By the time it launched on PC, Red Dead Redemption 2 had been out for a year on consoles. Despite all the good I'd heard about the singleplayer story, and the memories I had of enjoying the first Red Dead Redemption years before, the only thing on my mind was saddling up for Red Dead Online. Several friends and I spent months engrossed in the nightly routine of hunting, digging for treasures, wrangling bounties, and everything else RDO has to offer. It was, and still is, a giant world full of beautiful vistas and also a perfect vehicle for group shenanigans and late night Discord calls.
If you're headed onto the trail for the first time, it will last you the same several months that it did us, if not more. For those that stick around, Red Dead Online is like those grizzlies up in northern Ambarino. RDO is majestic and dangerous, full of multiple seasons of missions and rewards. A chill has come in on the wind in 2021, though. RDO has settled in to keep warm with all that old content through the lean winter months. While I'm sure it will wake up in the spring, I just hope that Rockstar is planning to feed this beast again when it does.
The first steps into the frontier
When it debuted on PC via Rockstar's launcher in November 2019, Red Dead Redemption 2 struggled with performance issues, crashes, and bugs. Things were a bit too wild in the West initially. Issues persisted into January, when it launched on Steam. For me and my friends, it didn't matter. We pushed through annoying visual hiccups and crashes and posse-joining bugs because there was just so much of Red Dead Online to see. My screenshots folder from December 2019 is equal parts stunning views and egregious graphical glitches, and I was constantly sharing both with friends.
The giant Frontier Pursuits update that released on console earlier in 2019 was available immediately on PC, meaning we had three major jobs' worth of quests and ranks to climb. We barely had time to scratch the surface of becoming Traders and Bounty Hunters and Collectors before another big job dropped in our lap.
Red Dead Online added the Moonshiner role in December 2019, with new missions and properties and rewards to earn. Shortly after that, the winter update blanketed the entire West in snow. We kept busy with a lengthy Outlaw Pass of rewards, still working our way to max level in all four jobs along with unlocking fashionable outfits throughout our main character level tracks.
By spring, players had started feeling a bit antsy. It had been over half a year since the major Moonshiners update. Thanks likely in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, players had chewed through the Moonshiner role and the second Outlaw Pass and were hungry for more without Rockstar giving any indication of when another major update might arrive.
Cue the clown protests.
Exasperated players dressed up as clowns in a bit of goofy self-deprecation while waiting for new activities in RDO. We got lucky on timing, it turned out. The Naturalist role was introduced just weeks after the wild west clown conventions. It added a compendium of animals to study, legendary animals to track, more ranks, and rewards.
The seven-month wait for the Naturalist role now feels quaint. The next 12 months after July 2020 brought a Halloween Outlaw Pass and activities similar to the year before, the standalone Red Dead Online release in December, and then the Blood Money update in July—a smaller mission and story addition than the Naturalist role from the year prior.
In December, Rockstar announced that the winter update for Red Dead Online would bring back the snow from past years along with sales on premium items, cash and XP bonuses, and some new maps for one of the PvP modes.
The clowns didn't bother coming to town this time.
The Grand Theft shadow
On December 7, Rockstar detailed the mostly restrained, smaller update for Red Dead Online without news of any bigger update on the horizon. The next day, it announced that Grand Theft Auto Online would be adding new missions featuring singleplayer protagonist Franklin and new music from Dr. Dre.
Players are worried that these back-to-back announcements are proof of Rockstar's focus. In 2021 we've gotten the GTA Trilogy Remastered releases, multiple updates to GTA Online, and some new rumors about development on the unannounced GTA 6. Rockstar has also confirmed that the next-gen console update for GTA 5 will launch in March. Red Dead Online players are understandably discouraged, as are its dedicated content creators. So am I.
No one expected Red Dead to outgrow the long shadow of Grand Theft Auto, I doubt. I certainly didn't. However, every new GTA Online update highlights how much of Red Dead Redemption 2 is still laying on the table. Multiple activities from the singleplayer campaign have yet to make the jump to Red Dead Online. Rockstar added legendary animal hunting with the Naturalist role, but things like wild horse wrangling still only exist offline. I hope we'll see some of those things arrive in RDO, but Rockstar continues to be quiet about future plans so the entirety of 2022 is foggier than the mornings in Bluewater Marsh.
Playing Red Dead Online today
Despite dwindling hope for big updates, Red Dead Online remains as expansive and gorgeous as ever. Even returning this winter, nothing about Red Dead Online has diminished due to its lack of major updates. The views I marvelled at two years ago are just as screenshot-worthy, and the hours upon hours of different roles and missions to tackle are readily available. The western sandbox is just as capable of producing unscripted horse crashes, accidental pistol duels, and the glorious desert storms I first enjoyed. All that without the mountain of bugs I originally trekked through.
While waiting for bigger news, players are showing their resilience. Although Steam player numbers can't tell the entire picture of a game that's also available through Rockstar's own launcher on PC and on consoles, numbers are holding steady according to SteamDB. The full version of Red Dead Redemption 2, including both singleplayer and multiplayer, has maintained around 20,000 concurrent players throughout 2020 and 2021. The standalone version of Red Dead Online regularly contributes around 5,000 concurrent players.
Those that have left the online scene are staying entertained, too. Some have re-created the much-loved original Red Dead Redemption expansion Undead Nightmare. Others have added parts of Mexico to the south edge of the map. Still others are keeping busy with roleplaying servers like Wild RP.
Even if player numbers do eventually begin to fall in 2022, Red Dead Online has long been a huge map scattered with a few players per server. Unlike other online games, Red Dead has always been a solo-able experience that thrives on the quiet moments between Blackwater shootouts. Bringing back the best experiences I've had only requires talking one or two friends into going on a hunting trip through Tall Trees together or an occasional legendary bounty mission. Without a new update to entice them though, the talking-into remains difficult.
After this winter's sparse update, it looks like Red Dead Online players may have another seven months to hunker down before Rockstar shares plans in July again. I just hope my fellow clowns will last that long.