Hybrid Entertainment: Free-roam Network Games

I have been a great fan of the  GTA series of games from Rockstar for a long time. The political incorrectness and violence that is there in the game is a different topic that I won’t deal with in this post as I will be focusing on other aspects of the game that could open up a whole new type of entertainment.

Gameplay screencasts are probably almost as old as YouTube itself, but they have always been constrained by the fact that they tend to be all about completing missions and little exploration is built into the game itself. They are also pretty linear in nature and rely more on damage/health variables to determine difficulty than use a large number of changeable variables.

Free-roaming games are extremely complicated and costly affairs. It is one thing to design a game world that has 5% accessible spaces and it is another to bump it up to even 20%. The inaccessible parts are just images plastered on regular shapes that look reasonably OK from a distance.

Designing a highly-accessible game world is hard. You have to define behaviours every object in the accessible areas, irrespective of whether a player will interact with those objects or not. Add other factors like weather and time of the day to the mix and the complexity becomes much harder than what most production houses can afford or handle.

A Free-Roam Real World

What GTA V has done differently is to mimic the real world to a great extent. Between the nearly-unrestricted world, the game AI that controls the non-playing characters and other gamers on the network, the outcomes and possibilities are incredible. Which brings us to the most significant aspect that you cannot script much and even the best laid plans have little certainty about the outcome.

This aspect of GTA V is so incredible that the story mode (where you play offline and complete the story) is pretty tame and boring and you will finish it pretty easily. That, though, is just the gateway to the real deal, which is the online mode. It is a teeming world that is constantly evolving. The list of possibilities for Rockstar with GTA V is endless. There is already a fully functional stock market in the game, where you can trade with other players and you can affect the market’s movements with actions in the game world.

The Live Stream

Games have been live streamed for a while now. Most of the MMORPGs have been doing this for years now. But I have always found them to be tedious and often downright boring unless you have been part of those gaming communities for a long time. For an outsider, it is often hard to make out what is going on in the game and the game worlds themselves are not of the free-roam types, which restricts the ability of a player to do something totally out of the ordinary.

Compared to that, a GTA V live stream provides a level of entertainment that is incredible. Players often ask the audience or fellow players what needs to be done and plans are arbitrarily made and executed. Nobody really knows what is going to happen. Obviously, this requires an extremely well-done game in the first place as there has to be some degree of predictability in the system, but make it too predictable and it will become boring quite easily.

Since the online world in GTA V is constantly evolving, these episodes are highly entertaining even if you have no idea about the game at all. One of the most popular things to do in the game is to steal a fighter jet from the military airbase and escape with it. Even though it is attempted regularly, no two attempts look the same. Rockstar also makes changes that ensures that adds to the unpredictability.

Why Is This Different?

Admittedly, a lot of the underlying themes are hardly something that is new. Second Life has a lot of these concepts — a free-roaming world, its own currency, property ownership — in it for years now. But it always felt like a lot of work (since the players have to build the worlds) and it did not feel fun at all.

The semi-structured world of GTA V online actually makes it really fun to watch these videos. From what I could make out, the viewership for the live stream itself is not all that great, mostly maxing out at the thousands, but the recording seem to do really well. A search for long videos on the game throws up twenty videos. all of them have at least a million views and some of them have cleared a year or two of viewing hours. That is a lot of hours and a lot of content that has been consumed.

In my opinion, we are on to something here. That said, it is also not free of problems. The language, violence and correctness issues aside, with that kind of consumption, it was only natural that game companies and other IP owners have started pushing YouTube to crack down on these videos. It maybe true that this is a new form of entertainment that is taking root, but it is also taking root in channels that are not owned by game companies, cutting them out of the advertising revenue generated by these channels.

Also, should the game companies somehow figure out a way to make this happen in a PG-13 manner on platforms they own the scope for experimentation is huge and the videos can become really big as a sort of reality television. They would not want anyone else to get a piece of that pie.