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Red Dead Online continues to struggle where GTA Online succeeds

Cowboys versus criminals

Red Dead Online - the three Frontier Pursuits approach the camera Image: Rockstar Games
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

After a few quiet months on the frontier that sparked fan protests and outcry, Rockstar Games released Naturalist update for Red Dead Online, adding a new role and more content to the cowboy game. But this update wasn’t enough to satiate the fan demand. The Red Dead Online community is restless, and the core problems in the game seemingly run deep, especially compared to Rockstar’s other online experience, Grand Theft Auto Online.

Role-playing vs. roleplaying

Over the last year of development, it’s become clear that the frontier roles are the bread and butter of Red Dead Online’s gameplay. These are job descriptions that can be leveled, offering rewards and in-game benefits. A Trader delivers supplies and has a camp dog, while a Bounty Hunter brings in outlaws and learns fancy gun tricks.

I can be a Trader, Collector, Bounty Hunter, Naturalist, and Moonshiner without any overlap or issues. I deliver wagons full of supplies for both Trader and Moonshiner, and then hunt down animals and people for the Naturalist and Bounty Hunter. They’re not exactly the same, but most of the action involves riding to a mission location, shooting a bunch of people (or tracking something), and then riding to the mission-complete location. When dynamic events occur, like a roadside robbery or a man desperate for help saving his wife, this feels much less like a treadmill and more like a living world … but they don’t spawn often enough, especially if the player is riding off-road.

Red Dead Online - four people in a posse scouting a camp from a ridge above it Image: Rockstar Games

The Naturalist role attempts to fix this by giving a choice between two sides. If I work for pacifist Harriet, I tranq animals and study them, while the cruel hunter Gus wants me to collect their skins for sweet clothes. But the choice doesn’t amount to much besides Harriet’s quests having extra steps. Even if I piss her off by murdering every animal on the frontier, she’ll eventually give me quests again if I just wait out a timer.

I’ve gone hard as a Bounty Hunter, while my friend is a Trader, but we don’t feel noticeably different. Because there’s no choice, and roles feel the same, characters in the same posse all kind of blend together without too many distinctions.

The early stages of Red Dead Online tease that choice matters quite a lot by having quests that end in moral choices, like whether to return a woman to her abusive husband or help her run free with a lover. As time goes on, it becomes clear that ultimately, honor as an outlaw doesn’t mean much, and those quests end quickly, leaving me with just the frontier roles to engage with.

The Naturalist update is perfectly fine, but once the novelty of new characters wears off, it doesn’t make Red Dead Online feel meaningfully different.

These problems aren’t new — and the frontier roles don’t solve them.

Combo platter

Meanwhile, in Grand Theft Auto Online, content is more layered and varied. One starts as a low-level drug runner and slowly works their way up the criminal ladder (thanks to years of content updates). There’s always something new to unlock, a new property to earn, or some goal to chase. Sometimes that’s as humble as a new car, and other times it’s a giant underground bunker. These businesses unlock specific progression tracks and special kinds of missions. An arcade feels different from a bunker, and being a car thief feels different from selling cocaine.

a black man playing an arcade racing game while two friends look on in Grand Theft Auto Online’s Diamond Casino Heist update Image: Rockstar Games

Activities in GTA Online feel more varied than in Red Dead Online, too. If I buy an arcade and set up runs of the Diamond Casino Heist, that ends up with a very different endgame loop than stealing cars by myself and selling them to the highest bidder. In Red Dead Online, many frontier roles ask players to deliver wagons, find shiny objects, or take pictures of animals, but they all feel like similar activities. It’s hardly the outlaw’s life one lives as Arthur Morgan or John Marston.

While GTA Online’s developers have branched out, getting experimental with new mechanics and missions, the makers of Red Dead Online are doubling down on frontier roles. Rockstar is continuing to put new layers on the same experience. Red Dead can never be another GTA Online, thanks to the low-tech setting, but if the cowboy romp wants to regain its footing, it’ll need to find new ways for players to progress and spend their time in the world.

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