Have you ever met a cheater in Red Dead Online? I have – a few times, in fact. The latest encounter came at the worst possible moment, after I had spent an hour painstakingly hunting animals to fill up my wagon with pelts. I had set off on a trader mission across the map, opting for a risky long-haul voyage that left me open to attack.
A potential shootout with a player was a risk I could accept: combating an invisible god-like assailant, however, was something I really hadn’t signed up for. Out of nowhere, I was transformed into a flying saucer. It didn’t take long for me to realise what was happening – Red Dead Online is notorious for its cheaters, and one of them had decided to spend their evening targeting me.
It turns out that driving a wagon as a spaceship is quite difficult. The ship was so vast that it obscured my view, and the glow from its lights made navigating the pitch-black desert almost impossible. Using my mini-map to steer, I somehow made my way to my destination, but my ordeal wasn’t over quite yet. I had some bandits to deal with.
What followed was the most ridiculous shootout the Wild West has ever seen. I lumbered around as a spaceship, one arm sticking out the side, and blasted my way through dozens of thieves. I had nearly cleared the ambush when the cheater decided to intervene once more, and I was flung up into the air. As I orbited the Earth like an actual spaceship, I sighed, resigned myself to my fate, and shut down the game.
Frustrated by the loss of an entire evening’s work, I turned to Rockstar Support in the hope of getting my lost currency back. “Unfortunately, we cannot reimburse the missing payout for the mission since we do not have any records of this event taking place,” was the response I received. Giving out a little in-game currency would have cost Rockstar literally nothing, so I was initially surprised by this reply. Yet on reflection, the whole incident – including Rockstar’s seeming indifference towards helping a player – does embody the problems that Red Dead Online has been unable to shake over the years. At its core, Red Dead Online’s world offers a startlingly intricate wilderness simulation, and provides a brilliant stage for roleplaying life on the American frontier. But a spirit of meanness pervades the design of its multiplayer systems, nearly all of which funnel the player towards buying premium currency. Problems with griefing, technical issues and cheating have often remained unresolved, or have been left to linger for far longer than necessary. It’s a shame, because there’s plenty to like about Red Dead Online – and I only wish Rockstar had done more with this potential.
Earlier this month, of course, Rockstar announced that it will no longer introduce any major new updates for Red Dead Online. The developer confirmed that it had been steadily moving resources over to GTA 6, and that new Red Dead Online content will now be limited to small events and experience improvements. So in short, if you’re looking to get into Red Dead Online in the year 2022, what you see is what you get. But is that experience one worth having? Well, sort of. It depends entirely on your approach to playing.
As the multiplayer component of Red Dead Redemption 2, Red Dead Online was blessed with strong foundations in the form of its game world. With a fantastically detailed rendition of 1890s America as its stage, the challenge for Rockstar was to create systems that would allow players to meaningfully engage with this world. To allow them to roleplay there, interact with other players as part of a community, and carve their own path through the Wild West. On this task, Rockstar’s success was decidedly more mixed.
Red Dead Online opens with a series of story quests, introducing you to the game’s mechanics and sending you off on your journey. Once unleashed into the open world, you can also earn money through free roam quests, which are tasks such as stealing wagons, or delivering goods. These are entertaining enough, but quickly become quite repetitive, and often feel a little simplistic in nature.
Where Rockstar actually hit upon something was the idea of specialist roles. Rather than simply dressing up as a specific character, these roles allowed players to actively roleplay as a trader, bounty hunter or collector (or, in later updates, a moonshiner or naturalist). The more time you invest in a particular role, the more role-specific equipment becomes available to purchase, allowing you to improve your efficiency in that profession. Progression allows you to purchase cosmetics specific to that role, so you can look the part once you have some experience. The addition of these roles meant players could inject some individuality into their characters.
Once the novelty of these roles and missions wears off, however, one thing starts to stand out – and that is the stinginess of the game’s economy. As I saw a player once describe it, Red Dead Online suffers from “1890s wages, 2020s prices”. The two main forms of currency in Red Dead Online are cash and gold bars, the latter of which is a premium currency. Gold can be earned at a fairly steady rate, but cash is a real problem: handing in a low-level bounty earns you about $15, and the amounts given in free-roam events aren’t a whole lot better. For new players it’s a brutal grind, as the money you earn quickly flies out on weapons, ammo and tonics. As a trader, I needed to save up $500 to the point where I could improve my wagon and finally start earning decent amounts of money. Even basic quality-of-life features, like fast travel from your camp or horse insurance to save your horse if it dies, are locked behind hefty price tags and rank requirements.
Of course, it’s possible to speed up this process by buying items using the premium currency – gold bars – which can be bought with real-world money. Rockstar’s attempts to push players towards doing this through high prices and tiny mission rewards, however, makes the game feel extremely harsh. The monetisation problem also has a wider impact on the game world. In order to control the amount of dollars that players can earn, it’s difficult to make money outside of the limited routes permitted by Rockstar. It’s impossible to earn a living as an outlaw, for instance, as NPCs drop pitiful amounts of money – as little as 7 cents – and you can’t sell stolen horses or wagons. And don’t even think about attempting a bank robbery. For this reason, Red Dead Online’s world can feel rather restricted, despite its seemingly open nature and focus on immersion.
When it comes to player interactions, too, it feels like Rockstar struggled to get the balance right. For a long period of time, most player interactions merely took the form of violence, and griefing was a known problem in the game. Thankfully, the griefing issue has now been nullified by the introduction of a defensive mode, along with tweaks to the parley system to prevent players from being constantly attacked. But it feels like Rockstar overemphasised PvP at points in Red Dead Online: nearly every matchmaking mode is focused on PvP, and even PvE quests, including stranger missions and trade wagons, encourage ambushes from other players. There are a couple of co-op PvE events, and there’s (technically) some co-op in the story missions, but I wish there were more reasons to interact with other players in the world beyond merely shooting them. Or sending them a wave emote.
There’s a serious list of gripes here, and you might think that there really is no reason to head back to Red Dead Online at all. Yet I’ve still ended up ploughing dozens of hours into the game again over the past month – and that’s almost entirely down to the allure of Red Dead Online’s world. From the bustling city of Saint Denis to the rugged wilderness of the Grizzlies, it’s hard not to be taken in by its grandeur and charm. Even without any additional storylines or quests, Red Dead Online acts as a fantastic hunting, fishing and riding sim. For solo players, exploring and hunting in the woods can be a wonderfully relaxing and slow-paced experience. I now use a solo lobby mod when I don’t want to be bothered by other players: conveniently, this eliminates the cheater problem, and solves some of the technical issues faced in larger lobbies – resulting in increased animal spawns and NPC encounters.
Exploring Red Dead Online’s world with friends raises things to another level, as it provides a perfect platform for goofing around. My recent escapades with a friend include driving trains across the map, doing parkour on the rooftops of Saint Denis, starting bar fights, drinking ourselves to death, and enacting vigilante justice on a player who killed a horse. Not to mention ‘accidentally’ blowing ourselves up in a room full of TNT. Oh, and this silliness when we discovered geysers:
Red Dead Online: Hunt bounties! Shoot down bandits! Escape the law!
Me: Hole pic.twitter.com/tIBfJF9YMe
— Emma Kent (@GoneEFK) July 27, 2022
And while Rockstar could have done more with its multiplayer systems, the world it created has inspired players to make their own fun. The amount of creativity shown by the wider community has been astounding: there have been group trail rides, scavenger hunts, fight clubs and civil war reenactments, and even a dedicated fashion community helping players improve their outfits. When the community has been vocal about the game’s problems, it has often done so in an entertaining way – with hundreds of players dressing up as clowns to protest the lack of updates, and players wearing all-black to attend ‘funerals’ to mark the end of major updates.
The community has been able to make the best of things, but Rockstar certainly could have done more to support Red Dead Online. Rockstar’s explanation that it had been moving resources to GTA 6 for some time does suggest, as many players suspected, that the GTA franchise was prioritised at the expense of Red Dead Online. After all, when GTA Online can earn all the money in the world, why spend resources on something that makes a modest amount in comparison? It’s sad and brutal, but this business decision is likely the reason Red Dead Online was never able to reach its full potential. Now that Red Dead Online’s fate has been sealed, players can at least adjust their expectations, and look within the community for new ways to keep the game fresh. As ever, it’s all about making your own way in this wild, untamed west.
This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they’re getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.