Red Dead Online started off in the shadow of its big brother, Grand Theft Auto Online. The Western was comparatively sedate; the world was still being established. Red Dead, by its very nature, can’t crank the stakes up as high — there are no underground bunkers, orbital satellites, or Fast and the Furious-style sports cars.
Rockstar is working within those limitations, and the result is a much more tranquil and believable world. If Grand Theft Auto is a madcap theme park, where players fly by on their airborne, missile-firing motorcycles, then Red Dead Online is like a day at the park with friends, capped off by a laser tag session. I mosey into saloons and fistfight with my friends, or take my big beautiful horse, Hayseed, for a jaunt through the woods.
The recently added specialist roles have added more content to the game, but also more direction. They provide a stronger sense of who my character is and what her goals are. With the Moonshiners update, those goals are simple: sell booze, punch goons, and be a fabulous, hot mess in my buddy’s bespoke bar.
Drinks with the locals
My buddy Jake owns an enormous, clearly illegal bar, where one of us serves as bartender and we all down drinks until our UI scrambles and we can barely stand. Or, we kick the NPC band out and all take our place at the instruments for an impromptu jam session and photo shoot.
“We knew the community was keen to own a property, so wanted to give them their first taste of that,” said Katie Pica, lead online production associate at Rockstar, in an interview with Polygon. “A bar seemed like something we could have a lot of fun with and fit perfectly with the moonshiner business vibe. We wanted to replicate aspects of the saloon gameplay from single-player, while adding new interactive features specifically for online.”
The band has a good amount of technical work behind the scenes that bely how simple it is to play. NPCs will man the instruments we don’t use, or we can all take a spot together. As we flourish our instruments, take breaks and return, and get increasingly sloshed, the game does a lot of technical work to mix and match between instruments. Rockstar has isolated each individual instrument, as well as created different playstyles depending on whether I’m drunk or sober. It has absolutely no gameplay benefit, but it owns, and my posse and I have spent a few hours just messing around as a band.
Looking into the future
Working my way through the Red Dead Online content is less like highway and more like a sprawling set of paths. I wander down one for a while, then head down another path. It’s a decision that removes the feeling of a content treadmill. I become more invested in the world. This isn’t always a good thing; I often become drunk on hubris, running Hayseed through a Pinkerton checkpoint to defend my buddy’s moonshine cart. (It turns out the Pinkertons would have let us pass freely. Oops.)
There’s room for more roles in the future, but it’s not about an escalation of increasing scenarios and stakes. My group of friends each “specialize” in a role, decorating our camps and characters to reflect that reality.
“There are a lot of additional roles we want to introduce which touch on features we haven’t explored yet in Red Dead Online,” said Tarek Hamad, associate online producer at Rockstar. “We are still very much in the formative stages of delivering an array of roles and gameplay types within those roles.”
In addition, previously introduced roles are still going to get upgrades and love from the devs. “We’d love to keep adding new collections and additional variety to Collector gameplay, eventually adding the next step, much in the same way that Moonshiner is the evolution of the Trader,” said Pica. One idea we really want to explore is the idea of posse members each finding a distinctly different part of an item, that when brought together forms the collectible you can log in your collection.”
Property owners have more to look forward to, as well.
“Some of the roles would let us introduce more feature-rich businesses and even communal spaces that players can gather and meet up socially, lone wolves and full posses,” said Hamad. “Maybe even let each player own a part of such a space.”
The Moonshiners update is another layer on top of what was already a flourishing world. Red Dead Online’s updates are rarely as momentous as a new World of Warcraft expansion, or comprehensive as a No Man’s Sky complete revamp. Instead they focus on honing a core experience of exploring the western frontier and telling your own cinematic story.
It’s working well so far, except for me. I’m too busy getting drunk and holding my posse up so I can play some sick piano.