Grand Theft Auto Online: What Indie Developers Can Learn From Rockstar’s Successful MMO-Lite

Image taken from http://www.rockstargames.com/

Since launching in 2013, Grand Theft Auto Online has gone from charming GTA multiplayer add-on to money-making juggernaut, netting Rockstar and publisher Take-Two Interactive hundreds of millions of dollars.

The underlying concept of its multiplayer is rather simple: apply the base formula of the Grand Theft Auto series (player freedom + complete chaos + a hoodlum-to-kingpin story) and let everyone run wild in a sprawling sandbox.

But in what ways could a small indie studio running on significantly fewer funds learn from Rockstar and their insanely successful AAA title? There’s more to GTA 5 than a big budget, and many valuable lessons can be learned from the developers - even if you’re putting a game together in a garage with three of your buddies.

Regular Content Updates – But First, A Complete Package

Rockstar has added new content to GTA Online regularly, about once every other month. Some of the updates are cosmetic, with new cars and clothing getting mixed into the fold. Others are beefier, such as the Online Heists that were added in 2015, Further Adventures in Finance and Felony in 2016, which allowed players to buy executive suites, hire associates, and even become CEO of their own criminal organization.

However, before all of this came GTA 5’s story mode, which is a full and well-rounded experience. A deep and engaging storyline, varied characters, Rockstar’s infamous satire and humor, and even the inclusion of classic single player cheat codes (something often overlooked in other games these days), all contributed to the game’s success.

When people buy games, they expect to get beginning middle and end for their money unless you’re upfront about an episodic structure. Post-launch content is a great way to keep existing customers while making your game seem like more-bang-for-buck when new potential customers are looking at it. Just make sure you didn’t slice off the ending of your main game only to release it a month later, or you’ll risk alienating your fledgling audience.

Cultivate a Loyal Fanbase

Rockstar had an important advantage when it launched GTAO: its fanbase was largely installed. There was no doubt Grand Theft Auto V was going to move millions of copies based on single-player alone. That being said, Rockstar has made GTA Online a priority, listening to fans and giving players quality feedback and updates they expect from Rockstar.

As an aspiring indie developer, you obviously don’t have nearly a decade’s worth of existing fans to draw upon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start building an audience prior to release.

An increasingly common practice is the release of prologue-demos. Traditionally, free playable demos took the first section of a game and made it freely available so that players can get a feel for the game before dropping cash. However, an even more engaging technique is to offer a primer on the game and its story by way of a prolog. This, combined with additional media – even something as simple as a webcomic – can begin to build engagement before the game hits the online storefronts.

People will already care about your characters, and they will be interested in what happens with them. Engaging with your potential customers is key – be it through a long-standing line of previous installments, or with simpler means.

Make Content Free

It may seem illogical to produce and release free new content, but many MMO developers acknowledge the inherent benefits of keeping a price tag off updates. As the add-ons grow, so do the motivators that encourage players to keep the base game and splurge on microtransactions. It’s the reason why, after more than three years, GTA V still sells for full-price. And it keeps money in Rockstar’s pocket (to make more free content, thereby repeating the cycle).

As an indie dev, chances are you’re not making an MMO, nor are you littering your game full of microtransactions. Chances are you don’t quite have the capacity to work for free either, but there is value here. We’re not saying you should make an entire expansion free – obviously, you don’t have the financial backing for something like that. But releasing tiny snippets, even just cosmetic upgrades or a tiny gameplay improvement for free will win you boatloads of goodwill, and in this industry, goodwill translates to money really quickly. “Free DLC” is like an insta-buy trigger for a good number of players.

By Daniel Roberts

  • David Beamer

    Nice work! Very true as well. A lot of indie devs don’t know how to run as a business, but by copying the bigger guys strategy, it can really help! Kudos!