For about three weeks, Rockstar’s virtual depiction of the Wild West felt tamer. Where once the frontier would bustle with people, it suddenly lay still. You were only likely to bump into three to four strangers, at most, during an average two to three hour session.
Why the change? It all came about after an update on August 24 seemingly shrunk Red Dead Online‘s lobbies. Players didn’t know if it was an intended feature or an unwanted glitch by Rockstar, but either way, plenty felt like its effect was to resolve many of the western game’s myriad problems.
One of the more constant points of praise was how much more smoothly everything ran. There was less lag, and events would work as it felt like they ought. While Red Dead Online’s Naturalist update improved the spawn rates for regular animals, the legendary ones could still be funky, which was a problem when the game was more crowded. “The game doesn’t function properly with high player-count lobbies,” Magnar, a mod for Red Dead Online’s subreddit, tells us. “When events spawn, they typically only spawn in one place at a time, so if you have 30 players in a lobby the chances of you being able to get into an RNG event are super low. However, with lower player-counts, you can get them pretty reliably. Other things, such as animal spawns, are higher in lower player-count lobbies too.”
For others, being able to explore a vast open plain without being sucker-punched and hogtied was an important feature of the more idyllic 1899 America they wanted to spend time with. “As a solo player, I prefer the smaller lobbies,” a Red Dead Redemption 2 streamer called SwolTV tells me. “I enjoy doing my own thing and working on my grind without the threat of other players. Don’t get me wrong, a tussle here and there is a nice way to break things up, but ultimately I’d prefer to be left alone and work on making money and levelling up without some random players interfering with my flow.”
Red Dead Online’s smaller lobbies are still intact today, but have become infrequent on PC after another update dropped on September 16. Several players we’ve spoken to say it’s been more noticeable on PC, but that lobby sizes in general have become “hit or miss”.
“Some lobbies seem fuller than others, but overall they haven’t been as full as they were before the most recent update,” Swol says. “That goes for both PC and console.”
Magnar adds: “For PC the first few lobbies were all full. But it seems they’re slightly smaller again, though not as consistently small as they were pre-update. Console lobbies are all still empty.”
We reached out to Rockstar to ask about the small lobbies and whether they were intentional or the result of a bug, but at the time of writing, we’ve not heard back.
Regardless of their frequency, though, Red Dead Redemption 2’s small lobbies do raise one question – where are the private ones? Red Dead Online has seen the usual acts of mod menu griefing that GTA Online has, but the difference between the two is that players of the latter game can retreat to private spaces when things get overwhelming.
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Earlier this year Red Dead Online mod menu sellers managed to figure out a way to manipulate gold bars and bypass Rockstar’s microtransactions, leading to a subtle boom in their trade. This had a direct effect on players as griefers dropped random treasure chests around the map in a bid to get innocent players tripped up by the developer’s anti-cheat. Following the killing of George Floyd and the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, mod menu users posed as the KKK to pursue anyone and everyone.
“Menus have been a huge issue since launch with seemingly no action from Rockstar,” Magnar says. “The small lobbies help a little with the problem, as the random modders you encounter who try to grief whole lobbies aren’t seen as often. However, those who try to harass other players/snipe streamers can still do that, as they use Rockstar IDs to force themselves into lobbies and can’t be avoided.”
As Magnar says, mod menu sellers have recently figured out how to obtain other players’ sensitive information and have used it to harass and impersonate streamers. Two streamers who spoke to us recently say they were framed for things they hadn’t done and left unable to work, as griefers continuously knocked their internet offline.
We reached out HazardousHDTV and Swol again to see how their situations had changed and whether smaller lobbies had been of benefit. For Swol, things have improved to the point he’s been able to play on PC again, but he’s not sure “if the smaller lobbies have anything to do with that or if [the mod menu users] just got bored and moved on to something else”.
Hazardous, on the other hand, is more confident in the role smaller lobbies have played in quieting things down. “That one guy is still on his crusade, but I think the lobby sizes play a part in diluting the reach of the modders,” he says. “They also may be bored now.”
Both are, however, confident in the role private lobbies would play in making Red Dead Redemption 2 a more welcoming place to everyone. “I think the majority of players in Red Dead Online are looking for a more laid-back experience,” Swol explains. “This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, we’ll shoot if we have to but we ain’t looking for war. I think it would bring a lot of players back and keep a lot of others in the game.
“Unfortunately, Rockstar encourages players to attack each other, especially when one of them is trying to deliver a wagon full of goods for a large payout. Rockstar wants players to be discouraged after losing such a windfall, as it promotes more potential microtransaction purchases.
“However, I believe this type of discouragement pushes a lot of players out of the game altogether rather than increasing Rockstar’s bottom line. The option for solo or smaller lobbies would be more welcoming, especially for new players, and would ultimately result in more people playing the game.”
Hazardous explains the availability of private lobbies would also prove attractive to those who are still on the fence about the game’s smaller lobbies. While others have found them to come with a raft of benefits, some do miss the social advantages of more populated servers.
“[Private lobbies wouldn’t] take away from the public lobby experience because there is still a vocal portion of the playerbase that thinks the game is better off with fuller lobbies – even at the cost of game stability and performance,” he says. “And, as a side note, as this applies to the PC players, [private lobbies would give them] an escape from the cheaters and modders who lobby-surf, create chaos and havoc, and then leave and move onto the next session.”
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While Rockstar hasn’t mentioned if it has any plans to introduce private lobbies, there could be some hope. Magnar sends me a picture that players have datamined, which depicts UI elements for private lobbies. We reached out to Rockstar to see if the developer had anything to say, but again, have yet to hear back.
While the calls for private lobbies feel louder now, they’ve been there since Red Dead Redemption 2 launched. As Magnar spends lots of their time tending to the open-world game’s community, we ask if private lobbies would be a good thing.
“I think private lobbies give all players what they want,” Magnar says. “Those who want to play with friends, play alone, or join events that random players can’t interrupt or grief, can do that. Those who wish for player interaction and to engage in PvP and that sort of thing can do so in public lobbies.
“The lobby options were one of the greatest strengths in GTA Online. It has baffled many of us why Rockstar chose to remove them in Red Dead Online, especially considering RDO PvE isn’t actually playable in full lobbies, only in smaller ones. Only PvP works in big lobbies.”
To be clear, Magnar means PvE isn’t as good – due to lag, griefers, and so on – in smaller lobbies, rather than that it’s ‘literally unplayable’, as the saying goes. Regardless, though, Red Dead Online would benefit from the choice of playing alone, with a few friends, or among a bigger crowd of strangers.
There’s a certain charm to Rockstar emulating the ebb and flow of the Wild West by incentivising players to prey upon others trying to do menial tasks. What’s the point, though, if it’s coming at the expense of people enjoying the game?
Even past the odd bandit hijacking your cart, mod menu users have also taken the fantasy to unintended levels by griefing others. The smaller lobbies may be a temporary respite for some, but it’s by no means a permanent solution for everyone.