It’s no secret to anyone that Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Online has struggled to get anywhere near the same level of success as its other, seemingly immortal multiplayer effort, Grand Theft Auto Online. The latter is still regularly near the top of NPD sales reports, and has been practically since its launch in 2013, while the former just hasn’t really taken off. But why is that?
Assuming for a moment that it’s not just because people prefer the modern-day setting of Grand Theft Auto – because, honestly, I really don’t think it is – here’s why I think that GTA Online excels, while Red Dead Online struggles to keep up, despite having three years to grow into those massive boots left behind by its older, more succesful sibling.
GTA Online has had an energy to it since it first launched that has just been missing from Red Dead. In the early days, players knew that heist missions were on the way for a while. Those that were the right level in the Online portion of the game in 2015 when the update hit had already gone through a GTA 5 campaign where story beats like The Jewel Store Job and The Bureau Raid proved that Rockstar could pull off a heist as well as any Ocean's 11 remake or sequel. The anticipation and release of that first benchamrk content drop were enough to get everybody invested. From there, the GTA Online business model was born.
It didn’t stop there. GTA Online has been subject to regular story updates that feel as narratively-rich and feature-complete as any missions from GTA ‘proper’ for years. Some of these updates have even brought changes to the map (and one even introduced a new map entirely!) These updates feel substantial, varied, and interesting – ranging from simple things like robbing the Pacific Standard Bank with Lester, to missions as wild as stopping a malevolent AI called Cliffford from ending the world. While the latter might sound shark-jumpy in a Saints Row IV kind of way, there’s such care taken around the cinematic presentation, cutscenes, and tone, that no mission ever stops feeling like Grand Theft Auto.
This level of respect for the history of the series itself continues to impress nearly a decade later, which you have to admit is impressive, even if you don't care for the brand. While the latest update may be heavily advertised as being about Dr. Dre, it also brings back Franklin Clinton, who has moved on in the time since he was one of our heroes in GTA 5’s campaign and become a multi-millionaire. Callbacks like this fall neatly in step with other massively successful multiplayer online games like – Final Fantasy 14 and Fortnite – in making the fictional city of Los Santos feel like a real (if not slightly deranged) place, which makes the varied stories you’re playing through with your friends feel like they’re actually worth doing and are a part of the series' on-going canon.
Red Dead Online, on the other hand feels comparatively light on content... largely because it is. Most updates have been primarily based around new Specialist job roles (simple, repeatable missions that recycle the same gameplay over and over) and have barely featured any unique cutscenes or characters.
The lack of presentation in Red Dead Online is unfortunate, leaving players with an avatar whose story feels like it has gone nowhere after the first five heavily cinematic missions. A July 2021 update called Blood Money added long overdue ‘Opportunities’ to the game, which were supposed to fill the same void as the GTA’s 2013 Heist Update, but they both required a new currency called ‘Capitale’ to play, and were ultimately largely underwhelming. And that's really saying something, considering one of these fancy new content drops was a train heist! It could have been as big as those Los Santos heists that everyone loved so much, but alas, it was not to be.
The issues with game content are further compounded by a morality system that does very little other than add a limit on which missions you can actually play. Surely a ‘white hat’ cowboy could stop the villainy of the Frontier, instead of just not getting to interact with it at all on any level? But the game simply isn’t designed like that, to its significant detriment.
Going back to currency, the two games have attitudes to money that couldn’t be more different. GTA Online uses a straightforward single currency and seems to constantly just be giving GTA bucks away through in-game events, multiplayer matches, business minigames and daily visits to the Diamond Casino. If you’re short on cash you’ll have no trouble finding a mission or a heist to get in on and earn your cut, too.
Red Dead on the other hand is... well, it’s a bit of a slog. It has four different currencies; Gold Bars, Dollars, Capitale and Role Tokens. Each is acquired in different ways, and each is used for different things. You are unlikely to ever feel very rich for too long, as accessing most in-game content requires you to spend cash money or grind it out over a lengthy amount of time, with nerfed Daily Challenge Streaks or time-consuming item sales from the Collector Specialist Role.
To add insult to injury, Red Dead Online has now had several Outlaw Pass updates too, which are paid battle passes that just give you gimmicky things like camp flags, horse haircuts, new mustaches and silly emotes instead of anything substantial. Compared to the content offerings, new locations and legacy characters that appear in GTA on the regular, it all feels a bit... barren.
While I don’t think Red Dead Online is a lost cause, it definitely needs a refocus, and Rockstar needs to reassess what people that play these games actually really find fun. I understand that the Red Dead team probably wants to do unique things and stand apart from Grand Theft Auto Online, but at the moment it’s just not working — and I think that the developer must know that too.
There’s also just the matter of publisher support, and knowing which game is the popular one seemingly being the basis for easier decision-making over at Take-Two Interactive. Rockstar regularly tries to entice more players into getting on GTA Online with free in-game currency for both Twitch Prime and PlayStation Plus members, and the game goes on sale for cheaper prices regularly – at one point even becoming a freebie on the Epic Game Store. Red Dead Online, meanwhile, goes largely unloved.
A PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S version of Red Dead has not been announced, whilst Grand Theft Auto was at the forefront of marketing for Sony’s newest machine, complete with a standalone version of GTA Online for PlayStation Plus members and free character transfers to the new version regardless of what platform you’re currently on. Faced with this knowledge, I can’t help but wonder if Rockstar regrets its decision to split its internal development focus with Red Dead Online at all. I hope the studio turns the fate of the Wild West game around, but I just don’t see it spending the money at this point. The proverbial ship may have sailed.
If you’ve made it to the end of this article and you’re in the market for an online sandbox game to play, then you should probably know that the ‘expanded’ and ‘enhanced’ re-release of Rockstar’s biggest moneymaker Grand Theft Auto Online is set to arrive on March 15, 2022. There’s never been a better time to get a crew together and go rob some digital vaults, as thanks to proper updates the online-only crime game is bursting at the seams with cooperative missions and other things to do and see.
Until Rockstar makes substantial changes – and updates – to Red Dead Online, I really can’t suggest you play it. Just go play GTA and enjoy Los Santos once again instead. And you don’t even need to feel pressured to buy the new version of that, either: you can still play the PS4, Xbox One, and PC versions, for now, safely knowing that any and all progress will carry over for your crew to the new version of GTA Online whenever you decide to eventually make the upgrade.
You can't say the same of Red Dead Online. After only three years, it sort-of feels like Rockstar may be flogging a dead horse with that one.