How GTA Online Went From a Straightforward Crime Sandbox to Land of the Impossible

How GTA Online Went From a Straightforward Crime Sandbox to Land of the Impossible

Lasers, Hoverbikes, Thunderdomes and Satellite Strikes.

Stick around in Los Santos for any amount of time, and it won't be long before you see a tank colored in hot pink camo patterns rumbling over civilians, police gunfire ineffectively plinking off its bulk. Look upward and you might see hoverbikes battling fighter jets, or somebody in a gorilla mask wobbling around in a jetpack. Back on ground level, you can enjoy weaponized vehicles crashing together in the local coliseum, crowds cheering as remote-operated gun turrets and bomber drones tear cars to shreds. Of course, this assumes nobody runs you over with a flying Delorean on the way there.

None of this is hyperbole. Seven years ago Grand Theft Auto Online was a vaguely-realistic crime sandbox, a convincing copy of Los Angeles in which players could commit acts of hideous violence on each other with impunity. No, it wasn't too grounded; not when people kept cheekily crashing into the local airbase to steal fighter jets, but if you started a fight with somebody, you could be assured they'd retaliate with weaponry made on Planet Earth. Now all bets are off on what to expect. Gun down a player and you could get blasted from space by an orbital doomsday cannon ten minutes later.

So, how did we get to this point? When did gatling lasers replace assault rifles as the standard combat gear, and how did it not garner more surprise along the way?

It All Began With the Heists Update

The story begins proper in March 2015 with the long-anticipated "Heists update." As hard as it is to imagine now, there were nearly two years in which GTA Online had no heists, just a mix of competitive matchmaking and open-world carnage. After finally introducing the heists—long co-op missions that punished failure hard—Rockstar apparently felt a need to tempt players with a big cash reward at the end. This would also double as a way to lure former players back.

With Heists comes money, but money's worthless without something good to spend it on. | Rockstar Games/Rockstar North

But GTA Online had been available for two years, and money—the main resource—was something that many players had in spades. The obvious solution was to add new buyable weapons and vehicles to drain wallets and present new ambitions, but you couldn't just dump a bunch of reskinned pistols in the shops and call it a day. The new gear would have to be superior to the existing stuff if it was ever going to justify its existence. Or, to put it simply, nobody buys a gun that does 99 damage if they already have one that does 100.

To its credit, Rockstar showed some restraint at first: many of the new cars in the Heists update were just slightly bulkier versions of existing ones, and the only weird weapon was a little flare gun that could set people on fire. However, there were two vehicles that immediately stood out. One was the Armored Kuruma, the other was the Hydra fighter jet. The latter could always have been stolen from the airbase, but after the Heists update it was properly purchasable, allowing owners to spawn one at the nearest airport whenever they wanted.

But it was the Kuruma that proved the real problem. The Hydra was clearly more powerful than anything else, but it was also jaw-droppingly expensive, costing well over $40 when translated to micropayment value. The Armored Kuruma, on the other hand, was a titanium-covered car that couldn't be taken out by anything less than an armful of C4. Even the windows were covered in protective slats that allowed the player to shoot at targets while remaining safe. It was also about a sixth of the Hydra's price, and had no real drawbacks over a normal car.

You can guess what happened next. Within six months nearly everybody who played GTA Online regularly was driving their own Kuruma. It wasn't cool or notably more fun than the rest of the game, there was just no reason not to when it was clearly the best available vehicle. Not only that, but those who lacked the skill or time to beat the heists were flocking to the micropayment "Shark Cards" in droves, as every player who killed them from the safety and comfort of this little mobile fortress made it look like the perfect purchase. Rockstar had suddenly started a strange arms race with its own players, and one of the biggest online games in the world would never be the same again.

Sequel Fatigue

As this was going on, we were getting a strange kind of sequel-fatigue within a single game, where new content was becoming more and more over-the-top to keep people interested. 2016 began relatively soberly, but then the bikes from Tron: Legacy were introduced and it all went weird again. The year after we saw the Doomsday Heist update, at which point GTA Online fully jumped the shark like few before it.

The Doomsday Heist threw out realism in favor of spectacle. There was no coming back now. | Rockstar Games/Rockstar North

To put it bluntly, the Doomsday Heist was pure Team America fever dream. After buying their own military bunker, players had to save the world from a billionaire with a crazed AI, an army of clones and all the nation's nuclear codes. And just to prove that things weren't going to slow down, the year after that we got Arena War, which refitted one of the game's stadiums into a Thunderdome halfway between Mad Max and Rocket League.

Every update since has come in two parts: increasingly extravagant gameplay, and increasingly powerful equipment, both ramped up to absurd levels. Whenever a more sedate or realistic update came along, like running your own drug business or sleazy nightclub, it was inevitably much more profitable, as though the loss in spectacle had to be apologized for with a bigger cash prize. Everything was subject to inflation: money, prices, gear, missions. It all just got bigger and madder each time.

This arguably peaked when the Oppressor Mk II dropped in 2018 to a mix of utter love and utter hatred, depending entirely on whether you could afford one. The Mk I had been around for some time, a motorbike with glider fins that you could use for a controlled and safe descent, but the Mk II was something else entirely. It was a booster rocket you could operate like a motorbike, giving unrestrained flight, speed and ease of use. It was small and agile enough to be nigh-impossible to shoot down, and if you had some extra money you could equip the damn thing with homing missiles, allowing you to zoom over an enemy and blow them up without even looking at them. Like the Kuruma before it, there was no reason not to use it, and the skies of Los Santos were filled with them within weeks.

Rockstar patched the Mk II in Christmas 2019 to make it a bit less unstoppable, but it was still hated in the community for a long time, seen as the vehicle of choice for griefers and the wealthier kind of troll. There were even online petitions to nerf or remove it entirely, some of which got thousands of signatures.

For many, the Oppressor Mk II was a step too far. | Rockstar Games/Rockstar North

The Price of Escalation

There was a secondary effect to all this escalation, one that players have disliked even more than the Mk II or any number of griefers: it resulted in GTA's in-game prices escalating with every new update. We've talked about this issue in more detail and how it's worsened over time here, but it shows no sign of stopping soon, and I don't think it's unrelated to this current trend of insane excess. In fact, the Casino Heist released since that article has been considered a particular offender, pricing unremarkable sedans at over a million dollars. Everything has to be more, each time, every time, and pricing is clearly a part of that mindset.

The result of all this is that many people have been wondering if the same fate is destined for Red Dead Online; that revolvers and stallions will eventually be supplanted by phasers and mech suits. Personally, I suspect the answer is both yes and no. We'll probably get some of that, but not quite to the goofy extremes of Los Santos. Remember, RDR2's campaign has a zodiac killer and a steampunk robot, so weirdness isn't entirely off the table, especially when everybody wants Undead Nightmare to come back.

Still, Red Dead Redemption has always been more grounded than its big brother. The real indicator will be when Red Dead's players start dwindling, because if there's any moment that Rockstar will start adding cyborg horses and laser-sighted AK-74s, that'll be it. After all, it worked last time.

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Joel Franey

Guides Writer

Joel loves books, games, comics and drinks that make a person feel like they just got kicked in the head by a mule. He has a Masters in writing from Sussex, which he somehow got by writing about Superman. He is absolutely NOT three children in a long coat, so please stop asking.

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