One of the most frequent criticisms levied against GTA Online is that it is too much of a grind, that it isn't rewarding enough, that prices are too high compared to how quickly you can acquire cash. Now, while it is true that with the right methods, building up a fortune isn't all that hard, this game does have a pretty tough economy when compared to other multiplayer experiences.
However the question arises why Rockstar chose to jack up prices and generally make it difficult to hoard large amounts of cash. The off-hand reply most haters and even fans provide is "to sell Shark Cards". Granted, there is truth in this. Shark Cards have proved to be a goldmine in terms of revenue for Rockstar, and they have funded three years worth of free DLC for the game.
No matter how much you try to get around it, the fact of the matter is that Rockstar and Take-Two are companies, not charities, so money matters. That said, upon examining GTA Online, it becomes abundantly clear that Shark Cards are not the only reason for the high prices. Rather, there is a cause rooted in the game itself. Namely, it's the fact that GTA Online has no endgame.
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Think about it: the heists, which are generally considered to be the most challenging aspects of the game, are the primary method of acquiring cash due to the relatively high payouts. Heists in GTA Online could be likened to raids in traditional MMORPGs in terms of mechanics, but not in terms of role.
Raids are, in general, endgame content aimed at capped or soft-capped players who want to improve their gear for use in PvP or even tougher raids and other PvE challenges. As such, the most challenging raids and competitive play make up the endgame content of MMOs.
While GTA Online isn't a traditional MMO, it bears enough of the markers to be considered an MMO. However, if you look at Heists, they are not considered to be the final challenge undertaken by only the most skilled of players. No, Heists are run by low and mid level players as well, and are generally viewed as a means to an end rather than the end itself.
When you reach the point of even being able to participate in an elite raid when it comes to most MMOs, it already brings with it a sense of accomplishment. You've been grinding and doing lower difficult raids for a good long while, and now this endgame challenge is your reward (as is the loot as well, of course). In GTA Online, Heists are "just another job" but with a bigger paycheck at the end.
So what is GTA Online's endgame? PvP? Deathmatches, Last Team Standing jobs and Adversary Modes are all struggling to maintain populations. Races are played either by racing aficionados who do it all the time, regardless of rank and such and by players wanting to unlock stuff. Competitive Freemode Events are nothing but fleeting pastimes with rewards to match.
If it isn't PvP, then surely its CEO work, right? Well, even if this were true, it would be troubling if one of the biggest and most popular online game only got endgame content three years after going live. Now, running crates in GTA Online is considered by many to be just a chore to rack up more cash.
Sure, there are plenty of endgame rewards in the face of yachts, the ten million golden jet - which really is the epitome of frivolous luxury spending, being so expensive and so useless at once - the high end apartments and offices. However, other than the golden jet, even these are used for the acquisition of wealth.
Why buy a yacht? To unlock Piracy Prevention. Why buy a high-end apartment? To be closer to frequented objectives in order to improve efficiency. Why buy supercars that cost several million? To have a chance at dominating races and escaping from attackers in Freemode.
The way most MMORPGs handle endgame is by introducing multiple currency types, making truly high-end items unobtainable with standard money. In GTA Online, there's cash and nothing else. Once you've reached the top, once you've bought everything in the game, there is literally nothing left to strive for.
Of course, you'd say "great, then you can kick back and enjoy the game instead of grinding". Well, yes, in a perfect world it would be so, but unfortunately psychology doesn't work that way. So Rockstar is faced by a conundrum: how to keep long-time players interested without an endgame?
Well, this is where DLC comes into play. Once you've chewed through all of the content in the game, the only way said game would be interesting again is if new content is added. Now, considering the realities of game development, Rockstar can't deliver meaningful GTA Online updates every month, as the development cycle demands more time.
However, if the content of the base game, and each successive DLC would be easy to work through, GTA Online would see spikes in activity right after DLC releases, with populations dying down soon after until the next update comes along. The reason Rockstar makes it so hard to get enough money to buy everything is because that is the only way to achieve longevity.
This way even the most dedicated player would be hard pressed to max out all the content of a given DLC update before the next one rolls around. Even if you've bought all of the new goods added with an update one or two weeks before the release of the next one, you know you'll be needing cash for the new DLC, so you'll be grinding.
Instead of supplying GTA Online with a strong endgame - or an endgame of any kind at all - Rockstar opted for the route of perpetually buffing out the midgame, adding more fluff to that in order to ensure that by the time you'd reach the theoretical endgame only to realize that there is nothing left to do, they'd be ready with the next DLC.
The easiest way to do this is to make existing midgame content difficult to acquire through traditional means. The carefully calculated symbiosis of the development cycle, the lack of an endgame, the high prices, the frequent DLC releases and the Shark Card incentives come together to form one of the most popular and profitable multiplayer games, even though said game lacks one third of what makes a multiplayer game. Hats off to Rockstar for coming up with that one.
What do you consider your personal end goal in GTA Online?