P(l)aying for a Free Gold Jet

On June 10th, 2015, Rockstar Games release fresh downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto V title, Ill-Gotten Gains. The Ill-Gotten Gains DLC included the most expensive in-game items to date. Emblematic of the exorbitant prices was the Luxor Deluxe, a gold-plated version of the Luxor jet, which sold for $10M, 8.35M more than the standard Luxor.

LuxorDeluxe-GTAV

The ostensible reason for the release of such expensive materials was to rebalance the cost of in-game items after the release of the previous DLC update, which introduced the much anticipated Heists game mode. Heists offer the greatest payouts for any single mission in GTAV. The final mission in the Pacific Standard Job offers a potential payout of a whopping $1.25M for completing the mission on Hard Mode to be divided among the 4 participants. Even with Heist’s remarkable payouts, the cost in-game currency of the Ill-Gotten Gains DLC represented a significant time investment. Assuming an even split of the final payout, it would take 23 runs of the entire Pacific Standard Heist to be able to afford the Luxor Deluxe’s 10 million dollar pricetag. Last week a few crew members and I timed a run through all of the missions of the Pacific Standard Heist–not going for speed, just to see how long it takes–it came out to around two hours and thirty minutes. 23 runs at 2.5 hours per run would total 57.5 hours. At that pace, earning a Luxor Deluxe would require playing just about the entire playtime of Dragon Age: Origins or a full standard work week and half of another.

Because Rockstar sells in-game currency in the form of Shark Cards, we can translate this into real-world wages. Earning 10M in 57.5 hours would be roughly $174,000 per hour. One Tiger Shark Card worth $200,000 costs $5 dollars. In other words, heist missions pay out at less than $5 per hour. That means it would actually be more efficient to work a minimum wage job and buy in-game currency than it would be to earn it by playing GTA V. In fact, to buy the Luxor Deluxe at 10 million, a player would need to purchase a Megalodon Card and two Great White Shark Cards, which would be 10.5 million in-game currency for $140, the cost of purchasing GTA V twice. With the minimum wage in my home state of Louisiana at $7.25 per hour, that comes out to about 21 hours of work. And again this would be for one in-game item.

There are, of course, other ways to get in-game currency.

From its original release in 2013, GTAV has been plagued by rampant hacks, glitches, mods, and exploits. Indeed, the pervasiveness of these exploits lent irony to the title of the Ill-Gotten Gains DLC, which, in addition to adding expensive in-game content, instituted a number of measures to stem some of the more popular glitches. The high-price tags on items such as the Luxor Deluxe were thus aimed not only clearing out the money earned through the diegetic crimes of the Heist, but also the non-diegetic crimes of glitchers, for whom their gains were in reality ill-gotten as opposed to those who dutifully played heists repeatedly who’s gains were ironically legitimate.

Perhaps it says something about a game named after the act of stealing cars that it would have a problem with players stealing in-game currency and items. All the hacking and glitching and exploits seem somehow to an extension of the game’s narrative conceit.

A longer version of this paper outlines what I see as three overlapping phases of this activity, each dominated by a particular kind of exploit and ended with actions by Rockstar to ban players, fix shoddy code, and alter rules of the game world. For the sake of time, I’m going to skip to the current phase, marked by the sharing of so-called “legitimate” money-making methods, methods which, like the illegitimate ones also often get targeted by Rockstar’s patches. This phase is exemplified in this video by one of the more prominent GTAV YouTubers, MrBossFTW.

How did we get here? How is this videogaming? A method that allows you to help your parents while you play? Do something productive?

I remember when GTA3 was heralded as exemplifying videogame’s potential as what Kevin Parker called an “anti-authority labratory.” Ross’s tips here on how to efficiently farm special event weekends while still being “productive” before Rockstar nerfs the payouts sure doesn’t sound much like that. And, yet, videos such as this one speak to an opposition between players and developers, a contest played out via the game world to determine the value of the player’s time.

A tip video like this one, as Mia Consalvo demonstrates descends from Nintendo Power, of course, yet there are a few distinct and important differences. First, it is user generated rather than published by game manufacturers. Second, the tips aren’t primarily about succeeding at the game. Those videos certainly exist, however, most take that you can complete the mission for granted. Far more popular are videos like this one, which explain how to complete the missions efficiently for maximum in-game profit before Rockstar patches them.
So that’s the situation, let me switch now to some theory.

Once upon a time Gonzalo Frasca compared playing GTA3to finding ways to amuse himself at while working a summer job sorting mail:

GTA3’s great achievement was to allow the player to do what most people with lousy jobs do: turn their dull activities into a game (remember my junk mail job?).

While his analogy was supposed to indicate the potential for GTA3 to offer opportunities for resistance, or just of finding joy in the mundanity and efficiency of life in late capitalism, it still likens playing GTA3 to a working at a bad job, albeit one that allows us to goof off.

More recently, Jesper Juul picked up on the same quality of GTA games–the spaces for unscripted play between without express goals–as what allows GTA to be played casually. Because GTA doesn’t make players pursue any one goal, it avoids forcing “us to optimize our strategy in order to win rather than do something else that we would prefer (138). For Juul, the casual revolution has not been about certain kinds of games or certain kinds of gamers, but rather how gaming fits into our busy lives. Even for himself, he’s found that with his fulltime academic schedule: “Casual games just fit in better with my life.”

It is no coincidence that the casual revolution in gaming came about as folks of my generation who grew up with console in in our living rooms entered the professional world, got real jobs and responsibilities, and have less time to devote to gaming. Nor that it was enabled by the same mobile technologies that obliterated for good the work/home, work/leisure dichotomy by making email and cloud services available anywhere and any time. Nor that it occurred roughly concurrent with the economic downturn. Gaming offers a brief respite around the edges, a quick session on the subway on the way to work or between Pomodoros, and, hey, look at how much we get to play for free!

But, contrary to Juul’s suggestion, the constraints on our time do not lend themselves to less optimized play. Instead, they often require greater optimization, as players much get as much as they can in as little time as possible. In fact, as casual games have moved to monetize time—and as less casual games have followed suit—such optimization has become the game itself.

In his article “Rage Against the Machines,” Ian Bogost draws a direct line from the rise of freemium back to the economic model of the arcade, by which players resisted the game’s efforts to kick them out and were rewarded with more time in the game world. This financial transaction organized around contested time is often lost on early game studies. Juul, for instance, uses Mario’s three lives in DonkeyKong to explain the inability of game narratives to sufficiently cover over game rules. Left out of these opposition of fantasy worlds and real rules is the players financial investment. However motivated one might be to save Pauline or how much one desires to test the limits of a rule system to earn a high score, one also wants to survive long enough to make that quarter worth it.

In the longer version of this paper, I trace this monetization of play time through the console generation and the emphasis on replay value to the present moment, in which we are seeing AAA games like GTA V: Online attempt to re-monetize of time.

In GTAV, this conversion is pretty straight forward. For instance—after some fairly early patches—for most game modes besides just freeroam—the in-game currency and experience rewarded for completing an activity is directly correlated to the time spent playing the mission. This has some odd effects, like making it more beneficial to take longer to finish a race than to finish more quickly or player sitting inactive before checkpoints, waiting for the next tier of payout before completing a mission and submitting to the game’s exorbitant load times.

The direct correlation of play time to payouts that have a consistent real-world value makes it quite easy to calculate GTAV wages. Though play time is typically considered as opposed to work time, gaming an escapist leisure activity, something one does to get away from work, GTA Online has become a kind of crappy part time job. One’s ability to earn in-game currency through play becomes a form of supplemental income. Given the stagnation of real world wages and the stigma surrounding for-pay player in free-to-play games, one’s capacity to play these games ostensibly for free becomes an important form of unpaid domestic labor, a paradoxical leisure labor, allowing players with less disposable income to participate on that supposedly level-playing field encircled by a game’s magic circle.

This version of GTA Online still allows the open play scholars and critics praised in its predecessors. Indeed, this version of San Andreas is a technical marvel in the size and scope of its world and available activities, offering seemingly unending possibilities for creative, emergent play. But, there is now a cost associated with it.

Dying costs money, damaging your car costs money, destroying someone else’s car costs money, calling in special vehicles like tanks costs money, even firing a gun costs money because you have to buy ammunition. Thankfully gas doesn’t cost money, or else even driving would be expensive. Not to to mention the opportunity costs lost while you drive out to the airport to get a helicopter so you can land on top of a skyscraper and watch yourself fall off of it to your death. All that time you could have been farming V.I.P. missions in an invite only session like MrBossFTW. Remember Frasca’s crappy job?

All this is to say, the once smooth surface available for tactical, emergent play has become restratified in GTA Online through the application of a freemium model that assigns monetary value to in-game activities and items. As a result, the structure of the game’s competition has been overwritten. Of course it is possible to play without accruing these costs and avoiding in-game currency all together. One could steal a car from the street, drive it for hours carefully through the scenery, avoiding potential threats. But that would be a different kind of game, one not circumscribed by the magic circle as it is traditionally understood. Sure, it would constitute its own kind of challenge. But, also, the frugal player would be playing not only against the environment and, potentially, against other players but also against the monetization of play time itself. As freemium and free-to-play models further exert an influence over different kinds of gaming, understanding this meta-competition—this PVD or player versus development—will be increasingly important.

***I originally presented this talk at PCA/ACA in Seattle, March 2016, under a different title. A slightly modified version was presented at Loyola University New Orleans in April as a part of the English Literary Forum***