Earlier this week, Take-Two Interactive’s CEO Strauss Zelnick announced that the highly-anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 will miss its originally-planned 2017 release window and arrive, instead, sometime in Q2, 2018. In the days since, the publisher has reiterated its faith in the project’s developer, Rockstar Games, and claimed the delay is necessary to ensure that standards of quality are met. That confidence is understandable. Rockstar Games remains one of the most respected and reliable development studios in existence, with each of the studio’s last five games scoring above a Metacritic average of 85. However, by the time Red Dead Redemption 2 releases next year, almost five years will have passed since the initial release of Grand Theft Auto V, suggesting significant problems in the developer’s workflow.
Although Rockstar Games is commonly referred to as a singular entity, the developer is, in fact, a multi-headed organisation with six core studios spread across the world and supported by three additional QA and localisation studios. As at Ubisoft, one team typically leads development on each title, with additional studios offering outsourced support where necessary. While Grand Theft Auto V was helmed by Rockstar North, the primary developer of Red Dead Redemption 2 is currently unidentified, though widely assumed to be Rockstar San Diego thanks to the team’s work on the previous Red Dead title. Although this studio contributed to GTA V, the primary focus has been RDR 2 since 2010, meaning the game will have enjoyed an eight-year development cycle on release. Confusing matters further, Rockstar San Diego is also the home of the RAGE Technology Group, the team that develops the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE), indicating high technical proficiency and ready support for any developmental issues that may arise. However, the sheer ambition of RDR 2 appears to be something of a sticking point.
In moving from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the developer took baby steps, using Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis as a proving ground for RAGE before scaling up. Midnight Club: Los Angeles came first, followed by Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, and the technical marvel of GTA V, each game more ambitious, impressive, and technologically demanding than the last. That pipeline has changed in the current generation. Rather than starting small, the developer went all-in, first porting the expansive GTA V to PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One as a way of proving the engine is current-generation ready, before unveiling the stunningly ambitious RDR 2 with an atmospheric trailer in October 2016. Then, silence fell. More than six months passed before the game was officially mentioned again in the delay’s announcement. A muted build-up is becoming something of a Rockstar tradition, but RDR 2’s postponement, alongside the protracted development period, raises concerns.
Since the release and stunning success of GTA V, Rockstar seems to have altered its focus. Once counted among the foremost creators of single-player adventures, Rockstar North apparently abandoned plans for ‘Episodes From Liberty City’-styled DLC for GTA V in favour of extending Grand Theft Auto Online through seemingly endless content. With that game recently passing a milestone of having shipped 80,000,000 copies, these efforts appear to be paying off, but the success also raises questions about the status of RDR 2. Perhaps the reason for the lengthy development is a mid-creation focal shift from single-player to multiplayer. If so, the project, and the broader future of Rockstar Games, may be suspect as the shifting sands of development have often proven a warning sign for the long-term security of franchises in the past. The ongoing identity crisis of Final Fantasy since XIII, Assassin’s Creed’s struggle for relevance beginning with Black Flag, and the widespread malaise towards Resident Evil between 2008 and 2016 can all be attributed to the developers losing sight of what made their games attractive to fans in the first place. Thankfully, outside of the announcement of Red Dead Online, no evidence of any such departure from the single-player focus of the previous game has emerged.
The sheer scale and technical prowess of RDR 2 is the most probable reason for the game’s lengthy development process, but ambition is not enough to sustain excitement. A developer is only as relevant as its previous game, and GTA V’s star is waning. Admittedly, RDR 2 is almost certain to put any immediate concerns aside, but rumblings about the next console generation have already begun, meaning that Rockstar Games—a team that collectively features one of the largest headcounts in the industry—will likely have time to release only a single follow-up before new consoles emerge. In the previous console generation, the team pushed out GTA IV early, refining that game’s foundations through subsequent titles before launching the masterpiece of GTA V. The delayed release of RDR 2 ensures that this approach cannot be replicated on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Despite this difficulty, a Bully/Canis Canem Edit sequel is heavily rumoured to be in development, and Grand Theft Auto VI is inevitable. Even so, the future of Rockstar Games may be bleaker than Take-Two and the rude fortunes of GTA V are letting on, as without the ability to launch games in a timely manner, the developer is in danger of being left behind, fading into insignificance while trying vainly to recreate the glories of its past.
While the continued popularity of Grand Theft Auto V ensures that Rockstar Games is in the best financial position in its history, the brand is on unsteadier ground than ever before. With Red Dead Redemption 2 pushed back to at least April 2018, the developer will have gone almost five years without a single new release, and the delay also forces subsequent projects to suffer, as announcing multiple projects simultaneously will cannibalise sales. However, doing so also means that developmental pipelines suffer and future projects will need to be made available on as-yet unannounced platforms, thus necessitating a retooling of vast code swathes and forcing further delays. Rockstar Games is, at present, among the most recognisable development studios on the planet, but reputation fades if not reinforced.