clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

GTA Online on PS5 shows us Rockstar’s real priority now

It’s a shift that has been happening for years

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

a black man playing an arcade racing game while two friends look on in Grand Theft Auto Online’s Diamond Casino Heist update Image: Rockstar

Grand Theft Auto 5 fans are tired.

Sony’s PS5 reveal, which began with Rockstar’s logo, got people briefly excited — only for everyone to realize that the open-world developer was once again rereleasing their multi-protagonist action game, but for the next generation of consoles. Sure, there will be bells and whistles, with Rockstar promising technical and visual improvements, as well as performance upgrades. But, after a couple of generations of the same game, we’re nearing diminishing returns on the new experiences that GTA 5 can offer — and fans know that.

Rockstar’s decision here is a no-brainer, of course: GTA 5 just had one of its best years ever in 2019, and with the recent decision to briefly give out the game for free, that playerbase presumably continues to explode. After all, the Epic Games Store couldn’t even keep up with the sheer volume of people trying to download GTA 5 for free in mid 2020. Why stop that momentum just because new consoles are coming out in a few months?

Tucked away in that bigger PS5 announcement was the news that, not only is Rockstar bringing GTA 5 back, it’s also going to be releasing the MMO-like GTA Online as a standalone experience in 2021. Those who upgrade will get “new updates” and “exclusive content,” and the multiplayer experience will be free on PS5 for the first three months following its release. To entice people to start playing now, however, Rockstar says that all PlayStation Plus members will get $1M in-game money every month that they log in to play GTA Online. While no specifics have been shared, these vague promises already sound more substantial, content-wise, than whatever improvements are coming to the main portion of the game.

Rumor has it that Rockstar’s next big project is in the early development stages right now, so there is something to look forward to, perhaps with an actual narrative. But if GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2 are any indication, whatever Rockstar releases next will likely share a similar strategy: release a massive game that can stand on its own, but that will ultimately act as a gateway drug to a monetized multiplayer experience. The multiplayer will be supported for years, and will likely become a key source of revenue. The single-player, meanwhile, can either be discounted — GTA 5 is perpetually on sale — if not eventually given out for “free,” as evidenced by Red Dead Redemption 2’s appearance on the Xbox Game Pass.

It is no mistake that Red Dead Redemption 2, even after selling tremendously well, has not received single-player expansions — but plenty of Online updates. It is no mistake that GTA 5 has gotten no single-player updates, yet has so much content for GTA Online that it will soon be able to exist as a standalone experience.

While Rockstar maintains that a lack of single-player additions “weren’t a conscious choice” when it came to GTA 5, it continued the same approach when it came to its Western. In the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, the long-term focus on Online was intentional, according to a dev last year. And why not? By Take-Two’s own admission, the multiplayer segments of these two games help contribute to over half of the revenue made by the company.

GTA Online as a standalone marks a shift, albeit one that has been happening for years now. By decoupling itself from the single-player, Rockstar opens up a ton of different possibilities that aren’t dictated on the limitations of the base game. Who knows what GTA Online might look like in a couple of years? At this point, fans clamoring for single-player additions might be a minority when pitted against the number of people playing and spending money Rockstar’s multiplayer worlds.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon