but again, it's not going to happen, since not putting a score on the first part of the review means that a publication is left off Metacritic, won't get passed around forums as much, and generally won't get as many hits.

It's one of the reasons for the wide range of scores that SimCity received. Some publications were fine with putting up reviews that were based on the game pre-launch - others held back until after the launch, found that servers couldn't handle the load, and gave a lower score accordingly.

Like I say, I don't know the answer - but I do know that other studios are going to be looking at what Rockstar has done here with the staggered release, and may be deciding to have a crack at the model themselves. Whether this is to the detriment of consumers all comes down to whether or not you're feeling particularly forgiving of a particular developer.

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Liam White
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Even though the multiplayer has more bugs than a dead animal at this point, I don't find myself particularily bothered by it. The nigh broken nature of it isn't taking away my enjoyment of the single player, and the way I look at it, Grand Theft Auto V is a single player game at its core. That, and I generally believe in rating games based on how much enjoyment I get out of them, regardless of mechanics that might not work. My favorite game IS Deadly Premonition after all.

Jacob Germany
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The problem isn't the alleged manipulation by Rockstar, or the wisdom/foolishness in reviewing a game separately or as a whole. The problem is the entire methodology behind gaming reviews. The fact that (almost) all reviews start with a theoretical "perfect" and start subtracting points for flaws rather than the inverse (start with 0 or a middle/median and modify it according to value/worth).. that is the core problem that results in games being treated unfairly for excelling in multiplayer but flailing in single-player or vice versa. That's the root of the inconsistencies, the lack of reliability and the lack of validity.

In other words, game reviews are a dreadfully subjective, invalid, and unreliable process. The solution isn't witholding scores or altering scores, but restructuring the underlying system.

Alfa Etizado
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Never thought of it that away, starting from that and heading towards zero. I think that help explains the somewhat low standards reviewers have when it comes to certain aspects of a game.

It's like everyone's expecting the game to be THE game and then they find what is wrong with it.

Jacob Germany
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Yeah, it's unfairly biased against open-world games that inevitably contain more bugs and quirks, not to mention imperfect systems, and towards games with smaller domains. It's not even that the resulting conclusions are wrong (that open world games have bugs or systems that aren't as polished), but that the numerical score is more of a measure of "polish" or "bug-less-ness" than it is "Should I buy this game?" or "Is there enough worth for the price?" or similar such measures.

The simplest solution would be to use a system that adds worth from zero, though certainly someone could create a more nuanced and valid measure if enough (time/whatever) was invested in the idea.

Michael G
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It's worth noting that almost all of the bugs can be attributed to connection issues from the number of people trying to access. If they'd released both at the same time they would have split the base of players between single player and multi player, dramatically lightening the load.
Simcity was a different beast, it HAD to be online, there weren't any other options given. It also had bugs that were simply related to poor design.
So, Simcity was reviewed as a complete entity as was BF3. Saying the scores for GTA V would be lower if it was also a complete entity at launch assumes that it would still have the same problems.

Kyle Redd
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I think the player load would have been roughly equal. A great many people who purchased the game at release played the single-player portion of the game, didn't like it or got bored with it, and then put the game away without ever coming back to try the multiplayer portion when it launched a week later. This resulted in reduced player load on Rockstar's servers, even though the people who did show up were still too much for them too handle.

Also, I believe you are giving Rockstar too much credit by assuming that almost all of the problems with GTA Online are caused by traffic overload. Surely there are plenty of issues that are solely the result of bugs, bad design, and/or bad programming.

Hugo Cardoso
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I wonder if anyone at EA is reading this and wondering if they can still do it with BF4. I hope this doesn't become the norm but whoever came up with this idea (if it was indeed premeditated) is a genius.

Jennis Kartens
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IIRC this isn't even new. I can't name anything, but I am quite certain there have been games released with a broken/non-functional MP which then got patched later on to work better... it is also heavy influenced by the perception of the pre-release marketing done by the respective company. If you brag with either modes for any game and then deliver only the half, it is quite more possible to earn negativity. If you however keep the "cherry" as a cherry upfront, it might not have such an impact.

However all in all, why even think of fighting minor (imo) symptoms of an overall broken, biased and useless system that is "game reviews"?

The metacritic-stuff alone is so horrible, caring about MP/SP separation in scoring/ratings is just not worth thinking about until game reviews grow out of the extended marketing they are right now. And I really do not see that happen anytime soon.

Alfa Etizado
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I think Rockstar did it to get the best release possible, so they'd get the best sales. Anyway, so the online aspect is still defective a week later, let's say that problem is fixed and from now on it's smooth sailing. Giving it a bad score because of issues that lasted for a week, would it be fair? Not even talking about being fair to the game, but to the reader. Games exist beyond the launch window. Another example is when a game loses its online component some years after release, what about the score?

In the end reviews seem to exist during a very specific time window, after that they can become pointless. I think there isn't much to be done when it comes to the reviews, and if there's an issue I don't think it's specifically with reviews. If GTA Online had launched with the single player and that had changed the game's score, that score would only be relevant for as long as Online wasn't working, which I bet isn't even enough time for maybe half the players to beat the game, if even that many beat it.

If there's an issue is with the gaming press being so nice all around. Journalists are rarely asking hard questions, they're rarely being critical.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist is also a game that released to the public with great scores and a broken multiplayer experience (still is broken on Wii U.) What it seems to be is the lack of taking multiplayer seriously. We are at a point where a game cannot stand alone on the experience of single player, because the value of the game according to most consumers mindset is diminished with out it. See the "Batman Arkham Origins Wii U no Multiplayer" game forum arguments as an example to this. The consumer claims to hold multiplayer in high regards, but when it comes to reality, it's not that much of a factor to the critics and pundits that review games. As this blog stated, Battlefield 3 got marked down because the single player campaign lacked appeal, however if the multiplyer had the same lack of appeal in another game, the reviewers don't seem to take that into account.

Will they re-review the game because of a broken experience? No, should they just have reviewed the game as two separate entities?? Well if the game developer saw it as two separate things, then the critics and pundits should review it like that as well.

Alfa Etizado
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Yeah but they didn't sell it as two different things.

Vasco Vozone
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It goes without saying that reviews are opinions. Sure in today's age, user reviews and specialist reviews are important steps in the consumer decision making process and will only gain importance as products become less and less distinguishable.

However, as games change in regards to the way that single player and multiplayer are integrated in the experience or segmented as two separate components, it's not that surprising that the approach of reviewers emulates that change.
Sure it might be the same game, but some players might give more attention to SP and others swing the other way. Review outlets would be wise to treat both audiences differently instead of bundling both reviews in the same article.

Regarding R*'s choice of separating the launch of SP and MP I doubt their rationale was to keep reviews high, it seems more likely that they were behind schedule in developing MP (which is clear to see now) and in order to avoid delaying the launch date once more, pushed back the launch for MP.

As to the multiplayer component of GTA, Rockstar was faced with two options after deciding to market GTA V and GTA O as two separate entities:

a) Open Beta: sacrifice the hype bang by allowing large scale testing of servers and game and improve performance with feedback.

b) No large scale testing: hold a closed beta that will fail to simulate live access to the game and servers, but pump up the hype as everyone gets to start multiplayer at almost the same time.

Both options have their risks, but knowing Rockstar's approach to launches, their choice is pretty predictable: go for the hype. The players are now experiencing the consequences of this option but in due time, the overall MP package will be smoothed out as patches and adjustments are made, nothing new here.

My prediction is that once the bugs and teething issues are taken care of, the community will be so engrossed with playing the game that they will forget this debacle. I agree that the service (not the game) is unfinished and shoddy in it's current state, but given the fact that it will not remain so for the rest of the product's lifecycle reviews at this stage will risk becoming irrelevant or outdated in a short time.

Harry Fields
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Multiplayer games of this scope are in it for years, not months. I really, really don't mind that it takes them a month or whatever to get it right. I've just finished the main arc of SP at 82.4% completion. I have plenty left to do. Sure, I'll be playing other games MP this fall, but I'll come back to GTA time and again because it's not an annual release. Given the scope of the game in general, I am much more willing to give them a pass than say, a CoD or BF that has messed up multiplayer. *THAT* is those game's main selling point. They really need to have it right. To me, GTA is SP first and foremost and the multiplayer is just a really sweet bit of icing on top. I think a lot of reviewers saw it that way, too.