PIXEL BURN – Payday 2’s Microtransaction Overkill

In which Matt investigates a history of avarice.
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[TRANSCRIPT]

Hello my name’s Matt and in this special episode of Pixel Burn, we’ll be looking at how to take a loyal, passionate community of dedicated players that love you and your game, and piss them off so much that they come to despise you.

That community being fans of Payday 2, who are more than a teeny bit miffed with the game’s developer, Overkill Software, and have been for over a month now. The latest fuel for their ire has been a recent update to the game that added something called “Team Boosts.” As the name suggests these boost give each player on a team bonuses to in-game cash and experience points for completing heists. The more people on a team that have one of these bonuses equipped, the more cash and experience they all get to unlock new weapons and skills with.

The catch of course is that to get one of these bonuses you have to fork over some real-world money. In other words, they’re microtransactions. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand what all the fuss and furore is about we need to go back in time a month to October, and Payday 2’s annual “Crimefest” event.

Crimefest 2015, billing itself as “a celebration of all things Payday”, was a promotional event in which Overkill added a bunch of content to the game for free. This was preceded by another event called “The Road to Crimefest” where the Payday 2 community was given a range of challenges to complete, such as “finishing 20,000 bank heists” or killing two million of a certain in-game enemy. The idea was that the more challenges the community completed during Road to Crimefest, the more free content they’d get during Crimefest itself. A bit like being on your best behaviour throughout the year so you get more presents on Christmas Day. Assuming of course your definition of “best behaviour” is “robbing banks and shooting cops.”

The very first piece of free content the community received was the “Black Market” update, which which added a new reward for successfully completing in-game heists, alongside existing rewards like masks and weapon mods, in the form of unlockable safes. The only way to open the safes however is with special magical “drills”, and the only way to acquire said drills was, for a short while, by forking over two and a half dollars or your regional equivalent in real-world money. After you’ve bought one of these drills, presumably in some mad fit of financial irresponsibility, you then slap it onto a safe and pop that sucker open. Whereupon your reward is a unique weapon skin with which to jazz up the appearance of one of your in-game guns.

Which doesn’t sound too bad at first. After all, if someone wants to pay about two quid to make their gun look like it’s been dipped in a bucketful of Smarties and glue, whose business is it but theirs?

And it’s not like Payday 2 is the first game to have ever done something like this. The entire drills-and-safes system has practically been lifted wholesale from similar box-and-key systems in Team Fortress 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive, or CS:GO for short, where they’ve proved incredibly popular.

Especially in the case of CS:GO, where some unique weapon skins can sell for over $400 to the right buyer on the Steam Marketplace. Any money you might make from selling them on the Steam Marketplace goes into your Steam Wallet however, which can only be used on the Steam Store and has a cap of $400. Hence why the most die-hard Steam traders engage in quasi-medieval bartering sessions on third-party sites such as Steam Exchange, haggling like Venetian merchants for the best deals on their digital wares.

CS:GO’s weapon skins are entirely cosmetic however, which probably makes that whole mad process I just described sound even crazier to most of you. The new weapon skins in Payday 2 on the other hand actually give tangible in-game benefits. Which is where the accusations of Payday 2 becoming “Pay 2 Win” began, and continues in light of the new “Team Boost” update. As I mentioned earlier Payday 2 has a levelling system whereby the more heists you perform, the more in-game dosh and experience points you can accrue, to spend on increasing your stats and other abilities. Things like an increased chance of avoiding damage from enemies, the ability to move faster while carrying heavy loot, quicker ways to unlock doors and other examples too numerous to list here.

Besides making your guns look like they’ve been attacked by a feral toddler with a box of finger paints, the new weapon skins implemented in the Black Market update also provide bonuses to stats above and beyond the game’s pre-existing systems. So for example if you have two players with exactly the same character build and equipment, but one has a weapon skin giving a small stat bonus, the one with the weapon skin technically gains an advantage over the other. Overkill certainly marketed them as such: promising, in their own words “a limited supply of truly awe-inspiring weapon skins” that will help players “soar above the norm.” And other such marketing bollocks.

By now some of you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Payday 2 is after all a cooperative multiplayer game, not a competitive one. Players team up to take on wave-after-wave of computer controlled enemies while nabbing as much loot as they can, so surely any stat boosts from a weapon skin benefits the entire team, not just the player who owns it?

Well the skins in and of themselves weren’t the main bone of contention here. Some players even said they’d like the idea if the skins didn’t also have stat bonuses attached to them. No, the main reason the Payday 2 community were up in arms goes back to a specific promise made by Overkill before the game was released: that Payday 2 would never have microtransactions.

A promise made not just by lead designer David Goldfarb, who left Overkill in July 2014, but also by producer Almir Listo who is still very much working there. Almir even went as far to say “We’ve made it clear that PAYDAY 2 will have no micro-transactions whatsoever (shame on you if you thought otherwise!)” Nah, those people are probably feeling pretty bloody vindicated right now.

Instead of microtransactions Overkill went the DLC route. Payday 2 has a stonking 24 bits of the stuff – not including soundtracks – currently available to buy at various prices, and not even buying the Game of the Year edition gets you all of it. Some provide new characters and some give access to new heists, but a fair old chunk of them are weapon packs. Weapons that can have skins dropped for them from the new loot safes.

Indeed, I neglected to mention earlier that weapon skins are specific to individual weapons. If you get a pretty skin for, say, a certain type of shotgun then you can’t slap it on any other weapon, not even another shotguns.

Meaning if you haven’t bought a particular weapon’s DLC, the shiny new skin for it that you may have spent over two bloody quid buying drills to acquire is completely and utterly useless. This isn’t really an issue for die-hard fans who own lots of Payday 2 DLC, but heaping microtransactions on top of a game that already has a…ahem, “robust” selection of paid downloadable content strikes me as just a teeny bit on the greedy side, don’t you think? Particularly since Payday 2 was already making a profit six days before it was even released, thanks to pre-orders alone covering the entirety of the game’s development costs.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh though. Microtransactions are one thing when they’re done by a big Triple-A developer like Ubisoft, but Overkill are a proud, scrappy little independent developer! At least that’s what Overkill likes to claim. Almost constantly in fact. You can barely read one of their public statements to the community without tripping over the word “independent” several times. That is when they’re not outright hammering the word into your occipital lobe, in a textbook example of “the lady doth protest too much.”

By the way, did I mention Overkill have a publisher? Indeed Payday 2 was published by 505 Games, who handled that whole “getting physical copies of the game onto shelves in brick and mortar stores” thing that so many indie games…don’t do. A little detail some have taken as definitive proof that Overkill are big fat lying liars about their indie cred. Which they are, but not because they have a publisher. It may seem a bit strange to some of you but indie developers can, and regularly do have publishing deals. For example Hotline Miami 1 & 2 by Dennaton Games were both published by Devolver Digital. Meanwhile Magicka 1 & 2 by Arrowhead Game Studios were published by Paradox Interactive. 505 Games also, incidentally, published the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Terraria.

So yeah, indie developers with publishing deals aren’t that uncommon. You’d be hard-pressed however to find one that’s also the wholly owned subsidiary of a Triple-A development studio. Like Overkill are.

Yep! For all their talk of being a proud independent developer, Overkill often neglect to mention that since 2012 they’ve been owned lock, stock and two smoking barrels by Swedish triple-A developer Starbreeze Studios. The same Starbreeze studios that, in their fourth-quarter financial report for this year, reported earnings of 92.5 Million Swedish Krona in total revenue, 9.5 Million of which was actual profit. In Yankee money that’s almost 11 million US dollars in revenue and 1.1 million dollars profit. Starbreeze are also currently sitting on a stockpile of 100 million Kroner, or just shy of 12 million US dollars, in cash reserves.

All that boring accountancy gibberish I just threw in your face also takes into account Starbreeze’s expenses. Because as well as making money hand-over-fist they’ve also been spending it like mad.

They’re developing a game in the toys-to-life genre called “GEMINOSE” about animals with…gems…for noses, a VR game based on the movie “John Wick”, and a Walking Dead tie-in game that, incidentally, is being developed by Overkill. They also recently acquired a Paris-based VR hardware developer called InfinitEye, now called StarVR.

Much of the money financing all this is has come from Payday 2. According to Starbreeze’s financial reports they made nearly 5 million USD from Payday 2 sales alone in the fourth quarter of this year, and over 22 million dollars during its two-year lifetime. In fact Starbreeze outright calls Payday 2 “our most valuable asset to date, and an asset that we know how to expand, monetize and excite our customers with.”

Well, they’ve certainly managed to “excite” the Payday 2 playerbase, albeit the same way you’d “excite” the atoms in a hydrogen bomb.

Payday 2 is so important to Starbreeze that back in July they bought US movie production and distribution company Payday Productions LLC, which owned the TV and film rights to all things Payday-related, for 330,000 dollars. Thus ensuring anything and everything to do with the Payday franchise is squarely in their hands.

Wait, so if Starbreeze now owns everything to do with Payday, and Overkill is a wholly owned subsidiary of Starbreeze, doesn’t that fly in the face of Almir Listo’s remark that Overkill “owns its own properties”? That’s like a teenager saying they own their dad’s car.

That’s all assuming there’s actually a tangible line between where Starbreeze ends and Overkill begins however, which is a false dichotomy. They’re essentially the same company. It’s just harder to sell the whole “independent developer” thing for money and sympathy when you’re making over a million dollars a year in raw profit. So with all that in mind the issue of microtransactions is really just the proverbial straw that has crippled so many metaphorical camels, leaving Overkill with the Herculean task of trying to win back the community’s lost trust and goodwill.

So how DID Overkill respond? Well one of the first things they did, a whole SIX DAYS later, was make the despised drills part of the in-game drop system, meaning you could theoretically acquire one if you played Payday 2 for long enough. Your chances of actually getting one this way are slimmer than a convict on hunger strike, sure, but it’s nice that you don’t HAVE to buy them for a chance to get weapon skins.

After that gesture however…well, things took a bit of a nosedive. To put it mildly.

After Crimefest was officially over, Payday 2 producer Almir Listo went on over to the Payday subreddit, one of the largest and most vocal hotbeds of fan anger, to hold an AMA or “Ask Me Anything” session, to try and rebuild bridges with the community, allay their fears and help them understand Starbreeze- I mean Overkill’s position. Payday 2 fans gleefully siezed this opportunity to rip into Overkill with even more grievances, such as the perceived neglect of the console versions of Payday 2, which reportedly still suffer from crashes, controller problems and broken matchmaking, continuing balance issues in the PC version, changes to weapon damage that make getting weapon skins almost ESSENTIAL to make them worthwhile again, the lack of a safehouse customisation feature that had been promised since before launch, and the simple matter of the road to Crimefest site stating “all content will be free” when the very first update was microtransactions.

Now when dealing with a lot of anger like this it’s very important to choose your words carefully. For example, you certainly don’t want to make your player base feel their concerns are meaningless so long as you’re making money. Only a clueless fool would say something like-

“We understand that there is a lot of fury, anger and disappointment with us adding this. From an economical standpoint however, completely based on statistics, we can already see that the Black Market update is working as we intended.”

Oh dear. Well at least he didn’t say the whole thing was just being blown out of proportion by the gaming press or an-

“I think the problem here really is people in positions of power in media and elsewhere making uninformed, clickbait articles about things that matter a lot to a lot of people, instead of doing some serious legwork to get their facts straight.”

Okay, so you went there. I know. Try NOT to suggest that people who dislike these microtransactions are fickle, and can eventually be convinced to change their-

“Going forward, we hope we can convince the parts of the community that resist this change that this was the right decision to do to ensure the stability of Overkill as an independent developer and the future growth of Payday 2.”

Y’know, I’d really like to say he genuinely tried, but…

The response from Payday 2 fans to these statements, and others, was to put it mildly…”not kind.” Some fans even went and created a parody website, “The Road to Greedfest”, with choice statements from Almir and Overkill about never including microtransactions. Which brings us back to the present and Overkill doubling-down on their microtransactions decision with the new “Team Boosts” update.

But wait! There’s more!

As well as Team Boosts, Payday 2’s update 90 also introduced the Completely Overkill Safe, an item only available to those who bought the Payday 2 Completely Overkill Pack. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was a time-limited DLC released last year for the price of $20, was restricted to 50,000 copies, and was marketed as a means to directly support the developers during the game’s Spring Break and Hype Train events. The safe includes one of 25 weapon skins and seven bits of DLC, out of the twenty-plus available for sale, but the rarity and quality of the weapon skin is completely random. That means each of the 50,000 people eligible for the Completely Overkill Safe could end up with either a brilliant skin for their favourite weapon, or an utterly rubbish one for a weapon they never use.

On the bright side, it does at least come with the drill you need to open it. God, could you imagine the backlash if you had to buy it separately? Wait, I shouldn’t be giving them ideas like that, should I?

And so the fan’s anger ignited all over again, and not only on Reddit. The Overkill Steam Community forums also burned with a fury so hot you could boil the Pacific ocean with it ten times over, and still have enough heat left to make a nice cup of tea afterwards. The brunt of this rage sadly fell on the poor Overkill Steam Community moderators, all unpaid volunteers, who had to endure abuse up to and including actual death threats: because some people on this benighted planet of ours will never stop being complete fucking idiots. Unsurprisingly the moderators eventually decided they’d had enough of taking the fall for Overkill’s bullshit and went on strike, with one very simple demand: a frank and open discussion with a representative from Overkill.

Which actually happened, believe it or not. Almir Listo stepped forth once again to discuss the Completely Overkill Safe with the striking moderators, along with some of the issues around Crimefest that Overkill Steam Community moderator Ashley charitably described as “a complete mess.” Unsurprisingly, much like his Reddit AMA, it ultimately devolved into Almir dodging every question posed to him, despite the moderator’s best efforts to pin him down.

You might also not be surprised to learn the player numbers for Payday 2 have taken a bit of a tumble over the last month, though over a longer timeframe there’s been no significant change in its overall pattern. Whether it’ll spike back up again shortly after this, as it has before, or continue dwindling remains to be seen however. Overkill have been pretty clear that they have no plans to remove the microtransactions, and there’s no shortage of angry Payday 2 players on Reddit and Steam loudly vowing to never touch it again.

There’s honestly not much I can say about all this that isn’t immediately obvious to anyone not blinded by naked profit. Starbreeze has essentially tried squeezing more money out of its golden goose only to end up wringing it’s neck, all in the name of rapid company expansion. In doing so it’s not only jeopardised the future of one of it’s main sources of income: Payday 2, it’s also damaged Overkill’s The Walking Dead before it’s even come out. Because regardless of how good a game it might end up being, Starbreeze can’t seriously believe all those disgruntled fans of Payday 2 will flock to buy it after this PR fiasco. Can they?

So there you have it folks! A prime lesson in how to burn bridges, shoot yourself in the foot and piss all over community goodwill.  Depressingly easy, isn’t it?
On Friday November 20th, in the wake of this fresh uproar, Overkill issued a vague apology for “causing distress” to the Payday 2 community. As well as promising more support for the modding community, more free content, and at least 8 Overkill staff members taking a more active role in community discussions, Overkill also plugged their upcoming free Christmas heist, a proof-of-concept Payday 2 tournament at Dreamhack Winter, the Overkill B-Sides soundtrack . There was no mention whatsoever about microtransactions.

That’s all for this episode of Pixel Burn. If you still liked it then please let me know by clicking the button down below, and let your friends, family and Almir Listo know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable. In the meantime, until next week, as always, you can go now.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.