GTA ONLINE VERSUS SECOND LIFE.
Upon seeing the trailer for Grand Theft Auto Online, I thought it might be competition for Second Life, offering an alternate way of doing online worlds. I have to say, this impression was gained purely by watching that video and imagining what it would be like to play GTA Online. Having now actually experienced it, I can say it is about as comparable to Second Life as chalk is to cheese. Nevertheless I intend to compare and contrast Linden Lab’s and Rockstar’s virtual worlds.
So what did the trailer show? It showed a vibrant, richly detailed virtual world in which people were engaging in all kinds of activities. There were races using cars, airplanes, motorbikes and jet-skis. There were gun fights in cities, desert towns and industrial complexes. There were people playing tennis, golf, and indulging in a spot of underwater exploration. The final scene showed people socialising in somebody’s apartment while, outside, other players were driving around in cars or flying by in jet aircraft.
It seemed to me then, that whereas Second Life was an online world that let you do whatever (within certain restrictions and depending on whether you or somebody has the skills to make it happen) but was totally ambiguous about what you should be doing, Rockstar had built an online world centred around some of the most popular activities in video gaming. That is, mostly driving and shooting but with other competitive activities thrown in as well, along with experiences familiar to Slers, such as shopping for clothes and accessories, and hanging out with friends in their homes. It appeared to me that GTA Online might be more popular than SL, in that it did not just dump people into a world and expect them to find out for themselves what they should be doing, but laid on all kinds of fun things to do which are very familiar to video gamers.
So like I said, there is really very little that is comparable between these two virtual worlds. Both offer quite different experiences and both have areas in which one excells and the other is weak.
So let us start with one aspect of GTA Online which is weak, which happens to be the first activity a newbie engages in. This would be the avatar selection screen. What you would probably expect to see here would be lots of sliders or some other means of adjusting a generic body until it is morphed into the form you think best represents your avatar. GTA Online does away with all that and instead opts for a method whereby you choose grandparents and parents from a pre-selected list and your avatar is a mix of those. You can choose to make it look more like mother than father, or grandfather than mother, and you can change hair color and add a beard (if your avatar is male, bearded ladies are not an option) but other than that you have no control over how your avvie will look. You have to try out combinations of grandparents and parents and hope their offspring looks like the avatar you wanted. It is, quite frankly, a stupid way of doing avatar creation and Second Life absolutely blows GTA out of the water in terms of the richness in variety of possible avatars it makes available. In some ways the comparison is a bit unfair because, after all, SL has been around for years and has a large and dedicated user base who have crafted goodness knows how many skins, shapes and accessories with which to build a unique avatar. I would hardly expect GTA Online to launch with content as exhaustive as all that, but for goodness sakes have they never heard of the phrase, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Aparrently not, otherwise they would not have abandoned the perfectly workable avatar adjustment scheme for some ridiculous breeding concept.
Talking of broken, that was my first impression of the actual online world. It begins with a small cutscene showing your avatar arriving in Los Santos via a passanger jet, and then you are driven to a parking lot where you must undergo the introduction. The question I asked was: Why? I can see the point of Second Life guiding newbies through its basics before letting them loose into the wider world, as many may not be at all familiar with it. But, for goodness sakes, GTA Online launched a few weeks after GTAV which it is bundled with, and all the game mechanics apply. We all know how to drive and shoot guns and shop for clothes and items because we have spent hours and hours doing just that in GTA V (and, probably, IV and III which all have pretty much the same control scheme). What most people want to do upon loading Grand Theft Auto is to just start poking at the world to see how its emergent gameplay pokes back, not be hand held through a series of tasks which only a complete noob would need to do.
Worse, many (myself included) did not even get as far as beginning the introduction. I was dropped off at the car park, ready to take part in a road race which everybody must compete in before being allowed to progress to the rest of Los Santos. I waited while other avatars rezzed around me, other hopefuls ready to show off their abilities. I waited while some walked off, presumably to get in a car and start racing. I waited…
And nothing happened. I just remained in the car park, not moving. I could hear people around me complaining of the wait as well, and one chap said he had waited 14 HOURS without success. I guess GTA Online was just so popular and its servers so busy, some of us were in an endless queue.
Stop. So much negativity. I should say that, now certain technical flaws seem to have been addressed, GTA Online is astoundingly good. You can switch pretty seamlessly between GTAV (the story) and GTA Online. You do this via the character selection wheel. Highlight who you want to play as (Franklin, Trevor or Michael in Story Mode or your avatar in GTA Online) and the viewpoint swoops up to a satellite view of Los Santos before swooping down to your chosen character’s location. There is just a fairly short loading time before your are dropped right in on the action. The way the camera sweeps across Los Santos and allows you to take control of a character who was in the middle of some random act gives the impression that these are people with lives that go on while you are not actively controlling them. It also means there is really never a dull moment in GTA Online because, even if you should be stuck with nothing to do (an exceedingly rare occurrence) you can always indulge in a bit of story mode and play the single player game, which is incredibly entertaining.
Rest assured, though, that there is pretty much always something to do in GTA Online. Just driving a vehicle through the spectacular landscape of Los Santos is fun in and of itself. Second Life may have devoted hundreds of person hours in developing avatar accessories, but Rockstar has devoted as much time to perfecting a driving model which is more fun than realistic. Quite simply, driving in GTA is as fun as driving vehicles in Second Life is clumsy and awkward. The way the physics model has the car jumping and bouncing its way over rough terrain, wheels giving way to oversteer as you drive to fast around a corner, windows shattering and bodywork crumpling as a mis-timed manouvre sends you into the path of some obstacle (usually another vehicle) is simply sublime and there are so many incidental details to see I would not be surprised if many people choose to just drive around looking for things to photograph (yes, you can take snapshots just as you can in SL).
But, then again, the various activities and missions available everywhere are, if anything, even more fun than just driving around. Activities and missions are located all over the map and you join one simply by walking into the glowing blue circle. Alternatively, people looking for other players will send out a request which you pick up as a text message on your phone and if it sounds like fun you can opt to be taken away from whatever you are doing and join in (unless it is full to capacity). The activities and missions are all variations on driving, shooting, and capture the flag so far as I can see, but GTA Online does a brilliant job of coming up with novel variations of these game archetypes which remains true to its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the criminal underworld. I have driven a sports car while being hunted by two fighter jets (as well as flown the jets in pursuit of the cars), taken part in a massive battle between tanks, jumped out of an airplane and parachuted through checkpoints, been hunter and hunted as my opponents and team members vied to capture a package of drugs and deliver it to a safe location. And on and on.
Engaging in these activities with other people rather than bots makes a world of difference. When you race against the computer you do not care for any position other than first. Second might as well be last place. But when competing against other people every position is worth fighting for and it becomes an imperative to beat the person in front and ensure whoever is behind (if anyone!) stays there, regardless of whether you are in second place or second from last place. And being able to discuss plans for how to go about accomplishing a task with team mates adds no end of immersion to the various missions on offer.
AVATARS AND BOTS
I said there were people rather than bots in GTA Online but that is only partly true. In Second Life just about every person you meet is an avatar controlled by some real life person, and only a very few are bots. But in GTA Online the opposite is true. The game can hold a maximum of sixteen players per game world and every other pedestrian and driver you encounter is AI controlled. This seems like rather a pity to me. There must surely be enough players to ensure Los Santos is populated with enough people, so I do not know why the majority have to be bots. Then again, I think Xbox Live always limits the total amount of participants to 16 so maybe Rockstar had no choice but to rely mostly on bots to populate their world?
It is fairly easy to find the humans. Every player is clearly marked on the map and their names appear above them so you can easily find and distinguish the 16 or so fellow players from the hordes of bots. I would, however, advise extreme caution in approaching other players.
In Second Life I am used to approaching strangers, saying ‘hi’ and engaging in a nice sociable chat. Sometimes this meet and greet blossoms into a lasting friendship. In my experience, people in SL are generally very friendly and while I have met one or two griefers, for the most part people seem very pleasant and more than willing to stop and talk to a stranger like myself.
GTA Online is not nearly so friendly. On my first encounter with a fellow avatar, he immediately drew a large spanner and smacked me over the head with it, killing me. I remember another incident where I was trying to take a snapshot when a fellow player deliberately ran me over. I have had people blow my car up or steal it, forcing me to claim a new one on insurance at a cost of 200 or so GTAs (the ingame currency) and whenever I have money in my pocket I make a nervous dash for an ATM so I can store it safely. Yes, in GTA online, you can be mugged.
Now, if that kind of thing went on in Second Life you would call it griefing and complain bitterly to the Lindens. But you cannot really apply those rules to GTA Online which, after all, is all about bad people doing bad things. There is a passive mode which enables you to walk around untouchable by others and unable to harm them in return, but I never engage it and I bet neither does anybody else. It is just not the point of GTA. I do not want to give the impression that everybody in GTA Online is out to get you. There are nice people who prefer friendly competition to going out of their way to kill and rob other players. It is just that there are enough of the latter kind to ensure you approach each new player with extreme caution. And they, of course, will be very wary of you.
GTA Online is escapism, pure and simple. It is a world where the rules which restrict our actions (because to break them would either result in a visit from the police or a visit to the hospital or morgue in real life) do not apply and you can therefore do all kinds of crazy things which you would- I hope!- never try for real. It is great fun and it is very easy to pass hours indulging in its activities…. But it does not seem to me to be the kind of place where you can develop powerful and lasting relationships. Nor does it offer anything in the way of content creation. As a digital person, Second Life provides me with many opportunities to grow as an individual. Second Life feels very much like a place. It can be let down by its technical limitations or incompetence, it is true. But nevertheless for me it more than makes up for that with the freedom of creation it offers every resident, and the amazing things some folks have done with it. I do not think I could ever develop the kind of deep, meaningful friendships I enjoy in Second Life in GTA Online. GTA Online is a playground, somewhere to go for a bit of fun, some competition, and some naughty, tongue in cheek behaviour. But I could not live there. Second Life, on the other hand, is my home and where my heart is.