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Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to Fix GTA Online's Free Roam

A core portion of the 5 Huge Problems previously discussed center around one large problem: GTA Online's Free Roam is effectively broken.  Not broken in the sense that it's glitched beyond repair (any more) - but broken in the sense that the game punishes people for running around, shooting each other, and having fun.

Let's take a case in point:  I finished a mission with a fellow criminal.  That mission netted us $5K.  After the mission, we got dropped next to each other.  He shot me, stole my ride.  I spawned around the corner and shot him.  He then proceeded to chase me around Blaine County where I killed him two more times and he kill me one more time.

Thankfully, he had a $5K bounty on his head, so I still ended up ahead.  But he probably didn't.  In a matter of minutes, he probably wiped out all of the money he made during the mission.

Interestingly, the fact that free roam is nothing but a money sink doesn't keep people from playing like it is the new wild west.  This is probably the most telling fact that illustrates the players want GTA Online Free Roam, they want to run around and steal cars and shoot at other players ... even if it means it could be costing them thousands of dollars.

So instead of Free Roam being a huge pain in the ass and drain on the bank account, why not reward players for running around, shooting each other and having fun?

Way back when, I wrote a mod for Unreal Tournament called Bounty War.  The whole idea was to re-balance deathmatch scoring.  Better players got higher bounties associated with them and the goal of the game was to end with the most money in your account.  This meant that lower level players had a chance of catching up by fragging higher level players - which in many ways is more fair, since fragging someone who is better at the game is harder than fragging someone who is not good at the game.  

It effectively solved the noobie vs. veteran problem while keeping it fun for both.  And it could totally work for GTA Online.  Here's how:

Fix Passive Mode

Passive mode should be the real deal - not some odd Venn Diagram of how you might possibly get killed. Instead of making you semi-invulnerable but not really, passive mode should:
  1. Remove the player from the map
  2. Remove other players from the players' map
  3. Remove the name float above players
  4. Make the player bulletproof from other players (always, not just out of cars)
The entire "remove players" mechanic could be also be configurable, similar to how you can lock your car now - so you could remain visible to your friends and crew if you wanted.  This would let players roam around without other players stalking them and basically keep them safe from anything but getting run over and falling.

Change the Free Roam Death Penalty

Update: In the 1.04 patch, the death penalty is getting capped at $500.  Which is a good compromise, though some of the below is still plausible.



The worst part about the current penalty is that it is often not associated with skill, but circumstance.  For instance, if you quit out of a session before it starts, you could get dropped right next to a complete stranger who just did the same thing.  The last time I had this happen the guy instantly pistol whipped me.  Bam, I lose over a $1K.  For literally doing nothing.

And for some reason Free Roam really likes to spawn you next to your killer (not to mention the whole "1 on 1 Deatchmatch").  So now the whole thing might happen again.  This makes death so common in free roam, and potentially costly.

Instead, let's give players options.  On death, a player could:
  1. Wait for ambulance.  If the ambulance is destroyed, or medics shot, player goes to hospital. Medium to Long spawn delay.  Risky.  Free.
  2. Go to Hospital.  Short spawn delay.  Not risky.  $500.
  3. Instant Revive.  No spawn delay.  Risky. $1,000.
This would penalize (more heavily) players who are distinctly trying to stay in the fight, while giving a middle ground to players who just want to either get back in the game or not spend any money.  It also reduces the previous cap from $2K down to 1.  Early players or players low on cash would have an incentive to go the low cash route.


OK, so now we've made Free Roam less of a hassle and less of a penalty in general.  Now let's make it fun.



Add Wanted Rewards

I'd just call this a bounty, but the current bounty system would actually work well as something additional to a more fully fledged mechanic.  So let's add that mechanic and call it a Wanted Reward. It could work like this:
  1. An enemy is defined as someone not on your friends or crew list.
  2. Killing an enemy raises your wanted reward by $500.
  3. Killing an enemy gives you their wanted reward.
  4. Getting killed by an enemy resets your reward back to $0.
  5. Player icons go from white to red slowly (instead of just one or the other) to indicate how high their current reward is.
  6. After $5K (this is 10 kills in a row without being killed by an enemy) - the player becomes Most Wanted and the reward goes up automatically $500 every game hour.
  7. Wanted Rewards max out at $10K.
  8. Players killed by law enforcement have their reward reset to $0.
  9. Players can get their Reward removed by visiting a Police Station and paying a $2500 fine.

Now players who actively running around and causing chaos in Free Roam are slowly becoming more valuable targets.  Players can opt out of the system by dropping into Passive Mode.  More deadly players become more valuable, making it a higher reward to take them out.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Making Money in GTA Online

In my previous post, I noted how a lot of the big issues in GTA online amount to one thing: the economy works against.  The death penalty can add up quick, ammo isn't cheap, and some of the most common things to do in the game offer little payout for the amount of time you can spend completing them.

If you are trying to move on up to the next luxury condo - here are few tips to get you along:

#1: Play Solo

You can enter into a solo session by joining GTA Online via the Pause menu instead of the quick character select.  Solo is effectively the passive mode that Rockstar describes in the main mode, except it actually works - even if by brute force.  It might seem counter-productive to play by yourself in an online game - but the advantages are huge.  Firstly, you completely remove the possibility of getting involved in the vengeance-fueled killing frenzies which aren't uncommon when playing with others in free mode.  It also means that you have free reign over events in free mode like Simeon's high priority vehicle and convenience stores to knock over.

It also means that bounties can't be claimed against you, and the AI will occasionally set one on your head.  Since after a period of time you get the bounty against you, this translates into random free money for stealing random cars.

#2: Franklin's Early Years

Two of the fastest ways to score cash in GTA Online include what Franklin described as his early years: knocking over convenience shops and stealing cars.  

Each store will net you around $1100 on an average, with the occasional spike into $2K or so.  While this isn't a huge amount, if you only hit two in a row - you only have to fight a two star chase.  Once you get used to where the stores are and the easy escape route associated with them, this means you can punctuate your play with cash that takes about half the time of doing a mission or race, while giving you the same payback.

That said - there's some misinformation going around about knocking over stores.  One is that you'll bag more money for killing the store owner.  That hasn't been my experience and you'll get three stars instead of two right away - which will usually make the chase go far longer than you really want.

As for stealing cars: there are a few select brands that are found around the Vinewood Boulevard area which can net $6 - $9K.  You can sell a car every game day, which is roughly once an hour.  I recommend looking for Ubermacht cars - they're fairly common compared to other high end cars and always net more than $6K.

#3: Easy Missions

After your second store theft you'll need to cool the cops down a bit (or risk a three star chase off the bat), you can hop into a mission and try to do it by yourself.  Setting the mission to easy will make it simpler for the solo run and only seems to reduce the amount of respect you get from the mission, not the cash.  If you're handy with a gun, many of Gerald's missions can be done fairly quickly and will net a decent haul.

#4: Higher Level Missions = Higher Level Rewards

This one is a no brainer, but one of the factors that works for the player when it comes to the game economy is that as you level up, you'll get more access to missions which net higher cash rewards.  Keep an eye on which missions give you the most cash for the time you spend in it and make those a priority.

#5: Earn it, Spend it, then go online

My recommendation would be to spend a couple days in solo mode, and then buy one of the luxury condos with a 10 car garage.  After that, these tips become somewhat obsolete as you've purchased one of the more expensive items in the game - and once you spend your cash on something big, it can't be stolen away from you.  We netted about $180K over the weekend with the above, bought one of the better apartments and now have a lot less concerns when it comes to playing in the normal session.

Of course, now we just hope that Rockstar isn't going to randomly delete our character.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Game Review: 5 Huge Problems with GTA Online

Preface

First note that this is for just the online portion of GTA V.  I may have another post on the main game at a later date.

Second, some may say it is unfair to review GTA Online since it has been out for less than a week and Rockstar had warned ahead of the launch that unexpected demand for the game was going to cause issues.  And yes, some issues - like the fact that I can't currently sign into the game ... are probably due just to demand and will be resolved as Rockstar throws hardware at the problem.

Others, however, like the incredibly bugged tutorial missions that blocked the game for a majority of users - were clearly not because of high demand.  You couldn't even get into the game in offline or "solo" mode (and in fact, oddly - I had 5 people show up to my solo mission...).  We're now a couple patches in and if the servers are up, you can play - but the experience still has many issues.  Many of them aren't bugs, but simply design.

This is clearly another beta being rolled out as a product.  Now, GTA Online is a free component to a game which is already larger in scope than most titles in its price range.  Still, it is a product - and while one that shows a lot of promise (and I've already spent many hours on) ... is still deeply flawed.

However, in fairness to Rockstar I'm not even mentioning huge outstanding bugs like your character simply disappearing - under the assumption they'll fix that in short order.

Quick Overview

GTA Online is where players of GTA V can create their own criminal and run around Los Santos (and the greater Los Santos area) with other criminals created by players.  A bevy of activities await: Deathmatch, Last Team Standing, Vehicle Deathmatches, Races of nearly every variety, Missions (more on that later) and what seem like the entire set of activities from the main game (Tennis, Parachuting, etc).  Some of these open slowly as the player levels up.

At its core, it is a lot of fun.  It brings the RPG/Customization angle from San Andreas (but with a complete character and not just making CJ fat) and mashes it into an expanded online offering that goes well beyond the already surprisingly fun online mode in GTAIV.

Problem #1: Dying

Dying is pretty much expected in a game like GTA Online.  And when you have a bunch of people on the server which think the game is mostly about crashing cars into players to steal the $100 that drops out of their pocket ... it can happen a lot.  Especially because the game seems to egg on revenge tactics by always dropping you near the person who killed you.  We've had people hunt us down repeatedly for seemingly no other reason than us being on the radar.

This would be fine if it wasn't for the 5% death tax, which appears to max out at 2K.  I believe this is the same tax as in the story mode, but the online mode currently lacks any major heists to have large sacks of money laying around where even though you're paying more ... you have plenty.  No, here once you have managed to stockpile a decent amount of cash (you'll want $75-100K to buy a decent apartment, for instance) ... your cash becomes a huge liability.  We had about $80K saved up over the course of hard playing all afternoon and night ... but about 10 minutes of getting caught in the middle of some crazed bounty hunt, we were back down to ~$53K.  About five hours of play were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

If Rockstar expects the offset to this to be players buying cash with real dollars, then GTA Online will go down as one of the largest missed opportunities in online gaming.  And it will join such modes as Mass Effect 3's online component as being sacrificed to the idiot blind god of microtransactions.

Problem #2: There is no Passive Mode

Rockstar will tell you that if you want to run around and not get capped, you can just go into passive mode.  Passive mode costs $100 to get into (for some bizarre reason never explained).  Passive mode is also completely worthless as other players (and AI) can still run you over, shoot you from their cars and we think still pull you from vehicles and punch you.  It basically just means they can't shoot you while outside their vehicle.  Which is really not worth the $100.

Whether this is a deeply bugged or simply horribly designed feature is difficult to tell.  Rockstar has not as of yet mentioned any changes or fixes to the mode.

Problem #3: The Weird Bounty System

The other odd thing about having online players run around in free mode killing each other is ... there is very little point to doing it.  If you die, you lose ... some of your cash?  It is actually a little unclear - once you have $5K in walking money, Rockstar will warn you that players can steal your cash. Update: it sounds like it is $100 (always) + whatever you have over $5K. 

Course, there is no reason to run around with cash since you can deposit and withdraw money to your bank right from your phone.

However, none of that means anything since the death tax extends to your bank account.  So if I kill you, I'm unlikely to get any cash for it - but you'll lose 5% of everything you've got, or $2K, despite where it is.  After a certain level, you (and oddly, AI's) can put bounties on another player's head.  These seem to range from about $1K - $10K but are usually less than $5K.  

This is actually a horrible system, designed to do nothing but drain capital across the server.  Let's say you have a player with $80K in the bank.  They stand lose $2K just from dying once.  Someone puts a $3K bounty on their head.  Chances are players are going to die more than a couple times trying to kill them (especially since players often kill each other trying to get to the bounty).  So basically one player gets a slightly subsidized death and everyone else who participates loses out (potentially severely).

The only time I have ever profited from bounties is when I was lucky enough to get a $3K and $9K (which is very rare) bounty back to back.  Even then I died enough to eat up the $3K bonus.

So in short, one of the things players are most likely to do on the server - run around, cause mayhem and shoot at each other ... appears primarily designed to keep bank accounts low.

Problem #4: The Capital Throttle

This is all compounded by the fact that Rockstar has clearly made making cash a very slow process.  If you have a decent session going with lots of players, you can bounce from deathmatches to races relatively easily.  These will net you around $200 - $2000 depending on how well you do.  They can also take up a lot of time, especially some of the multiple lap races.

You can, as the title suggests you could, steal cars and sell them.  Without this being couched as a mission, you can only do this once an hour.  It is, however, one of the quickest ways to make money if you get the right car.  You can also holdup liquor stores, gas stations and the like - although time to completion there is highly dependent on how well you can evade the police.

There are a few choice missions which net a high profit, but you can't really select those voluntarily.  You have to hope one of your contacts hands them to you (more on that below).  The result is that activities that are the easiest to get to, but conversely can take up the most time ... actually offer the lowest profits (especially after you factor in buying ammo and armor).

Problem #5: Missions

All of the above compounds into the final huge issue: the mission structure.  Since deatchmatches and races are time consuming and not very profitable, it can be difficult to get players to actually play them. Worse, the goal based missions are easily the most entertaining and often offer higher rewards - but you can't select them.  After you do a goal based mission, you can vote on another session - but are limited to deathmatch and races (even though Last Team Standing sessions are labeled as Missions, which they really are not).  Most people just drop back into free mode.

This makes the best part of the game: performing goal based missions with a decent number of online players, something of a rarity.  You can call your contacts and hope for the best, but the result is something of a pot luck between who will respond to the Jobs text.

TLDR

GTA Online has a great core to it, but well beyond the issues of connectivity - it has some serious design issues.  Rockstar has currently turned off both the Stock Market and GTA$, so that players can't lose real money in the virtual game.  There are two unfortunate trend to all five problems: they all factor into keeping you bank account hard to grow and easy to deplete, and they're easily solved if you are willing to pony up some real cash to bankroll your virtual criminal.  

I really, sincerely, hope that this is not Rockstar's solution to the game.