Grand Theft Auto Online is one of the biggest games in the world, with hundreds of thousands of players logging on every month. But when it launched six years ago, it was a mess. Many believed it was doomed—a close friend told me they expected it would be shut down in six months. But Rockstar stuck with it, and six years later, it's still around and that friend is still playing it. During those six years of repair and improvement, Rockstar learned some key lessons that it has applied to its latest online game, Red Dead Online, which is celebrating its one year anniversary this month. And unlike before, Rockstar is moving a lot faster to improve RDO.
Grand Theft Auto Online, released in 2013, was Rockstar's first real crack at a major always-online video game. Before GTA Online, the company had released games with multiplayer modes, like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Max Payne 3, but GTA Online was different. It was bigger. It was going to be updated for a long time, adding new features and bits of content. It was a service game before that term became popular. It was treated as a separate game, having its own name, website, and development team.
The First Months of GTA Online
The end result is that when GTA Online launched on October 1, 2013 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it felt unlike anything the company had made before. In a lot of ways, GTA Online was the game so many fans had dreamed about. Finally, you could jump online and play Grand Theft Auto with your friends. Steal cars together, fight the police together, do silly stunts with planes together.
GTA Online basically collapsed immediately. Server issues plagued its launch. Characters were deleted. People found male characters changed into female characters. Money disappeared. Servers kicked players out during missions. It was a total mess. And when the dust settled after a few weeks of headaches and frustration and the game started working, players found a lot to do but not a lot of reason to do it.
The main goal players have in GTA Online has never changed since launch: Get lots of money. Today, players have a ton of cool and useful things they can buy with their illicit cash, but that first year of GTA Online was different. Most players repeated the same missions like Violent Duct over and over, slowly earning enough money to buy a cool car and a nice apartment. That was sort of it. Once you got these things, there wasn't anything to do with them.
The first updates for GTA Online didn't really help give players more purpose or reason to play. The very first update was called the Beach Bum update. It added a few new hats, shirts, a broken bottle weapon, and a dune buggy. It was like adding a few grains of rice to a giant fire. It did nothing but annoy players, like myself, who wanted more reason to log in each day. We didn't want broken bottles; we wanted big missions or new events.
In fact, what players really wanted was heists, which had been promised before launch. A trailer for GTA Online even showed what looked to be an early version of a in-game heist and said players would be able to complete these multi-step missions with friends. But right before launching GTA Online, Rockstar quietly announced that heists wouldn't be a part of the game at launch. No date was given, and it took years before they finally were added in March 2015.
The First Months Of Red Dead Online
Right from the start, Rockstar seemed to learn from GTA Online and its rough launch. It slapped a "Beta" tag on Red Dead Online's title. It felt like a way for Rockstar to temper expectations. It was a way to say, "Hey, this ain't done yet. It might not work. It's a beta. Okay?"
The launch of Red Dead Online wasn't smooth at all and featured server issues and crashing, but it wasn't as bad as GTA Online's first launch. Part of this was because Rockstar used a staggered launch for RDO. Instead of everyone rushing into the digital Wild West at once, Rockstar spaced the launch out across a week or so. This helped keep the servers from buckling entirely. So from a technical standpoint, RDO had a better launch than GTA Online.
Something to also remember is that RDO wasn't just a follow-up to GTA Online, but a follow-up to the original Red Dead Redemption and its multiplayer. That online mode was more developed than the online mode seen in GTA 4; it featured posses, gang hideouts, and in-game events. It was a prototype, in many ways, for what we would see in GTA Online and RDO. This also meant that there were different expectations for RDO. The original Red Dead multiplayer featured poker and gambling, for instance. This was something players wanted to see in RDO.
Only, there was no poker when RDO launched. In fact, there wasn't much at all. At launch, players had a few story missions to complete, some races, a handful of deathmatch variants, some random events and a big world to explore. This content wasn't enough.
A lot of players, myself included, came into RDO and played it like GTA Online. We quickly tried to earn large amounts of cash and gold, but there just weren't many ways to make good money in the first months of RDO. When players did find ways to make good money, Rockstar would update the game and lower payouts for these activities, which frustrated many players. For example, a popular way to earn cash early on was to hunt animals and fish and sell them at nearby shops. Rockstar didn't like how much cash players were earning using these methods and lowered the payouts. This led to RDO fans briefly protesting by cloning cougars using a duping glitch.
The Lessons Learned From GTA Online
The biggest lesson Rockstar seemed to learn from GTA Online was its focus on creating content that felt like it belonged in the world. In GTA Online, players had a huge variety of content, but not all of it made sense or felt like it fit the criminal lifestyle. Sure, you could steal cars and modify them, but players could also compete in parachuting contests, challenge people to a round of golf, and invite friends over to watch TV or race mountain bikes. Some of this stuff was fun, but a lot of it felt like fluff and has basically been forgotten by players.
This wasn't the case with RDO. It launched with less content, sure, but it seemed Rockstar was more focused on creating a believable online world, not just packing a game with stuff. In conversations I've had with Rockstar, it's clear it really wants RDO to become a place where players can roleplay as citizens of the Wild West, complete with horse stables, hunting, gun shops, bandits and camping. It seems Rockstar has a plan and vision for RDO that's vastly different than GTA Online.
It took Rockstar almost two years to actually figure out GTA Online's vision. It started with the Heists update in March 2015, which added the long-teased heists to the game two years after launch. (This is also a good time to mention that Rockstar seems to be avoiding this mistake. It isn't promising any specific big content updates for RDO that could happen in the future.)
Before that update, GTA Online was a collection of random missions, activities, and stores. After that update, Rockstar gave players a reason to buy apartments. (It's where you start and plan a heist.) After the heists update, Rockstar continued to build GTA Online into the game it is today. It added businesses, which give players a way to invest money their into illegal operations that earn them money. It added more expensive and wackier vehicles and weapons, but getting to that point took a few years. During the time it took to get to now, it seemed like Rockstar was chucking stuff at the game and seeing what stuck and what flopped.
Red Dead Online, meanwhile, is Rockstar realizing that this isn't the best way to handle running an online game. With RDO, Rockstar is laying out roadmaps and content schedules. It seems to have goals and tangible plans to reach those goals. Also, all of this is happening at a much faster pace. The last few big updates for RDO have added online poker, better controls, a battle pass, and new roles.
The roles are the biggest and most exciting update for Red Dead Online. Roles were added earlier this year in September, and they feel unlike anything found in GTA Online. The three roles currently in the game—bounty hunter, collector, and trader—all have their own challenges, rewards, levels, and missions. They give players something to work toward every time they log on and give players more ways to make their character unique. Become a badass bounty hunter, for example, and you can unlock new revolver twirling animations that your friends will be jealous of.
The Current State Of RDO & GTA Online
Both RDO and GTA Online are better games today than they were at launch. Beyond angry players, I don't think anyone will debate this. Luckily, Red Dead Online became a better game in a much shorter amount of time than its online predecessor GTA Online. Rockstar learned a lot of key lessons from GTA Online: Don't overwhelm players with content. Don't promise things you can't deliver. Add more meaningful content. Build a world that players can get lost in, and give players a reason to play beyond just making money.
Red Dead Online isn't perfect, and it still has issues with trolls and PvP, but the overall experience is improving at a speed that honestly surprises me. Just six months ago I was forcing myself to play RDO for work reasons. Nowadays, I load it up nearly every week just to check out new missions and events. I'm excited to do some hunting to level up my trader. (I'm close to unlocking a bigger wagon, which will make hunting trips more lucrative for my friends and I.) Sometimes I just get on and hang out in a town, playing some poker and meeting random players.
GTA Online is better today than it was even just two years ago. The casino update was controversial because it added gambling to the game. Some countries even blocked features of the casino update due to gambling laws. But the story missions it added and the casino itself were popular additions to GTA Online amongst fans because it gave players more of what they all want: ways to make money, new things to do, and new ways to play. Rockstar has also continued to add more heists, missions, and businesses. It's also started to add collectibles around the map, something that feels somewhat inspired by Red Dead Online.
It might have taken Rockstar a few years and some big mistakes, but it's finally figured out how to make online games. Watching how quickly Red Dead Online has come together has got me excited for Grand Theft Auto 6, or whatever else comes next from Rockstar. Sure, we don't know for certain if its next project will have an online mode, but it's safe to assume it will. And if RDO and GTA Online's updates and improvements are a preview of the future, it seems GTA 6 might launch with one of the best open-world online games ever made.
Well, after a few months of updates and patches.