The Red Dead Online community had started planning a funeral for the game, to coincide with the anniversary of the game’s last major update. They didn’t know that it would be officially declared dead in advance.
On July 7, 2022, Rockstar Games pushed an update to its Newswire, confirming that Red Dead Online would not receive any more “major themed content updates,” as the studio shifts development resources onto Grand Theft Auto 6.
The news came less than a week before July 13, the one-year anniversary of Red Dead Online’s last major update, Blood Money, which brought a smattering of missions, a dubious in-game currency, and The Quick Draw Club, a rapid-fire monthly iteration of Red Dead Online’s existing battle pass. You could argue the writing was on the wall last year, but that doesn’t make the news sting any less. The sun is officially beginning to set on the digital Old West, just three years after launch.
“Honestly, it felt prophetic”, said Magnar, who runs the community hub @RedDeadRDC, and posted about the plan to hold a funeral – which takes place in-game today. “It just felt like something had to give, but I’m glad they finally announced it so players who were waiting can have the closure to either move on from RDO or carry on as they were.”
The good news for fans is that Rockstar has committed to maintaining Red Dead Online for the time being, with the monthly tweaks and seasonal events that dedicated players know all too well. The bad news is that a passionate, creative community has had its gorgeous virtual home put on life support, and the palliative care will not be permanent.
We spoke to a number of the game’s most committed fans about what it feels like to know that the game they love is inevitably on the way out.
A far cry from the jet black attire planned for the July 13 vigils, the remarkable #SaveRedDeadOnline movement started with bright red and blue, as players donned clown costumes to protest a lack of updates from Rockstar. “Since we’re all clowns for believing we’ll get an update, it’s fitting that we dress up as them in-game too,” reads the description for the Red Dead Fashion subreddit’s July 2020 fashion contest, titled ‘The Travelling Circus’.
The post’s author, also Magnar, reflected on its legacy. “I think the Clown movement & Traveling Circus event demonstrated that players are able to bring attention to the state of a game they love and that it doesn’t have to devolve into the toxicity you often see when communities are unhappy,” said Magnar, citing the launch of Cyberpunk 2077 and Battlefield 2024. “Players were able to actually get involved by playing the game – rather than just complaining on social media, they could join other players and actually have some fun. It was quite a unique experience.”
This light-hearted costume party was the powderkeg that galvanised the Red Dead Online community. In the months and years that followed, the #SaveRedDeadOnline hashtag became a rally point across social media, bringing players closer together as they imagined a brighter future for the game. As well as voicing frustration at Rockstar’s lack of communication, it also became a way for players to shed light on how they were using the emergent sandbox to make their own fun. All you have to do is take a look at the replies to this tweet to see the sheer range of activities that are still ongoing in Red Dead Online, including roleplay, trail rides, cosplay, photography or daft drunken antics.
One of the most impressive artefacts of the period is YangyYoung’s Ultimate Concept Bundle, a five-year, 11-update plan for Red Dead Online that combines community feedback with clever design concepts and well-reasoned justifications. It’s a bible of suggestions for ways in which Rockstar could enrich the game, including a proposed end to the now-unfinished ‘A Land of Opportunities’ storyline, intricate Heists and so much more.
A bittersweet read in light of recent news, it speaks to the huge community spirit that surrounds the game and proves that Red Dead Online didn’t wither due to a lack of ideas from those playing it. According to YangyYoung, the response to the bundle has been overwhelmingly positive and emotional. “Many people seem to wish Rockstar licensed it in some way, and believe it truly could have saved the game,” they said. “Even if Red Dead doesn’t benefit from it now, who knows, maybe I can use it to prove my work ethic to future employers at the very least.”
There’s a strong sense in the community that Red Dead Online’s downfall was impacted by Rockstar’s approach to player communication. “The sort of back-and-forth you see with devs and fan bases with titles like Destiny 2, Halo Infinite and Minecraft allows fans to help mould the game they already love into something even more ideally suited towards them,” YangyYoung explains. “It’s a universally agreed-upon fact that Rockstar’s traditional super secretive method of development no longer works in an industry that much more appreciates transparency and honesty.”
This point was echoed by Rockstar community figure Tez2, who noted how promising Rockstar’s communication felt during the game’s initial beta period. “Had #SaveRedDeadOnline occurred back then, Rockstar would have likely responded in no time,” they said. “Datamining reveals tons of ideas were planned prior to release. Properties, Lawmen posses, Cattle Rustling, Horse/Wagon Fences, [Red Dead Redemption 2 character] Seth Briars making an appearance …etc. The issue is more of prioritization. GTA Online is gaining increased prioritization due to GTA+, music-centred content (Music is a major aspect within Rockstar’s foundation) and, of course, financial success.”
Even with its superior graphics and historical charm, Red Dead Online was inevitably going to live in its billion-dollar brother’s shadow. The community isn’t unsympathetic to that. “GTA Online is still a huge success, and since they are working on GTA 6, which will also be, inevitably, another record-breaker, it’s no wonder RDO is low priority,” community figure Yan2295 explained. “In the end, they’re running a business, not a charity.”
“It started to feel like the content was really out of touch with what the community wanted… We are essentially homeless millionaires.”
For many community members, however, the frustration stems from unfinished business. “[Rockstar] has promised so much to this incredible title in its Newswire and interviews with the press – it took them 7-8 years to bring one of the most detailed open-worlds to date, it’s so disheartening to see them completely abandon the game,” said community figure Ben (@videotech_ on Twitter). “Most players have hundreds of thousands of RDO$ sitting in their accounts ready to spend after years of playing.”
Others have hitched their real-life income to the game in some respects, expecting support and updates to be kept up. DirtyTyler is a Red Dead Online YouTuber with 87k subscribers who makes helpful service videos detailing where to find in-game treasures and items. The current state of Red Dead Online means they’re starting to look at other games to make content on. “As someone who likes creating guides and keeping track of things to come in Red Dead Online, Rockstar’s handling of the game has really impacted my approach to content – I create videos much less frequently now,” they said. “Updates started to get smaller and smaller until they dried up, and for a while, it started to feel like the content was really out of touch with what the community wanted… We are essentially homeless millionaires.”
Though many community members feel let down by the chain of events, nobody I spoke to plans to quit the game outright, which is a hopeful notion. After all, even without any meaningful updates from Rockstar, Red Dead Online still stands as an incredible online multiplayer sandbox. If you’re used to its refined gameplay and meticulous detail, where else are you going to go? It’s not like there’s an abundance of massively multiplayer Westerns with stupendous production values. With that in mind, many players have been forced to find innovative ways to make the most of it.
One such player is TheKey32, who has cultivated a following in the Red Dead Fashion community by posting elegant pictures of Sir Joseph Windsor, a dapper gentleman character they’ve been developing outfits and aesthetics for with Red Dead Online’s customization tools. TheKey32’s keen interest in Early 1900s history made Rockstar’s intricate Western a match made in heaven. “There was never a game set in that time period that gave me that freedom and I really appreciated it,” they said. “The idea started way back in high school when I made a sprite for a game I was working on for a school project. The main character was a dapper gentleman dubbed “Sir Knight” – a very early concept but over the years, and of course, with RDR2, I fully fleshed out his character!”
Sir Joseph wears many hats and even made an appearance as a ringmaster during The Travelling Circus event. But a lack of new customization options will make it difficult for TheKey32 and other virtual fashionistas.
“It’s getting stale for a lot of people, as I and many other creators have pretty much made all the outfits we like,” they explained. “Mods in Story Mode help but, unfortunately, it’s not something most people can get and enjoy.” TheKey32 would love to see Rockstar add all of the NPC clothes, beards and haircuts to Red Dead Online to expand the pool of assets to use, as well as the Rockstar Editor (a beloved feature in GTA V that allows players to edit and share footage from story mode and GTA Online). “The game has so much potential, especially for people that love customization, but unfortunately, it is untapped by Rockstar,” they said.
Elsewhere, communities have flourished by tapping Red Dead Online’s missed potential for themselves. Equestrian interest in Red Dead Online makes a lot of sense thanks to the fluid riding, complex horse maintenance and, of course, the fact that their cojones shrink in the Ambarino cold… The Rift founder Chelsea Farace took notice of this and started hosting virtual trail riding events during the pandemic. It became a comforting activity in uncertain times, when horse owners might not have even been able to go to the barn IRL.
Unexpectedly, The Rift has seen massive growth, even as Red Dead Online went through its content drought. The community now boasts over 2,500 members taking part in multiple trails per day, as well as larger charity events to support causes the crew is passionate about. Most recently, The Rift’s 2nd-anniversary event saw them raise $400 for the Ukrainian Equestrian Charity Foundation. “Playing with other people can make even the most mundane parts of the game more exciting,” said Ferd, an admin at The Rift. “We have a lot of members who have admitted that they had abandoned RDO due to the lack of content, but have found love for the game again because of The Rift.”
The Rift would, of course, love to see new horse-related content come to Red Dead Online, but the community has long been steeled to the reality of the situation. “In the end, we play the game the way we want, so the lack of new content doesn’t have any real influence on what we do,” said Ferd. “To a lot of gamers that love horses, RDO is an excellent replacement for riding or handling them in real life. Horse girls alone could definitely keep the game populated based on the fact that it has better graphics and mechanics than any actual horse game that is available as of today.”
Red Dead Online isn’t the first virtual world to lose developer support, and it won’t be the last. For most of the people I interviewed for this story, this wasn’t even the first time they’d been a part of a gaming community that had faced an existential crisis. Games like Defiance, Anthem, Overwatch, Battlefield 1, and even the original Red Dead Redemption multiplayer were pointed to as examples.
As more and more options become available, online worlds are withering away at an alarming rate, and the communities formed around them are taking the brunt of the damage. This problem is only going to grow – the pandemic accelerated interest in online multiplayer, and massively multiplayer service games with social hubs and emergent sandboxes are big development trends right now.
Hearing the stories of the Red Dead Online community, there’s an increasing feeling that there should be a level of responsibility when implementing features that nurture a community if players are inevitably going to be left in the dust. Massively multiplayer worlds are expensive to maintain, but if you measure a game’s success by the zeal and ingenuity of its players then Red Dead Online is by no means a failure – which is why the game’s fate after just three years feels so confusing.
The worst part about this phenomenon is that the answer to the “why?” of all this is probably a simple but cynical one, one of concurrents and cashflow. GTA Online is clearly an enormous success for Rockstar, and Red Dead Online simply cannot match that for players and money brought in. But this presents a problem over time.
“It adds more reasons to not trust promises from developers, and to always keep a sense of skepticism.”
As Yan2295 put it: “If every publisher starts using their most successful product, oftentimes a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence like GTA Online, as a benchmark, does it mean that every product coming out after that will be seen as a flop and quickly abandoned?”
It sets a worrying precedent. “It adds more reasons to not trust promises from developers, and to always keep a sense of skepticism,” adds Tez2.
But even if Rockstar has put its cowpokes out to pasture, the Red Dead Online community isn’t ready to accept early retirement. “I don’t think a great deal actually changes, aside from those who move on and the initial reaction to the news,” Magnar said. “Rockstar has given us next to nothing for the past two years, so it’s just business as usual for the most part. Our community will still continue to host events and contests and share all the cool things other players are up to.”
“The state of Red Dead Online as it is now has enough content to bring in new players and keep them interested for many hours of gameplay,” said Ferd. “Even many long-time players like myself haven’t really been able to move on to something new, as it provides gameplay that not many other games can offer – especially if you want to play with your friends. I think it is more likely that people stop playing due to Rockstar shutting down the servers than anything else. I mean, what other games let you run around with your friends in the Wild West?”
Questions remain, though: how long will Rockstar keep the lights on for, and what will the community do once the game is gone altogether? It’s an increasingly common worry in the modern gaming climate, and one that isn’t being readily solved by publishers.
Jordan Oloman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.