This Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week, she’s taking a well deserved holiday, so you’ve got Jake Tucker with a bleak message: Red Dead Online would be thriving if only Rockstar had discovered a way to sell players a few flying horses.
Well, it’s happened. Red Dead Online has been killed off as Rockstar Games has announced it’s no longer going to support the game as they shift development resources to Grand Theft Auto 6. But what did you expect?
Make enough money and supporting your game really isn’t a big issue. If I were a cynic and I am, sorry – you could say that it’s just that Red Dead Online just wasn’t making enough money for Rockstar to give a shit about its community.
GTA 5 is probably the biggest entertainment product in the entire world. Back in 2014 it had shipped 32.5M copies, and that number is now somewhere upwards of 150M. You can buy it on three different console generations. A study by Netbet in 2021 estimates Rockstar is making £655M a year out of the game. The PC version has cats in it. It is, by all accounts, a pretty big deal. Not bad for a game that came out in 2013.
How does it make so much money? The secret ingredient to the massively multiplayer crime-’em-up is microtransactions. GTA Online is one of the few MMO’s that just… gets a pass for being pay to win? At any point if you get tired of how little progress you’re making you can buy a cash card and just get an instant boost. While you can trawl around in shit clothes, a car that would fail most conventional MOTs and get by with just the basic weapons you take off of enemies, GTA Online is aspirational, and it’s hard to resist the pull of a brand new assault rifle or knock-off Lamborghini when all of your friends have them.
I’ve spent money in GTA Online twice: once to buy the motorbike from Akira in a fetching pastel pink / blue combo and once to buy a jetbike that can fly and has missiles that easily target and destroy anyone anywhere on the map. I didn’t really want the jetbike – it’s ridiculous – but buying one was the only way to defend myself against the thousands of players that already had them. I couldn’t beat them, so I paid my money and I joined them. The bike, the Oppressor MK 2, cost me $3,890,250 in-game, and you can buy $3.5m of in-game cash for £31.99.
Now, GTA Online gives you a lot of money early on as a sweetener. Join now, nine years after launch, and you can probably have the American Dream of a sportscar and an assault rifle pretty quickly. That’s a problem when – if you’re a cynic – you want your players to get bored of their progression and drop some cash.
You could surmise that’s why getting any money at all in Red Dead Online was so agonisingly slow, but I actually think the reason Red Dead Online is about to get very dead indeed is because of the setting. While GTA Online can add an infinite number of interesting sports cars, boats with guns, cars with guns, that fucking flying jetbike that keeps killing me even after I spent 30 quid to get one of my own, a doomsday bunker, a nightclub, a corporate headquarters, you can’t sell a tank in the Wild West. In Red Dead, every single one of these costs money and they have a heap of options that will cost you even more money.
In comparison, customising your horses or your trusty revolver in Red Dead Online feels flat and barely worth the effort. It’s easy to imagine that if Rockstar could flog a few more alive horses, the game would still be supported, instead of being a reminder that even in this era of live-service games growing with their audiences, they’re still just products being sold by businesses to make as much money as possible. When that money dries up, we get an apologetic blogpost and another one bites the dust.
It’s a tragedy because GTA Online and Red Dead Online are both great engines for emergent player and anecdotes. I loved this story about the horse girls of Red Dead Online, or the fact players gathered to hold a funeral for the game a year after it got its last update.
But eventually even the most committed of players got bored and irritable at the lack of attention Rockstar was giving Red Dead Online, complained that Red Dead Online wasn’t getting enough love, and the simple answer that Rockstar will never admit to is that it simply wasn’t making enough money to justify the attention. This led to the player numbers dwindling even further until we get to the part now, where it’s all but buried as Rockstar ramps up production on its next big social satire. While the hyper-capitalist approach to the American dream is a core part of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, they couldn’t have come up with a more meta-jab at themselves than this.
- There’s another Alien game: “We promise this one will be worth playing!” they yell, and I believe them because I’m a mark for anything tall, dark and with a mouth inside another mouth. This one is apparently taking inspiration from Aliens and we’ll find out more on July 21.
- Riot has fined esports outfit TSM £63k because their CEO is a bully: Riot has its own issues but seems to be taking a really strong stance against people it platforms being dickheads. I’m firmly anti-dickhead myself, and if this makes people working with Riot think about their own behaviour, it’s all good news.
- A developer switched topics mid-talk to rail against NFTs: A few moments into his talk at Brazil’s International Games Festival, Mark Venturelli changed his topic from “The Future Of Video Games” to “Why NFTs Are A Nightmare.” and has ensured that I’ll buy him a beer if I ever see him at a conference. The festivals Web3 sponsors weren’t keen, but it’s okay because they’re probably fading into irrelevance as we speak.
Jake Tucker is the commission editor for video games at NME. For the rest of this month’s biggest stories, check out This Week In Games.