Rockstar Games’ Identity Crisis

Are they they masters of single player narrative? Or the makers of cash-grabbing multiplayer nonsense?

Official Red Dead Redemption II Promo Artwork,

The first Rockstar game that really grabbed me was GTA IV, and its successive expansions. It was unlike anything else I had ever played, and established Rockstar in my mind as the premiere developer of narrative-driven games.

Sure, I had played and enjoyed their earlier output. Yes, even their early top-down GTA games. And Bully. And Table Tennis.

But GTA IV kicked it all to a new level.

A sprawling, realistically-rendered city with a level of physics detail never-before-seen. A huge cast of well-acted and well-written characters. And a properly-structured narrative with real character arcs, containing a solid blend of human themes, action movie nonsense, and the overt satire Rockstar is most famous for.

It also had a weird multiplayer mode.

In that mode, you could run around as your own avatar across the game world with a handful of other players, then dive into more standard game modes like Deathmatch and vehicle races.

The single player campaign and its two expansions presented an epic trilogy of movie-style narratives at a budget and execution level unlike anything else in 2008. The multiplayer was a weird, fun side mode for those craving more of the gameplay.

This same dichotomy remained in 2010’s Red Dead Redemption…but the story got shorter and the multiplayer a little more involved.

Red Dead’s campaign mode was fraught with development struggles, and although the game did receive one single player expansion, it was a fun zombie side story spin-off thing, and not a meaningful addition to the plot.

Its multiplayer was a little more involved than GTA IV’s, but its interactive world was still ultimately an elaborate lobby for more constructed modes.

Still, it had persistent elements. It had small interactions with NPCs from the main storyline. It had more features tailored towards building a community. In the marketing, it was treated almost like a second game.

In 2013, with the release of GTA V, Rockstar’s multiplayer business fortunes exploded, and the balance between the two sides of their internal development got thrown into total upheaval…at least for a single player fan like me.

GTA V still offers an incredible campaign, claiming to tell an entire trilogy of stories through its trio of characters, but really just telling one solid typical Rockstar tale.

Its direct story connections to GTA IV are a bit of a personal bummer, dragging characters I liked back into personal despair I’d hoped they’d escaped. Its narrative as a whole is laced with a weird cynicism and brutality the previous game never quite touched.

And the multiplayer finally blossomed into a terrifying thing. A true business juggernaut.

Now, persistence was the order of the day.

GTA V’s multiplayer is somewhat akin to Second Life, but with constant explosions. You can create an avatar, own land, own cars, and lose it all to other players. You can participate in story-driven co-op content or competitive modes.

And you can spend lots of real money on things. If you want to.

People really wanted to.

Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most successful products ever created.

The game has made billions of dollars for its publisher Take Two. It’s one of only three games to sell over 100 million copies, and more significantly, got there far faster than the other two games on that list that have out-sold it.

None of this is because of the strength of the single player mode, but rather because the multiplayer became a phenomenon.

I really enjoyed the single player campaign in GTA V, and I bought the “next gen” remaster of the game so I could play it again in first person.

But the multiplayer is a baffling, hurtful, awful place to virtually live in unless you’re already established.

It’s full of experts who’ve played the game for six years, who can kill you without a second thought, and also the classic “12 year-olds swearing at everyone” before stealing all their money.

It’s a violent, nasty, unfriendly place, and although Rockstar eventually relented and added an invincibility flag you can turn on to protect yourself from griefers, be prepared to be shouted at if you use that mode.

The fastest way to get some footing and become a looter instead of a loot-ee is to spend real money.

It’s hard to win anything or defeat anyone with the starting gear, but better stuff is just a quick trip to your bank account away.

To its credit, the base GTA V gameplay holds up really well in the multiplayer. The gunplay is fast and fun, and the car driving is much more accessible than the weighty weirdness of GTA IV.

If you go in with some friends, you’ll have a better time too. So you’d better make sure you all buy new copies…

GTA V was supposed to get single player DLC, but it was quietly canned and all of its content has been rolled into the multiplayer instead. Ugh.

This massive online success both slowed down the pace of releases from Rockstar’s studios, and heavily influenced their latest juggernaut: Red Dead Redemption II.

Red Dead II contains Rockstar’s largest single player mode and Rockstar’s largest multiplayer mode.

They’re basically two different games, worked on by an absurd amount of people.

But now that the game is approaching its one year anniversary on the market, only the multiplayer mode is receiving any attention.

Just like GTA V, Red Dead II’s multiplayer has built up a massive money-spending community.

New content rolls out every month, and of course, many microtransactions are available to help you get a leg up. You can grind out a lot of the rewards, but it’ll take your entire life away.

Unlike GTA V, Red Dead II’s gameplay makes no sense in a multiplayer context.

The shooting and movement are slow, ponderous, and heavy. They add tremendous atmosphere to RDRII’s gut-wrenching and impressive single player campaign, but feel slow and clunky compared to other fun competitive shooters.

Yet, since millions of players were conditioned by GTA V’s success to think of Rockstar as a multiplayer company, Red Dead II is primarily a multiplayer game, at least in the eyes of their marketing department.

Its sprawling single player mode, unmatched visuals, and lengthy development cycle probably wouldn’t have been possible without GTA V’s explosive success.

And I’m happy that Rockstar is still making single player content.

But I also wonder how long they’ll keep after it, with how much money the multiplayer side brings in.

Analysts used to wonder if a console multiplayer game could bring in the massive recurring paying audience that World of Warcraft popularized.

Apparently they can as long as they’re made by Rockstar, or are called Fortnite.

Not every game has to be for me.

I don’t want that world. I have weird eclectic tastes and I’d never wish those on everyone.

But as much as Red Dead II is a triumph, it also makes me yearn for the days when Rockstar was a little leaner, pushing on their engine every couple of years instead of once a generation.

Last generation, Rockstar developed and released Table Tennis, GTA IV, Midnight Club 3, Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire, Max Payne 3, and GTA V.

They’re all incredible games, and though many had multiplayer modes, they also each pushed single player in new exciting directions.

Yes even Table Tennis. That game is a zen experience quite unlike any other tennis game.

This generation, they’ve remade GTA V and LA Noire, and released Red Dead II.

And they’ve collected a lot of cash for themselves and Take Two.

I know there’s no true incentive for them to do otherwise when this route has had such success. I know that some recent leadership shakeups at Rockstar mean it’s not quite the same company it was last generation.

But for me, they used to be untouchable pioneers of narrative-driven gameplay.

Now, they’re the guys that make microtransaction-laden multiplayer games with communities that just want to kill me and take my stuff.

And they also made an incredible, slow, ponderous, gorgeous, contemplative cowboy story that everyone stopped caring about around 11 months ago.

Rockstar’s narrative team used to enrich my life on a regular basis. Now they’re after cash and more multiplayer users. I get it, and they can do what they want.

It’s not up to me, and it shouldn’t be.

But I hope that Red Dead II’s nostalgic yearning for days past wasn’t also Rockstar secretly signaling fans that it was the death of their single player era.

I won’t be shocked if GTA IV blends the online mode into the campaign, creating a seamless nightmare where the ATM’s are directly connected to my real bank account.

This week Rockstar launched their own digital PC store and game launching software, throwing their hat in alongside Epic and Steam. Many expect this means the Red Dead games are finally PC bound.

I look forward to one more solitary ride in that lonely dusty world with more graphical details and shadows, and then I think I’m moving on.

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