VALENTINE – Rain soaked a forest path outside this cattle town in New Hanover’s Heartlands region as a rider on a horse named Skidaddle pulled out the rifle slung across her back to plug a passing rabbit.
The rider – a mud-smeared redhead in a buckskin vest and black cowboy hat – grumbled to a USA TODAY reporter tagging along that Valentine’s butcher would give her next to nothing for a pelt in such blasted condition.
She and the reporter could have robbed trains or hijacked stagecoaches during the hour they spent together online in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a video game set in a fictional but stunningly realistic version of 1890’s America. Instead, the redhead – who is actually Mutahar Anas, a 24-year-old film editor and video game streamer playing from Toronto – harvested animal pelts and fished bluegill from a river, relatively mundane tasks considered the best way to make a decent living in a virtual world with a frustrating economic system.
“It literally feels like work,” Anas complained after Skidaddle had been loaded with several pelts and an elk carcass. “And I’m just going to have to keep doing it.”
“Red Dead Redemption 2” (or RDR2) was released as a single-player open world game in October and in its first three days earned $725 million in sales, making it one of the biggest launches of an entertainment product in history. Critics and gamers hailed the game as a masterpiece and work of art exhibiting an unyielding commitment to realism.
But after Rockstar Games, the company behind RDR2, last week unlocked a beta version of “Red Dead Online,” a multiplayer expansion of the game last week, many of its fans have mercilessly lambasted the company for what they decried as an economy that seems designed to eventually force gamers to use real world money to balance it out. As a result, players who once marveled over intricate details – like how the horses physically responded to weather changes – now post rants online about the price of a virtual can of beans.
“This online economy is a mess,” is a common refrain from RDR2 gamers on the website Reddit, where commenters have compared it to the dire, real-life situation in modern Venezuela.
The online game’s missions pay out a period-appropriate pittance, they say, but the items for sale – which can be anything from varmint rifles to hair pomade – are oppressively priced.
Disgruntled players on Reddit have become amateur historians and economists, digging up century-old ads to prove that a Mauser pistol only cost $35 in 1899, roughly one-thirtieth of what the online game charged at launch. Others have used inflation calculators to ridicule the price of goods, such as RDR2’s virtual can of baked beans, which at $1.20 in the game would equate to nearly $40 in today’s real dollars.
Everything costs so much fake money that rather than enjoying the missions and other aspects of the game, players say they turned full-time to “grinding” – hunting and fishing for hours in order to scrape themselves out of poverty. During the virtual visit to Valentine, the grimy town butcher had a constant line at his stand to pawn animal skins and carcasses, bringing to mind a soup queue during the Great Depression.
“The game might look good, but you tell me – is this what you want to be spending your time doing?” Anas asked. His redhead received $38.44 from the butcher for her efforts, not even a dent in the cost of the thousand-dollar Mauser pistol sitting like an unattainable bauble in the gun shop’s catalog.
Rockstar, whose parent company is the New York-based Take-Two Interactive, has pointed out that the game’s online version is still in beta mode. On Thursday, the company responded to the criticism by reducing in-game costs, increasing gameplay rewards and even issuing gifts and refunds to players who had paid the previous exorbitant prices for goods.
Rockstar did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in a post on Rockstar’s web site Thursday, the company said that the changes were the “first set of adjustments” to the online game “geared towards creating a more balanced, fun and rewarding overall experience, across all modes and missions.”
But the controversy is indicative of broader issues in the industry that aren’t going away. Video games are becoming increasingly online-based, which means the financial transaction doesn’t need to end after someone plunks down $60 for a disc. The potentially limitless opportunities for downloading additional game content range from a prequel that feels like a whole new game to something frivolous such as horse armor.
Often it works, and players happily spend more money to add a new chapter or episode to a hit game or to customize a character. But in some cases, the dynamic can leave gamers feeling like developers are specifically engineering games to make them unplayable unless they constantly shell out money for a game they already bought.
Rockstar has not yet introduced to “Red Dead Online” the ability to complete microtransactions, the term for in-game purchases in which players can pay for online goods with real money. Critics have derided microtransactions as turning the meritocracy of video gaming on its head, especially when the games involve player-vs-player battles. For example, a player willing to spend real money to upgrade from a pistol to a tank could have an advantage over someone who tries to earn the upgrade by completing tasks within the game.
Some “Red Dead Online” players have theorized that the game economy’s hyperinflation was setting the table for those willing to skip the endless hunting and fishing grind by simply entering their credit card information for that brand new Mauser.
The company continues to make a fortune on microtransactions off of its other massive and ongoing hit, “Grand Theft Auto V,” a game that was first released in 2013. On top of roughly $6 billion Rockstar earned from retail game revenue, it has reaped an additional $1.5 billion in “GTA Online” microtransactions as players bought supercars and helicopters, according to Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities and a longtime video game industry analyst.
But players should be open-minded and realize that the game is still in beta testing mode, Pachter says. Other popular games, even longtime hit World of Warcraft had some initial bad reviews, he says. “They fixed everything people didn’t like as they went,” Pachter said. “I am certain (Rockstar is) going to fix it and this is making a mountain out of a mole hill.”
Game designers and publishers have a vested interest in tweaking an online game to suit its gamers, says Scott Steinberg, trends expert for consulting and research firm TechSavvy Global and founder of Select Magazine: Your Cities Secrets Unlocked. “However, anytime you introduce economics into a game – let alone one of this size, scale, and popularity – they’re going to be subject to extreme scrutiny, especially coming from a developer and publisher of Rockstar’s profile and pedigree,” he said.
Criticism about games seems to be growing. The outcry over “Red Dead Online” follows other recent video game kerfuffles, including gamers last month flooding Metacritic with negative reviews of recently released game “Fallout 76” and rioting on social media and during the real-world unveiling of the upcoming multiplayer mobile “Diablo Immortal” at the Blizzcon convention.
Complaints about the glitches in “Fallout 76” are “legit,” Pachter said. But in the case of the “Diablo” announcement, gamers are “complaining because they wanted something else,” he said.
Thanks to the internet, everyone has a venue to vent. But that doesn’t mean they should, Pachter said. “I don’t mean all gamers are entitled whiny little babies. There is a very, very vocal 2 percent who are really whiny and there’s probably 10 percent who kind of feel the same way and don’t whine,” he said. “But most people scratch their heads and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
The injection of real money into virtual worlds has created significant financial, ethical and legal dilemmas for game makers. “Red Dead Online” players suspect the online version has two systems of currency – dollars and gold bars, the latter which are extremely difficult to accumulate and will likely be purchasable through microtransactions – so that poker and blackjack can be introduced into online play without the developers being accused of establishing an illegal gambling platform.
And last week, Federal Trade Commission chairman Joe Simons said his agency would investigate “loot boxes,” randomized prize packages online players can pay for in many games that critics have compared to gambling. International Game Developers Association executive director Jen MacLean responded to the probe by calling for the game industry to create a standard approach to loot boxes.
“We cannot ignore the fact that video games face increased scrutiny, concern, and regulation because of their immersive nature,” MacLean wrote in a letter to the video game industry.
Take-Two’s president Karl Slatoff has said that he does not consider loot boxes to be gambling, though the company has not disclosed whether it plans to introduce them to “Red Dead Online.”
Some game developers have turned to experts to grapple with the implications of a massive virtual economy. The video game company Valve hired a well-known scholar, Yanis Varoufakis, as its economist-in-residence in 2012. A few years later, he went on to become Greece’s Minister of Finance.
The space simulation game “Eve Online” also employed an economist to navigate such concepts as money supply and mineral distribution across its more than 7,000 virtual solar systems.
The game, with 300,000 players, had one of the industry’s more dramatic showdowns over microtransactions. In 2011, gamers who were angry that their finely-tuned meritocracy would potentially be undermined by those who were able to purchase advantages over others with real dollars staged an online riot by occupying a trading station in the game and firing nonstop on a statue. The riot ended when the game’s developers agreed to hedge any microtransactions that might give a paying player an advantage.
Hilmar Petursson, the CEO of “Eve Online” parent company, Iceland-based CCP games, called it “our Occupy Wall Street moment.” Instead of microtransactions, his company recoups revenue in part through subscriptions and a tax on players trading with each other. The statue that players shot up remains destroyed as a virtual “monument,” as Petursson describes it, to a seminal event in the game’s history.
Petursson said it appeared that the creators of “Red Dead Online” are dealing with similar growing pains. But while he handled his insurgency in the relative obscurity of a gaming niche, the critical acclaim surrounding “Red Dead Redemption 2″ and its online expansion means “they are obviously doing it on a very large stage.”
Rockstar’s concessions on Thursday afternoon ensured that, at least for now, there will be no riots in the virtual streets of Valentine.
Among its fixes was, for those who had played the online beta version up to that point, a “gift” of $250 in game dollars and 15 gold bars. After Rockstar made the announcement, Anas – the Canadian man moonlighting online as a deadly redhaired outdoorswoman – logged back on to check out his cut of that economic stimulus package. Including a partial refund for money he had spent on a rifle and bow, he had $260 newly deposited in his virtual bank account.
Anas was happy with the bonus and the more balanced economy but skeptical that Rockstar wouldn’t later on figure out how to coerce players to engage in microtransactions on the billion-dollar-plus scale seen in “GTA Online.” “Right now it’s sort of that public PR let’s-sweep-this-under-the-rug thing,” Anas said.
He also acknowledged, though, that he was at no point anywhere close to abandoning the online version of the game. He admitted he had come to enjoy joining a friend to track big game in the snow-covered mountains north of Valentine, even if they almost froze to death because they can’t afford warm clothes.
He said, in a begrudging nod to Rockstar’s acumen: “When you find a point where the consumer complains but they still partake, it’s like that perfect business point.”
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Follow USA TODAY reporters Gus Garcia-Roberts and Mike Snider on Twitter: @GGarciaRoberts & @MikeSnider.