In 2018, there were two games that I considered to be crowning achievements in AAA videogame storytelling: Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, and Sony Santa Monica’s God of War. I’ll leave my analysis of why I believe that these games are masterpieces of interactive narration for a future article, but needless to say, I loved the singleplayer experiences thar both of these games offered.
The key term there is singleplayer. Although I was aware that Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) would offer an online mode, I had little to no interest in it for one simple reason: I had played Grand Theft Auto V’s (GTAV) online mode, and had thoroughly hated my time with it. When I heard that developer Rockstar and publisher Take-Two Interactive were, at least according to the players, butchering RDR2's online mode, I wasn’t at all surprised. My only question was: why were the players?
Red Dead Redemption 2 debuted as a masterpiece of videogame storytelling... at least according to the schmuck writing this article. Image source: The Hollywood Reporter.
In order to examine why RDR2 Online was set up for failure from the beginning, we first have to take a trip back to 2017. In late 2017, Take-Two’s CEO Strauss Zelnick boasted that microtransactions in Grand Theft Auto V’s online mode (GTA Online) and NBA 2k18’s MyPlayer accounted for 42 percent of the company’s revenue over its most recent financial quarter. Zelnick then followed up by stating that Take-Two would aim “to have recurrent consumer spending opportunities in every title.” In case you can’t tell, the phrase “recurrent spending” in this case is synonymous with “microtransactions."
And guess what? Zelnick was completely right about how much money microtransactions could pull in for Take-Two. During the first two quarters of 2018, the publisher saw a whopping 62 percent of its revenue come from microtransactions and downloadable content (DLC) purchases. That’s $388 million worth microtransactions and DLC. Take-Two’s emphasis on microtransactions in GTA Online paid off in spades, and as of April 2018 GTAV had sold 90 million copies and made $6 billion in revenue for Take-Two, making GTAV the most successful media title of all time.
Here’s my policy on microtransactions: as long as they don’t affect gameplay or game mechanics (in other words, as long as they’re cosmetics-only), then I (mostly) don’t care. Unfortunately, the microtransactions in GTA Online are largely responsible for shaping the game into the pay-to-win, hacker-ridden fiesta that it was when I played it - and that it remains to this day.
Here’s an example of just how pay-to-win GTA Online is: there’s an Orbital Cannon in GTA Online that, for only around $4,600,000, players can fire a guided shot from at any player on the map, killing them instantly. Fancy. Here’s the deal: grinding one million dollars takes days in GTA Online. Grinding out almost $5 million could take almost two weeks, just to use the Orbital Cannon once.
OR, you can throw down a few bucks and just buy an Orbital Cannon shot with real money. Take-Two gets some bonus branding points here for calling its microtransaction currency “shark cards.” For those that don’t know, players who spend a lot of money on videogame microtransactions are typically called ‘whales’ within the industry. So what does Take-Two give players? Shark cards. 'Don’t be a whale, be a shark! Buy our Orbital Cannon. It’s like cheating, only we get paid for it!'
Of course, not everybody wants to grind for weeks or spend real money in order to use an Orbital Cannon, and because of this, hackers are also everywhere in GTA Online. Whether they’ll kill you instantly or give you millions in unearned money seems to be left up to their fickle desires, but one hacker with a glitched Orbital Cannon can easily ruin a gaming session for every other player on the map. Hacking in GTA Online has even gotten so bad that there are dedicated guides on how to avoid hackers in the game mode.
Publisher Take-Two Interactive used GTA Online to champion a business model built around microtransactions. Also, hackers. Image source: Redbull.
Wait, weren’t we talking about the Red Dead Redemption 2 Online Beta?
On February 26, 2019, Rockstar released what was touted as a big patch for the RDR2 Online Beta. Players... hated it. A reddit post claiming that the RDR2 Online Beta “made PvP terrible” and “ignored the fanbase” garnered almost 20,000 upvotes. A post that just read “F**K YOU” aimed at Rockstar got almost 3,000. And the most popular reddit post of the bunch, which got over 26,000 upvotes, was simply entitled “This f**king updated made Online even worse.”
Here’s why people are angry: RDR2’s Online Beta, much like GTA Online, seems concerned with only one thing: getting people to spend money on microtransactions. Pretty much everything in the RDR2 Online Beta can be bought with real money in the form of gold bars. Guns, horse saddles, outfits, emotes, you name it. Most of these items can also be bought with cash that players can earn in-game from completing activites, however, many of the most visually appealing outfits and emotes in the RDR2 Online Beta can only be bought with gold bars.
Just as is the case with GTA Online, cash is hard to come by in the RDR2 Online Beta, and many players turned to hunting and fishing in order to make money. The February 26 patch significantly nerfed hunting and fishing payouts, leaving players with no real efficient ways to earn in-game cash. As a result, many players feel that the RDR2 Online Beta is pushing them into having to spend real money if they want to have the best guns and horses in the game. Since the RDR2 Online Beta offers on-sight PvP - you can attack anyone you see - players who can’t afford to spend real money on items and gear are at a significant disadvantage.
Additionally, radar changes in the patch made it easier for players to grief other players, there were almost no bug fixes in the patch, and many players feel that Rockstar is releasing content much more slowly than they should be (remember, this is still a beta we’re talking about).
Not even Arthur Morgan himself with a gun to my head could convince me to play RDR2 Online. Image source: W3 News.
Personally, I take issue with almost everything about the RDR2 Online Beta. I don’t think that players should ever be able to spend real money on in-game items during a game’s beta. If the game-mode isn’t ready for release, then it shouldn’t have microtransactions available for purchase. I also think that making pretty much every item in the RDR2 Online Beta purchasable with gold bars is a horrible decision that clearly marks the game as pay-to-win. Furthermore, the fact that the RDR2 Online Beta is receiving microtransactions faster than it’s receiving bug-fixes is just laughable.
But, none of it is what I would call "surprising." Everything about the RDR2 Online Beta marks it as a clear successor to GTA Online. Both games feature clear pay-to-win elements. Both games prioritize microtransactions over quality-of-life features or bug-fixes. Both games encourage players to grief other players. Both games feature in-game currency that is almost impossible to efficiently earn, and microtransactions that are shoved down the throats of their players incessently.
To players, the RDR2 Online Beta is a disaster. To Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive, it’s simply offering players the latest in “recurrent spending opportunities.” And unless Take-Two starts to feel like the RDR2 Online Beta is getting teberculosis of its own, I wouldn’t expect anything to change anytime soon.