Developer Spotlight: Rockstar Games and the Case for Innovating DLC

To begin 2015 with an eye for the creative forces at work in video gaming, I'm taking a critical look at a company I expected a lot more from in 2014. While it'll remain a favorite and other Developer Spotlight pieces won’t skew so negatively, I think the creators of Grand Theft Auto V have a loaded year ahead.

As one of the biggest and best-known game developers in the world, Rockstar Games have maintained their name by pushing the envelope in strange, unexpected, and often wildly hilarious directions. The transportive parody of Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City and the all-encompassing culture trap that is Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos stretch well beyond what I’d expect of video gaming. It’s to the point that less than desirable interactivity throughout these worlds means little in light of how entertaining it is to drive by at high speeds, music blasting, terror spreading out like a wake.

In fact, I looked to Grand Theft Auto V both in 2013 at launch and in 2014 (up to and including the new-generation console releases) for a lot of quick, digestible, and largely brainless entertainment. Fiddling with the radio, playing story missions over, and discovering hidden goodies throughout the map allowed me to feel like I was getting out of the house even when I wasn’t or when I had gopher-ed my way so far indoors that it was preferable to take a virtual exotic out for a spin than drive my own car to the market. In the summer, I gave up my vehicular transport for the second time in my life and later, in the fall, embraced GTA V’s new first-person driving.

Irregardless of how amazing I think Rockstar Games is or how entranced I am by the simulation they’ve most recently delayed on the PC platform, I’m disappointed by the lack of dedicated DLC.

I’ll cut myself off here and state that the team has never stopped churning out new missions, options, creator suites, and clothing items for GTA Online, but that’s not exactly the same thing, is it? We love the written works of many gaming studios, but none of them manage to incite both hatred and sentimentality like Rockstar. A decisively strange turn for Trevor about halfway through GTA V provides the clearest example of this and manages to do it in a way movies, music, books, and TV can’t.

If you’re like me, you may have actually started swerving off the road in laughter as Trevor’s tearful sunset cruise took shape around the player. You could have wanted to slug Jimmy just as hard as Michael smashes the kid’s TV and you probably loved bumping up and down Los Santos’s meanest streets with Chop riding shotgun. I don’t want to completely tear the developer down… this is a spotlight after all. Instead, I’ll give my best effort at suggesting how and why Grand Theft Auto V’s single-player and multiplayer should expand for the better in 2015.

With these three despicable leaders of violence, criminality, and destruction, we’re left wondering one thing:

When’s the story DLC going to arrive?


Trevor

While switching between three protagonists not only increased the speed and overall “readability” of the GTA V experience, dedicated scenes like the one I described above made the characters leap out of the television screen. Here are five things I want Trevor to do in downloadable content that he can’t do in the main game.

1) Gardening, cooking, or dating

Sure, you can get Trevor to leave a strip club with a fancy, if not under-priced lady of the night, but it wouldn’t go over well if he took her back to Floyd’s or the meth factory near the Sonora desert. Trevor needs a few new mini games that don’t involve making it rain near the stage or causing massive violence in rampages. A gardening game would balance against Michael’s meditation and a cooking game could get Trevor to meet a few new friends or have his personal Strangers & Freaks over for an odd game of guess-what-or-who-I-put-in-dinner. Lacing recipes with a few items from Trevor’s stash would certainly result in hilarious dialogue and increasing the overall social experience for these characters in GTA V would go a long way in allowing the player to live in such foreign and dislikable skin.

2) What to wear, what not to wear

Trevor is one of the only characters in Grand Theft Auto’s canon that could get away with a goofy fashion show, though both he and the player may want to take a turn for the absurd and end these events with a crash, a bang, or outright nudity to the chagrin of the LS elite.

3) Experimentation

I want to see Trevor open up his own auto-shop, clothing store, food stand, hot dog cart, Santa Monica pier alternative made out of bathtubs and broken shopping carts, or just a condominium complex in need of drastic management. Let Trevor fix up haphazard NPC vehicles and then give him the sandbox environment for testing these creations. Let him mod cars in ways that normally wouldn’t be allowed with lifted lowriders, hydraulics, and rocket boosters for extreme air. Let him compete with a local in off-the-wall businesses. Maybe that food stand will provide a Diner Dash-style distraction with loads of hilarious dialogue. If he is doing menial chores, he and the player could have a sing-along.

4) Clean up Trevor’s act

Give players control of another character who needs to interact with Trevor to a greater extent than even human rights regulations would allow. What if you had to play the stripper who manages to quit her job, go back to school, and stomp on Trevor’s balls hard enough to get him to behave? I’d like to see dialog gameplay akin to Mass Effect or Dragon Age where players have to dig into Trevor’s psyche only to come back as dirty as Wade, fresh from latrine duties at the dockyard. These gameplay loops may not play to GTA V’s apparent mechanical strengths, but DLC should refocus the player into new aspects of the title’s virtual life. Doing so through dialogue will only bring out more to love about lead and periphery characters.

5) New sporting events

Organized off-road rallies, stadium demolition derbies, rodeos, hillbilly golf, Jackass-style stunts, waterskiing, and other extreme hobbies would enable Trevor to leap out of redneck backwoods obscurity and into front page downtown Los Santos highlife. These gameplay loops may be difficult to achieve, but each would lend a new layer of believability and dynamic mechanical alternatives to what’s currently on offer in Grand Theft Auto V.

Next: Michael, Franklin, and ambient gameplay

 

Michael

Four-player cooperative family activities

I don’t have a full bulleted list for DLC involving Michael as I do with Trevor. Unfortunately, his character doesn’t hinge upon the rampant destruction or absurdity as Trevor’s does, though mixing the two in anything outlined above could have a wild effect on both gameplay and the player’s understanding of this strained relationship. Still, Michael’s reconnection with his family says a lot about Rockstar’s ability to pen believable characters. I want to see all four pile into a minivan and take cross-country road trips, go camping and hunting, or just head to a movie downtown.

There’s certainly a likelihood that players will find Michael’s family a little dull, but that shouldn’t keep four-player groups from having a good time with a few awkward game mechanics or interesting new ways to interact that don’t involve outright stabbing, shooting, maiming, and bludgeoning each other. Michael and Jimmy could certainly develop new hobbies like beach volleyball, the family could have synchronized jetski jumping competitions, play arcade games at the Del Perro pier, or simply hit the town together in style.

Getting player groups together through this particular DLC could present entertaining new ways of interacting with your party leading up to an online job. While a lobby-waiting system was implemented, it’s not obvious enough for easy use and joining new games remains difficult and obscure. In light of all the rampant, free-form gameplay that people love in GTA V, establishing a new lobby system needs to take either a creative or absurd turn to maintain GTA Online’s success.

What if, rather than jumping directly to online as you do from the loading screen, purchasers of Michael-specific downloadable content could jump into their favorite member of the family in a specially designed beat-'em-up or racing mini-game. Tearing around the golf course in a cart with Jimmy while your buddy, who happened to start the lobby, takes the lead in a launch over the sand trap as Michael would prove an absurdist means of connecting with friends. Jeering dialogue between family members could also pay off in a big way.

Adding context to the more boring or unintuitive elements of GTA Online will keep players engaged on a deeper and more evocative level, bringing new connections between whoever’s holding the controller and the face-tattooed freak they’ve created in the game world. Michael’s relatively strong resolution in the single-player campaign means he, Tracy, Jimmy, and his wife Amanda can take the off-the-wall option and break as many fourth walls as possible.

Having Michael lead players through upcoming Heist missions for GTA Online only makes more sense out of what's currently a workable if undesirable matchmaking system.


Franklin

New Grove Street-focused story content

Of the three protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V, Franklin remains my favorite for being so down-to-earth, even-keeled, and clairvoyant. As much as he wants to climb that ladder, he does so with a clean mind and an even cleaner haircut. Franklin allowed me to pour more of myself into the character I was playing than either Michael or Trevor or any combination of the two. Of the three protagonists, I was only ever motivated to try something as brainless as attending an in-game movie screening (accompanied by Trevor).

That sets him up as the avatar most ideal for new, dedicated story content. It’d be fine if Michael and Trevor appeared from time to time over the course of a five- to eight-hour campaign of new missions designed around Franklin’s stomping grounds and his hillside hovel, but Lamar and Chop need more time to shine too. One early mission pushing Trevor and Franklin together took Ballers by storm in a recognizable Grove Street locale, but there’s more work to do on that front.

An entire campaign not unlike the gang wars that wrap up GTA: San Andreas would be welcome extensions of combat gameplay. The firefight leading out of the Grove Street Families old court proves itself one of the best-designed missions by the end of the game. Players are enabled and therefore attack opposing forces with loads of energy and a show of power between the two characters they can switch between. Getting Franklin set up in CJ’s old crib could give the player a sense of ownership in the most popular landmass available in GTA Online. Los Santos is clearly an important area in the mind of connected and single-player gamers, but building gameplay on top of that should be key.

Still, extending the ambient gameplay loops that already exist in GTA V’s freeform design could prove difficult in a number of ways:

1) Establishing exactly which faction owns a territory could mean retexturing entire sections of Los Santos and the San Andreas countryside where older games simply moved to a new area in sequels that followed.

2) Filling these areas with bodies, only so players exterminate whole cuts of the populace with wanton abandon could prove exhaustive for last-generation console technology. Leaps made for new-generation PlayStation 4 and Xbox One owners (or the upcoming PC version) will make dynamic combat scenarios look gorgeous, but I’m concerned with exactly how to construct these missions as successfully as the original release did.

3) How many different gang colors could Los Santos possibly support?

Franklin’s struggle seems to best embody the player’s own desire for equal parts destruction and progression, so in that way he’ll likely prove the most effective central figure in dedicated narratives following the decision players have to make at the end of GTA V’s campaign. I just hope Rockstar continues to push its third-person shooting mechanics, perhaps represented best in V than in any other game in the franchise, but doing so with Lamar and a commendably heroic Chop will offer more depth than Trevor or Michael.

Next: Ambient gameplay with our favorite police officer…

 

Playable women in single-player and added ambient missions

Make some damn women playable for the first time in the series. Just do it. Female avatars have a separate story in GTA Online and I understand why the franchise’s creators have called Grand Theft Auto V a decidedly masculine adventure, I really do. I’ll defend the situation only because of the depth of writing and genuine emotional impact of some choices and moments throughout the game. Unfortunately, I can’t stand the big-breasted bonanza that merely introduces the loading of the software itself.

Every single time you start Grand Theft Auto V, you see a female cop arresting a beach-bunny vixen decked in hippy gear and short denim shorts. Like… they’re really short. This accomplishes two things in my eyes:

1) It drives the player’s libido through the roof just before his or her amygdala fires off about as many rounds as you have at your disposal in-game while speeding away like any number of high-end sports cars in your GTA Online garage.

2) It makes you wonder why gamers are the way they are…. Oh wait, no it doesn’t. It’s just a stupid key art image that has nothing to do with what you’re actually doing in-game.

Rather than continue showing players this image with no real context or reasoning other than what I’ve guessed at above, Rockstar Games desperately needs to expand single-player and multiplayer GTA with the vigilante missions available as optional gameplay in past titles.

That means Officer Vasquez and her partner, either a weak-willed shotgun rider or another female officer replete with an awkward For Dummies… book on cop lingo, need to hit the streets in Los Santos as soon as possible. Giving players control over a cop would provide a strong antithesis to the male-dominated campaign while also opening new avenues for online interaction. Creating a new vehicle with specific disarming capabilities like an electric-charge weapon could offer truly dynamic firefights and smoother player-vs-player combat.

Setting up these mechanics or even a cop-cruiser progression system in single-player missions would allow Rockstar Games to build character out of poster girl. Doing so with the police force in-game and not an odd photo competition based on Kate Upton’s lookalike would certainly give our own Officer Vasquez reason to revisit the title too. What may or may not prove frustrating in developing these missions more likely arrives in the form of Rockstar’s shrewd business tactics.

How much would you charge for a downloadable package that adds open-ended vigilante, fire department, or ambulance gameplay to both online and offline game modes? Does a story component increase that cost or does the programming itself take up most of the overall development schedule? I could expect paying $10 per main character, even with everything outlined above, but bringing back some of the open-world gameplay would have me throwing a $20 at my digital download service of choice.


There are certainly loads of different avenues to explore in Grand Theft Auto V’s game-expanding DLC, but the developer is already hard at work maintaining and building on what’s present in GTA Online. Holiday equipment and apparel packs will only keep gamers involved for so long, though a free-to-play suite could bind the title to new-generation console and PC hardware in a major way. We have no clue as to what’s in store for Rockstar Games, though the finale left a lot open to the player. Hopefully that’ll continue through 2015.

Be sure to look for more Developer Spotlights from GameRevolution in the coming weeks.