Monday, May 21, 2012


So, in which direction will GTA V take us? It's not immediately obvious - and in this tricky post-announcement, pre-anything-else period, multitudinous dubious rumours swirl like dirty socks of pseudo-truth within the great washing machine of the internet - but the patchwork of clues point to a broader, persistent universe, picture.
Current stories claim many things. WWII fighter planes will be flyable. There will be advanced on-foot police tactics, including riot shields and tear gas. Real-time radio traffic reports will help us avoid congested roads during frantic chases. Los Santos will have a dynamic, fully functioning economy that we'll be able to contribute to...
Unfortunately, this latest batch of plausible-if-unspectacular reports (initially posted on the Gamespot forums, but later removed) also claim to have come from a friend of a disgruntled ex-Rockstar employee, now released from his obligations to secrecy. This does stretch the back story's credibility. Rockstar wouldn't let someone go without signing the kind of non-disclosure agreement that keeps their grandchildren from talking.
But while rumours remain rumours, there are much more tangible clues knocking around as to GTA V's direction. And they don't just come from a guy on the internet. Instead, the answers come from Rockstar themselves, 'leaked' not by their words but by their evolving behaviour and design decisions over the last few years. In a slow-burning, roundabout way, Rockstar has been telling you the shape of GTA V long before GTA V was even announced.
Most recently and significantly, Rockstar have been talking a lot about narrative and multiplayer. It seems the company's new mission is to blend the two, maintaining the essence of what makes both campaign and multiplayer gameplay successful in their own ways, but blurring the lines between them in order to make each more satisfying.
We'll see Rockstar take the first official step along this path (and I emphasise the word 'official' because it isn't really the first step at all, as will be explained) with Max Payne 3's Gang Wars mode. The gist is that rather than providing the usual series of repeated team deathmatch rounds until an eventual winner is decided, the events of one round of Max Payne's multiplayer will inform the mode chosen for the next, with ongoing plot-threads tied to the main campaign running through every skirmish.
Say for instance, that round one is a Kane-&-Lynch-style gang vs gang heist objective. Round two involves the thieving team having to protect its highest scoring member from the murderous wounded pride of the opposition. A Capture The Flag win leads to a dynamically-generated Protect The Leader challenge - the whole experience (in theory) effortlessly blending the traditionally irreconcilable joys of the scripted and the emergent.
The factions will be the same encountered in Max's single-player saga, and the scenarios played out will detail their unexplored stories, set both before and after the solo game. See Max Payne 3's multiplayer as operating in the same way an ongoing TV series fleshes out the main story thread by doing a spin-off arc based on a supporting character. It's an exciting idea, and could break down the barrier between game modes, demolishing the traditional idea of a 'story mode' by turning both single and multiplayer into differently-shaped parts of the same narrative.
But there's much earlier precedent for this sort of thing within Rockstar's work. The studio might only be officially starting in this direction, but Red Dead Redemption was clearly an early sketch for it. The architecture of RDR's online mode was all about the dissolution of single-player/multiplayer boundaries. Its use of the main game's open-world map as a canvas on which to smudge together organic exploration, dynamic play and more traditional MP skirmishes was an inspired move, and one that's becoming a more obviously important evolutionary step for gaming.
The thing is, ever-escalating development costs - plus the starkly polarised thrive or dive nature of sales - mean that triple-A games need to change shape or die. For evidence of the seriousness of the situation, you only need look at the number of devs who have gone under this generation, and cross-reference those statistics with the increasing ferocity of the industry's (not always well-directed) war against piracy and second-hand sales.
Big budget games now need to be more than games. They need to be platforms and services that continue to be ongoing parts of players' lifestyles long after the initial launch window hype. Put simply, publishers need to keep their discs on your shelf, not Gamestation's Pre-Owned rack. That's why Mass Effect 3 added multiplayer, and that's why it encouraged online play by tying the mechanics of that multiplayer to success in the main campaign. That's also why it hit players with a fully connected multimedia assault, using iOS apps to fuel their obsession with the game-world and enabling them to further shape their story even when not playing - we doubt your GTA V experience will be limited to one platform.
Tellingly, Rockstar has just announced its 'Crews' idea; a title-agnostic clan system existing across all of its releases, capable of creating dynamic rivalries which persist outside of the games but are settled within them. It will anchor multiplayer to further emotional weight in the real world, and as such is going to be vital to GTA V.
"But GTA sells millions," you may scoff. "Why should Rockstar worry?" Well, there's another issue that Rockstar must address.
You see the frustrating, ironic thing about GTA is that despite being a game beloved by tens of millions worldwide, it's actually appreciated by few of its buyers. Most people who buy it are not like you and I. They don't read games magazines or websites. They're not interested in developers' creative intent. GTA is a mass-market phenomenon because it's bought in huge numbers, but many of its 'fans' buy it simply because it's a mass-market phenomenon. They're the folk who use their consoles as COD and FIFA dispensers; folk who'd be catatonic after a second of Braid.
When they start a new GTA game, the second they're in control they find a gun and start wrecking stuff. Rockstar's cinematic ambitions and philosophical narrative is not for them. They treat GTA simply as a drop-in, drop-out destructive sandbox, and as such are responsible for one of the most depressing stats in gaming. According to an official Xbox Live Achievements report, less than 30% of players (on Xbox 360, at least) finished the main story in GTA IV, let alone any side-missions.
Rockstar is rightly proud of its groundbreaking work. And with so many players using it simply as a way of casually messing about, something needs to be done. GTA V must be built in a way sympathetic to the less dedicated, more anarchic player. It needs to allow them to experience the story on their own terms, but without alienating those who do 'get it'. It must surely be the next planned evolutionary point from Max Payne 3's innovations.
It's been discussed how the four-man heist footage in GTA V's trailer hints at co-op action. But what if that co-op action is an option in every story mission? What if GTA V blends Max Payne 3's narratively-structured multiplayer ideas with Red Dead's living online open-world? What if it layers those ideas over Los Santos' entire main campaign world, to create a game simultaneously a single-player narrative campaign, and (optionally) inhabitable with dynamic multiplayer carnage?
What if story missions can become multiplayer, with real people taking over allies and enemies on the fly?
What if story missions can become multiplayer, with real people taking over allies and enemies on the fly? You still get GTA's epic story, but instilled with an ever-shifting organic turf-war between Crews. Let some of those skirmishes tweak less intrusive background details of the main story, like shifting the balance of criminal power, and you have an elegant, innovative solution to every issue we've discussed here.
Remember how GTA IV's in- game mobile phone was intended as an organic link to multiplayer, navigating game modes while also bonding them as parts of a cohesive world? Just another stepping-stone. Soon enough, GTA will be calling you on your real phone.


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