Editorial | 12/3/2015 at 10:00 AM

The Story of PAYDAY 2 and Microtransactions - Part 1

A look at the past year and the events that lead to now

The idea of “microtransactions” has become so anathema to some within the video gaming community that merely speaking it in relation to a game will lead to outright dismissal of that title or campaigns to try and tank its sales via negative reviews. This is further amplified if those transactions are tied to any kind of in-game perks beyond the cosmetic. Add to the mix poor communication and management of fan expectations, and you start to get an idea about what’s been going on with PAYDAY 2 these past couple months. However, that’s only part of the picture.

Before going any further, there are a couple points I’d like to get out of the way. There are many stories that can be extrapolated from the events surrounding the inclusion of microtransactions in PAYDAY 2, but when I spoke with Almir Listo, producer at Overkill, I was mainly interested in understanding what happened. It’s easy to say “they made a bad choice,” but why? Why did they make it? Is it truly all that bad? Were there no other options?

This article, then, is a reflection of that conversation. There was no in-depth grilling about the ethics of microtransactions as a whole - for while that is an important conversation for the entire gaming community to have, one developer will not have all the answers. Nor was there an attempt to hold Almir’s feet over the flames and force him to repent all that has been done; the community has already had their turn at that and it's more important for them as a community to do so. This is a story about how a developer let their ambition to support a two year-old game with new/exciting content for their fans lead them away from a portion of that very same community. It starts in August 2013.

PAYDAY 2 was released only a couple of months prior to the current generation of consoles as well as Battlefield 4 and the much hyped Call of Duty: Ghosts. PAYDAY 2’s initial figures were solid; Starbreeze Studios, who owns Overkill, reported 1.58 million copies of the game had been sold by mid-September. For most first-person shooters, there would be some additional support for the title through the holiday season, usually in the form of some DLC and a couple of balancing updates, and then the development team would be heavily focused on making the next game. That was the plan for PAYDAY 2, initially. “The conversations we had were ‘let’s support this like you would a normal sequel at the time,’ you know? Let’s support it with a couple of DLCs post-launch and see where we’re at,” Almir told me. “But as time went by… we wanted to do something different and together with 505 [Games], we figured let’s do as much as we possibly can with this game.” Fast forward two years, 90 updates, and 28 packages of DLC later, and PAYDAY 2 is still fostering a healthy community of players with over three million users in their Steam group.

Any first-person shooter that could boast those kinds of numbers would be noteworthy, but PAYDAY 2 is further distinguished due to the unique brand of co-op it offers. Planning a heist with a crew and then watching it either go according to plan or absolute insanity is the dream of anyone who has seen something similar in a movie or TV show. PAYDAY (and its sequel) were the first games to execute upon that with some measure of success and fun. Overkill could have stopped the support of PAYDAY 2 much sooner and started work on a new game, but that’s not what they (or the community) wanted. Almir and the rest of the development team at Overkill recognized this. “I can’t remember the exact point in time, but it was a joint decision between ourselves and 505. We saw what the community wanted, we saw the numbers we were making, and we saw an opportunity back then to continue development on [PAYDAY 2] and make it into something else that few other games have the opportunity to be.”

But all of those updates and new content come at a cost; nothing is ever free. Sometimes a game may receive something new without anyone having to directly pay $2.99 for it, but the reality is they already did pay. Buying a game, whether it is at the time of release or post-launch, and any paid DLC that comes out afterwards pays the bills to allow additional content to be made. “So by that logic,” some would argue, “I’ve already paid for this content and therefore it should be given to me for free.” In an ideal world, that would be the case and there are, no doubt, developers who wish they could make that happen.

The reality is that the economy surrounding video games has shifted to a point where a game that sells 3.4 million copies isn't considered to have sold enough units to make a profit, so not everything can be given gratis. It's easy to take that as some form of corporate greed - and a desire to make a profit is certainly part of it - but there are people whose very job depends on a game selling well and continuing to make a studio money well after its release. “Something we’ve always said is that we do paid DLCs when we have to and free updates when we can,” Almir explained. “As a studio that isn’t that old, we’ve been punching above our weight class for some time and to finally be able to continue doing something while actually making sure we have money in the bank while doing so - so that when a rainy day comes we can actually focus on making games instead of taking a work-for-hire project or whatever in order to help pay the bills… Starbreeze as a company had been losing money, basically, every year since its inception until PAYDAY 2 was launched.”

Throughout the first year of the game, then, PAYDAY 2's content continued in a fairly even pace. Overkill would release some paid DLC packs that included new missions and new characters, then some content that was free, and then some more paid DLC. Much of that free content was given as a reward for the community becoming more involved through special events like Crimefest 2014, which simply asked and then rewarded players for becoming part of the PAYDAY 2 Steam community. That first event drew a lot of attention to a game that was a year old. The Steam community jumped from around 30,000 to 1.5 million in the span of a week. As the community grew, the ambitions of Overkill grew alongside it; an ambition to keep the game going and provide for content for that community that would keep them coming back to the game. Those ambitions, however, meant that changes would have to be made.

It's never been a question of making too little [money], it's been more a question of increasing our ambition because we continuously have been creating more and more features for the game. What you usually see for any game is that you get the initial release - there's a lot of hype and bug fixing and so on - and as you go on, steadily, the updates become fewer and fewer and less important. But with PAYDAY 2 we wanted to spin that around. We want every new update to become larger and larger… So we took in more people, we increased our ambition level, and we took on extra costs. We tried different things to excite the community more because even though you look through our list of DLCs and those amount to $110… what you have to think about there is that's $110 over the course of two years and not everyone buys that DLC. It's not the same thing as a new game because more people buy a new game than DLC for a two year-old game. I think we've taken that very far.

- Almir Listo, producer, Overkill

Ambition to create new content for a game that is over a year old and keep its community happy/excited for it is great, but it’s not without ramifications. As Almir stated, Overkill hired more developers and increased its operations costs, which lead to Overkill and publisher 505 Games needing to ensure there was money coming in to cover what was going out. Enter the February event, Hype Train. Rather than asking the community to simply sign up or play PAYDAY 2 as they did before, players were being asked for money. By buying the game or any of its DLC, a certain amount of fuel would be added to the train so that it could “progress” further along a route and unlock rewards along the way.

One piece of DLC, the Completely Overkill Pack, in particular would contribute a significant amount to the cause. The pack, which cost $20 and was in limited (50,000) supply, added 14 gallons of fuel, gave the purchasers four unique masks for the four original characters (Chains, Dallas, Hoxton, and Wolf), and promised a special prize to be revealed at a later date. The intent of the event was to generate funds for new content while at the same time not ask everyone to contribute money. The efforts of the few could provide for the entertainment of the many. None of it, however, was communicated well and the entire thing left many of the game’s fans questioning the developer’s motives.

The ambition there was that we got these great ideas of content we wanted to produce, but it costs money to produce content, right? So let's try an interesting twist… so what we figured was that rather than asking everyone to pay $5 or whatever, how about we say 'not everyone has to pay if they don't want to, or can't, but those of you who do, fuel the Hype Train and [in doing so] fuel [our ability to create] more free stuff for everyone.' So from our perspective at that point in time, it was a great idea; because the money of a few could create free content for the many. However, which we quickly learned afterward, we didn't sell it into the community well enough and they didn't understand what our motives were. Maybe we should have done a Kickstarter-esque video for the Hype Train where we basically said 'we have these great ideas for a ton of content we want to do, but we need your help to do it, so we've launched this campaign in order to this and that.' I bet if we had explained it more throughly, people would have been more willing to participate or had a better opinion of it. Sadly, I would definitely say that was one of the worst campaigns we've done.

- Almir Listo, producer, Overkill

Not too long after the Hype Train event came the Meltdown Heist, a new, free heist, that was released in May alongside some significant changes to PAYDAY 2 and its DLC. Specifically, a permanent price reduction. It was the hope of Almir and his team that driving the price down would drive sales up. “The point was to say thanks to the community for all their support, but also to incite more people to purchase DLCs because when you increase ambition you need more money to keep things going the way you want to do it. Sadly, we didn't see the turnaround that we were expecting with that campaign and we thought, somewhere, that people would be happy about [that reduction].” This, in some ways, seemed like it was destined to fail as no amount of fiddling with the price would convince people to buy something they’ve already bought. Almir even acknowledged that they received similar feedback afterwards and that this was the final big turning point for them.

If they wanted to turn their ambition into something tangible, they would need money to do so. The Hype Train event did generate funds that allowed them to produce a few pieces of content, but the price reduction that came with the Meltdown Heist didn’t result in enough sales to make up the rest. Thus, Overkill started looking at other ways to generate income. While several options were discussed and explored, only one seemed to fit with the ambitions they had: microtransactions.

Stay tuned to Co-Optimus for the second part of our feature on PAYDAY 2 and microtransactions where we dig into Overkill’s decision to implement microtransactions and the way in which they’ve been implemented.