This has not been a season for successful launches of online systems. Although the debacle was overshadowed by the troubled rollout of the Obama administration’s healthcare.gov website, the launch-day issues with the Grand Theft Auto Online platform present an interesting case study in how to manage the technical failure of a highly-anticipated online entertainment platform. They also provide us with what might be an obvious lesson in human nature: People who are willing to perform underwater salvage, drive taxis, rob convenience stores, and assassinate CEOs in exchange for virtual money are also likely to forget how frustrated they are with you in exchange for virtual money.

The fastest-selling entertainment product in history

Grand Theft Auto V, the much-hyped blockbuster by Rockstar Games, was released on September 17, 2013, and quickly became the fastest-selling entertainment product ever, earning $800 million with 11.21 million copies sold in the 24 hours following its release, and passing the billion-dollar threshold in its first three days. By comparison, it took James Cameron’s Avatar three weeks to reach one billion dollars, and no film had reached the mark so quickly before. GTA V had also garnered overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, and was receiving controversial (and attention-grabbing) coverage for its typical low-brow sexism and a discomforting interactive torture scene.

Suffice it to say that Rockstar undoubtedly had the attention and favor of its fans, who were eagerly awaiting the October 1 launch of GTA Online. Rockstar had attempted to enable online interaction before in GTA IV (2008), with mixed success: People were signing on and interacting, but the pure sandbox nature of the online world made play chaotic and frustrating. GTA Online, the multiplayer companion to GTA V, was designed to avert those problems by providing hundreds of structured missions, some competitive but many cooperative, thereby giving some order and purpose to online players’ interaction. The fan base’s excitement was at a fever pitch.

Failure to Launch

A variety of technical problems awaited fans who attempted to log into GTA Online on launch day. One of the simplest was the inability to access Rockstar’s overwhelmed servers, which manifested for some users by making it impossible to save a created character and to advance in the game across multiple play sessions. Many received simple error messages and were returned to GTA V, others were locked into loading screens that were not loading anything, and some players encountered bugs more surreal in nature, such as the player character being spawned into completely empty worlds, with no vehicles or people.

Players were eager to access this new digital playground, and were unable to, despite repeated attempts. Many took to online discussion boards, or to the Rockstar Twitter feed and technical support pages, to vent frustration and look for technical fixes. Some pressed for legal action, and some are pursuing lawsuits, although the end-user license agreement’s indemnity section makes such action a steeply uphill battle at best. Regardless of the merits, however, when a customer buys your game on the release date and sues you less than a month later, it is a signal that some public image repair work is necessary.

This was not the first botched launch of a highly-anticipated online gaming platform. Blizzard’s Diablo III (2012) required all players to maintain a connection to servers during play, as did EA’s Simcity (2013). This meant that when the publisher’s servers had issues, players were locked out of the game entirely (By contrast, GTA V’s single-player mode thankfully remains accessible even when GTA Online malfunctions). Blizzard and EA released downloadable patches to fix the broken games, and in each instance the fix forced the publisher to scrap content it had intended to include. More importantly, these launches had been public relations disasters: While Simcity and Diablo III are loved by many, both names are closely associated in gaming circles with the technical failings of their online platforms.

Against this backdrop, it seemed likely that the GTA Online launch issues would cost the Grand Theft Auto franchise some fan loyalty, quiet the buzz around its most-buzzed-about game, and force Rockstar to cut content from its online world.

First Responders

Less than a week prior to launch, Rockstar stated that it expected to spend the first weeks after launch “heavily focused on tuning the experience… so that all the usual teething problems for an online game are overcome.” This provided the team with some leeway, and put the developer and the users on the same side of a fight against glitches, instead of allowing gamers to cast the developer as the villain who had carelessly rushed a broken game to market.

Within 24 hours, Rockstar was providing regular updates on the problem on its Twitter feed, and working “around the clock” on separate patches for the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Rockstar also encouraged fans to contact the company about specific technical problems with GTA Online, once again putting the developers and fans on the same side of the fight by taking what some players might have presented as indictments of Rockstar’s incompetence and turning them into helpful product feedback.

Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 patches were both available within one week after the launch date, and most gamers were able to access GTA Online after downloading the patches. This left the majority GTA Online users in only a slightly better position than that of Simcity and Diablo III players. While users of GTA Online were at least getting all of the content they were promised (whereas Simcity and Diablo III had to have elements stripped out to enable online play), they were had the same basic complaint: “Yes, the product now works as you advertised, but I wanted to use it as early as you said I could use it, and I spent some frustrating hours attempting in vain to use your product.”

Fake Cash Heals All Wounds

On October 11, 2013, with the worst of the technical glitches behind them, Rockstar could have turned its attention to developing other content, and left its fans with an engaging and playable online platform, despite the bad taste in some users’ mouths. In a stroke of genius, however, they found a cheap, easy, and universally appealing way to make it up to fans of GTA Online.

Rockstar announced that it was “planning to provide a special stimulus package for all who have played or will play Grand Theft Auto Online” in the first month of its release. “We will be dropping a cool half a million” into “GTA Online bank accounts of all players this month.” The digital GTA$ currency cannot be converted into cash, but can be spent on virtual weapons, vehicles, and real estate, and is usually earned in-game by performing illegal work, or purchased via microtransactions.

Although GTA$500,000 may not seem like a lot (it can be bought for $9.99), it would take hours of heisting cargo planes, intercepting stolen arms shipments, and stealing evidence from crooked cops for a player’s net worth to approach such a figure. In short, a player would be hard-pressed to claim that she could have earned more than her stimulus grant during the period when GTA Online was inaccessible. In a world where bullet-proofing your tires costs GTA$25,000, half a million GTA$ can be the difference between remaining a two-bit hoodlum or becoming a three-bit gangster.

Individual users of GTA Online still suffer through occasional technical issues, and most users have likely already found ways to burn through their stimulus packages. The release of the stimulus package, however, was a gesture of good will that cost Rockstar next to nothing, but was invaluable succor to those who were still bitter about the game’s frustrating first week. While the example may not be a helpful lesson to those involved in the other botched October 1 rollout (it seems that Rockstar has an easier time getting approval for stimulus disbursements than President Obama does), the resuscitation of fan support for Rockstar and GTA Online should be a model for developers of future online gaming platforms.

Max Kelly is a J.D. candidate, ’15, at the NYU School of Law.

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