Q&A: We speak with Starbreeze's global brand director about the past 10 years of Payday and what's to come.
The Payday series celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and Starbreeze and developer Overkill are going big to celebrate the milestone with a docu-series, an in-game event in Payday 2, and the soft-launch of Payday Crime War this year.
The series had humble origins, and few could have predicted what a gigantic success the heisting series would go on to become--Payday 2, for example, has reached a whopping 35 million installs and remains one of Steam's most popular games.
Payday: The Heist was originally known as Stone Cold, and Overkill was planning to show the game for the first time at E3 2011 until publisher Sony Online Entertainment said the name needed to change due to a clash with the WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. For a company that was bankrupt before this, it was tough news, but the team found a new name--Payday!--and had a successful showing and launch in 2011. But that was just the beginning.
Payday 2 released in 2013 and elevated the series further, succeeding not only critically, but also commercially. The game was so successful that it helped Starbreeze out of a tricky financial situation and into a new level of commercial success. The game partnered with Lionsgate for a John Wick DLC event, positioning it as a mainstream hit. Another element to Payday 2's ongoing success is Overkill's commitment to supporting the game--by the latest count, the studio released more than 210 updates for the game to keep things fresh and interesting.
With the franchise celebrating its 10th anniversary, and ahead of a big livestream event planned for this Friday, October 22, GameSpot spoke with Starbreeze global brand director Almir Listo about the past 10 years of Payday and what's to come. In the interview, Listo talks about why Payday has been able to remain successful and relevant for so long, shares some of his favorite stories from the past decade, and talks about the future.
Payday 3 is in the works for release in 2023 through a partnership with Koch Media's Prime Matter. It's still too early to talk about specifics, Listo says, but he promised that Payday 3 represents a "leap forward for the franchise and a new baseline for what Payday is and what it can be in the future."
You can read the full interview below.
10 years is a long time and Payday is still thriving today. What about Payday do you think has allowed the series to endure and thrive for so long?
Payday turning 10 is such a joyous occasion for us that we’ve planned ten days to celebrate. We’ve been fortunate to see Payday come as far as it has today. I think the main driver is two things: The developer, us behind the game, the features we’ve added (and removed!) over the years to keep the game relevant for our players, the heisters out there. Since 2013 we’ve made more than 210 updates to the game! The other is the community - they’ve shared this decade long journey with us, some have been with us since the beginning, their input directly influencing the game and the content we make. When you put the two together, you get Payday.
Back in 2011 when Payday: The Heist was released on Steam and the PlayStation Store, we had managed to gather a small following, but it was a dedicated one. I remember us developers sitting together going through the SPUF forums (Steam’s community hub discussions at the time) in early 2012 a few months after Payday: The Heist released, reading the feedback on the game, interacting with the players who had just recently found their way to a life of crime. The Payday SPUF community set the base for what would later become the largest community group on Steam (7,626,022 members and counting), which has been instrumental in keeping in touch with our community, making Payday what it is today.
"This year, the franchise turns 10, but the game industry as a whole also experienced ten years of change. The landscape today is different from what it was then, and that is reflected in Payday too." -- Almir Listo
Another good example of how we work with our community was the addition of Hoxton as a playable character in Payday 2 - it was an effort by the community! Hoxton was in the first game but in the sequel he was mysteriously replaced by Houston, Dallas’ younger brother. Unbeknownst to the players, this was a production issue, not a creative call. Right from the outset players started rallying together, creating petitions to get him back into the game.
As we continued updating the game after launch with new content, we asked ourselves: “Why not make a proper community event out of this?” Get the heisters to break Hoxton out himself, and when you’ve done it - he’s back in the gang, for free. He came with a new skill tree, that we called Fugitive, and his new mask, since Houston had taken his old one. Players got to unravel the story themselves and break out one of their favorite characters so he could rejoin the gang. I think the story of Hoxton really showcases how closely we listen to our community, and how much they can influence us at times. If we can make it into a cool event, then we’ll try.
We’ve kept events like this up all the way to the present day, one of my favorites being April Fool’s! Who can forget “spoonfest”, this year’s little April Fools Day prank that turned into a massive community rally? It all began last year when RussianBadger and his friends played PAYDAY 2 and started joking about how fun it would have been if we added a comically large spoon to the game (based on this meme).
Time went by and more community members started asking “Comically large spoon when?” Come April 1st a few months later, we pranked them through a trailer, and presented them with a comically large… fork. Needless to say, some heisters lost their minds, but it was only in jest, as we had prepared a community-wide event if fans retired 5 million law enforcers, they would receive a comically large golden spoon. 35 short hours later, the community achieved this, unlocking the spoon for all. We had a lot of fun as developers working on this, and I think the community had a blast too.
Going back to the beginning, when you set out to make Payday when it was originally called Stone Cold, did you ever imagine you'd be here 10 years later with one of the most successful PC games out there?
As a developer, you always hope for success, but you’re also always aware that any game you work on doesn’t necessarily reach the public. A lot of games being made in our industry never see the light of day for various reasons. Back then, our focus was to create a game that was ours to keep, not just something that we’d let go as soon as it was released... enter Payday. With the first game, Payday: The Heist, we managed to get a foot in the door, and with its sequel Payday 2, we were going to break it down completely.
This year, the franchise turns 10, but the game industry as a whole also experienced ten years of change. The landscape today is different from what it was then, and that is reflected in Payday too. We’re thankful for the success of the game, because it stands in direct relation to our players supporting us. Without them, we’d be toast!
What would you say is at the “core” of Payday? What is it that defines the experience and makes it so compelling?
We found something that’s clearly been compelling - setting Payday in the Hollywood heist fantasy of a world-class career criminal and creating a truly immersive heisting experience.
If you take a look back at pop culture over the last ten years, you can see that heist and crime have become a global phenomenon with franchises like Fast & Furious and John Wick with them all emerging over the same time period.
In fact, Fast Five (basically the current iteration of Fast & Furious, with the gang becoming international super-hero criminals) came out the same year as Payday.
If Payday's co-op action was inspired by Left 4 Dead, then its theme was surely inspired by movies like Heat and Point Break. Being a bank robber is an escapist fantasy that anyone in our society can understand and in some strange way, the criminals are looked upon as "good guys."
One of the reasons Payday works so well is how it blends these different genres in a compelling way. Donning masks together with your friends while robbing a bank is a thrill... especially in stealth!
While a lot of the heisters enjoy playing by themselves doing solo stealth runs, many players also create memorable experiences by playing together. It’s in those small moments, when you and your friend are running towards the escape van, and your friend gets hit and goes down - do you pick your friend up, or do you use your comically large spoon to force your way out? These stories, and how you experience them with others, are a really powerful part of what makes Payday what it is today. Of course, the best moments are when you go to heal your friend - leave no heister behind!
What are some of your personal highlights from the past 10 years working on Payday?
The excitement of going live in 2013, winning the Golden Joystick Awards for Best Multiplayer Game of the Year, seeing the players get into the game. We were less than 50 people at the time!
When we went to the Payday Con events we hosted in Seattle and in Melbourne, meeting Payday fans from all places and walks of life who decided to do anything they could to make the event, it really goes to show how impactful the game has been to many people out there.
We’ve also had the pleasure of working with a lot of partners over the years. One of the best projects was working with Lionsgate to integrate John Wick into Payday 2. When the first John Wick was released, we partnered with Lionsgate to give anyone who saw the movie a free copy of Payday 2 on the back of their ticket! It turned out to be a great collaboration, with a lot of quality content released over the years, a heist focusing on rescuing Charon, and John Wick’s Continental Hotel concierge, played by Lance Reddick. We even got Lance to do the in-game voicework.
What are some lessons you’ve learned and insights you’ve gathered specific to Payday that you’ve acquired in the last decade?
At the core, how we make games has changed. Technology means we can develop and release content far after release, and I think a lot of insights I’ve gained are thanks to the fact that we’ve been working in a live environment. Some developers work years on games that don’t make it out the door; with Payday 2, at its busiest, would receive one new in-game update per month.
Payday being as popular as it is, I am sure you get a lot of feedback. How do you go about walking the line of listening to and responding to what fans are saying, but also staying true to your vision?
We are so appreciative of our loyal heisters - this celebration is ultimately for them and to celebrate the journey we’ve all been on these last 10 years! We are always listening and engaging with our community and looking for ways to make Payday the best possible experience for our faithful returning fans and first-time heisters alike.
Do you have plans to celebrate Payday's anniversary in the game? How so?
Payday 2 will celebrate the 10 years of Payday with a limited-time game mode, where balloons will spawn within the level, and popping them will give you and your crew different temporary buffs during a heist. There will also be a free giveaway to all Payday 2 players, with all players receiving a brand new clown outfit.
When you started development on Payday 3, what are some of the core tenets or ideas or themes that you wanted to focus on to not only keep the core of the franchise intact but also expand it?
"We’re making great progress with the game, and when the time is right, we will share more!" -- Almir Listo on Payday 3
While we announced Payday 3 some time ago, and are working on it daily, it’s still a bit early for us to reveal anything substantial. Now - I know - heisters out there want to learn more. We’re making great progress with the game, and when the time is right, we will share more! That being said, I am so excited for what Payday 3 is shaping up to be. A great thing with Payday is that the player fantasy is very strong and clear. Payday has always been inspired by heist movies and really tries to capture this kind of experience for players.
Payday 2 was an enormous success and it continues to be. How are you raising the stakes with Payday 3? What can fans look forward to that’s new and different?
The stakes are definitely raised! We’re working extremely hard to create more in-depth co-op possibilities, with real immersion into the actual heists. The idea here is to take what players know and love about Payday 2 and evolve it using state of the art technology, and all the new features made possible by both industry advancements and (last but not least) our own creativity, since Payday 2 came out.
"Payday 3 is a leap forward for the franchise and a new baseline for what Payday is and what it can be in the future." -- Almir Listo
To take this further, Payday 3 is being built in an entirely new engine for us: Unreal. This means we’re freed from much of the “baggage” that can weigh down sequels, where the game is often built on an updated version of the previous game's engine. For us, changing the engine means new opportunities and also lets us have a fresh take as we rebuild the game from the ground up.
What does this mean for you as players? It means Payday 3 is a leap forward for the franchise and a new baseline for what Payday is and what it can be in the future. We’re making great progress with the game, and when the time is right, we will share more! Like I said, make sure to tune into our livestream on Friday, Oct. 22 as our Game Director, Erik Wonnevi, might have some new details to add.
As you look to grow and expand the Payday franchise, have you considered transmedia opportunities like TV and film?
With a franchise like PAYDAY, so steeped in Hollywood-style heist fantasies, I’d love to see it happen. To be very real with you for a quick moment, as crime as a genre is clearly so popular in entertainment, I think Payday would translate amazingly to the big screen. Studios and producers - feel free to get in touch.
How would you say the past 10 years has shaped you and the team? Clearly, you’ve been through a lot, so I’m wondering what effect that’s had on the studio, its people, and its philosophies.
Starbreeze has changed in many ways during Payday's lifetime. We’ve improved, but more so, I think what’s so important to realize is that everything we’ve been through with Payday and everything else has shaped us as a team and has formed us as this group of people that not only care about each other, but also about the players, and the journey they’ve taken through all of it.
This franchise clearly means a lot to many people, and on the behalf of the rest of the team I would just like to say thank you to our players for sticking with us through thick and thin! I mean, it’s been a wild ride. So to all our heisters out there, from the bottom of our hearts - thank you! We salute you. This franchise has changed my life, and it’s truly an honor to work on a property like Payday that means so much to our players.
As you look to the next 10 years of Payday, what are your goals?
"Ten years is a long time, and I’m no Dr. Strange - I can't see the future. But in ten years, I’d love to be here once again, talking about the success of Payday! I’m confident that if we remain faithful to serving our players and expanding the franchise into new audiences with games like Payday Crime War and Payday 3, we’ll be ready for another interview!