A few months ago, I discovered the world of Red Dead Online roleplay. The possibility of interacting with other players and discovering mechanics in the world of RDO was an interesting diversion from the more traditional games I normally frequent. Certainly, I enjoyed my time there, but Red Dead RP has one serious problem: Not very many people play it. In fact, there are only a few well-established and serious RP servers out there, all of which require the player to pass an extensive application process simply to gain whitelisted access.
Still, the premise of a modded world with the sole purpose of RP held such promise that I decided to try my hand at the other Rockstar property, Grand Theft Auto. GTA RP is much more popular than Red Dead RP, thanks in part to many talented and well-known streamers who bring their own brand of comedy to the servers. It’s also my personal belief that the setting of GTAO being in a big city affords more opportunities for roleplay with others when compared to the sparsely populated countryside of Red Dead Online.
Since I’d had some (very little) RP experience in Red Dead, I decided to try to get into a whitelisted GTA server. The nice thing about whitelisted servers is that they generally hold some kind of quality expectation when it comes to RP. In other words, you can’t just go around ramming your car into people for no reason. Server admins have no qualms about revoking access for weeks at a time, or even permanently for repeated or egregious offenses.
The application I filled out had three or four questions relating to previous RP experience and an attempt to gauge whether I understood the server rules. After two weeks, I was rejected but provided with a few subtle hints about how I could improve my answers. I resubmitted, and as the normal two-week processing time nearly elapsed, they stopped processing applications. It would be another four weeks (six total) before I would receive my acceptance – my ticket onto the server.
If you’ve never witnessed GTA RP, it is a totally different kind of multiplayer experience. Players act through characters with distinct backstories and personalities, some very complicated and dramatic and some more akin to comedy improv. Being that this was my first try, I decided that my character was going to be more of a background extra. I didn’t necessarily want the pressure to “perform” in any major story arcs, nor would I have been very good at it. Still, even a side character needs a way to make a living, so I decided to apply for a job with Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
The EMS job is a pretty good fit for someone who doesn’t want to succumb to the criminal lifestyle favored by many GTA players. It affords many RP opportunities with players across the server and provides something to do at nearly all times, not to mention a built-in peer group with other medical characters. In many ways, it was the best job in the city.
The EMS department on my server is fairly serious. Candidates are hired on as trainees for a period of at least two weeks, during which time they ride along with senior members to treat patients under supervision and memorize/recite the Standard Operating Procedures that have been developed to ensure a consistent experience by other RPers on the server.
Once trained, a character can drive an ambulance alone and respond to emergency medical calls throughout the city. I’ll be honest, it’s a pretty good time. Patients range from deathly serious players looking to permadeath their characters to the silly person with the frog mask who fell off a roof chasing one of her friends around.
If you’ve never been around RP very much, the community interaction is unique. Not only do players need to keep in mind that others are playing characters (which may or may not share characteristics with the people behind the screen), but communication outside of the server is different than any other gaming community I’ve observed. Interactions can seem downright unhelpful as longtime players encourage people asking questions to “find out IC (in character)” to encourage server roleplay interactions. Some questions may go unanswered entirely as savvy veterans know that too much information may ruin the discovery experience of the newbie.
At this point of my RP experiment, things were going well. Despite having no previous experience, I had been accepted into a whitelisted server and had begun to integrate my character into the world with a new job and fresh acquaintances.
Then, something very interesting happened. The manager of the server called a community meeting and announced that he had partnered with a company that represented some of the more popular content creators in the game streaming industry. I had no idea what this meant but was assured that it would be good for the server. Further, we learned over the course of the next few weeks that the server would experience a wipe, which is apparently also common in RP environments to put everyone back on even ground from a financial perspective.
When the wipe hit, I logged back in to recreate my character. This I did without too much issue. I wandered over to the hospital to re-obtain my EMS position (we’d been promised our jobs back by hospital staff), and once I had everything settled, I logged back off again. It was around this same time that things started going haywire.
I noticed that I was being recommended more streaming channels for GTA RPers on my server. Some of them had a substantial number of viewers. Out of curiosity, I revisited the client list of the promotion company my server had partnered with. Sure enough, the biggest of the streamers were represented by them.
In short order, whitelist applications started pouring in. Free applications that had previously seen a two-week turnaround time were now listed as having no ETA. Paid applications that were once turned around within 24 hours were pushed out to 48 hours, then seven days. As more people discovered the server, the applications backlog continued to grow even as new whitelisted players flooded the server.
It was at this point that things started to feel a little icky. Priority applications had been available for some time and cost $20 per attempt. Priority applications guaranteed only faster processing, not acceptance, so it was very possible that a player could end up paying for basically nothing. And now that non-paid applications had been moved to no ETA, people who had filled out a free application were waiting months just to have their app reviewed. While free apps were technically still available, I got the impression that players really needed to pay for priority to have any hope of being able to enter the server within a reasonable amount of time.
Besides burying devs in applications, the number of whitelist approvals was causing the server itself to bulge at the seams. The server queue, which I had never witnessed pre-wipe, became a constant during peak NA hours. Players who had waited days or weeks for approval to get into the server were now waiting between two and six hours in the server queue provided they didn’t crash out due to some kind of server bug in the meantime.
Meanwhile, streamers acting as the face of the server were provided with queue priority so as not to disrupt their source of income. Queue priority was available to regular players too, for a price. Subscription tiers starting at $25/month and topping out at $250/month provided increasing amounts of queue priority that might cut an hour off your wait or provide instant access depending on who else in the queue had paid for higher priority. Community ambassadors would occasionally show up in the OOC channels to persuade those murmuring about application or queue times to “stick with it” because it would be “worth it.”
I wasn’t so sure anymore. The player cap was increased by 50 and then rolled back when the increased population caused technical issues.
For the past four weeks, the only time I’ve been able to log into the RP server is on Saturday mornings. Every other time I’m available is greeted by an hours-long queue. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for everyone, but for my character, it makes the EMS job more difficult. Only being able to practice for a couple of hours every week, I tend to forget things from the SOPs that were once drilled into me during training. Also, to encourage medical RP opportunities, EMS characters are expected to take a shift at least once every two weeks. That means I cannot miss a single Saturday to keep the EMS job, which may not be a realistic expectation and mainly acts as a source of anxiety for me every weekend.
As usually happens when one of my hobbies starts to feel like a job, I’ve decided to walk away from EMS RP for now. I’ll keep an eye on the server, and if the interest ever dies back down to a reasonable level, or if the devs are able to do something to fix the queue times, I may poke my head back in. Or perhaps I’ll find another server that hasn’t suffered the same issues.
But for now, I’m content to walk away from GTA RP admitting that it’s not for me. From the hordes of streamer fans to the borderline predatory application and subscription “options” to the online job starting to feel like a real job, I think I could find something more enjoyable to do with my leisure time.