It’s never been more tempting to get into Grand Theft Auto Online, and that’s by design. In May, Rockstar flung open the gates to Los Santos by giving away Grand Theft Auto 5 on the Epic Games Store for a limited time, along with millions of in-game dollars just for logging in. Fans have built on that hype through viral alien gang wars that encourage newbies to log in and pick a side. But anyone who jumps in for the first time will be hit with a terrible truth: Veteran fans are rich, angry jerks who can afford tanks and orbital cannons.
According to Take Two Interactive’s most recent investors call, GTA Online had broken records for player numbers in July 2019, and then broke that record again every month from December 2019 through to March 2020. Rockstar has never confirmed the game’s exact player base or given a ballpark figure, but Grand Theft Auto 5 has sold over 130 million copies, which gives it a massive potential population.
In many ways, this is a boon — an online game continually needs fresh blood, lest the community wither away. But as I’ve recently learned from my time in the game, new players who don’t know how anything works tend to cause problems in GTA Online. I’ve heard similar complaints from more seasoned players, who feel that newbies often break unspoken rules, like blundering into someone else’s escort cargo so they fail their mission.
The new player situation only gets worse during endgame content, like the Diamond Casino Heist. Just as experienced players try to pull off the perfect quick heist for lots of cash, their new companion goes bumbling through the level, alerting guards and turning a smooth job into a shitshow.
In short, GTA Online veterans are used to having their sandbox a certain way, and now these sweet summer children are trampling right through the sand castles. And what happens when two groups of fans have a dispute? They usually duke it out. Except in this case, the sides aren’t quite fair. Older players, who have been around since before the servers were even stable, have already amassed vast in-game fortunes. They have accessed each new DLC as it arrives, unlocking powerful weapons that are capable of murdering even the most skilled and crafty criminal.
These aren’t simple sniper rifles or armored vehicles. Long-time players have assets like orbital cannons that can strike from space, flying cars with lock-on missiles, sci-fi flying bikes with powerful arsenals, and impenetrable tanks. The APC, for instance, is a military-style piece of hardware (and one of the weaker tanks in the game), and it can be purchased for three million in-game dollars. That’s a hefty sum, and the prices only climb for more powerful models.
“It’s brutal sometimes,” says PJ, a new GTA Online player who picked up the game at the end of 2019, over Twitter. “I used some of my Rockstar money to buy a vehicle warehouse, because that seemed like a good way to make money. One time, I was just trying to get this high-end vehicle, and this guy with a tank just kept rolling up and decimating me. I didn’t want to give up, and I thought I could outlast him because he’d get bored, but I’d just respawn on a hill and get instantly steamrolled.”
The tank was impenetrable by any weapon PJ owned, and even escaping to his sports car didn’t help. “He could chase down my car, flatten it, then get to me just as I spawned. It was like a baby fighting the Terminator.”
GTA Online is extremely good at indulging silly hijinks. I once spent an evening cackling with laughter and using a concentrated gravity gun to flip cars down the street at my buddy, who was playing a terrible game of Frogger. It wasn’t until after that I realized I had splattered a few low-level, weakly armored, innocent players just trying to visit the clothing shop.
Nate is another GTA Online player who’s found joy in tormenting lower-ranked criminals, especially since he’s been playing for years.
“I don’t intentionally camp them because they’re low-level,” Nate told Polygon, “I just find them more often because they don’t have bunkers or arcades to be in, or an Oppressor to stop a lock-on. So if they mess up my delivery or try to start shit, yeah, I’ll launch an orbital strike on them. It’s a power move.”
Some new players are floundering, sending out requests for people to join their heist lobby that rarely go answered. Who wants to play with someone who is clueless? Old players then occasionally wipe them off the face of the Earth, either in response to a slight, or just to spite the new folk filtering into the game.
GTA Online launched in 2013, but the game is still going through growing pains. It’s a good problem for Rockstar to have, and in time, these newbies will learn the ways of the game (or quit in favor of a less cut-throat player base.) For now, though, it’s fascinating to see how Online is settling into the haves and have-nots.
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