If there's one thing that Rockstar Games is keen to emphasise right now, it's this: Red Dead Online (opens in new tab) is here to stay. Perhaps that should come as no real surprise, given how the online frontier has continued to grow and evolve since its debut back in November – not to mention how much of a commanding presence its contemporary counterpart, GTA Online (opens in new tab), has held in the industry in the last six years.
Rockstar spent the better part of Red Dead Online's earliest months working with the community of players that has formed up around the game to sand down its rough edges. The studio poured its energy and resources into improving the vitality of the servers and to stabilise what it already had in place. Now, just three months after Red Dead Online shed its 'beta' moniker, Rockstar is working quickly to expand the variety of options available to any and all would-be outlaws as it begins to lay down the foundations for what comes next.
Rob Nelson, the co-studio head of Rockstar North, knows how hungry we are for more of Red Dead Online, and he's only too eager to oblige. "We intend to keep the game fully active and support it for the foreseeable future," he tells GamesRadar's sister publication, Official Xbox Magazine (opens in new tab). "It took over a year for GTA Online to truly become the game it is today, and while we don't intend to take that long with Red Dead Online, we are only just getting started! We're excited about where the game goes from here, but we are still at the beginning. The future is full of surprises…"
Reflecting on the launch of Red Dead Online
"We watch as much of what the community creates and plays as we can," Nelson tells OXM, as part of the extended interview found in issue 180 (on-sale now!). "We always want to know what people are saying and how they are playing the game. Our primary goal is to make sure we are looking at the feedback from the community – what they're enjoying and not enjoying, and trying to see how they push our ideas in new directions."
This attitude is clearly reflected all throughout Red Dead Online, particularly in how the game has evolved and grown in the months following its launch. This really is just the beginning; the foundation for a multi-year expansion process. Rockstar is eager to continue experimenting, working to find ways to best express the unique qualities inherent to the core Red Dead Redemption fantasy. It wants to find ways to expand its cooperative and competitive content. And it wants to do it without diluting the role-playing elements that sit at the heart of the Red Dead Online experience.
This interview came from Official Xbox Magazine. To read all of Rob Nelson's thoughts on the future of Red Dead Online, pick up a copy of OXM #180 (opens in new tab).
If you've ever fancied yourself a sharply-dressed bounty hunter, intrepid collector, or dedicated Trader – but lack the confidence to wear cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats out in the wild – Red Dead Online is angling itself to be the online arena to let you embrace those timeless fantasies. Of course, the implementation of that idea is far easier said than done. The truth is, there isn't a template to create this type of experience, not really.
While GTA Online is a true global phenomenon, there's only so much of its model that Rockstar could directly replicate when it set out to construct Red Dead Online in tandem with Red Dead Redemption 2 (opens in new tab). GTA Online and Red Dead Online are, after all, very different experiences at a very fundamental level. "Having those experiences [developing GTA Online] to draw from definitely helped us create the foundations of [Red Dead Online], but it did not drive our overall approach. We always knew Red Dead Online was going to head in a different direction, because it's a different world with a different pace and a different scale. You experience it in a different way."
Nelson does recognise that GTA Online helped Rockstar steer clear of falling into some familiar pitfalls, which is perhaps one of the reasons Red Dead Online is seeing faster iteration than its direct predecessor. "Six years of creating content for GTA gave us a strong set of pillars or stakes in the ground to lean on when we needed to, whereas we had to find our way in the dark with GTA Online. Some of the fundamental things that we learned the hard way on GTA Online were fresh in our minds, so it gave us a structure to work from in terms of how to handle missions, how to do co-op gameplay in a certain way, and so on. GTA Online was a great point of reference to have for things that we could do, but also things that we didn't want to do."
A "different approach" was needed for Red Dead Online
One of the fundamental differences between GTA Online and Red Dead Online is in the depth and scope of their worlds, and the type of experience offered within. Red Dead Online is designed for slower and more deliberate play, a reflection of the type of systems-heavy and role-play-centric experience seen in the sprawling Red Dead Redemption 2 campaign. GTA Online, on the other hand – much like the core fantasy offered up through Grand Theft Auto 5 – is tightly focused around embracing chaos, making cash flow, and looking good while doing it; that experience doesn't translate from a bustling metropolis to dusty old frontier towns. "In GTA Online, we almost instantly made you a multi-millionaire with large scale content like yachts, and so then it's hard to take a step back from there. Then we said, 'now you could own a business, and that could make you money'. That's also great for players, but you can't step back from there either; you just have to go bigger, bigger, bigger."
For Red Dead Online, Rockstar recognises the need for "a different approach" to help lean into the fact that it is "a smaller, more hand-to-mouth world". That doesn't mean you'll never be rich in the wild, wild, west, only that it'll require a little more perseverance to succeed. By starting at the beginning of your story in Red Dead Online, Nelson says that Rockstar can "make each step forward slightly smaller but have those steps mean more to the player. All the while, you are growing more connected to your character and their experiences in the world."
"You can have a business," he continues, "but we won't make it a business where you're running a railroad just yet – but instead it's a business that you're operating out of your camp. The principles of any business are the same anywhere, whether it's a big business or a small one, so let's apply what we've learned to a smaller business and then we'll figure out how we can expand that business over time."
Of course, content that would support an endeavour such as running a railroad company is still a ways off. Right now, Rockstar is preparing to drop its next big expansion to play, which sees the introduction of dedicated roles, and working out which content isn't resonating with players. On that latter point, Nelson points to the recent player-versus-player Showdown series as an example. "[It] wasn't as popular as we'd liked, at least at first. We love playing PvP, it's fun to make and fun to play and we get great ideas for larger concepts for the game from those modes. We like playing against other players and it's very hard to get AI that's going to be as good or as unpredictable as another player. But it also turns out that players are sometimes annoyed by that because other players play so well and can be so evil!"
Dealing with griefers and expanding play
Griefing is something Rockstar is no doubt keenly familiar with now, given the way in which certain players approached the open-world antics of GTA Online and Red Dead Online. It's something Rockstar is getting better at mitigating, but it recognises that much of this is in the hands of the players themselves – that Red Dead Online is becoming a better place to play in as the players settle into the type of experiences they want to have in this online world. "Part of this is the general desire from players to be able to role- play and exist on your own, and not have to just get in there and mix it up with people, but to be left alone to play their own way," Nelson says.
"We have already seen major changes to the way people play since the last update – there is already less griefing as people start inhabiting characters of their own volition, even before we have implemented the Roles. Once we started making the changes that we made with the last update, the Showdown series seemed to be more well-received as part of the game's mix because people understood that it wasn't our focus, it was part of the menu, but it wasn't the sole direction that we were going to go."
Ultimately, Nelson continues, it's all going to take time for Red Dead Online to really settle into its rhythm – to create a world that players don't just want to play in, but really exist in. "It takes time to create real, quality considered structure, and we knew that some of that time had to take place once the game was live in the world and being experienced by millions of players. We can have ideas about how games will be received but given the time, we can look at it and go, what are we missing? What elements of the single-player feeling do we need to bring over into Online? It's not a one-to-one translation, but we want to know what aspects of the game, what feelings and experiences resonated with people. Then we try and bring those over, but you need to overhaul it and do it from the ground up for an online space using the content and ideas you made in single-player as a foundation for it, but you have to rebuild it."
The clearest instance of this is going to arrive in Red Dead Online in the next couple of weeks. As Rockstar introduces clear and defined roles to the game, further encouraging players to embrace the fantasy of living in the American wilderness.
What will defined roles bring to Red Dead Online?
Rockstar is kickstarting its endeavour to further refine the role-playing elements of Red Dead Online by introducing three roles to the game. The decision to introduce these came as a direct result of Rockstar analysing the reaction from players to the beta phase of Red Dead Online. Nelson says that there were three key wants from the communities: better balancing, a stronger connection to your character, and ponchos!
"We agree, these are all things we need to deliver and intend to deliver," Nelson continues. "We are very excited to build on what we have and just keep going. The online portion of our games is very rewarding in the way that it allows us to continue building on what we have. Players have wanted to feel like there are ways to feel more connected to their characters and the addition of Roles will not only give players different paths to follow, but it will help make players feel like they are creating individual experiences in a world they share with others."
Will the map change and expand, as it has done in GTA Online? Rob Nelson hasn't got a definitive answer, but he says that there are a number of options open to Rockstar. "Possibly, to one extent or another. You might have seen the approach we have taken with adding new kinds of content to GTA Online, adding new areas for players to access like The Diamond Casino & Resort or the missile silo and underground in The Doomsday Heist. There’s a range of possibilities."
Are you looking for high-stakes action? Then you'll want to spend time a Bounty Hunter. Interested in exploring and experiencing different aspects of the environment? Then you should choose to be a Collector. Want to experience what it would be like to create a business in this rough and ready world? Then the option of embracing the role of Trader is there. You'll be able to invest time into all three of these roles – in both solo and cooperative play – although the more you invest into any given role will see you earning rewards such as "unique clothing, weapons, and other items" a little faster. Dedication and specialisation pay off in Red Dead Online.
Still, players needed to be free to choose between all three roles – that was important to Rockstar. "Being able to dip in and out of these roles as you progress will help players create their own story, and the rewards you are earning along the way will help show other players how far along you are on each path," Nelson says. "We want Red Dead Online to be filled with things for a player to do on their own or with other people, and we want to give players a sense of progression that they can identify with, but there's always going to be lots of action and craziness in that structure as well."
The introduction of these first three roles is Rockstar's first step in better embracing the RPG elements of Red Dead. That isn't to say that Red Dead Online is going to transform into an MMORPG overnight. Only that the online-side to play will better reflect the core-strengths inherent to the campaign as time goes on. "The game will definitely evolve to allow people to role-play more, but when we talk about role-playing, it's more in line with what we tried to do with the story of Red Dead Redemption 2, which is that we want you to inhabit a character. We want you to feel more connected to that person and the things that that person is connected to. In this case, it's your horse or your camp or your weapons, and ultimately the world itself."
The future of Red Dead Online
Of course, this is only the beginning. These three roles aren't quick-fixes, but the start of what's to come in the future. Rockstar doesn't view these as all-encompassing, but foundational. Each of these roles has been established around expansion, with plans to grow and evolve them in the coming months and years. It is, ultimately, the community that will shape what it means to embody each of these roles.
They are three core Western fantasies, after all. Evolution is inherent to each of these roles. Does the honourable Bounty Hunter become a respected lawman and does the dishonourable equivalent become a feared desperado? Can the successful Trader expand their businesses and move from selling wares from the back of a cart to a storefront in one of the towns? This is all in the future for Red Dead Online – we really have seen nothing yet.
"One of the biggest challenges I think we face is trying to create an experience that allows people to truly role-play in a non-linear way, while still feeling a deep sense of connection to their character and the world that they inhabit," Nelson says. "It means we can give players more agency and freedom, but without being able to structure the experience as much [as we can in single-player], how do you still make it meaningful?"
That's what Rockstar is trying to figure out, and the introduction of roles is the first step towards this on a long and winding road. "It's a fun challenge to continue to blur the lines of narrative and non-linear, open-world gameplay in a multiplayer space," Nelson concludes. "We are trying to bring the world of Red Dead Online as close to the level of immersion and interaction of Red Dead Redemption 2 as we can. With each update, we should get closer to that goal. We are constantly working to improve every aspect of the game."
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