Villains, lawmen, businesses, photography, and heists – the future of Red Dead Online, a Rockstar interview

By Kirk McKeand, Friday, 27 September 2019 15:23 GMT

Looking at it now, GTA Online is almost unrecognisable as the multiplayer mode that launched back in 2013.

There’s an unreasonable amount to do in Los Santos these days, but it took Rockstar a while to get there, to figure out exactly what GTA Online was. It turns out it’s not that much different to the single-player: a world where money is king, where your status is dictated by what you own; a physics sandbox full of barely contained carnage.

It’s coming up on a year since Red Dead Online launched into beta, but it’s already starting to develop its own identity.

For myself and many others, much of the enjoyment comes from simply existing in this vibrant, expansive world. To find any excuse to live there. With the Frontier Update adding three new roles – Trader, Bounty Hunter, and Collector – Rockstar provided all the excuse we needed to meander across the dusty plains, verdant fields, and the snow-capped mountains of the Old West once more.

“Red Dead for us is an opportunity to try something a bit different, try something new, and really let players have an experience of living in this 19th century America,” lead open world designer Scott Butchard tells me. “Which for us, it’s definitely a different pace to what GTA offers. It’s a lot slower, it’s a lot more intimate, and we just really wanted to build up slowly bit for bit, so the player really feels progression. Whereas GTA is much more faster paced.”

Rockstar plans to keep adding to this experience, both building on those roles we’ve already been given and adding some more, along with new features, missions, and surprises, but all while ensuring there’s a clear throughline. “We don’t want the player to feel too overwhelmed too quickly,” lead online production associate Katie Pica explains. “So from their first day all the way to, say, the latest update, we want to make sure that there’s progression there, for every player.”

Rockstar doesn’t call Red Dead Online an MMO, but its approach to introducing elements is similar. Anyone who plays these three new roles and progresses through them will be immediately ready for what comes next, while any new players will start at this first step, the Frontier Update. This way Rockstar can keep that sense of progression the same for each player and prevent new players from feeling overwhelmed.

“We don’t want to leave anything behind, we’ll continue to look to add to the roles in future, like we’ve done with the Legendary Bounties we’ve just released for Bounty Hunter,” Butchard says. “Little things, even new collections, and then we add new roles as well.”

One example of this is the Trader role, which currently allows players to turn in animal carcasses at their camp, which an NPC converts into produce. Once you have enough produce, you can take part in supply runs to generate money. This role is the first step on the business ladder Rockstar has planned. More opportunities are coming in later updates to expand your empire.

“We wanted the player to start at their camp,” Pica explains. “We thought that was a good fit. You know, we don’t want you to jump up the ladder too soon, whereas we put high-end businesses into GTA quite quickly. We actually want the player to start on that first business, and then keep going. We’ve got plans for other business ventures that the player could do. We just want each one that we add to feel distinct from the next one. So it’s not like we’re going to say, ‘Okay, here’s the Trader, now everything is the same.’ We want each one of these to feel different. We want players to look back at what they’ve achieved over time, and say, ‘That’s where I started, and now look where I am’.

“We’ve mentioned before that we’d like players and their characters to experience the journey from running a fledgling business at camp to becoming some kind of industrialist, so it’s just a question of creating a fun and logical path from one to the other with the right amount of steps in between. Right now, players are running a business out of the camp with Cripps, as well as developing the camp itself. But the idea is that at some point, new opportunities may be too big to be sustained inside the camp, so maybe it needs to move to another property. At that point, there could be multiple kinds of business players can look at running simultaneously. But none of this is set in stone, we’re still absorbing the feedback from players from these initial roles and we will see how we can improve upon these ideas as we go.”

One thing that’s slightly more complex is the addition of properties. Part of Red Dead’s charm is the lifestyle – living off the land, cooking up a kill, and brewing coffee by your campfire. If every player can suddenly purchase a homestead and carve out a portion of the frontier for themselves, will this detract from the nomadic lifestyle and stop players roaming the wilds?

“We want to introduce properties at some point in the future,” Butchard admits. “Again, part of the reason is we don’t want to jump the shark too soon. We want players to live like an outlaw, live in the Wild West. We don’t want to abandon the camp. We want the camp to be something that you take care of, and we want the expansions to update it, and you get your own distinct feel. It’s your own camp, this is my camp, it’s their camp. We don’t want to leave that behind too quickly.”

The Frontier Update added a bunch of improvements to the camp itself, allowing you to adopt different styles, purchase a stew pot to share a meal with your posse, and even buy a canine companion, which, by the way, the developers say they’d like to let you take out on missions with you in the future. Sometimes you might even see your NPC buddy, Cripps, humming a tune through his harmonica. Rockstar is attempting to recreate those memorable campside moments from the single-player in this lawless online counterpart.

All the changes so far are an attempt to make Red Dead Online more like its single-player story, with the introduction of random events out in the world a major first step towards this. The first three roles, while designed so that it’s possible to play them all almost simultaneously, were introduced as a way for you to be able to define your character, just like those camp personalisation options, to make your own protagonist that stars in your own story, whatever story you want to tell.

“We felt the initial ones were just a great starting point, because they do complement each other,” Pica says. “Like having the high-action gunslinging for the Bounty Hunter, the world exploration for the Collector, and then business management for the Trader. We love the fact that they can actually all be played in tandem, and on path, en route to say capturing a bounty, you might find a collectible. But obviously players can also just focus on one role, if that’s how they want to play it. They can fully embody that life of the Bounty Hunter if they choose. And going forward, we want players to feel as connected as possible to their character. We’ve got lots of ideas about how we can develop that further.”

Each Role provides its own unique rewards as a way to show other players where your focus lies. If you see a distant player spinning their guns and wearing an eyepatch, you can tell at a glance that they’re a Bounty Hunter. People have approached Rockstar’s games this way since GTA Online launched. You only have to search ‘GTA roleplay’ or ‘Red Dead roleplay’ videos on YouTube to see players fully embracing a more simulated life within these virtual worlds.

“The roleplaying community, they’re playing GTA, they are amazing,” online producer Tarek Hamad says. “And it’s exciting to watch how they interact with the world and the experiences they are creating there. We always try and pay attention to what the entire community’s doing, but I think with the roles that we’ve introduced, we’re doing something a little bit differently there, and maybe stepping towards that.”

“Yeah, we always wanted to include role-playing elements,” Butchard adds. “That’s something we were really interested in doing. Something that seems to fit with the tone of Red Dead Online is embodying that character, that person who lives in this Wild West.”

At the moment, Rockstar is paying close attention to how players are engaging with the three roles. The developer has lots of ideas for what may come next, but whatever that is will be, in part, influenced by how the community takes to what is already there.

“We want to scratch that itch for all different types of players,” Butchard explains. “There’s so many different types – those who like playing a villain, or those who want to play the hero. We’ve got to look at that as well, and try and conform to that, if we can, with new builds. Let’s just say that the idea of playing dishonorably may not necessarily be limited to activities related to Bounty Hunting. Right now in Frontier Pursuits we don’t have a role that focuses on a dishonorable path, but each role works with the players ability to manage their honor in Red Dead Online, and it’s something we want to keep building on – so the opportunity is there for future roles that let the player lean even further into their honorable and dishonorable side.”

One of the thrilling things about Red Dead Online is seeing the silhouette of a distant player watching you from a distance as you try to turn in your pelts as a Trader. The shootouts are exciting, but somehow the threat of a potential shootout manages to be even more tense.

When Red Dead Online launched you couldn’t gallop five minutes down a mudpath without someone trying to punt you over a cliff edge or shoot the hat from your head. Rockstar has made a bunch of improvements in this area, however, making sure player blips are only visible on the minimap within a certain proximity, so players can’t actively hunt strangers down by simply bringing up the map. It means every distant rider could be friend or foe, and this small change makes the world feel more dynamic.

So how does this approach to combating griefing gel with that vision of the future, where players are free to roleplay villains without ruining the experience for others? Rockstar says it needs to incentivise both honourable and dishonourable players from a roleplaying perspective and carefully balance the pros and cons of these potentially opposing factions.

“Utilising the bounty system, the Honor system, and tying that with our roles in the future where the player can be a villain, could join a gang, you know?” Butchard says. “Or decide to take the side of a lawman, if we did something like that.”

“When planning future roles and other content, we think about the world in key areas: exploration, capitalism, wildlife and nature, pastimes, and bounty hunting style activities, which are an offshoot of the law, depending on how honorable you play,” Pica adds. “We love the idea that at some point a highly ranked bounty hunter could become a lawman. So far the roles have touched on a few of those ideas, but there’s a lot more to do.”

Another potential area Rockstar could expand on with a future role is photography, which “is something we’d love to do”, I’m told. If done right, this is something I’m even more excited about than lawmen versus outlaws. I can already imagine packing warm clothes, trekking into the mountains, and attempting to get a perfect shot of a grazing moose. Maybe we could get more money for better compositions, or depending on what’s happening in photos. I’m imagining a system similar to Dead Rising, but, like, 100 percent more chill.

“Yeah this is such a cool area,” Butchard agrees. “Photography and allowing players to capture their adventures and moments is really important to us, and it’s something we’ve already established the community love. It’s been amazing seeing posses come together for professional photographs thanks to the latest update. We’re really proud of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the world we made, and we obviously have the handheld camera in single-player which is also available in Red Dead Online with players having a lot of fun capturing Arthur in spectacular fashion, sometimes hilariously so, and we have seen that continue in Online – we want to keep building on this and make sure players continue chronicling their experiences as Online grows.”

Throughout our interview, Rockstar mentions how much the developers have their ears to the ground. They’ve heard your complaints about not being able to mix and match role outfits and they’re seeing if there’s anything they can do, though they’re slightly hampered by some technical limitations there. But remember when you all wanted ponchos? Now you have ponchos. If it’s possible, it will happen at some point. So, what about that other feature the community keeps calling out for – heists?

“That’s another one we’ve definitely discussed, and we’ve batted around ideas of how that could work,” Butchard says. “It’s an exciting prospect, as well. I think we need to take a look at it once we’ve moved past of this initial stage of these roles, and how we’re going to develop these in the now, and see where we can take the heists in the future. We don’t want to jump too far, too soon. We want everyone to experience the same journey, not too quickly. We don’t want them at the finish line too soon, wanting the next thing.”

Heists fit the vision of Red Dead Online so it’s highly likely they will be introduced at some point. As the developers reiterate throughout this interview, player feedback is constantly monitored. One thing they’ve already learned from this feedback and from the in-game statistics is that PvP isn’t anywhere near as popular as free roam and cooperative activities. That means co-op additions like heists are much more pressing than a new deathmatch, for example, but Rockstar has to implement them at the right time to keep that sense of progression, that personal story of growth, from living off the land to walking around Saint Denis with gold bars tumbling out of your satchel.

“PvP will always be there, and we’ll never forget about it,” Hamad says. “It’s just, we’ve definitely seen that same shift towards playing cooperatively. Or even just competing together against the environment. So we’ve definitely seen a shift away from players doing that. It’s a good thing. We’re also going to find ways for players to play competitively in PvP and co-op play.”

“Some of the latest events that we added, I think, for the Trader update, to have that supply run event, where players are actually working together to try and reach the end, and they all benefit from it – those are the type of things that we’re excited about looking into,” Pica adds.

While the core of Red Dead Online is being fleshed out with these roles, are there plans for bigger expansions on the horizon? Games like Fortnite have proven that players love to see a world they’re familiar with suddenly change, and there seems to be possibilities for this baked into Red Dead Online already. We’ve seen players boundary break into an untextured version of Mexico from Red Dead Redemption, and the single-player has a whole other, albeit much smaller, map in its Guarma location – perhaps these could extend the world of Red Dead Online at some point in the future.

“It’s not in the plans right now, because there’s still so much we can do with the world as it currently is, as we’ve touched on before,” Butchard says. “We’re building that foundation just now. So no plans just at the moment for that.”

It’s not something Rockstar would rule out entirely, however, and the same goes for zombies, which some players have seemingly been finding hints about in the past few weeks.

“It’s not something that we’re focused on right now,” Hamad admits. “We’ve obviously just released Frontier Pursuits, so our focus is building on top of that and expanding the player’s experience in the world at the moment. But you know, we never say never, so we’ll have to see where the future goes.”

“Anyone who’s taken a detour off the beaten path in Red Dead Redemption 2 will know the world has quite a few unexplained phenomena, and that’s something we’re keen to continue with in Red Dead Online, but we don’t have anything specific to share on that right now,” Butchard adds. “Undead Nightmare was one incredibly fun idea we did with the original Red Dead Redemption, and we’ve been having fun with GTA Online every year at Halloween, but there’s so many possibilities and opportunities there that we haven’t begun to dig into just yet.”

If you’re hoping for single-player DLC, however, you might be disappointed. Rockstar is currently focused on expanding Red Dead Online, content with the huge single-player that already exists in the main story of Red Dead Redemption 2.

“We’ve said it before, but we all love single-player games, and Red Dead Redemption 2’s absolutely massive story and equally massive epilogue are hopefully evidence of that,” Hamad explains. “The team’s ambitions for Red Dead Redemption 2 were sky high in every way, and when we are building worlds of that scale, the single-player experience almost always leads the way. Our ambitions for our online games are just as high, and with Red Dead Online we are continuing to build and expand to match the world we created for Red Dead Redemption 2’s story, not just with the roles but other activities, new random events, characters to meet, new ways to engage with the world and further inhabit your character, as well as trying to improve the overall experience.”

With Red Dead Online’s future looking so exciting, it’s hard to be too disappointed in the absence of single-player expansions. As I’ve mentioned before on the site, Red Dead Online’s Frontier Update is a promising hint at the future of Online, a solid foundation for what’s next and the perfect excuse to roam the Wild West once more. Maybe we’ll see you on the plains.

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