Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

red dead redemptionGrowing up, I loved Westerns. The gruff, tough outlaw characters, sprawling barren environments, six-shooter duels, and horseback gunfights mesmerized me. There was no other time period like the Old West. It was an age of expansion and exploration where there were few rules and even less people whom followed them. It was an age where bank robbers could pull off a clean heist with nothing but a revolver in hand and a bandanna covering their face, and where wanted criminals could make a fresh start by skipping town and changing their identity; a perfect setting for a video game.

The other day, I was enjoying an Overwatch session where I was laying the smackdown with McCree. Right as I was fanning the hammer in some poor Genji’s face, it occurred to me that the last Western-themed video game I played was Red Dead Redemption… SEVEN YEARS AGO. Sure, there have been a few titles set in the Old West since then (Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Fistful of Frags, and Hard West), but none have garnered much hype. I hadn’t even heard of some of them until I started researching for this article, which is a shame because Fistful of Frags is insanely fun.

You’d think that a groundbreaking game that inspired one of today’s hottest television shows would galvanize developers to put out similar content, but since Red Dead Redemption’s release in 2010, there have been less than 10 Western-themed games released, some of which aren’t even true Westerns. Sure, the theme hasn’t always been the most popular in the industry, but it used to see much more action than it does now. Last decade, there were over three times as many Western games released, including the first two Call of Juarez titles, Darkwatch (yes, I’m counting it), Dead Man’s Hand, and Gun.

What happened? Did Red Dead Redemption’s ambition and nearly flawless execution discourage other studios from experimenting with the genre? Did it capture the desolate, expansive landscapes, charming small towns, and dirty, doggone despicable characters of the Wild West so perfectly that other game makers haven’t dared to try and top it? Is there simply not enough consumer demand to justify dedicating time and resources to making a Western game?

These are all of the questions that circulated through my head, and I was dying to find the answers to them. I tried getting in touch with a programmer or artist at Rockstar Games that worked on Red Dead Redemption, but the only feasible way I could contact one of them required paying to upgrade my LinkedIn account (no thanks). Additionally, I reached out to a few industry analysts to get their thoughts, but none were interested in helping me. Without an expert to lend me their knowledge, there was only one way for me to find the answers I was looking for: Good old-fashioned independent research.

Wanted: Games Set in the Wild West

It didn’t take long for me to find other likeminded individuals asking the same questions. A simple Google search turned up several articles similar to the one you’re reading now, a few Reddit discussions, and some threads on popular gaming forums. From reading the comments, I not only uncovered a yearning for more Westerns, but also a desire to see more games set in other time periods like the Great Depression, Golden Age of Piracy, and Prehistoric Times.

Additionally, I learned about the gaming community’s fondness for Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Fistful of Frags. Beforehand, I had no idea FoF existed and never gave any CoJ games past the first a chance because I was so underwhelmed by it. After sifting through a sea of comments mentioning both of the games, I took a deeper look into them. Using Steamspy, I found that Fistful of Frags has had over 3 million downloads with about 75,000 active users, and Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has had around 980,000 downloads with 12,000 people still playing. They both also hold Steam user scores of over 90 percent.

fistful of frags
Fistful of Frags: This here cowboy will not be riding off into the sunset.

If those numbers say anything it’s that there are still a lot of gamers out there that like Westerns. But let’s be realistic: Most gamers aren’t going to purchase something based on theme. There needs to be solid gameplay to draw them in, according to Samuel Garcia, a game developer and designer at Neo Generation Games.

“I wouldn’t rely solely on theme to sell, said Garcia in a response on Quora.com. “The gameplay needs to be truly behind it.”

That’s the beauty of games set in the Old West; the potential of expansive and open-ended gameplay is nearly limitless. Just look at Red Dead Redemption. Seven years later and I can probably count on one hand the number of titles that have matched its ambition. There are just so many awesome gameplay elements – from the random encounters in the frontier to the surprisingly deep hunting system. It even went as far as to include horsebreaking, cattle herding, train robbing, and gang hideout raiding.

You could take any of these elements and build them out into a small, addicting indie game. For example, I would be pretty happy with a Payday-styled online coop game focused around robbing trains, or even a game the puts you in the boots of a U.S. Marshall tasked with breaking up bandit hideouts and collecting bounties. Hell, an RTS pitting outlaws, Indians, and lawmen against one another could even be cool. Because the time period is so rich with stories, characters, and tropes, there is a ton of untapped potential for awesome gameplay.

Cowboys Aren’t “In” Right Now

During my hunt for answers, it occurred to me that video games aren’t the only entertainment vertical neglecting the Old West. Even movies and television haven’t been experimenting much with the theme as of late. Aside from Westworld, there hasn’t been a critically acclaimed television series based on Wild West themes since Deadwood back in the mid 2000s. The same goes for movies. Other than Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and the True Grit and Magnificent Seven remakes, there haven’t been many big-budget Western films released in the past several years.

Jay Verkuilen, associate professor of psychometrics at CUNY thinks this has to do with the fact that we are so far removed from the Old West time period.

“The Western was a big deal in the immediate post-World War II era to about 1970, said Verkuilen in a response on Quora.com. “I’m not 100% sure why they died out as being so important. Speculating I’d say that it was just a matter of relevance and memory. 1945 was 55 years after the closing of the frontier in 1890. For us now, that same temporal gap is 1960. People now don’t really do much horse riding, punching cattle, or shooting cowboy guns.”

Put it this way, the general demographic of gamers were born after the Western explosion from the 1950s through the 1970s. Wild West content has never been in vogue during their entire existence, so there may be minimal interest for them to explore this theme. Developers are aware of this, and it could be a reason why we’ve seen such a lack of Western-themed games over the past several years.

fof
Are Westerns as dead as this poor feller right here?

In addition to the lack of general hype around Westerns, current industry trends don’t favor the setting. Today’s more successful shooters are based around fast, fluid, and varied gunplay. Just look at Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter Strike and Overwatch. These are some of the most popular video games on the market, and they all meet this criteria. Weaponry from Wild West times would make it impossible to match this because guns fire too slowly, need to be reloaded frequently, and take a longer time to reload.

“I think it is the same reason there aren’t many WWI shooters, the current trend is for fast and varied gun play, said Redditor mr_perry_walker in a thread about Western FPS games. “I haven’t really gotten into a shooter since the first BlOps but even then you could bedazzle your ACOGs with a vertical forepenis and such. The weaponry of the old west was slower and less diverse by nature. I am not sure the majority of gamers would have the patience to watch the reload animation for a cap and ball revolver or flint lock rifle.”

The Red Dead Redemption Effect

Although Red Dead Redemption technically isn’t set in the Old West, it’s undeniably still a Western game and easily the best ever released. The sheer amount of exploration and activity it presents is absolutely mind boggling. It offers gamers a massive and interactive Wild West terrain filled with hours upon hours of glorious gameplay. As a result, it won several Game of the Year awards from various industry publications and has sold over 15 million units, according to Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick.

The game is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be a major reason why the Wild West theme is so underused these days. Many developers probably don’t want to bother because their audience can just pick up Red Dead Redemption and have everything they could ever want from a Western. They know how frustrating and expensive it would be to develop a game of the same depth and quality, so they may not even want to waste their time trying to compete.

red dead
Several years later, the world design of Red Dead Redemption is still something to marvel at.

From diving into articles, forums and comment threads, I found a few good quotes that support this theory.

“Companies realized they can never top Red Dead Redemption. I would certainly like to see someone try though.” – Aphelion1756, Reddit (source)

“Rockstar nailed the Wild West setting so well that any developer and their game would inevitably be compared to what’s seen as perfection. Rockstar set a high standard for Westerns that very few others will ever meet.” – Alex Gilyadov. Vice (source)

“I thought for sure after RDR, we would see more. However, maybe RDR was so good that developers thought, why bother trying.” – Napalm-Brain, Reddit (source)

“Sure, Red Dead Redemption nailed it, but perhaps it replicated this time period so well that it’s become the definitive Western game. Perhaps no one wants to try and make a product that will end up being inferior.” – Ken McDonnell. Now Loading (source)

“The only real contender I can think of is Red Dead Redemption, a game that sold well, but was bound to scare off most potential imitators through the simple virtue of being massive.” – Stew Shearer, The Escapist (source)

It wouldn’t be surprising if this were the case, especially seeing that Rockstar’s own staff referred to development of Red Dead Redemption as “a total nightmare.” To make the massive game they wanted, and ensure it played well and looked polished, they needed to put a lot of time and money into the project.

“For the game to be fun and engaging and everything we hoped it could be, we had to include a huge range of classic western moments – stand-offs, duels, stagecoach fights, gunfights on trains, hold-ups, bounty hunting, and so on, said Rockstar Co-Founder Dan Houser in an interview with Now Gamer. “This is the strength of the game, but doing this in a seamless way in a massive open world was a huge challenge.”

Hearing this come from one of the largest, most renowned game developers in the world is enough to scare any studio from attempting to make a similar game. But they don’t necessarily need to match the level of variety and depth found in Red Dead Redemption. Just look at Fistful of Frags. It’s a Half-Life 2 mod that took the visual and gameplay strengths of the Source engine and mixed in Old West maps, characters, and slow-shooting weapons like revolvers and flintlock rifles. It has been wildly successful because it took formula with proven success and added in Western elements.

Coming Around the Mountain

 

red dead redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is looking real nice.

So where have all the cowboys gone? Simply put, although there is decent chunk of the community interested in seeing more Western-themed games, the greater majority of gamers don’t really care. Many were born after the explosion of Old West films, so the theme doesn’t appeal to them because it wasn’t in style when they were growing up. Taking this into consideration, developers don’t want to spend time and resources into this type of game because the risk of a flop is too large.

Also, competing with Red Dead Redemption is a daunting feat that may have scared other studios from exploring the Old West. Making a Western-themed game that could convince gamers to play it over Red Dead Redemption could be a fruitless project that isn’t worth the time or money. However, there are a few developers giving it a shot. Later this year, 612 games will release the highly anticipated Wild West Online, and rumor has it that Far Cry 5 may take place in the Old West.

A few days ago, news broke that Red Dead Redemption 2 will be delayed until spring of 2018. It’s also possible that Westworld’s second season will be airing around that time. If both of these highly anticipated releases drop around the same time, and if Wild West Online and Far Cry 5 end up being great games, we could be in for another Western explosion. Only time will tell if we will soon see an influx of sarsaparilla-guzzling, cow-punching outlaws in video games. Seeing that Red Dead Redemption didn’t have this effect back in 2010, I wouldn’t count on it.


3 thoughts on “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

  1. That’s a shame; I think cowboy themes (if they were actually represented in the media and able to be studied) would probably still be popular, as we saw with RDR. In regards to WWI games… well I think any theme, if done right and if presenting a well-conceived story/mechanic, could be successful, but devs would unfortunately have to take on a lot of monetary risk to develop a game that they couldn’t be positive would be a success. But that’s an interesting point about the gap of time between when IRL events took place, versus when that “theme” was popular in, well, pop culture. I’ll have to think on that a little more… Great article!.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and providing this insightful comment. Glad you liked the article. That was one of the more interesting points I came across when researching this article. It made me think about how there has also been a huge lack of games set during the Vietnam War in comparison to WWII. I feel like it would be super interesting for developers to explore because of the moral ambiguity and controversy surrounding it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely! I think WWII is much easier to make as a game, because we have pretty clearly-established “good” and “bad” guys (although I think playing as a German soldier – not SS, just regular foot solider – could be very interesting!). A game set during the Vietnam War would be a really interesting story, I think, for the reasons you mentioned!

        Liked by 1 person

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