Not only is that a good way to think of it, but that’s pretty much how it happened. If I recall correctly, roles were all added after the initial release. Maybe bounty hunter was in the core game? But I’m 99% sure trader, collector, naturalist, and moonshiner were post-release content.
But it’s important to understand the roles are NOT the game. There’s so much more to Red Dead Online. I can understand being frustrated at how they’re gated, but there’s still plenty to do: storylines, missions, strangers, PvE horde mode, crimes, daily challenges, and multiplayer PvP matches of all sorts. Almost all these activities earn gold, as well as money and xp towards your rank, which in turn unlocks content like better weapons and horses.
This base (non-role) progression is gated by regular ingame dollars instead of gold. Dollars upgrade weapons, horses, abilities, camps, and cosmetics, as well as keeping stocked up on ammo and consumables. That’s the main game economy and you only need the $10 Red Dead Online if you want to participate in that.
But then there are the roles, which you unlock with gold (which can also be used to buy other stuff, so gold is necessarily gated more strictly, because it’s Rockstar’s way of making sure you can give them as much money as you’re willing to give). Perhaps it’s better to think of Red Dead Online as a
free-to-play $10-to-play game with five mid- to end-game roles that you can grind towards or outright buy, at your discretion.
Which is easy for me to say, since when I jumped in, I had a fair amount of gold from playing back before any of this was set up. Furthermore, I benefited from someone’s hack to the tune of 20 gold bars day before yesterday. You might say my Naturalism unlock was a dirty cheat. I wouldn’t disagree and I count it a shortcoming on Rockstar’s part.
I guess my point is that if your only goal when you start playing is to unlock a role, you’re probably not seeing everything the online game has to offer. Which is understandable. It’s a laconic and sometimes opaque game. But before anyone gives up in frustration at being unable to start a role, you should at least sample some of what is available! Start up the storyline missions by finding Horley, or try one of the Call to Arms horde missions, or just hunt some animals and sell the meat and skins to the butcher for cash. If the world-building, horseback riding, and gunplay don’t pull you in, so be it. But if they do, they’ll get you to the roles eventually.