The success story of Grand Theft Auto 5 is one that many a news outlet has written litanies on. Rockstar came, saw and conquered, propelling their title to the position of best selling non-bundled game of all time with well over 80 million copies moved, not counting digital sales.
The story few tell, however, is how all that fame, praise and money ended up killing – most likely – the prospect of a single player expansion.
Before GTA 5, there was GTA 4 (logically). This game got not one, but two major single player story-driven expansions which were each the size of a whole game in and of themselves, something allowed by the reuse of the map and much of the assets from the main game. Before GTA 4, there is also a line of over a dozen primarily single player games in the franchise.
For all intents and purposes, the empire, if you will, of GTA is built upon single player.
Thing is, GTA 5 was no different. The multiplayer portion, Grand Theft Auto Online, didn’t launch until a full month after the game’s release. Before that, the game already bagged near universal acclaim, flawless reviews and a tidy profit, all on the merits of the campaign alone. It was deep, engaging, featured multiple new protagonists and was laced with Rockstar’s signature satire and wit. Of course the series beloved cheat codes featured too.
However, this wasn’t special – this was expected. Naturally, Rockstar geared up to produce additional story content, and announced as much via the Newswire, their own news feed.
What was entirely unexpected, on the other hand, was the sweeping success of GTA Online. The multiplayer mode was expected by the developers to be a footnote, an afterthought to their epic, sprawling storyline and vivid open world. Instead, Online exploded onto the multiplayer scene and never stopped, well, exploding. The in-game microtransactions began bringing more and more profit, and as Online’s playerbase increased, that profit increased with them.
proved to be quite the potent source of income, and Rockstar decided to capitalize. By releasing additional content for the multiplayer mode would boost this existing revenue stream, and the bet paid off – in a major way. led to , until over a year ago there were already a dozen content updates and more than $500 million in microtransaction profits. That’s almost double the budget of the entire game.
And so, Rockstar was presented with a choice. Given the budget to create additional content. Will they spend said budget on creating a single, massive sophisticated, elaborate single player expansion with a new storyline that they would sell and only a tiny fraction of the community would buy, or will they spend a relatively small amount on putting together a free bit of DLC for Online that everyone will play, and will likely push up microtransaction revenue for a few days across the board? High investment with low reward versus low investment with high reward? It really isn’t much of a question.
GTA Online is so darn popular and profitable that Rockstar can keep putting out these DLCs with nary a worry in the world. Even the more recent, ‘large’ DLCs like Gunrunning likely cost a tiny fraction of what it would take to put together a story DLC worth of GTA 5’s legacy. Additional scripting, voice work, a larger number of new assets, more complex mission structure, and progression had to be taken into account. While there exists a vocal minority whom have been pining for a story DLC ever since the game was released, but make no mistake, they are a minority.
Sales data indicates that The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony sold poorly back in the day. GTA has a massive mainstream audience, and occasional micropayments align with that demographic much better than larger sum expansion sales do. Another trait of the mainstream crowd is that they generally favour multiplayer over single player, so fuelling the aspect of the game that the majority doesn’t prioritize isn’t exactly the best business decision.
At the end of the day, it’s unfair to say that GTA Online killed story DLC. It was you. Not *you* specifically, but the players of GTA Online who made it so successful and so profitable that Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games decided to spend all effort on adding to Online instead of developing narrative content. Congratulations.