One of the biggest problems which a development studio has when trying to create a sequel to its hit game, is making sufficient changes to the franchise’s core gameplay, whereby the new game feels distinctly “new” – whilst also ensuring that the new game is able to retain a semblance of what attracted gamers to the franchise in the first place. As part of this requirement in wanting to retread familiar ground, so as to not alienate traditional franchise fans, the development studio has to straddle a very fine line in ensuring that the new game feels both “familiar” and also “new” at the same time.
As part of this drive in wanting to retain a semblance of the familiar, Payday 3 retains the classic core gameplay formula of being a 4 player co-op first person shooter – whereby players create their ideal loadout gang, arm themselves with various guns and gadgets, and then go all out with their elaborate trigger-happy heist. At the same time however, and in order to ensure that Starbreeze is able to tread new ground and make quick changes to its classic core gameplay formula, the studio has decided to not utilise its in-house Diesel Engine for Payday 3, but has instead decided to develop the game on Unreal Engine. As part of this underlying change in game engine technology, the studio hopes to easily roll out new features and post-launch updates in a timely fashion.
I spoke to Almir Listo (Global Brand Director and Head of Community, Starbreeze) about the need for Starbreeze to utilise Unreal Engine for Payday 3, and also got to ask him as to where the company intends to take the Payday franchise from here… Enjoy!
Given the problems that Starbreeze has been going through over the last few years, to the extent that you were on the verge of bankruptcy at one point, how have you come back from that? How has the company and its personnel changed? How has the culture changed? And what sort of impact have these developments had on Starbreeze and its games – including Payday 3?
Wow… That’s a deep cut already from the get go. I appreciate the question and I think it’s very relevant, given what we’ve experienced as a studio. But to make the question relevant to the game, I think that what’s important is that the community has followed our journey as a company, and they have been very supportive of our journey. And there have been ups and downs, and I think every game developer experiences ups and downs. I just think that in our case, it has been a bit more drastic. Thankfully, we’ve recovered, and I think that there were a lot of learnings that we drew as colleagues, but certainly as developers in order to succeed with Payday 3 and make it the game that it needs to be. And I also do believe that the only thing that is greater than the setback is the comeback. So I think it has played a valuable role in what we’re looking to do with Payday 3. And I think ultimately, even though there were hardships along the way, we as a studio are better for it, because of the learnings that we made along the way.
In what way does Payday 3 build upon the successes and the failures of Payday 2? At the same time, and given your previous role as as a Producer on the Payday franchise, what have you been able to bring to your present role in association with the game, but how have you also been able to navigate it, given the business environment that the studio finds itself in, as well as where the games industry is now?
I think that the clearest answer I have for that is that we have one very significant change between Payday 2 and 3, and that is the engine. For Payday 2 we used our own technology and that came with its own set of positives, but also with its own challenges. And with Payday 3, given the industry environment that we work within today, we are utilizing Unreal and we are very happy to do so. It’s an amazing engine. We are using Unreal Engine 4 right now for Payday 3, and we’re looking to upgrade the game to Unreal Engine 5 in the post-launch. We haven’t exactly said when yet, but we have promised our fans that we’re investigating the matter. And that effects the entire game, because the engine is the foundation of the entire experience. And if you look at any in-game challenge or issue with Payday 2, many of those were resolved, or evolved with Payday 3 – very much so thanks to the engine switch. And then I also think that it’s about the design philosophy of Payday 3. For Payday 3, we are looking to draw back the experience to a much more mature place where it actually started. Because with Payday 2 over the years, because we’ve developed content for it for a decade now… Over 200 updates… We’ve diluted the experience. We’ve made collaborations that maybe didn’t tie in with the original IP and brand originally, as well as the fantasy of being a bank robber. However, with Payday 3, together with Deep Silver and Plaion, we’re looking to take it back to a much more serious heist place. So we can evolve that sense of you being this career criminal and doing the ultimate bank robbery.
How long have you worked with Starbreeze now?
Twelve years. Yeah, long time…
It is… I know that the Payday franchise is much more rooted in its multi-player experience, but Starbreeze also has a very rich history when it comes to first person single player games. Do you think, given the fact that Payday 3 obviously works within the parameters of a multi-player game, in this context, has Starbreeze been able to bring any of its single player strengths to Payday 3 as a multiplayer game? How have you been able to bridge that gap?
I definitely think so. I mean, Starbreeze turns 25 this year. It was founded in 1998, and so it’s a momentous occasion. Not only are we releasing Payday 3, our biggest game ever, we also turn 25! And that offers us an opportunity to reflect. And I think we have a rich history when it comes to the single player experience that you previously referenced. Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness…
Syndicate… I really liked that game.
Syndicate, yeah… Yeah. But here’s the thing, right? Syndicate was also a co-op, a multiplayer game, a first person shooter. So already then we were investigating the possibilities of expanding into multiplayer, because that’s what a multi-player essentially is. It’s an expansion of the experience. Whereas as a single player, you’re focusing on your own individual experience, together with the AI and the game itself. And with Payday, the thing that makes it such a beautiful experience is that you can play it by yourself, or together with others. And if you play it by yourself, you are accompanied by AI. So three AI team members who you can interact with. You can give them bags, they will drop you ammunition and support you with support fire in the heat of combat. So we have so many developers that have been at this studio for various amounts of time, myself 12 years. We have others who have been there even longer. And that offers us a a different spectrum of perspectives where we can look on how we can improve the experience. So I definitely think there is a ton of Starbreeze, Deep Silver, and Plaion DNA in this title, because we have to remember that it’s ultimately a co-publishing deal, right? Plaion are very involved in making sure that it becomes the best possible experience.
We previously mentioned Syndicate, which was obviously published by Electric Arts. And now you’ve partnered with Deep Silver as the publisher. From your experience, what’s it like to work with different publishers? What sort of strengths and weaknesses do they have? Did you ever consider maybe going down the self publishing route, like Techland? Has Starbreeze ever considered wanting to do something similar?
I think for Starbreeze, given that we are an independent game developer, it’s always a case by case scenario for us. And for Payday 3, we were looking for the perfect partner in crime. And ultimately we found Plaion and Deep Silver, and I couldn’t be happier for it. And like you said, working with different publishers offers different possibilities, but also different challenges depending on…
Especially with your background as a Producer…
Absolutely, yes. As a Producer, you’re very much involved with all aspects of the company. But I think that Plaion, like I said, they are definitely the perfect partner in crime and I couldn’t be happier than having them work with us.
As the Global Brand Director and the Head of Community, you mentioned that Payday 2 had a lot of updates… What sort of updates are we expected to have with regards to Payday 3? I mean, most games when they’re done, they’re patched, and then afterwards the studio releases a few DLCs before they start moving on to their next project. Obviously Starbreeze has gone for a model whereby a Payday game has acted more like a solid base, and then worked around that…
This is a a bit of a difficult question, so I want to be able to phrase it in a nice way, if that makes sense… At what point do you think the base for Payday 2 was no longer viable? Because the thing is, you were using the older technology, the older engine, but that’s an engine that you were ultimately well-versed in…
At what point do you think that the foundation, and the base that Payday 2 had, was no longer able to allow you to reap the kind of fruit that you needed in order to create the Payday 3 experience? At the same time, and given that the community is accustomed to Starbreeze using a Payday game as the base, which the company works on for a number of years, what sort of treatment is Payday 3 going to have in terms of its updates going forward?
I think we realized very early on, that we could do a lot with Payday 2. And that was also how Payday: The Heist was designed. Because with Payday: The Heist, we released one DLC. And that took us more than half a year to accomplish with that one DLC. But for Payday 2, we had learned so much, so we started releasing DLCs and free updates every three weeks! That’s how up to speed we were going with a very small team, only 50 people. And obviously, that increased over time. But it’s a very hectic milieu to work within, and the output was incredible in comparison to other games. Ten years later, we’ve done over 200 updates, and I think the interesting thing is that we didn’t need to stop with Payday 2, we could have continued. But we didn’t want to, because we wanted to evolve the idea, right? We felt that 10 years with Payday 2 was a perfect time to start wrapping the experience as it is, and evolve the experience into something new. And that’s why we partnered with Plaion and Deep Silver, and chose Unreal as an engine. To build a new foundation.
And what lies ahead? I mean we have already agreed with Deep Silver on a 18 month post launch support schedule. And for us, we hope that this will be the starting point for many years of co-publishing and co-development of what Payday 3 can ultimately become. I think the sky is the limit, especially with a community like this. Payday 2 on Steam has 8 million members, which is the largest on the platform, and we have many more globally on Epic Game Store, XBox, PlayStation, Nintendo and so on. So I think that as long as the players like what they get on 21st September, then I think that we’re in for a good ride.
As someone who has been with Starbreeze, and has also been associated with Payday 2 and 3, where do you see the company and franchise going from here?
From this point forward? Given that the game is not out yet, I hopefully think that we have a bright future ahead of us. Because I think with any game studio, you aren’t better than the last game you shipped, irrespective of how everything else looks. You need to do good stuff. And hopefully the players will like what they get, and if they do, I think we have a great opportunity to expand the Payday 3 experience in various ways.
What about licensing the IP, where you’re able to make a movie – like ‘Heat’, for example?
We publicly announced earlier in the year that we have partnered with a company called Stockholm Syndrome and they are investigating the possibility of doing movies, TV shows, etc. We have licensed the IP to a mobile game developer called PopReach. They have done a game called Payday: Crime War. And so on and so forth. So I definitely think that Payday is a very strong IP in that regard. But I ultimately think that Payday 3 is going to be the beacon, or like the center mass of the Payday experience, and many other things can come out of that. So yeah, I think the sky is the limit to be honest, because ten years ago with Payday 2, we didn’t realize before the game had launched as to what it could be. And then when it launched, we sold 1.6 million units. We were the 2nd most played game on Steam at the time, where we surpassed Team Fortress 2. At the time, that was huge for us. So who knows as to how far we can go with Payday 3… I think the game will be the result of 10 years of community work, because if we have the community support, they will invest their time into the game. And given that the design of the game is focused around a lot of replayability, then hopefully they’ll stick around.
Mr Almir, thank you so much.
Thank you. Yeah, interesting questions… Thank you so much.