Version 1.0 to 1.17 was essentially free.
We know Time = Money. So you spend to save time or spend time to save money. We spend our time working for others so we get money and works both ways.
DLC cars in packs are not level related other than the Dubsta 6x6 (Level 100). Costs of items have increased and time to take to earn them increase. They then decrease payouts, further increasing the time to earn a sole item. Making the paid route more enticing. Then we see the types of items, like the Hydra. Which who bought with real money get immediately or you earn over a period of missions, during that time, the paid people have the advantage, and slow the non payers, further increasing to buy or grind. People want fun, and immediate fun is from shark cards and not grinding.
This can be seen in many F2P games like APB Reloaded or War Thunder for example. They have an advantage and the only way to have a fair fight anymore is to meet on their level. GTA allows the earning through mindless grinds which IMO makes the games a chore rather than fun.
Let's look at For Honor where the DLCs are free and optional microtransactions. It takes a total 2 and a half years to earn the items if you casually played everyday. Or... microtransactions of a total of 732 dollars. Yeah. Remember this is a game that you've bought already.
Imagine going up a mountain and at the top is an amazing reward but next to the mountain is an super fast elevator to the top which costs money. You could climb your way to the top eventually and get your reward or pay to get it straight away with no effort.
Then we look at game mechanics, back even at the start where insurance was a nightmare, you'd lose $2000 for every death, usually negating the newbie missions. And even putting people to a stand still. Now it's $200. Cops are permanently on, and don't arrest you, just shoot so there's an increase in impound buys and deaths. Then we have the fake insurance, and then the fake utilities everyday (which is $2000 for me). Everything is built so you lose money. I don't have to do anything on the game, just stand there, and I'm losing money.
This with the effect of wanting to just have fun on GTA and not grind is the reason they've earned an extra half a billion dollars in shark cards alone. Why do they need to go through the effort of a full casted single player DLC when they earn the same back, if not more (due to the game mechanics), buy simply modelling a couple of cars and clothes (which were in release trailers). Less effort and same reward for R*. It's a no brainer.
I would have no problem if the payouts were decreased and prices rose if everyone was in the same boat and not have that free paid access to the items. If everyone had to grind for the gear then it's an even playing field.
GTA Online is a P2F (Pay to Fun) game that slows you down to try to force you to pay. I'll never do it. Then again I don't need to. Nothing makes sense in GTA Online, it's a mess of money income basically. Single player was shit and so was it all TBH. takes a couple of days to 100%. Has less features than San Andreas and dares to even call itself San Andreas. What a joke.
I have the same suspicion that RDR2 is going to be plagued with microtransactions too. Max Payne 3 was just before all this shit started. And was fun as fuck. Leslie Benzies drove the games forward and now he's gone, who knows what going to happen.