When Red Dead Online launched several months ago, Rockstar slapped the game with the beta tag for a reason. The studio wanted players to help them weed out technical issues, identify problem points, and recommend solutions for how to stabilize the foundation. The vocal masses did just that, calling out the excessively grindy economy, an open world that felt largely barren, and the annoying tendency for players to grief one another. As the months passed, many wondered, “Is this it? Is Red Dead Online already dead?” The answer to that question is an emphatic “no.”
While Rockstar worked on fixes to identified problem points – many of which it hopes today’s major update addresses – it quietly considered larger questions of how to grow the online multiplayer experience in interesting new ways.
Due largely to technical constraints, the game inevitably loses some degree of fidelity when transitioning away from the story mode and into the online space. To make room for other people, something has to be sacrificed. But what if those sacrifices didn’t need to be so large? What if you could preserve some degree of that dynamism, better encourage the freedom of players to pursue their own destiny in the open world, and even push beyond the boundaries of what the single-player experience offered in some of the most popular activities?
These are the questions Rockstar Games aims to ask with Red Dead Online moving forward.
THE WESTERN WAY
Red Dead Online’s direct predecessor, Grand Theft Auto Online, inhabits a unique place in the gaming landscape. After a rocky debut that turned off many thanks to its unstable servers, Rockstar developers put their collective heads down and worked, steadily improving the mode’s infrastructure and expanding the play experience with new criminal empires to build, adversarial modes to compete in, and desirable luxury items that made the violent grind for ill-gained cash feel worth the effort. Eventually, the pieces clicked and players started coming in droves. GTA Online was no longer the untamed, red-headed stepchild to the best-in-class single-player campaign – it became a destination in its own right.
GTA Online grew beyond being just a fun way to pass the time; for many, it became a lifestyle. Following a steady stream of new content, daily active users grew. Crews like the Hillbilly Agenda formed, forging friendships that began in Rockstar social clubs and spilled into real life. At the same time, the PC mod scene flourished in unexpected ways with the introduction of custom role-play servers. Not everyone who enjoys GTA games is interested in competitive play, and these mods paint outside the lines, allowing players to live out seemingly mundane fantasies like being a shopkeeper, car insurance salesman, or real-estate agent. Heavily streamed on Twitch, GTA RP servers keep the game among the most viewed interactive entertainment experiences at any given moment. The growth has paid off exponentially for Rockstar Games and parent company Take-Two Interactive, with a game that’s already considered the most profitable entertainment product of all time showing no signs of slowing.
Red Dead Online came online in the wake of this unprecedented success story. Like its predecessor, it released after the base game and began with a modest suite of activities, an intentional approach that allowed Rockstar to focus its efforts on stabilizing the foundation. With the game now working well enough for Rockstar to drop the beta tag, now comes the interesting part.
Take-Two shareholders undoubtedly want Rockstar to do everything it can to emulate GTA Online – slap a western sheen on the criminal fantasy and reap the rewards. But Rockstar has more ambitious plans to take the game in a new direction and make it distinct from GTA Online’s crime-driven focus. Red Dead Online will always offer an outlaw fantasy for those who choose it, but Rockstar also has grand visions for growing the mode beyond combat encounters.
“We want to build something with Red Dead Online that feels authentic and right in the world of Red Dead,” says Rockstar North co-head Rob Nelson. “You know, do things that maybe wouldn’t make as much sense or wouldn’t be available in the GTA world.”
CHOOSE YOUR ROLE
The westward expansion was a historical period fueled by punchdrunk dreams of those who saw unlimited opportunity in the untamed American wilderness. Emboldened by the concept of manifest destiny, pioneers set across the United States to realize their destinies, whether it be through honest or nefarious means. Red Dead Online hopes to enable these fantasies as well, whether you want to role-play as an honest woman harvesting your bounty from the untamed world, or a black-hat villain terrorizing towns across the land. To achieve this goal, Rockstar is thinking beyond the robust adversarial suite the game already has and investing more time and energy into free-roam activities.
“With Red Dead Online, we want to look at what we enjoyed about the open-world experience – the ability to feel like you were really existing in that world and you could role play in that world – and then extrapolate that out into what it could mean when you have a character that is truly your own,” Nelson says. “We don’t want to just pigeonhole you into being a criminal, but allow you a number of roles that you can take forward from the ground up.”
Players will get their first taste of this new direction when Rockstar debuts three roles this summer. Enjoy the challenge of wrangling outlaws? Become a bounty hunter. Prefer the more primal thrill of tracking animals? Turn those valuable pelts into a trading business. Do you tend to lose yourself exploring the open world? Perhaps you can pursue a career as a collector. Players can invest time in multiple roles either playing solo or cooperatively, and each offers opportunities for honorable and dishonorable actions. The more time you invest in a role, the more unique rewards like weapons, outfits, and gadgets you can earn.
“We are trying to take what we think is special about the world and expand the level at which you can interact with that,” Nelson says. “The goal is to be able to take hunting, collecting, bounty hunting, or whatever much further than we were able to with single-player. In some ways, we have to get [Red Dead Online] back up to the level of immersion that we were able to achieve with single-player. The scope for us to take it far beyond what we were able to do there is limitless, and that’s really exciting.”
The further players delve into these roles, the more recognizable and defined they should become to other players. At first glance, you should have a better idea of who you are dealing with. Say you’re fishing along the bank of the river and a man wearing a black hat approaches. You know that only dishonorable bounty hunters can earn that specific hat style, so keeping an eye on him is a probably smart idea. Griefing is an unavoidable element of Red Dead Online right now, but Rockstar also hopes these defined roles encourage players to interact in other ways as well. A bounty hunter may have more pressing matters to deal with than harassing an innocent fisherman. Perhaps he just tips his hat in your direction and rides past to tackle the more immediate task at hand.
These roles aren’t meant to be a temporary progression path; Rockstar built each of these roles with expansion in mind. Whereas you started immediately as a CEO of your illegal business in GTA Online, the road to potential riches is a much longer journey in Red Dead Online.
“What we’re doing with this game is asking what are the steps involved if it took you months, years, or whatever to get to that,” Nelson says. “What would it be for you to start your business in your camp to becoming a Leviticus Cornwall and owning a railway or a mine?”
This approach gives Rockstar the freedom to tap into a lot of different Western fantasies. Perhaps the honorable bounty hunter eventually becomes a lawman. Maybe the successful trader eventually expands her business into a Saint Denis storefront. The door is open to expand and evolve these roles continually.
Nelson says the world technology is malleable enough to allow developers to add new elements as needed to serve these roles as well. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to change the world for people so that it’s not a static thing,” he says. “It’s evolving and players will have to evolve and adapt with it.”
ENLISTING THE WILD BUNCH
Examining the activities available in Red Dead Redemption II offers insight into the directions Rockstar could potentially take the online experience. The ranching and farming mechanics from the epilogue are ripe for conversion, as is building a homestead, running a riverboat gambling enterprise, or leading archaeological digs. These careers could be diverse enough to draw in fans of the single-player mode who are turned off by the current focus on competitive multiplayer online, and even attract the audience currently obsessed with the GTA RP scene.
The hope is these unique roles encourage players to intermingle in interesting ways, even those normally more inclined to keep to themselves. This overarching philosophy is why Rockstar is so apprehensive to introduce elements like a passive mode that walls off players from each other or free-aim servers that split the player base. “It would be easier for us to do that then what we’re trying to do here, which is allow people to still feel like they are existing in the world that has an element of Wild Westiness to it and not completely make it two experiences,” Nelson says. “If we can’t get the balancing right then we can always do that, but what we’re trying to do is allow people to, however they want to play the game, interact with the world and still feel like they’re all part of the same world together. Where we think it works best and when it’s the most fun is if you are actually able to roleplay in this world to a certain degree.”
Achieving this goal won’t be easy, which is why Rockstar turns to the community to help determine the ways these systems should evolve over time. “With single-player, you develop over a fairly lengthy period of time largely in isolation with your team, and then it comes out, and hopefully people like it and it resonates,” Nelson says. “But the online component is more of a back and forth, almost like a conversation with the people playing it. You get to keep working on it in an interactive way.”
The beta tag may be gone from Red Dead Online, but Rockstar still wants fans to offer their thoughts and opinions on this new direction as it experiments with ways to bring this vision to life.
“A lot of this stuff that we develop works for single player, but it needs to be reimagined to work in an online world where things are a little bit different,” Nelson says. “That’s going to be a big focus for us moving forward with every with every update – putting in as much new content to interact with as you as you explore the world to try and get it feeling as rich and deep as the single-player world was and eventually hopefully get richer and deeper.”