GTA Online’s huge success has me worried about Red Dead Redemption 2

by Eric Frederiksen | March 4, 2017

My love of Red Dead Redemption literally cannot be overstated. More than six years after release, it remains one of my most beloved video games of all time. Multiple play-throughs have only enhanced, not dulled, my enjoyment of the game.

As successful as Grand Theft Auto V has been for Rockstar, it’s not a game I’ve thought about jumping back into since I finished the single-player campaign and got my butt royally whupped during GTA Online‘s opening days, I haven’t given the game much thought. Red Dead Redemption, though, I barely go a week without thinking about in some way or another. I told you – it’s love. And that love is why I’m as worried as I am excited about the sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2, currently slated for release this year.

Nothing, though, has me as worried as GTA Online and the capability it has to change Red Dead Redemption 2 in ways we can’t yet conceive.

GTA Online is huge.

First, let’s talk about just what a success GTA Online has been for Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive. Grand Theft Auto V is selling faster than ever, and a big part of that is the continual draw of GTA Online. GTA Online, a free-to-play mode included alongside Grand Theft Auto V, has made at least $500 million for the company according to documents made public during a lawsuit between former Rockstar North President Leslie Benzie and Take-Two Interactive.

The documents say “GTA Online has the potential to achieve the greatest profit margin of any game created in the GTA franchise,” due in part to the fact that GTA Online‘s microtransactions have a “nearly 100 percent profit margin,” minus fees paid to the storefronts they’re purchased through (Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam) and some minor developmental and maintenance costs.

Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling games of all time, and certainly the best-selling full-priced game. Rockstar only makes massive games and, of those, GTA Online could very well end up being the biggest. It’s still growing.

So what does that have to do with the old west?

When Rockstar was developing Grand Theft Auto V and GTA Online, it was in a vacuum. It hadn’t had a release since the first Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar could make guesses and projections about how successful GTA Online would be, but it was all guesswork. Now, GTA Online is out there in the wild. Rockstar knows how successful a microtransaction-fueled online mode can be.

You can see this, to some degree, in the handling of DLC for the game. Grand Theft Auto IV had two big pieces of post-release content – “The Ballad of Gay Tony” and “The Lost and the Damned” – within 2 years of its debut, with the first appearing before Grand Theft Auto IV had been out a full year. We’re well past the three-year mark for Grand Theft Auto V and only GTA Online has seen any love.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being developed with that in mind, and with the knowledge that both the public and the investors have expectations of there being a Red Dead Redemption Online.

There is going to be a Red Dead Redemption Online – that much I’m sure of. I’ll eat a hat (I get to pick the hat) if there isn’t. Red Dead Redemption had a substantial and well-liked online mode, but this time we can expect it to be accompanied by whatever Red Dead Redemption‘s equivalent of Shark Cash Cards is.

Even before I got to thinking about GTA Online, I already had some worries about Red Dead Redemption 2. With the original being my favorite game, like, ever, there’s a lot of room for disappointment. There’s room for it not to live up to not only what Red Dead still is, but what it has become in our heads. It’s a monolithic thing to live up to.

I was also worried from the first teaser images that it would be a prequel so Rockstar could bring back the cast of characters it killed off in the first game. While Rockstar still hasn’t explicitly confirmed as much, it’s a foregone conclusion by this point. I was hoping for an all-new Old West story to explore, with completely different characters. There are a million stories to tell about the era, and to tell using the era, so sticking to these characters isn’t anything more than a way to pull over fans of the original, I think. The thing is, we’re all in already. They didn’t need to tempt us in with familiar characters.

But hey, I was worried about going back to Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V again, and Rockstar proved me wrong then, too, so why not twice? I like being wrong about this kind of stuff.

That’s why GTA Online is my biggest fear for Red Dead Redemption 2.

We know Red Dead Redemption Online is coming, and with how successful GTA Online has been, there’s no way it’s not a major focus for the company.

While a single-player game can help drive initial sales for a game, it’s a one-time injection. It’s part of why Konami dumped Hideo Kojima and shifted focus away from console games, despite Kojima’s games being consistently profitable; mobile games make more money, and big console games are risky, long-term investments. A shift to mobile also explains why Sega doesn’t seem to make much in the way of console games anymore aside from Yakuza and countless Sonic rehashes. It’s why Nintendo finally stepped into the mobile space in 2016 with stuff like Miitomo and Super Mario Run.

Core gamers might bristle at the mere mention of microtransactions, but the public has largely embraced them. They provide a consistent stream of money when done right, and they extend the life of a game far past its initial shelf life. Activision Blizzard made billions of dollars thanks to Blizzard’s microtransaction-fueled games and the company’s purchase of King last year. In light of that, a single-player campaign’s importance goes from significant to minuscule pretty quickly. Not just from the standpoint of investors, who love the taste and scent of money above all else, but also from developers who want people playing and experiencing their games for as long as possible and even gamers with limited budgets who want to squeeze every dime out of a game.

I hope my fear is unfounded, but right now I see a future where Red Dead Redemption 2‘s single-player game is a secondary concern to its online component, and a great game suffers in the process.

There’s an argument to be made that Red Dead Redemption 2 has to be good to fuel players picking it up and diving into the online mode in the first place, but I don’t know if that’s true. Red Dead Redemption‘s position in the game pantheon is high up and well-established. People love Red Dead, and that alone is going to guarantee it huge sales.

Rockstar hasn’t disappointed us yet, and that gives me hope, but it has never made a game in the post-GTA Online world, either. We’ll have to keep our eyes open as we go into this one.

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