Editorial | 12/17/2015 at 1:30 PM

The Story of PAYDAY 2 and Microtransactions - Part 2

A community view of the events of the past several months

Last time we looked at some of the moments over the past two years with PAYDAY 2 that lead its developer, Overkill, to decide on implementing microtransactions, from their own point of view. This time, we turn a bit more to the community perspective and dive a little deeper into those same events, starting with where we left off: the Hype Train event.

A quick disclaimer before we get too far into this. Throughout, I make references to the “PAYDAY 2 community,” or simply “the community,” which is a shorter way of saying “some (vocal) portion of the PAYDAY 2 community.” It is unclear what percentage those individuals represent when compared against the rest of the community that has either continued to support Overkill, or just remained silent on the matter. The community perspective shared in this piece, then, is a reflection of the thoughts/opinions/information shared by those who were most dissatisfied with recent events.

As previously discussed, during the month-long Hype Train event members of the community could purchase DLC or the game itself in order to contribute “hype fuel” to the train; the more fuel the train received, the more rewards that would be released, for free, the following month during the Spring Break event. The final reward that could be unlocked was “PAYDAYCON,” a special convention for fans to be held in Los Angeles (later moved to Seattle to coincide with PAX) that would include a tournament with a $250,000 prize pool (the tournament did not happen). From Overkill’s perspective, it was a “win-win situation.” Almir Listo, producer at Overkill, explained that, “we figured 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.”

The optional participation and benefits to the entire community were presented as such on the webpage for the event, but it also stated that the event was “a way for us to salute our loyal community who have been supporting us for such a long time.” There were those in the community who questioned how a developer obliquely asking its fans to provide them money for content was a “salute.” Those questions intensified once the community crunched the numbers and figured that Overkill likely received somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million through the Hype Train event.

Image taken from OSO YouTube video

To be clear, no financial information was shared with me when I spoke with Almir and the numbers presented here are based on speculation from the community. It should also be noted that many of those calculations don't take into account any money that would be set aside for Valve (as part of the agreement for using Steam to sell the game) or for 505 Games’ (the publisher of PAYDAY 2). The actual amount isn't so important here, though, as what does matter is that it lead some within the PAYDAY 2 community with one question: why does Overkill need all of this money to produce the stated event rewards?

Communication was crucial at this point. Overkill needed to be open with the community about how the financial effort they put forth over the past month would lead to content and rewards. This wasn’t about the developer opening their books for all to see so much as letting their supporters know how their contributions made a difference. From an outside perspective, games development can often be something of a black hole where money goes in and something comes out. The actual value/worth of the content that is produced, then, becomes the subject of intense scrutiny. “Is this really worth X amount of money?” When a developer is able to share some details about what into the production of that content, e.g., “we had to develop new art assets and then do testing and XYZ,” then it clarifies the process a little more and puts to rest some of the possibility for wild speculation.

Unfortunately for everyone, Overkill wasn’t communicating with their community as well as they had been. “This is something we've been so good in the past doing, you know, communicating with the community in the sense of asking 'what do you want to see, what do you want us to do?” Almir told me. “That's something I touched on in our latest announcement where we also apologized for all the distress we caused. We feel that there's a disconnect; the last few months we felt that there's been a disconnect with the community.”

The source of that disconnect, from his perspective, was due to Overkill’s workload. In the midst of the Hype Train event, PAYDAY 2: Crimewave Edition for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One was announced. Porting the game over to the current generation consoles would no doubt require some of the team’s manpower to get that done in time for the initially slated June 2015 release (this would later be pushed back to August). There was also the new title the team was working on, Overkill's The Walking Dead, meaning the 45 person development team was working on one new game, developing new content for and updating an existing one, and shifting that existing title over to new platforms.

This was a new challenge for the studio. “We pride ourselves in doing the stuff we do, as good as possible, and as a studio we've never been in a situation where we have to make two games at once,” Almir told me. “On the one hand, you have Payday 2 that's getting a lot of updates every month. And on the other you have [Overkill's] The Walking Dead, which is going to be... a very defining moment for us. It's been an increasing workload where we've been too proud and saying, 'no, we've got this' and maybe we needed more people to help us.” Regardless of the reason, they still weren’t communicating this to the people that were supporting them.

The PAYDAY 2 community, however, wasn't as thrilled with the new game. The big reveal the previous summer did not go over so well, due in part to the way the game was teased (a countdown timer that lead to another timer and then yet another timer) and in part due to the developer tying it in some with PAYDAY 2 (leading to disappointment when it wasn't). Without any kind of information about where that Hype Train money went, many believed that it was being used to help fund development on this new title. While it is not unusual for a developer to use revenue from one successful title to help with the development of another, the presentation of the Hype Train event pointed it towards providing more content for PAYDAY 2, not this new venture.

The seeds of discontent were sown. Throughout the rest of the summer, members of the PAYDAY 2 community began losing even more faith in the game and the developer that they once supported and were greeting each new announcement of paid DLC or other content with more and more skepticism and questions about where the money went. Meanwhile, Overkill continued working on bringing the title over to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (which had issues of its own, once launched) while adding more content to the PC version. Eventually, however, they decided that continuing down the path of releasing paid DLC every couple of months just wouldn’t cut it. Different options were discussed, but the only model that would fit their needs and allow them to provide content in the way they wanted was microtransactions.

There were different options that we were looking into but with any pro there's a con, usually. What we felt was that we can't introduce more DLCs because what we had been starting to do since the end of last year was that we introduced playable characters that you could buy for $5 and they were often linked story-wise, and also content-wise, with a heist; so you bought of them separately. So you bought the heist for $7 and the character for $5, a total of $12, basically. We noticed already then that there were a lot of hardcore members of the community who were like 'hey, wait a minute, this is a lot of DLC being released at the same time.' So imagine, you know, if we tried to introduce a third DLC at some point like that or a third DLC concept. We felt that we needed to find some different route in order to continue doing that.

- Almir Listo, producer, Overkill

From Overkill’s perspective, the underlying principle of this system would be akin to the Hype Train event, i.e., some members of the community would pay for set content and through that additional content could be developed and released for free to the entire community. “In one way, it was similar to DLC, but also we felt that it's not that big of a deal,” Almir said. “If people want to participate, then they're free to do that. Our thinking was that Payday 2 is equally as enjoyable of an experience with microtransactions as it is without… The purpose of introducing another way for us to make money out of Payday is to make sure that every player has a better experience down the road. So by introducing another route for us to make money, we can actually improve the experience for everyone.” With the decision made, all that was left was to reveal the system and implement it. Overkill was confident that the system would be accepted by the community and they would understand the reasoning behind it. As before, though, communication failed and this time, it was a major failure.

As September came to a close, Overkill kicked off a new event, “The Road to Crimefest.” Rather than have people sign up for the PAYDAY 2 Steam Community to unlock new rewards/content like last year’s Crimefest, Overkill switched to getting that community more actively involved by playing the game. By using certain characters to complete heists, defeat specific foes, and a variety of other objectives, players would unlock rewards that would be revealed during Crimefest 2015. The community once again rose to the challenge and unlocked all rewards.

The first day of this year’s Crimefest arrived and with it Overkill unveiled its new microtransaction system. At the end of a successful heist, players are presented with three cards from which to choose and receive a random reward (a mask component, a weapon mod, or a cash/XP bonus). Added to these was a new safe card that gave the player a random special safe, which contained a random weapon skin. Some of these skins carried special perks, like adding +4 to a gun’s stability, and varied in their rarity. However, these safes could only be opened, initially, through the purchase of a particular safe drill for $2.50. That already caused many to raise an eyebrow. Then one has to consider the random factor (where you could receive a skin for a gun you only acquire via paid DLC) and a recent rebalancing of all weapons (thereby making the perks that much more desirable).

To Overkill, the system seemed like a fun, optional addition to the game that wouldn’t have that big of an impact due to title's strictly PvE nature. “There are plenty of reasons you could argue to why [that system] is and isn't ok in our game,” Almir told me. “I think it's ok because it doesn't take away from the experience. If you and I play together, and you have stat boosts on your weapon, in no way am I negatively affected by that.” What’s more, if you got a skin for a gun you don’t have or don’t use, you could always trade it on the marketplace. To the PAYDAY 2 veterans and fervent fans, however, it was a slap in the face.

Overkill had already asked its community for financial support once this year and questions were still lingering about how that money got spent and what happened to the tournament with the $250,000 prize. In the eyes of many, the new microtransaction system was little more than the developer “being greedy” and asking for more money; and this a mere six months after they already did just that without delivering everything that was promised. Adding insult to injury was the way in which it was revealed; almost as a kind of reward for the effort that the community put in during the Road to Crimefest event.

The Steam Community forums and reddit lit up with posts decrying Overkill for their greed and shady practices. Many of these pointed to a statement Almir made two years prior that clarified how the loot systems within the game would work. At that time, Almir stated “that PAYDAY 2 will have no micro-transactions whatsoever.” A few days after the new feature was revealed, drill cards were added to the card drops so players could open the safes without having to pay for them, but the damage was done. For some, nothing less than the completely and utter destruction of Overkill would suffice. For others, they were willing to forgive Overkill if they just removed the microtransaction system altogether. Almir responded to the community via a reddit AMA, but rather than calm the situation, it only fanned the flames more. A parody site, Road from Greedfest, was launched that mimicked the "Road to Crimefest" page, and offered its own challenges to the community to drop the game's Steam and Metacritic score.

Two weeks after all of this, Overkill announced the “secret reward” for those folks who purchased the Completely Overkill Pack. It was a special safe containing a random weapon skin that is unique to that safe. Much like those released previously, these skins could have a random weapon perk as well as a new feature introduced alongside the reward, team boosts. Essentially, players with these skins on their gun would provide the whole team a boost in either the amount of experience or cash received for successfully completing a heist. The more players in a crew with these types of skins applied, the greater the boost. In hindsight, Almir and the rest of the development team that the entire concept of the Completely Overkill Pack and its reward was a bad idea. “At the end of the day, it was a bad campaign because we left people angry and we left people disappointed,” Almir said. “That's the thing that sucks the most for us, that we've let down a portion of our community that has been very supportive of us as a developer and that has genuinely loved our game and loved spending time as a part of this community.”

At the time, though, Overkill still wasn’t communicating any of this to those members of the community that needed to hear it. Death threats were being sent not only to the developer, but to the volunteer moderators, who were fans of the game themselves. The moderators agreed with much of what the community had to say regarding Overkill’s recent actions and went on strike. In a recorded Skype call between the moderators and Almir, the Swedish developer finally spoke to its community directly and apologized for much of what they had done and the way they went about it. The microtransaction system, however, was not going away. For a portion of the community, that marked the end of their time with PAYDAY 2.

Overkill is now working to try and repair the damage that’s been done. Part of that work is to communicate better with the community as a whole. “We haven't been good enough at communicating. Actually, we've been poor at it; and that's where we need to get better,” Almir explained. “I sincerely believe that if we manage to explain to people the reasoning behind the decisions we've had to do, better in the future, more people would be inclined to say 'hey, you know, what, I agree with that’... We've never been in this situation before where we've had this difficulty communicating with our player base. In the past we've been able to make decisions and we've explained why we make them and they've agreed. But here we've lost the explaining part… So that's why, for example, we're introducing eight more people into the community forums from the development team that will start talking and making sure that we're there and we're listening.”

In addition to that, Overkill is starting to show and explain how the microtransactions, in their view, help make the game better for everyone, regardless if you participate in them or not. The latest paid DLC includes two new heists (instead of the usual one), along with new masks, a new gun, and a new contact. Separate from that, a new character, Bodhi, was released for free to the community. Not everyone has greeted all of this with open arms, but that’s not too much of a surprise to the developer at this point.

While those steps are a move in the right direction for some, it’s likely not enough for many of the long-time players or those who felt burned by the Completely Overkill Pack. Overkill wants to make amends there as well, but they know it might not be possible. “So what we're looking into now is what is the best way to give those [players who purchased the Completely Overkill Pack] something extra in order to make the situation better,” I was told. “Some of them we might not ever be able to win over, and that's fine. We respect that. We made our decision and they've made theirs and we can only try to treat them with as much respect as we possibly can while at the same time learning how to not do campaigns in the future.”

When I first started looking into everything that’s happened over the past year with Overkill, the one question that nagged at me was why did they introduce the system in the way that they did. Almir told me that “it's the thing where you never think it's going to happen to yourself, you know? We thought, and I've said this before, it was a great idea to release it the way we did. How can people not love this? We were super positive about it, and so was 505 [Games]. We viewed it as something that would only add value to Payday 2 since it's a player-vs-environment game, there's no pay-to-win concept, we already have DLCs where you purchase weapons that affect the gameplay and so on… so we couldn't have anticipated the backlash we saw when we release it. In hindsight, it's definitely easier for us to do that and a lesson for us for the future.” While the trap of “that could never happen to me” is an easy one in which to get caught, and hindsight is 20/20, it’s still incredible that there doesn’t appear to be more “lessons learned” within the games development community; particularly when it comes to a topic like how to finance new content and support for a title after its release.

Procuring revenue for a title post-launch to ensure its continued support is tricky and it’s a problem that’s really only arisen within the past 10 years as the ability to hop online and game with friends has become easier than ever. DLC was the first method that we saw and this, in many ways, lead naturally to the rise of microtransactions. Both are still facing challenges finding acceptance within the gaming community as a whole, though much of that community has come around to the notion that the games they love cannot go on after release without some form of payment to the developer. However, the important piece in all of this is how they are asked to do so.

I’ve stressed Overkill’s lack of communication throughout, which they themselves recognize, but there’s a deeper underlying thread to all of this: a lack of respect. In talking with Almir, it does not appear this is anything malicious from the developer. He recognized that they had taken missteps and that they “need to make sure the community is a part of the future of Payday 2 and not just a passenger.” But it is possible to communicate without showing the other party respect (examples of this are more than prevalent across the Internet). So, more than asking for financial support from their community, more than a lack of communication, and more than implementing microtransactions in their game, the biggest mistake Overkill made was not respecting their community. It's not the first time a developer has made this mistake, nor will it likely be the last, but hopefully it will be a "lesson learned" for all.

Co-Optimus would like to thank Almir for his time spent with us answering our questions and providing his viewpoint. We would also like to thank the members of the PAYDAY 2 community for their own thoughts/views on this matter.