Rockstar talks Red Dead Online, living another life in the Old West, and being constantly surprised by the community

Red Dead Redemption 2 was critically acclaimed for its epic 60-hour story, whose emotional ending some of us are still recovering from. But Red Dead Online – the game’s shared world multiplayer mode – is where the adventure continues long after you’ve parted ways with old Arthur Morgan. In the year and a half since Red Dead Online launched, the game has become a fully featured cowboy RPG, letting you live another life in Rockstar North’s obscenely detailed, atmospheric Wild West simulation.

“We really want you to embody your character,” says Scott Butchard, world and content design director at Rockstar North. “To feel like you’re a part of this living, breathing world. When I play I really feel like I’m in the West. I trot into town on my horse, hitch up, slowly walk into a saloon and grab a drink, just soaking that feeling up.”

This is what makes Red Dead Online so compelling. You don’t just play it to run around shooting people; you play it to exist in its world, and it’s remarkable how many players treat it as such. You’ll often see other gunslingers moseying through town, drinking at the saloon, riding in a posse, hunting and fishing together, and treating the game like a serious role-playing game; not just another violent, chaotic online playground. It’s an antidote to the Fortnites and PUBGs of the world. A place to get away from it all.

Know your role

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

“Supporting emergent, player-made moments is at the core of everything we do,” says Butchard. “In a lot of ways, we provide the players the means and tools to engage with the world. But some of the best moments are when players use these tools to have fun in their own creative ways. Red Dead Online is still a sandbox world for folk to have fun in, and we always bear that in mind when we’re designing it.”

For Tarek Hamad, director of design production at Rockstar North, the creativity of the Red Dead Online community is both surprising and hugely rewarding as a designer. “From player-organised fight clubs, collaborative fashion shows, or the community using our social features to host business meetings around the campfire as an alternative to video conferencing, it’s always surprising to see the impressive ways players create ways to engage and reinterpret what the game and world offer.”

To further support the role-playing aspects of the game, which come more to the forefront with every update, Rockstar introduced the role system. This lets players focus on something they enjoy – whether it’s trading animal pelts, collecting flowers and herbs, or hunting dangerous criminals – and progress within that chosen field, earning appropriate rewards for their efforts. But you can engage with these roles as fully or sporadically as you like, thanks to the game’s laid-back, freeform structure. You’re rarely tied down to an activity, which suits Red Dead’s open, freewheeling Western vibe.

“When we first introduced the roles system with the Frontier Pursuits update, we wanted to bring a sense of inhabiting your character, which was such a powerful part of playing through the story of Red Dead Redemption 2,” says Katie Pica, world and progression design director at Rockstar North. “We knew that we would want to continue building out the roles in various ways, by adding new kinds of roles that would focus on different aspects of gameplay, and by extending each role in new ways over time.”

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

“When we first introduced the roles system with the Frontier Pursuits update, we wanted to bring a sense of inhabiting your character”

Katie Pica, Rockstar North

“The Bounty Hunter role brought high action gunslinging, the Trader and Moonshiners focus on commerce, and the Collector encourages exploration,” Pica continues. “The Naturalist was another, more pacifistic role that allowed us to go deeper into the natural world, adding new animals and highlighting the diversity of wildlife in the game.”

“We’re all big fans of the legendary hunter gameplay we’ve done in both Redemption games and it really felt like this role could bring that feeling of tracking down legendary animals to Red Dead Online,” says Butchard. “It’s also a role that players can dive right into or move fluently in and out of while navigating the world and other roles.” 

Rockstar also wanted this role to offer a substantial amount of stuff to do outside of hunting. If you don’t want to kill the animals you encounter, you can track and study them to learn new skills instead. Of course, hunting them means you can use their pelts to make new clothing. The important thing is that you have a choice, which is another example of Red Dead Online feeling almost like a lightweight MMO – and giving players the opportunity to exist in this simulated Wild West in a way that suits them.

Keep it real

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

“Red Dead Online is still a sandbox world for folk to have fun in, and we always bear that in mind when we’re designing it”

Scott Butchard, Rockstar North

While Grand Theft Auto Online is a hotbed of outlandish modes, wild weapons, and absurd vehicles, Red Dead Redemption 2 – and by extension Red Dead Online – is a game steeped in realism. I ask the designers if this limits them creatively. “We aim to start off with a grounded foundation,” says Pica. “But we feel we can add some experiences that bend reality or challenge perspectives over time. The Naturalist role’s Vitalism Studies, which let players turn into animals, are a good example of this.”

“The grounded nature is a fundamental part of what makes Red Dead Online so special,” says Butchard. “We’ve made updates to the game to account for a world that is full of real players, not just AI, and a slightly faster pace. But it still speaks to us that this game is about the grittiness and realism of the Wild West in its final days. However, we still want to allow room in the game for slightly offbeat or more creative experiences—moments where the players can lose themselves and have fun, in competitive modes, or with a story aspect that starts in a grounded way and takes some unusual turns.”

“Halloween is always a good opportunity for us to explore some of our more supernatural ideas for Red Dead Online,” says Hamad. “Red Dead Redemption 2 already had its share of mysterious, esoteric phenomena hidden throughout the world, so we want to echo that where we can in Online, but in a way that makes sense. Themed events allow us to do that and the community has responded really well to them.”

Second life

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

“With Red Dead Online, we’re trying to deliver every aspect of what it might be like to live in frontier America in the late 1800s”

Tarek Hamad, Rockstar North

But for the most part, players are content just to be cowboys. There is, inevitably, violence in Red Dead Online, but the game is not defined by it. If it’s a shootout you want, find another player, pull your gun, and it’s very unlikely they’ll back down. These contained firefights often start spreading like wildfire, until the whole town is full of people shooting at each other. But you can avoid it easily, thanks to the sheer volume of open space in the world. This idea of forging your own path is, of course, in the spirit of the Wild West, but it also makes Red Dead Online a rewarding and customisable RPG. You can even enter a passive mode that makes you harder to kill – deterring aggressive players, should you want to immerse yourself in the world without being hassled by troublemaking gunslingers.

“With Red Dead Online, we’re trying to deliver every aspect of what it might be like to live in frontier America in the late 1800s, so it offers a huge variety of options for players to create the experience they want within that world,” says Hamad. “By designing it in this way, there’s room for players of all kinds. Naturally enough, the classic cowboy shootout elements are extremely popular, so if a player wants to create and step into the shoes of a notorious, feared, and lawless scoundrel – on their own or running just as fearsome a posse – they can have that experience, they can be that person.”

“At the same time, we do see a large portion of the community enjoy some of the more solitary and calm pursuits on offer. We’ve made sure to provide just as much freedom for players who want to live a peaceful life as a hunter, or tending to their camp, or a burgeoning business owner – or even become a deadly bounty hunter that can protect the peaceful players of the world from the scoundrels. How all these different players interact really paints a picture of what it would be like to live and breathe in that era.”

New frontiers

Red Dead Online

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

As for the future of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar tells me that Red Dead Online is the best place to be told new stories in that world. “Right now the team is focused on building on top of and into the world of Read Dead Online,” says Hamad. “This world, that era, provides so much scope for storytelling and introducing a wide spectrum of different characters, all of which can be experienced on your own or with a full posse. It’s really important for us that we make sure every type of player can experience the stories we have to tell, and can control the way they experience all of this in Read Dead Online.”

Red Dead Online is certainly Rockstar’s most ambitious multiplayer game yet. While Grand Theft Auto Online, which is seemingly immortal and continues to draw a large audience, doubles down on a winning formula, Red Dead Online has become fertile ground for experimentation. Reflecting the slow, thoughtful pace of the single-player, it’s a game that doesn’t demand too much, offering a huge variety of things to do at your own pace. If you want to explore this world, but with the added thrill of bumping into other players out in the wilderness, it’s a more interesting experience than the story mode. Your online character still can’t do everything Arthur Morgan can, but it’s getting closer with each update.

But as a result of this languid pace, Red Dead Online requires a fairly substantial time investment. It’s not a game you just dive into for half an hour; you really have to sit down for a good chunk of time and give yourself to it. Sometimes, as a consequence of this, it can feel like a little grindy – especially when trying to unlock some of the more desirable clothing and upgrades. 

This is being tweaked constantly, and compared to the early days, rewards are now more attainable for players other than the absolutely hardcore. I’m not sure where Rockstar will take their lavish cowboy RPG next, but I know that, whatever they do, it’ll certainly be interesting – and some great stories will emerge from it as a result.

Red Dead Online remains one of the greatest experiences of the generation. For more great games to play right now, check out our best PS4 games and best Xbox One games recommendations. 

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