Consumer Choice versus Business
Grand Theft Auto is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved and popular video game franchises of all time. It has captured the imagination of tens, if not hundreds of millions with its blockbuster releases, only getting more popular with each game. Games that have become satire of modern American culture, with corruption, extreme levels of gun violence, and ludicrous advertisements. Much of the subtle criticism is aimed at corporations.
Take-Two Interactive Software is an American company that fully owns Rockstar and 2K. Last year’s revenue: 1.4 billion USD. Without a doubt, Rockstar is their most valuable company, with GTA V being the most lucrative asset years after the initial release. Some analysts estimate that at least 250 million USD of that revenue comes from GTA 5 and its online component GTA: Online. It may seem natural to be protective of your most beloved possession, but at what cost?
The creators of OpenIV, a modding tool for GTA that swaps in-game assets with custom ones, have received a cease-and-desist request from Take-Two. This, of course, resulted in quite an uproar by fans and proponents of single-player modding. Rightfully so, in my opinion.
Modding and cheat codes have been vital to the GTA community on PC for over fifteen years. OpenIV does not meddle with in-game files, and certainly does not affect the multiplayer, yet, Take-Two "fears" hackers which negatively affect the GTA: Online experience, and most importantly for the publisher leads to decreased sales of Shark Cards: a means to buy in-game currency without earning it in-game. (There is some irony to them being called Shark Cards.)
One of my favourite games of all time, GTA: San Andreas has a thriving modding scene which led to the creation of many brilliant mods, like San Andreas Multiplayer. It garnered a vast following, with millions of people playing the multiplayer mod over the years. At the time of writing, 3,880 servers are online with 58,929 players playing it right now — to put this into perspective, its current population is equal to that of Team Fortress 2, which is listed as the eighth most played game on Steam. Remember that GTA: San Andreas is about thirteen years old. It shows how passionate the players are about modding in GTA and how much they care for the games, and how much important it has been for sales of PC copies.
Analysing the Business of Shark Cards
Usually, large games sell most of its lifetime copies in the first two weeks, with a rather rapid dip following it. That is why big launches are necessary for AAA publishers. However, for games like Skyrim and Cities: Skylines, we see sales decrease much more slowly, with no sudden dip in sales. There is simply one reason for this: the modding community. Mods are actually a “feature” that people will buy a game and keep playing them for, as it provides longevity, and thus, brings more value to the consumer. Late into the game's lifecycle, people normally lose interest and sales drop off but with a strong modding community, the number of mods keeps increasing, almost forming a "network" effect. Another way to think about this, Skyrim now, almost six years later, provides much more value than it did at launch — issues that caused issues with players can now simply be rendered irrelevant thanks to the ability to customise through modding. Some features that people wanted have been added by hobbyists, and the list goes on.
Rockstar has lost all interest in producing single-player content due to GTA: Online being a phenomenal success. They have been providing free DLC updates for the online component for a few years to keep the community going, some of which are quite fun (I particularly enjoyed the stunt races, which sucked me into the game for a few weeks).
The way they make money from the free DLC is by grabbing your attention. Getting a player to play the game one way or another leads to sales of their Shark Cards. Players are compelled to buy new cars and weapons, which result in players saving up for them by grinding, meaning they engage with the world by completing missions and heists to earn money. Rockstar wants the players to spend time in the game; to keep the world active. However, they raised the costs of the new vehicles and items, to the point that it can take tens of hours to save up for larger purchases. It is possible for those who do not want to pay actual money for it to save up but the easiest way to buy things is, of course, to get Shark Cards.
As a rule of thumb, 80% of revenue is generated come from 20% of the customers, so Rockstar knows for a fact that very few people are ever going to purchase a Shark Card, so it relies on the few people willing to buy Shark Cards. Keep the 20% happy with a thriving online scene (by getting non-paying gamers to spend more time engaging with the world) with the 80% of the players. Developers cater to the " whales" who generate most of the money1.
Favouring GTA: Online is a sound business decision. Actually, it is a fantastic one. The CEO of Take-Two himself cannot believe the success, calling it a "gift that keeps on giving". The unfortunate side effect is that Take-Two and Rockstar have been aggressively trying to protect it to keep players in the game to generate Shark Card sales. Even if it means cancelling the alleged single-player DLC. Whilst it is not ideal for fans of the series, it does not hurt the consumer.
By going the extra step with the modding ban, Rockstar and Take-Two further funnel the non-online player’s attention towards GTA: Online, by limiting their options. The following diagram demonstrates why it is so vital for GTA: Online's business.
I do think that Rockstar and Take-Two are on the wrong side here. They should be focussing on improving the dire online loading times and connectivity issues of the game — which I believe actually does harm the GTA: Online experience, unlike modding.
As I have just outlined, the financial reasons are clear. Who Rockstar and Take-Two ignore, however, is the consumer. Throwing around your legal team at modders who produce content for free sets bad precedent. As a firm believer in consumer choice, I think it should be up to the player to do what they want with their purchase, as long as it does not harm anybody online; OpenIV does not even function online, in fact, its developers have gone out of their way to prevent it! Rockstar and Take-Two may have backtracked but this stain should not wash off easily. Consumers must hold companies accountable to avoid further mistreatment and show companies, like Rockstar that they cannot be lied to.
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