How do you follow on from a legend? First-person shooter Payday 2, the decade-old heist shooter from Starbreeze Publishing is famous for a few reasons. For a little while, it was the multiplayer shooter, and it was easy to find a crew of heisters any night of the week.
When Fortnite’s cornucopia of pop culture crossovers was still just a twinkle in the eye of an Epic Games licensing exec, Payday 2 added John Wick to the game in addition to crossovers with Hotline Miami and several other games and films.
Later, that legend soured somewhat. A microtransaction controversy engulfed the game in 2015, which caused even its Steam community moderators to go on strike to try and hold the developers to account. In 2016, Starbreeze announced it had reacquired the publisher's rights to the franchise and that all DLCs are now free. Unfortunately, this success was short-lived as 2018, Starbreeze imploded as police raided the publisher’s office.
It’s been a lot. Since the 2016 announcement, the team at Starbreeze has been hammering away at Payday 3, and now it’s time to show off. Still, if Starbreeze is nervous, it's not showing it. The mood in the company’s office in Stockholm, where TRG has been flown to see the game, is jovial and confident. The team is right to be confident; my own Payday 3 preview is broadly positive, and some tweaks are still needed, it’s clear to see the quality.
Same old same old
Talking to Almir Listo, Starbreeze’s global brand director, and Andreas Häll-Penninger, a producer at Starbreeze, they’re both eager to talk about how Payday 3 still feels like Payday, and that the new game is a perfect opportunity to win back lapsed heisters in addition to delivering something the current fanbase is keen to dig into.
“We really just wanted to capture the Payday feeling and modernize it a little bit,” says Häll-Penninger. “It’s been ten years since the last game, but it’s going to play like Payday with the pacing and the movement and the gunplay, while also feeling like a modern FPS game should.”
“We see ourselves as almost like a rock band,” he adds. “We haven't been on stage for 10 years, and our fans are worried that we're gonna play R&B, but we’re not, you know?” Häll-Penninger then talks about how the game is designed to play up to the heist fantasy, saying that the Payday franchise has a “niche” that the team wanted to explore more.
“An example here is the hostage feature set,” continues Häll-Penninger. “Hostages don't have a super big role in Payday 2, right? But now you can take hostages as human shields; you have the negotiation phase where you can free them for more time. You can also trade them for resources in between assaults. S.W.A.T. officers will also act more carefully, if you are surrounded by civilians, so they don't throw any grenades. Evolving this fantasy was something the whole team was super excited about and keen to explore.”
“I think during a ten-year span, tone and brand can really shift, especially when we move people in the development team, you know?” adds Listo. “But regardless of what you do, the community will still know what Payday is, and we have to deliver that to them. But, I’ve also been here a long time, and I really wanted to make sure we don’t redo the mistakes of the past.”
Listo is surprisingly honest about the failings of Payday 2 as a live service game, pointing first to Payday 2’s lack of updates for console versions of the game and mentioning Payday 3 would have full content parity between all versions in addition to having crossplay so heisters on console can join their PC friends without too much trouble. Then he touches upon the microtransactions introduced to Payday 2 that killed a lot of fan goodwill for the game.
“I think Payday 3 is part of our redemption arc, given the fact that we as a studio had been through hell and back,” adds Listo. He mentions the studio surviving reconstruction, a Swedish process that’s somewhat like a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States. However, I should mention I’m a writer and not a lawyer with expertise in bankruptcy. Then he talks about the fan furore around the addition of stat- boosting microtransactions in 2015.
“The mood was shit, of course. I can say this because so much time has passed, and it was a different time, with different management people controlling the studio, but the mood was shit. I think rightfully so, because it was a top-down decision, and I was taking the brunt of it personally. That's why I feel comfortable talking about it. I was in the room when we took the decision, and I warned that doing stat boosts was gonna be frowned upon. But you know, being a team player, you take that if that's the direction we go, we have to move as a team in one direction.”
“But the results came out, and they came quick and hard. I sat in a Twitch chat with 3,000 viewers; our [Steam community] moderators had arranged it; they were on strike. I was questioned like I was in court for four hours about it. But ultimately, what that led to was that we acquired the rights back to the IP. And during that time period, we also stated that we had removed those microtransactions ultimately, going back on our decisions, but the damage was already done. And because it's emotional damage, that's very difficult to come back from. That’s why I think Payday 3 is so important, though, because it’s about making it up to fans and winning them back.”
“Honestly, it gave me a profound respect for our players, especially through those difficult situations. Those are the ones that teach us the most as developers, and they’ve informed our post-launch plans for Payday 3.”
More to come
Häll-Penninger explains that the movie Heat is still the main inspiration for the game. The heist sequence that opens The Dark Knight, but with Payday 3 fleshing out the stealth and negotiation phases of the game, Ocean's Eleven was an unlikely touchstone, particularly for delivering a fantasy “where you can just walk in and out of the bank” as you slowly execute your heist.
With Payday 3’s move to New York, there are more opportunities too. While Starbreeze wouldn’t talk about any of the heists we didn’t see today, the team mentioned it was hoping to take advantage of a few places that fans would recognize from the Big Apple. Listo also mentioned it as a potential way to further the team's earlier crossover with John Wick. “The Continental Hotel is based in New York, right?” says Listo. “John Wick was a cool collaboration with Lionsgate that worked for them and worked for us. It’d be good to revisit that.”
However, Starbreeze has other ideas for collaborations that could see you pitched against law and order as you attempt to get rich and not die trying: “Spontaneously, I’d love to do something with Die Hard, and have John McClane show up as a cloaker,” says Listo, puffing himself up to deliver the next line in a half-shout. “He’s in the vents; shoot the glass.”
“Or Batman, you’re on voice screaming ‘It’s the f**king Batman.’ and the music players and he just arrives, looking completely ominous,.” adds Listo while Häll-Penninger hums the iconic Tim Burton Batman theme. “I like the idea that you’re robbing a place, and you see the bat signal out over the sky, and you just know he’s coming.”
“Usually with McClane or Batman, you play as these people, but in this game, you’re a criminal, so you have to fight them. That’d be a cool collaboration we’d love to do.”
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Jake Tucker is the editor in chief of TechRadar Gaming and has worked at sites like NME, MCV, Trusted Reviews and many more. He collects vinyl, likes first-person shooters and turn-based tactics titles, but hates writing bios. Jake currently lives in London, and is bouncing around the city trying to eat at all of the nice restaurants.