It may be two Grand Theft Auto generations and 11 years old, but GTA: San Andreas is still very much alive. Its two most popular online multiplayer mods currently have a million or more active players between them — one, Multi Theft Auto, had 616,000 players in July (up from just 33k in February 2010), while the other, SA-MP, oscillates between about 15,000 and 50,000 concurrent players. I went to talk to members of both mod communities to find out what keeps them playing.
These certainly aren't numbers to be sneezed at. They put many of the biggest current PC games to shame. Even the massively-popular GTA 5, replete with a sprawling online mode of its own that consistently puts it in Steam's top 10 games by player count, fares no better than its ancestor. (To put a number on it, SteamSpy estimates over 1.2 million GTA 5 players in the past two weeks, with peak concurrent players consistently around 50,000.)
SA-MP and MTA are both very similar to GTA Online at first glance. They turn San Andreas into a persistent online multiplayer world that allows players to embark on the full gamut of GTA-like activities — killing sprees, racing, stunts, heists, running away from the police, and so on. Where they differ, however, is in approach. GTA Online puts up to 30 players on each server, and it doesn't let you choose the server. SA-MP and MTA allow much larger player counts — sometimes several hundred, depending on the server — and in traditional PC gaming style offer up a long list of servers to choose from, each of which has its own rules, available game modes, and eccentricities. The mods themselves differ in more subtle ways. MTA is open source, but SA-MP is not. SA-MP has fewer custom interfaces, quicker load times, worse synchronisation and overall performance, and more elaborate role-playing servers. (And for creative types, MTA has a map editor and an easier-to-learn scripting system.)
I asked one of the MTA developers, a chemical engineer named Dan, to help me understand what makes this San Andreas multiplayer community tic. Dan started out as a Multi Theft Auto player back before San Andreas even came out — when the mod was available for GTA 3 and Vice City. He was drawn in by its accessibility. "At the time the big game was Counter-Strike," he recalls. He downloaded it and gave it a shot, but it seemed impenetrable. "I'd jump in and get shot immediately and have to wait like three minutes to jump into the next round." But with Multi Theft Auto he didn't have to worry about being killed constantly by skilled players. He could just drive around and have fun.
That's a big part of its appeal now, too, more than a decade later. And it's especially noticeable if you're coming from GTA Online, where other players attempt to shoot at you, run you over, or run you off the road every other minute. Where GTA Online has a "passive" mode that offers a scant layer of protection for newbies and non-violent players (there are, sadly, many ways to kill a player set as passive), Multi Theft Auto and SA-MP each offer hundreds of servers where cold-blooded murder is rare. As SA-MP player JasperM notes, "the GTA SA online community is a lot more friendly and less toxic than GTA Online where people randomly hunt you down for no reason."
Dan suggests that the root of this comparative friendliness is in the mod architecture and the game itself. San Andreas plays terribly as a shooter. Its verbs — the actions players can take — may skew towards violence, but its systems and world design favour different kinds of experiences. Indeed, deathmatch servers are uncommon; players tend to gravitate more to free-roam (the world is a playground to explore and crash and do stunts in), racing (think TrackMania, not Forza; Multi Theft Auto's initial release was actually restricted only to this), cops and robbers, and (overwhelmingly) roleplay.
Role-playing servers present the GTA that critics clamour for. Instead of using the enormous, detailed world as a playground for a mass murderer, possibly of migrant or poverty-stricken origins, who sometimes moonlights as a taxi driver or vigilante cop, they let you be a taxi driver or policeman or incarcerated criminal or dock worker or whatever else. I tried one such server where you arrive as a migrant worker with no belongings and no money beyond a 20 "ECash" cheque. Even with the money from that cheque you still can't afford to get a job (yes, it costs money to get a job), so you need to either hang out at the bank until 6am (whereupon in a surprisingly socialist twist you'll receive another 20 ECash) or go do bottom-of-the-barrel jobs like street sweeping, collecting trash, and mowing the golf course.
In another server, I tried my hand at being a professional trucker, a la SCS Software's Truck Simulator games but with crappy physics and the ability to get out of the truck to walk around or stop for lunch or any of a dozen other things. I also tried my hand at a prison server that's nigh unplayable without learning a complex set of typed commands and role-playing etiquette.
There are lots and lots of options for roleplay across the two multiplayer mods, some narrow and focused like the prison and trucking servers mentioned above and others broader and more ambitious and reliant upon a whole virtual society forming within the San Andreas world (or a custom map). Dan mentions that MTA even has a server where you can get a job as an astronaut and fly to the moon to mine moon rock.
GTA Online has delivered the traditional GTA experience in a multiplayer package — stealing cars, killing cops, driving like a maniac, punching random pedestrians while they scream or talk smack at you, and causing as much chaos as possible. "But what Multi Theft Auto has delivered is something that other people were looking for," Dan explains. "They're looking for these role-playing games. They're looking for some crazy customisable races. And what we've been able to do is just niche into a market where people can build experiences really quickly and really easily. And players can just flock to that." Several players I consulted emphasised this point, noting that the big variety in servers keeps San Andreas multiplayer feeling fresh in a way that GTA Online doesn't.
They also talk about community. It's GTA, so there are still plenty of jerks, but online staff members and anti-cheat tools keep them at bay and the tight-knit community on many servers quickly stamps out the anti-social behaviour (caveat: a few players noted that the admins on some servers are just as guilty of bad behaviour). "People play on the same server for a while and become friends," says a player who goes by the handle Kimble. PrO.GameR echoes the sentiment, suggesting that GTA Online has considerably lower maturity levels. He also praises SA-MP's depth. "SA-MP is the land of possibilities and the only limitations are the server scripter's imaginations," he says.
It helps, too, that the system requirements are modest. "A lot of our players are just on their laptops or ancient office computers," Dan explains. "And those are the kinds of people who jump in. That's not by design. That's not something we intended. But that's how our player base is growing. Because the actual experiences in the servers themselves are very complex, and they're very elaborate. They can compete with professionally developed games." Yet unlike those games they compare to, these San Andreas server experiences will run on an ancient rig. "Even if you just look at a race on its own, the idea that you can build custom maps and race with other online players with really modest requirements has captured a niche."
Dan believes the low system requirements really can't be understated as integral to MTA's growth. "After version 1.1 we implemented translation and internationalisation," he explains. "It's really tapped into this market of middle eastern and Russian gamers who perhaps can't afford a top-spec rig but they can easily install this and run it." Put down a mere £10 to buy the game on Steam, then downgrade the executable and install one of the mods and a crappy PC can suddenly handle your pick of hundreds of popular online racing, exploration, role-playing, trucking, competitive action, flight, and stunt driving games that all run on mod servers. "I think that's the reason why we're successful. Because still no one's addressing this," Dan continues. "There's not a commercial game out there that's really community-driven and you can build your own game modes in [to this extent with system requirements anywhere near this modest]."
SA-MP and especially MTA — because it's open source — differ fundamentally from GTA Online in that they are bottom-up projects. They don't simply dictate, "this is what we think GTA should be", but rather evolve with their community. "Our approach has just become 'hey this is what people like doing. Let's build towards that,'" Dan explains. And Dan says there's almost like a chain of command. The players make requests or complaints, or play in a certain way that gets the notice of the server owners, who work with scripters to enhance the experience and file bug reports or requests directly with the mod developers for specific issues. Those improvements, such as an API for importing custom cars, will then filter back down, propagating through to other servers.
In the early days, the multiplayer mods offered what Dan calls the "bog standard" game modes — things like deathmatch, team deathmatch, some kind of assault, and other modes that were common in early-2000s first-person shooters (but now with cars and a bigger map). But it was the freeroam and race modes (and later roleplay) that gained traction and ended up setting the direction for the future.
Some of the most interesting things emerge as meta games. Dan describes how a feature of freeroam mode that lets you warp to another player's location has on some servers sparked clan wars. "People have mastered warping to people and knifing them instantly. It's so random, but now there's this competitive underground thing on MTA that's banned on some servers because people hate having people warp to them and kill them instantly."
The dynamism of the San Andreas multiplayer community boils down to the complexity that San Andreas itself provides: a huge, sprawling, interesting map with dozens of vehicles and a cache of weapons that enable chaos and destruction on varying levels, plus a whole suite of RPG elements like the food and exercise and dating systems that we all loved and loathed and that made my CJ distinct from yours.
The mods are elaborate extensions to the San Andreas game engine, but their ambitions in enabling compelling multiplayer experiences are both matched and made possible by the ambition of San Andreas as a single-player experience. And that they're not only still around but actually growing attests to the unending capacity of organised fans to keep a great game vibrant. People keep playing because they can, and because 11 years later the world of San Andreas still has more to offer.