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Red Dead Online is brimming with potential but extremely frustrating. What’s wrong, and how can it be solved?

Gamingtodaynews1g - Red Dead Online is brimming with potential but extremely frustrating. What's wrong, and how can it be solved?
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This is basically me coming to grips with why I have such a hate/love relationship with Online as well as figuring out how it could be solved. Part fun, part therapy, VERY LONG.

TL;DR Rockstar could and should embrace the sandbox and make players into each other’s hilarious or surprising random encounters. They could do this by adding new types of missions and challenges (easy) and by adding new ways to interact with players that aren’t “blow brains out”, like greet/antagonize (expensive) or rob (easy).


How can Red Dead Online, so very similar to the near-perfect Red Dead Redemption 2, be such a massively disappointing, empty, and frustrating game? The shortest way to describe Online would be “wasted potential”. In its worldspace, AI systems that populate it, and game mechanics to interact with it, the game is almost identical to RDR2, an absolutely golden cowboy romp. Online introduces loads of new weapons, clothing, and horses, too. But somehow Online failed to fulfill its destiny to become an absolutely golden online cowboy romp. Instead, Online feels like an empty shell of RDR2: superficially similar, but hollow, meaningless, and unrewarding. It also constantly pesters you to spend real money.

Rockstar doesn’t seem to grasp what the problem is. Since its release, Rockstar has fleshed out this empty shell somewhat, constantly working to create new content. I think Rockstar is wasting development resources in the wrong places, because this new content hasn’t stopped Online from bleeding players. Players regularly call Online frustrating, rage-inducing, boring. If Rockstar can find out why that is, they can spend those precious development resources in ways that will actually make Online more fun. So what is going wrong? How can a game that shares so many mechanics with the critically acclaimed RDR2 as to be almost identical be so much worse?


1. Identifying the problem


People identify different problems. The game demands far too much grind, making money is hard. This is true, and it is annoying, but I don’t think it’s the main problem. People say the game is plagued by griefers – certainly before Rockstar rolled out defense and offensive playstyles. These are issues, certainly, but the fundamental problems gnawing at the heart of Online.

The first fundamental problem is that Online is schizophrenic. It exists in a kind of quantum state in which it is three different games at the same time. Online is trying to be at the same time a fun wild-west sandbox like RDR2, a MMORPG grindfest, and a PVP shooter. This is the trifecta of doom. The sandbox, the grindfest, and the shooter parts relate to each other in a way I like to call mutually assured frustration. Each part ruins the other part and makes it horrible to play.

The second fundamental problem is that Online does almost nothing with its greatest asset, online interaction with other human players. Playing Online is a lonely affair where other players are to be feared unless you join a posse (squad), and even then you have very little ways of interacting with your fellow players.


Problem 1: Mutually Assured Frustration

It works like this. The grindfest rules the economy. The Online economy is dominated by huge prices and limited ways to make money (and most of them making only very tiny amounts of money). Track down a bounty, shoot the 10+ guys guarding him, take care to take him in alive? This will net you 9 dollars. A cool revolver costs 290 dollars. A cool poncho, 170. That’s horrible, yes. But the grindfest rules your clothes, your guns, you horses, your camp, your emotes. So, you’re going to want money.

Making money is hard, but Rockstar added jobs called “roles” to help you earn cash. For example, the trader role has you hunting animals, which an NPC turns into goods to sell. To earn your money, you drive these goods to a drop-off point.

This is where the shooter part comes in and blows the other parts’ brains out, which it does every twenty minutes. In their infinite wisdom, Rockstar makes it so that rival traders get a prompt to kill your delivery. If they succeed, you get only a fraction of the money you worked so hard for. What do the saboteurs get, you ask? Nothing. They get nothing. That’s right. Nobody wins, but you lose. It is literally griefing, facilitated and encouraged by Rockstar’s game design.

So what the fuck is going on? Well, remember when I said that Online exists in a quantum state in which it is three different games at the same time? In a straight-up shooter with no grindfest, a mission in which one player has to protect something and the other player has to destroy it is fun. That’s fun gameplay. In the universe where Online is only a shooter, this is just a fun mission. But in our universe, the shooter part absolutely fucking ruins the grindfest part and makes hours of work disappear into nothing while the attacking player gets no benefits at all.

The grindfest, in turn, ruins the shooter. Killing another player gives you XP, which is near useless. It does not give you money or help you upgrade your gear or looks. So the shooter part ruins the grindfest part, but the grindfest part ruins the shooting part, because PVP is not rewarded by the grindfest. So PVP is at best a waste of time and at worst the destruction of all you’ve worked for. Even with the introduction of player bounties last year, which would make PVP a source of income, a kill gains you nothing – you have to capture them – and these bounties spawn hordes of NPC bounty hunters who are more likely to kill the player. It is also easy and incentivized to pay a bounty off. So earning money by hunting players is almost impossible.

The grindfest also ruins the sandbox. Let me say right off the bat that I think Online needs to embrace the sandbox and let the shooter and grindfest parts be subservient to the sandbox. That is what the world and mechanics it inherited from RDR2 prioritize. But this gameplay is not rewarded. Just going out to explore or to fuck about is useless. You will never find a cool cosmetic or stumble across a treasure. There are only a few random encounters that aren’t fight sequences. Looting corpses of random fight encounters literally gives you cents. CENTS. The tantalizing world and the emergent systems of interaction of RDR2 beckon for exploration, but you’ll find nothing worth finding.

The interaction between Online’s different parts is like a rock paper scissors game from hell. They each ruin each other.


Problem 2: Together Alone

An open world multiplayer cowboy romp, sign me up! But playing free roam in Online is not like playing an Online multiplayer game. It’s like playing a single player game in which every now and then you run into a bugged NPC who breaks your immersion with their appearance and behaviour and eerie mute silence, who is dangerously unpredictable and might shoot you unprovoked from behind the next hill. It’s more like DayZ than Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead Online, an actual multiplayer game, is lonelier than Red Dead singleplayer. Clearly there’s something wrong.

What’s wrong is that Rockstar misuses players in their game design. The schizofrenia trifecta of sandbox, grindfest, and shooter is to blame here as well. The interactions you can have with other players in the sandbox and the grindfest are dominated by shooter design, which is widldy different from how RDR2 treated its digital people.

Let’s review what interactions with NPC’s are just a button push away in RDR2.

  • rob

  • greet

  • antagonize

  • quickdraw duel (slowly pressing R2)

  • combat (shoot, punch, stab)

Now let’s review what interactions with NPC’s – and players! – are a button push away in Online.

  • combat (shoot, punch, stab)

  • wave?

Yeah, this is a problem. RDR2’s sandbox was interesting because you could interact with NPC’s in a lot more ways than just killing them, which could lead to hilarious, surprising, or challenging moments even outside of scripted encounters. And in scripted encounters, it allowed for different ways to respond. Such a sandbox could benefit immensely from actual human beings as the people in the sandbox, who are more unpredictable and hilarious than any AI.

But what options to interact do players have? Blow brains out or wave. Or, much more common, ignore the other player entirely.

Blowing another player’s brains out is the most obvious and easiest way of interacting with other players. In terms of actions available to the player, Online is a shooter. There is little else to do with other players. But as stated above, it is a horrible shooter which does not reward shooting. The obviousness and ease of shooting another player is IMHO responsible for the amount of griefers and what led Rockstar to create the offensive and defensive playing modes. These modes reflect the schizofrenia between the shooter part of the game and the sandbox/grindfest part of the game.


So there’s your two problems. Online does not know if it wants to be a wild west sandbox, a grindfest MMORPG, or an online shooter. Because of this schizophrenia, what should be the central feature – interaction with other players – is limited to shooting game mechanics that do not mesh well or even actively disrupt the other parts of the game. Other players will actually make your experience worse.


2. Solutions


How should Rockstar allocate its resources to solve these issues and make the gold cowboy game hidden somewhere in Online? Let’s approach it like this. RDR2 is an amazing game. Red Dead Online should mix what is amazing about RDR2 with the fun, surprise, challenge, and camaraderie of online interaction. So what actually is amazing about RDR2?

Roughly speaking, people usually state two things as being great about RDR2. These include the narrative, including its characters and the main protagonist, Arthur Morgan. Online could be cool with a narrative – another story, another gang, but this time the players make up the gang – but this is unfeasable. And the sandbox, the do-what-you-want, go-where-you-want gameplay where something surprising and interesting may be hidden around every corner. I think the sandbox actually consists of two parts; the designed content made by the designers – including interesting locations, hidden cosmetics, loot, scripted encounters – and the emergent content, the unpredictable and surprising situations that occur from the interacting systems of the sandbox itself. When a bounty hunter falls off of his horse because an alligator spooked it, that is emergent content.

I think Online is a golden opportunity for Rockstar to harness the unpredictability of players to generate emergent content.

If you give players more ways to interact with each other and incentivize and reward them for doing so, the content practically generates itself. You can ensure the longevity of Red Dead Online by making sure bare interaction with players is fun and surprising, instead of desperately churning out new content to build upon shaky foundations. You can’t, after all, polish a turd. You have to make sure player-to-player interaction is the source of fun. This may sound a bit abstract, so let me get into specifics.


Step 1: Embrace the sandbox

This is really the first step. Like I said, the mechanics and open world Online inherited from RDR2 are tailor made for a sandbox. So embrace that. That means that the grindfest and the shooter parts should serve the sandbox, rather than conflict with it.

So, make hunting and fishing actually financially viable. Make looting dead bodies actually count for something, anything! Hide more cash rewards, collectibles, and even weapons and cosmetics throughout the world. Play to your strengths. I know you want to make money, Rockstar, but just make some things gold-only. Loosen up the dollar market. A fun cowboy romp cannot be a chore.


Step 2: Give players more ways of interacting

Remember what I said about RDR2 and the interactions just a button push away? You’re going to have to bring all of those to Online. Yeah. I’m sorry, there’s nothing for it. That means Online should add:

  • ability to rob NPC’s and players

  • ability to verbally greet NPC’s and players

  • ability to verbally antagonize NPC’s and players

  • ability to quickdraw duel with NPC’s and players

All of these are more interesting ways of interacting with other players than shooting them in the head from behind a bush. All of these can still end in a gunfight, but that gunfight would be a more interesting one than one that erupts out of nowhere.

Yes, this would require Rockstar to add voices and to record a bunch of lines. It would also clash with the amount of cutscenes written and performed to accommodate silent protagonists. I don’t know what to tell you Rockstar; you made a choice and it was the wrong one. Silent protagonists in Online are awkward as hell. The cutscenes are like an absurdist play, and the poker games where six people play poker in deathly silence are straight out of the uncanny valley.

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Just hire five male and five female voice actors to perform five different voices and personalities for greet/antagonize/rob and don’t look back. Insult-contests with other players would be hilarious. If you really want, Rockstar, you can sell us individual insults or voices.

But the thing about having lethal violence at your disposal at the press of a button is that it’s a prisoners’ dilemma. Even with these new interactions, random shootings will be common and other players will be something to avoid. After all, if you don’t kill this guy now, he might turn around and kill you. This is what led to griefing, and this is what Rockstar so unelegantly solves with the defensive and offensive playstyles. This leads us to:


Step 3: Separate the shooter from the sandbox

To make sure players are more likely to interact in varied and fun ways and less likely to open fire without question, you must disincentivize firing. Firing is made to easy by the game mechanics for the sandbox to fully flourish.

Let’s turn back to RDR2’s vibrant sandbox and its random encounters. What is remarkable is that very, very few of these encounters open with violence or even contain violence, even though shooting is as easy in RDR2 as in RDO. The man who tries to steal your horse does not kill you first; the lady who needs to be brought back to a town doesn’t kill you; even gangs who try to rob you don’t start out trying to kill you. Straight up attempts to murder you are very rare. The player could resort to violence at any time with one button, but NPC’s very rarely did. Unfortunately, in Online, the players are the NPC’s, and for Online to keep the emergent charm of RDR2, that reluctance ot use violence should be incentivized.

So, my proposal is this. Split up the PVP and the sandbox. I think the most interesting to do this would be to introduce Lawless Zones in uninhabited areas far from towns, such as the desert in New Austin, Ambarino, Tall Trees, certain area’s of Bayou Nwa and Roanoke, etc. In these Lawless Zones, combat works as it does now in offensive play style and is financially rewarding.

Outside of these Lawless Zones, you should punish griefing, incentivize non-lethal violence and a slow escalation of violence.

Punish Griefing

  • Initiating lethal combat without escalation first (see below) incurs bounties

  • Player bounties get posted on the bounty board

  • Players can claim your bounties in full by bringing you in alive, half by killing you.

  • Players with a bounty below $20 cannot be locked on to, but those with more than a $20 can be locked on.

  • Players can set a near invincible law posse on you by paying a small sum.

  • Killing a non-aggressive player who was unarmed or did not return fire has a 1/5th chance of spawning a near invincible law posse near you.

  • Getting killed by law posses cause you to lose money

Incentivize non-lethal violence

  • Robbing a player is lucrative only if the victim remains alive.

  • Handing in a player bounty is twice as lucrative if the target is alive.

  • Looting a hogtied player gains a small sum, but dead players can’t be looted.

Incentivize a slow escalation of violence

  • Antagonizing another player is hilarious

  • Antagonizing another player twice means they can fist-fight you with no bounty

  • Antagonizing another player three times means they can initiate lethal combat with no bounty

  • If another player defuses in response to you, your challenge has effectively been denied

  • Antagonizing is effectively an invitation to fight, but formal gunslinger duels should also be added

But reducing the itch in players’ trigger fingers is only part of the problem. Cooperative alternatives need to be clearly introduced.

Step 4: Incentivize players to positively interact with each other

Making shootings less likely is only fun if there are other interactions to fill up the gap. Really, these interactions should encourage positive interaction. In Journey, players just being together recharges both of their energy. Journey allows no other communication with players and yet is one of the most wholesome and positive multiplayer experiences around.

So:

Add a one-button sign of good-will

  • Boost another player’s cores
  • Heal their horse
  • Throw them ammo
  • This should be done with no cost to the initiating player. It should be as effortless as shooting.

Expand the communication functionality

  • When two players greet each other, they effectively enter an informal posse. Their dots will remain visible for 15 minutes and they get alerted to activities and invited to missions the other engages in.

  • Add online-specific dialogue choices, perhaps instead of the emote menu, including

    • Call/Ask for Help
    • Follow me
    • Thank you

Allow players to trade items

Allow flavour interactions

  • meaningless gameplay-wise but which could be bonding, such as allowing players to start singing songs on their horses like Arthur does in RDR2, where others can join in with one button press (like the Team Fortress 2’s conga dance)

Step 5: Turn players into each other’s random encounters

This is really the key to facilitating emergent content. Part of what made RDR2 so amazing is the incredible variety of random encounters throughout the map and the many ways the player could interact with these. They aren’t scripted missions but just occur organically as the player explores the world.

Now, a human player is capable of far more varied and unpredictable decision-making than an encounter designer can make an NPC. RDO is brimming with potential for players to be the random encounters of other players.

Yesterday while playing Online I thought I stumbled across a random encounter when I saw someone fly through the window of the Valentine saloon. Turns out it was just a guy brawling. It was a surprising and fun thing to see more. The thing is, of course, that that brawl was pointless. He just did it for fun. But it would be incredibly easy to incentivize players with small rewards to start more brawls or other interesting scripted-encounter-like activities. It is much easier to tell a player “You’ll get $10 if you punch three people in the Valentine saloon in the next two minutes” than it is to script a brawl. USE THIS, ROCKSTAR

With murder not the most straightforward interaction and new types of communication as well as cooperative and competitive interaction possible, running into another player would already be more interesting. But RDR2’s random encounters are far from people just doing something at you. Very often, they are like little plays the player can choose to participate in in various ways. They serve two purposes: they make the world more alive/the game more surprising, as well as offering interesting choices to the player.

What Rockstar should do is incentivize players to play out actions similar to such scripted occurrences.

I can think of three of such incentives that could relatively easily be added. I call them opportunities, challenges, and jobs. For almost all of these it should be possible for another player to JOIN IN, where you both gain the reward, or to INTERFERE, where they attempt to stop you or hand you in to the sheriff.


OPPORTUNITIES

Opportunities are actions that players can take at any time. They require no prompting; them just being there is the prompt. For example, allowing players to rob stores. As in RDR2, robbing a store would not be a scripted or prompted event; it is just something a player can do at any time. Some examples of opportunities are:

  • Robbing a store

  • Robbing a rich NPC (make robbing high-end NPC’s lucrative)

  • Robbing coaches

  • Robbing trains

  • Stealing horses

  • Cattle rustling

  • Taming wild horses

  • Collecting player bounties (and manually putting bounties on other players)

Rockstar should make most of these lucrative – more lucrative than hunting, for example. Then again I think everything in the game should be twice as lucrative.


CHALLENGES

Challenges are specific prompts that a player may get when another player is in the vicinity. Completing challenges may unlock cosmetic items, boosts, or a cash reward depending on difficulty. Challenges should incentivize behaviour that is interesting both to perform and to see, but that standard sandbox mechanics do not incentivize. Some examples:

  • Antagonize 10 NPC’s

  • Start a bar fight

  • Jump from roof to roof three times

  • Get drunk and fall over

  • Punch a horse

  • Shoot passing birds

  • Hogtie someone and leave them on the railroad

  • Drag someone behind your horse 50 meters

  • Shoot out 5 town windows while masked

These are pretty straightforward challenges, but they would play out effectively like scripted sequences, like a play or a vignette in the eyes of another player. Depending on whether a challenge is illegal, passing players could help you and share the reward or hand you into the sheriff’s office for a small reward.


JOBS

Jobs are simple missions without cutscenes or instanced levels. Although more straightforward than challenges, they should still be interesting to witness. Jobs should be posted on a Job Board much like a Bounty Board.

  • Kidnapping jobs. This job selects a random town NPC to kidnap and take to a place out of town.

  • Deliveries. These should be short drives with carts. Other players can choose to help or try to steal the cart (although they will attempt to avoid murdering you). This would be much like the trader role missions, but less frustrating since if your cart is stolen, you do not lose hours of invested time.

  • Illegal deliveries. Drives with carts with moonshine where the law chases you.

  • Assassination jobs. This job selects a random town NPC to kill in a specific manner: with no witnesses, with a ton of witnesses, with a gun, knife, by strangling, etc.

  • Bounty jobs. A bounty job is not like a regular bounty; it does not require you to gun down 15 bodyguards. It selects a random NPC just out of town and charges you to bring them in.

  • Run-out-of-town-jobs. Selects a random NPC to get out of town, however you like.

  • Race jobs. Challenge another player to a race. They can decline, but you’ll be rewarded for just challenging them.

  • Duel jobs. Challenge another player to a duel. They can decline (if they’re cowards), but you’ll be rewarded just for challenging them.

  • Terrorize jobs. Make at least 10 NPC’s run away in short succession.

  • Demolition jobs. Detonate dynamite at specific locations.

  • Arson jobs. Detonate fire bottles at specific locations.

  • Prisoner transport. Take a prisoner from one town to another. (Also let players do jail time for their bounty for 2 seconds per dollar).

  • Bodyguard jobs. Escort a rich NPC on the way to the next town. Other players may attempt to rob him.

Etc.

I also think Rockstar could add roles or tweak the existing roles to be more geared towards producing player-driven random encounters. A trapper role would be both historically cool as well as open up the possibility for other players to walk into animal traps and require help.

Other tweaks are thinkable. If a player’s horse is outside normal whistling range but another player is within normal horse whistling range, don’t spawn the horse but let the stranded player ask for a ride into town, and generously reward the other player if they do so. Otherwise just spawn the horse as normal.


CONCLUSION


Somewhere inside Red Dead Online is the best western game you’ve ever seen. I think with some of these ideas it could become a little more of a reality. I believe that if Rockstar does these things, they truly have a game for the ages.

The changes to how players interact require voice acting and a pretty big budget. But the changes to the behaviour the game rewards, in the form of the proposed challenges and jobs, would be remarkably simple. Both of them would be the right call for Rockstar to make. It would both make free roam more interesting, as well as be an investment in the longevity of Online on Rockstar’s part. If Rockstar can make players each other’s source of fun and surprising gameplay content, the longevity of RDO is less dependent on them constantly developing new content.

Thank you if you made it this far.

Also, how do I get this feedback to Rockstar.

Source: Original link


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