Grand Theft Auto Online's rocky launch could be a sign of trouble for next generation games.
Grand Theft Auto V's single player mode didn't blow me away. It was fun enough, but, as I've written here before, its lack of any real narrative or gameplay innovation held it back from creating the same kind of lasting impression as Rockstar Games' last few titles. That said, I didn't come away from the game's conclusion feeling totally disappointed. After all, the ambitious Grand Theft Auto Online multiplayer mode had launched the same day that I wrapped up the story mode, and I was excited to give it a shot.
At least it was supposed to launch. What happened instead, as many of you definitely know, is that GTAV's online component stumbled into the light of day more than a little broken. The first week was filled with connectivity errors that made it impossible to actually bring a new character into the multiplayer version of Los Santos, or, if by some miracle a player was able to get through the introductory video, crash as soon as the first tutorial race was unlocked. People were pretty upset about the state of Grand Theft Auto Online throughout its first few troubled weeks. While it's tough to identify with the kind of complaints written by particularly outraged players, their disappointment with its launch was definitely justified.
For better or worse, Rockstar Games chose to market GTA Online's gameplay features almost as much as the characters and mechanics inherent to GTAV's story mode. Putting a large emphasis on this part of the game created expectations that weren't met at launch. Just as those players frustrated by the similarly rocky releases of online-dependent games like Diablo III and the 2013 SimCity were upset that they couldn't play the title they'd been anticipating due to online issues, audiences anticipating GTA Online were let down by a hugely anticipated feature that simply didn't work. Sadly, it seems like the disastrous release of GTAV's online component could be a sign of things to come.
Next generation games like Watch Dogs, Titanfall, Driveclub, Destiny, and Need for Speed: Rivals all plan to offer gameplay that is largely dependent on online access. Unlike GTAV, none of these games plan to offer a purely single player experience, either. To get the full experience out of the titles listed above, it will be necessary to not only have a stable broadband connection, but also access to properly functioning servers. This would be more exciting than worrying if it wasn't for the fact that the last several big games to launch with this type of requirement have suffered from myriad problems. A player who has been counting the days until the release of Titanfall will be completely unable to get into a match if the game's servers are overly congested. Some of the most interesting-looking gameplay mechanics found in a less multiplayer-centric game like Watch Dogs could, quite possibly, fail to work entirely during its first weeks on the market. Even worse, Xbox One titles that take advantage of cloud technology could also prove problematic if the features that rely on constant internet access don't function as intended. The consequences of an online-dependent future failing to work properly are far reaching and more than a little bit disconcerting.
It doesn't feel good to be so pessimistic about the blending of single and multiplayer features. This new approach to gameplay could end up serving as one of the coming generation's most unique elements. What has been shown of the titles planning to take this new tack looks extremely promising — a breath of fresh air that could make our old distinctions between multiplayer and single-player modes obsolete. But a lot hinges on the ability of the industry's biggest publishers to make good on what they've shown. Given the track record of companies like Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Rockstar, it may be a good idea to maintain at least some level of skepticism for the time being.