The latest opus from Rockstar Games, Red Dead Redemption II, has been out in the wild since October 26, with the online component, aptly named Red Dead Online, having gone live at the tail end of November. Like Grand Theft Auto Online before it, RDO has a ton of potential, but its initial release has been marred with balancing issues, a dearth of content, and an absolutely broken economy.
Fans and observers have a great deal of faith in Rockstar and Take-Two's ability to populate the world of Red Dead Online with engaging competitive modes, engrossing cooperative missions, and countless hours of fun for solo online players and posses of outlaws alike. However, it's been made unfortunately clear that, before they lock down essentials like gameplay balance and the economy, Red Dead Online must first be populated with microtransactions.
Red Dead Online is work in progress, but what does it say of Take-Two and Rockstar that they are more quick to encourage players to spend real money on gold bars than they are to implement meaningful content and economic balance in a game which so desperately needs it?
Red Dead Online Still Needs Work
In terms of its single player experience, Rockstar was clearly aiming to deliver the ultimate video game representation of the Old West, crafting a fully realized open world populated with people to rob, animals to hunt, an epic storyline with three-dimensional characters, and a seemingly endless supply of scripted and emergent events to encounter. The game is clearly a product of ambitious auteurism, a sentiment which does not carry over to Red Dead Online.
From the jump, Red Dead Online was criticized for its broken economy, in which the monetary rewards gained from gun battles were scarcely able to cover the costs of resources expended in said battles. In addition, the prices of goods in shops were boosted to ridiculous levels. A subsequent patch brought prices down somewhat, but a Mauser pistol still costs $600, a $350 markup from the same weapon in the single player story.
In addition to its economic problems, Red Dead Online also suffers from an unfortunate lack of content. There are but a handful of online story missions for players to enjoy, and the competitive modes, while entertaining (RDR's milquetoast shooting mechanics notwithstanding), aren't the main appeal of a game like this. Sadly, rather than working to make sure all players are engaged by a reasonable amount of modes and missions to play, Take-Two and Rockstar instead chose to focus on making sure every single player has the opportunity to spend real money on in-game currency.
Red Dead Online Already Has Microtransactions
The initial release of Red Dead Redemption II made headlines across the industry; in its first weekend of release, the game brought in an outstanding $725 million in revenue, and shipped 17 million copies in within its first twelve days on the market. Even with a surely astronomical production budget, Red Dead Redemption II is a gargantuan hit, the likes of which haven't been seen since... Well, since Rockstar Games' previous blockbuster juggernaut, Grand Theft Auto V.
Apparently, $725 million in three days isn't enough for Take-Two and Rockstar, as evidenced by their skewed priorities. Surely there are teams at Rockstar currently focused on making online missions, free roam events, customization options, new weapons, horses, NPCs, and other assorted online goodies, but it's telling that the first RDO updates have focused on putting a bandage on a broken economy (as mentioned in the Mauser pistol example above) and implementing microtransactions. The big publishers prefer the term, "recurrent user spending," since "microtransactions" and the short-lived initialism, "MTX," are dirty words with negative connotations; what could be negative about encouraging players to spend money on a game for which they've already paid full price (or even more for assorted 'special' and 'ultimate' editions)?
At this point, microtransactions are an unfortunate reality of the gaming industry, and they've been implemented in a variety of cynical, predatory, obtrusive, and opaque manners, from Gears of War 4's broken Horde Mode to Overwatch's lootboxes, to Fortnite skins, to say nothing of titles like Star Wars: Battlefront II and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, both of which removed their MTX after months of fan outcry. As it turns out, gamers are more interested in playing to win than in paying to win.
Red Dead Online's Microtransactions Are A Joke
In response to the bumpy early days of Red Dead Online, Rockstar made a superficially generous gesture, giving players in-game dollars alongside the implementation of MTX. One nice thing is that players who bought items whose prices were later reduced will receive the difference in price as a gift to their in-game wallets.
Early adopters of the RDO beta are receiving a handful of gold bars – enough to get something, but not enough to get anything worth having. It calls to mind the old adage, "The first one's free," which has been ascribed such reputable industries as gambling and drug dealing: the idea is that newcomers get enticed by a free sample in an effort to turn the curious into customers.
The prices of these gold bars are a clear indication that Take-Two and Rockstar are testing the limits of how far they can push their customers before they outright revolt. Prices range from $5 to $100, with a "special" limited-time offer putting the $10 pack of 25 bars on sale for $5. If Red Dead Online resembles an infomercial more than a video game, that seems to be exactly what Rockstar and Take-Two were aiming to accomplish.
Prior to the implementation of MTX, gold bars could be earned through regular play, though players could spend dozens of hours without obtaining a single one, effectively rendering gold nuggets (one hundred of which add up to a single gold bar) completely useless. A smattering of gold bars were also given out by Rockstar to early adopters, about thirty bars in total; "the first one's free," indeed.
Red Dead Online, Gold Bars, And The Community
Needless to say, the Red Dead Online community is not satisfied with this implementation of MTX in their new favorite game. It's arguably worse than Grand Theft Auto Online, where grinding for money was a legitimately viable strategy, especially as the years passed and the game was continuously populated with a seemingly endless drip of new content and missions, a drip which continues even after the release of Red Dead Online. The addition of "premium currency" in addition to regular dollars seems like a way to balance the field, but it really only serves to separate the community into "haves" who can buy whatever they want and "have-nots" who are essentially blocked off from everything that can only be attained with gold bars.
The community is having some fun with the comparisons, creating memes which take a humorous approach to the fact that RDR is making the same mistakes as GTA. Even worse, the fact that the game is already implementing MTX, before making sure that there's enough content for players to enjoy calls to mind this exchange from early in the main game. MTX are even being derisively referred to as "Micahtransactions," in reference to one of the most despised characters in the main story mode.
Red Dead Online is still in beta, and things are changing all the time. The story hasn't been written yet, but the implementation of MTX at this early stage in the game's lifespan sends a negative message that Rockstar and Take-Two are more interested in creating monetization opportunities than in creating a worthwhile online video game.
The worst part of this whole fiasco is Red Dead's status as a $60 game. Red Dead Online isn't a free-to-play title with ambitions of subsisting with the generosity of fans who feel good about spending money to support their favorite game; this isn't Warframe, this isn't Star Trek Online, this isn't even Fortnite, which has its own issues with predatory monetization and teaching children the "value" of wasting money on useless skins.
Red Dead Redemption II is already a success. In just three days, the game made more money than the GDP of Switzerland. It made more money than the entire global runs of blockbuster movies like Justice League and It. Even after this phenomenal success, Take-Two has the nerve to cynically demand more money from consumers who already paid at least $60.
At the end of the day, microtransactions have no place in a full-priced triple-A video game, whether in the form of Overwatch loot boxes, buying Shark Cards for GTA$, or shelling out for gold bars in Red Dead Online. Take-Two is in a precarious situation; when a company makes more money than God, and then shamelessly demands more money from those who customers who have already paid, it reeks of late-stage capitalism – the tail end of a boom which is commonly followed by an industry-crashing bust.