Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer component of 2013’s record-breaking success, Grand Theft Auto 5, went live in November of the game’s launch year. In the three and a half years that have passed since then, Rockstar Games has released almost 30 DLC updates for the title, bringing a whole game’s worth of new content – and all of it completely free.
Of course, new content costs money to make, and since Take-Two Interactive Software is a business, making money is kind of a necessity. Thing is, GTA 5 is still moving enough units to fund the DLC production and turn a profit. But Rockstar has found a way to further monetize the game without screwing players over and this has resulted in a secure, long future ahead of GTA Online and its periodical free DLC releases.
In fact, as I write this, players across the globe are hyped up for the next big DLC that GTA Online is slated to receive. Gunrunning will be the biggest update of 2017 and will include a massive amount of content such as new vehicles, bunkers, weapon customization, a game mechanic and more. Like all other updates before it, this DLC will be free for all players.
So how does Rockstar make a profit while giving away free content, and how long can they keep it up?The answer to both of those questions comes down to microtransactions. People buying in-game currency with real money makes the DLC profitable as each update boosts microtransaction sales and Rockstar can keep churning out new free DLC, so long as people keep buying Shark Cards – the in-universe name of the microtransactions.
Some of you may be surprised that this business model works as well as it does, since microtransactions have become something of a dirty word among gamers.
True enough, in many cases microtransactions are used in the oft derided freemium mobile games, which are “free to play” on first glance, but in which progression is nigh impossible without buying into the paid content. Paying players are given access to premium items that non-paying players could never get no matter how much they grind or how skilled they are, since said items would be behind paywalls.
Rockstar developed an engaging microtransaction system that was fair and balanced, meaning that non-paying players could still enjoy all the benefits of the game and access all the content. There’s no way to buy ranks or better stats, and all items, vehicles and pieces of equipment can be purchased by anyone for the same price. Of course, it goes without saying that there are no cheats that can be used either – thankfully they’re there in the story mode, though, just like every other GTA game.Truthfully, time is the only variable in GTA Online. A single universal currency is used – $GTA – which is both what you earn through gameplay and what you can buy through microtransactions. Whether you purchase a Shark Card comes down to “would I rather spend time earning the currency or drop real money to get it now?”. This isn’t a case of being forced into paying to progress, but a choice of what you value more: time or money.
Another crucial aspect of this setup is incentive. GTA Online DLCs roughly fall into three tiers: minor, medium and major. Minor DLCs are almost a weekly occurrence and are composed of only a single new vehicle with maybe an Adversary Mode (the various PvP game modes in GTA Online) added in. Medium DLCs add a handful of vehicles and a smaller gameplay gimmick and usually follow a series of updates – this year’s Special Vehicle Circuit was such a DLC. Finally, there are the major DLCs, of which there are two to three each year that add a massive amount of content, with a good dozen vehicles, several new missions, entire new game mechanics and more.
With all this content peppered into the calendar there is almost always something new on the horizon. The endless barrage of new content ensures that players are hard-pressed to earn all the money needed to buy everything and keep up with the newest additions, making Shark Cards more enticing.
Of course, you don’t need to own all the new content to succeed. The hierarchies of GTA Online’s best items (fastest car, most powerful gun, etc.) are rarely reshuffled and it’s not like every single DLC tops the previous one, forcing you to buy new content to remain competitive in PvP. Having the best model of everything isn’t an expensive venture, and non-paying players can absolutely afford these items.Regardless, the need to own more is hardcoded into the human brain so Shark Cards sell like hotcakes, making massive profits. These profits allow for the funding of further DLC, which then boost Shark Card sales even more.
At the end of the day, Rockstar can happily keep up the stream of free DLC as long as people keep buying the cards, and based on sales trends showing Online revenue going up and up, we’re guessing this can easily continue for a few more years.