It surprises me that despite the widespread contempt for microtransactions, Grand Theft Auto V and its GTA Online mode essentially received a free pass. Despite representing one of the most egregious examples of pay-to-win (or at least "pay-to-get-better-stuff-than-other-players") in a video game, GTA Online's Shark Cards have been widely accepted by its player base, with criticisms of the game paling in comparison to those leveled at the likes of Star Wars Battlefront 2. This makes me nervous about how Rockstar will handle the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2.
Rockstar recently debuted a new 'Orbital Cannon' that allows players to use real money to kill players anywhere on the map. By laying down some cold hard cash, you can effectively order a "hit" on a player (or group of players) and take them out. Griefers with cash to blow can use this to force players to die in-game, and it's an odd item to introduce to a game that has already been criticized for granting too much of an advantage to those with cash to blow. It's also perhaps indicative of the direction Red Dead Redemption 2 is headed in.
Red Dead Redemption 2 will be a decisive game for the future of microtransactions in the industry. Unlike EA, Rockstar is a beloved company that has skirted around criticisms from gamers by virtue of its reputation. GTA Online is littered with greediness, but will a blind eye be turned if similar tactics are employed for the studio's next game?
Red Dead Online has already been confirmed. While we don't know much about it, it'll likely follow in the footsteps of GTA Online by presenting an open-ended take on the game's sandbox, littered with opportunities for players to spend real money on in-game items. While microtransactions fit into GTA V's world of luxury and excess, it's uncertain how Red Dead Online will handle them. Will we be able to buy a golden carriage? Don an oversized and ostentatious cowboy hat? Or perhaps fit fresh rims onto our horse?
Though the specifics of Red Dead Online may remain a mystery at this point, whatever Rockstar has up its sleeve will likely set a new standard for how the gaming industry will approach microtransactions. EA pushed the boat out too far with Battlefront 2, but it's arguable that the negative public perception of the company led to an increase in the criticisms it received. We've already seen Rockstar wring cash from out of its players' every orifice with GTA V and get away with it, so Red Dead Redemption 2 could well receive a similarly muted response.
Rockstar's parent company Take-Two has already outlined plans to bring microtransactions to Red Dead Redemption 2. In an investor call, CEO Strauss Zelnick revealed that microtransactions had accounted for 42% of the company's "net bookings."
“We aim to have recurrent consumer spending opportunities for every title that we put out at this company,” Zelnick said. “It may not always be an online model, it probably won’t always be a virtual currency model, but there will be some ability to engage in an ongoing basis with our titles after release across the board.”
If Red Dead Online mimics the pernicious microtransactions of GTA V's multiplayer component, then the extent of the backlash to this will inform other publishers of how much they can get away with. Zelnick's comments indicate that Red Dead Online will likely adopt the Games as a Service model, seeing the game continuing to rake in cash by way of encouraging "recurrent consumer spending," as Zelnick put it in the call.
Whatever direction Rockstar opts to go in, Red Dead Redemption 2 will sell like hotcakes — unlike EA and Star Wars Battlefront 2, the company needn't worry that microtransactions will turn swathes of people off the game. Even if players aren't on board with its multiplayer offering, they're still going to invest in it for its single-player. It's the most highly-anticipated game of this console generation so far, so even if we all take to the rooftops and bleat endlessly about its in-game purchases, there will be no mass boycott. We're all going to buy this game, and Rockstar / Take-Two knows it.
Much of the controversy surrounding modern microtransactions involves loot boxes. While there have been complaints levied in the direction of overpriced DLC for years, loot boxes were the straw that broke the camel's back. GTA Online doesn't feature loot boxes, but instead adopts an approach that's more in line with an MMO — you can inject real money into the game in order to increase your enjoyment of its open world. Players can buy houses, flash cars, and private jets, investing cash to improve their virtual surroundings.
GTA Online didn't need loot boxes because its other microtransactions proved popular enough without them. Take-Two president Karl Slatoff has spoken out in support of loot boxes, stating that they "are not gambling" amid the furor surrounding Battlefront 2 last year, which could be indicative of the direction Red Dead Redemption 2 is heading in.
If RDR Online is to follow the same route as GTA Online, the multiplayer component won't even be introduced to the game until post-launch, meaning that it will already be in the hands of consumers and will have evaded criticisms of its microtransactions at launch. Rockstar is sitting on a gold mine and the extent to which they funnel microtransactions into Red Dead Redemption 2 is, realistically, entirely up to them.
RDR 2 is going to be a success either way, so if Rockstar wants to wring every dollar out of its players, then it can do just that. As such, Red Dead Online will be an important milestone for microtransactions in games. We can only hope that Rockstar doesn't follow suit with EA and push the industry closer to the Dark Side.