Payday 2, “Death Wish,” and Binary States

Over here at The Slowdown, I like and try to produce criticism on things that I enjoy, and things that I think are good. This is often (cough, preposterously) visible on the website. This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t just “play” games, too.

One of these games is Payday 2, the sequel to 2011’s Payday: The Heist, a 4-person co-op cops-and-robbers FPS that came hot on the heels of the foundations laid down by Left 4 Dead. Copocalypse, anyone? Credit where credit is due: Not only are both games excellent co-op shooters, but the game’s developers, the Swedish Overkill Software, have pretty much a perfect track record of community support and management so far.

In fact, I would point @Overkill_TM out to any aspiring developer as an example of how to masterfully utilize Steam as more than just a platform for selling games; Payday 1 was well-supported enough, and Payday 2 on the PC has received a constant stream of community-oriented events, content updates, and patches1.

On the whole, I am a big Overkill fan, and a Payday one, too, and it seems many, many others are as well: With Overkill owners Starbreeze Studios signing a new 2-year, $6 million extension deal with 505 Games, it’s not surprising that Overkill have now deployed yet another update to the game.

All that aside, the all-new “Death Wish” update, however, is a curious case of a developer failing to see the forest of their core mechanics for the trees. “Death Wish” is, simply put, a mind-boggling move from the otherwise reliable studio.

Read on to find my PSA-like analysis on why.

The Background for “Death Wish”

The update’s name is an obvious nod towards Payday 2’s bloodthirsty, battle-hardened community: High-level, end-game players of the game have long now pined for more challenge, and Overkill are absolutely right to home in on this oft-repeated request.

The core building blocks of Payday 2’s gameplay are fairly simple; first, new players focus on getting more, better weapons, then upgrades (“mods”) to their existing weapons, finally focusing on grinding necessary EXP points and money to level up their preferred class skills. This combination, of new weapons, upgrades, and skills, then allows players to beat harder levels faster, better, and more efficiently – all for the sake of better rewards.

The single core component to any goal-oriented Payday 2 match, then, is efficiency; everything has to be co-ordinated down to a tee. Players’ builds are devised with very specific intent, and always with specific tactics in mind. Unfortunately, while Payday 2’s FPS gameplay is solid, varied, and engaging, players quickly noticed their progression was largely reliant on grinding the same two-three most cost-effective missions – over and over. And over. Any Payday 2 vet will swear by heists (Payday 2 speak for “campaign” or “mission”) such as “the Ukrainian Job” and “Rats”.

This is only natural, as currently playing pretty much any other heist2 means spending exorbitant amounts of time in exchange of minuscule rewards. Payday 2, like any other grind game, is very time-intensive. At some point in their lifecycles, grind games almost always become less about content, and more about the rewards players receive for playing.

This means that as fun as some of the less cost-effective missions are (“Mallcrasher” springs to mind), it’s impossible to consider them anything but a waste of time for high-end players, who have played each and every mission a hundred times over by now, and simply require as much EXP and money as they can get.

What Players Really Wanted

Broadly speaking, there are three things most veteran Payday 2 players would desire:

  1. Variation
  2. Challenge
  3. Better end-game rewards

I’m sure these three issues are perfectly obvious to anybody working at Overkill.

The first item on the list – the need for new content – is the most difficult to fix, as Overkill are still what you might consider a minor developer, with limited manpower, rendering the dearth of content and new levels very much understandable. That being said, the situation is twofold: On the one hand, Overkill have managed to get around the issue by cleverly utilizing community events and existing assets; on the other hand, the game was marketed in such a way that made buyers expect much, much more content from the get-go, including heists from the first Payday game.

Payday 2 Death Wish 02The second item, then, is a problem related to the linear co-op experience; despite minor randomized elements, the heists remain largely scripted, and straightforwarded, players have long since perfected the best possible ways of playing the existing campaigns. Difficulty is somewhat of an achilles’ heel for Overkill, who often take punishing difficulty (this is especially true of the game’s achievements, which are extremely unforgiving and unfair) for challenge. Instead, it might be better to consider challenge also as variation: By introducing variations of existing levels, or combining them into week-long, multi-part campaigns with dramatic arcs could be a working solution.

The third item, then, is the longest-running problem with the game. My gut feeling is that it could have been elegantly solved from the beginning. Payday 2 uses a rather clever mission delivery system called Crime.net. It is a map view that randomly pushes a different selection of missions to players, allowing them to pick and choose a suitable mission. If no ideal choice materializes, they can either wait, buy a better mission, or settle on something they didn’t quite want.

While the system is fantastic in theory, Payday 2’s mission structure is actually much more complex than that – a web of many different mechanisms interacting together. Not only are heists a) grouped together by their giver, but there also b) exists a narrative, temporal arc that the missions can be mapped to. In some ways, the temporal arc also maps to c) a linear difficulty increase. While the crime.net system feeds low-level players “early” missions (both in the sense of difficulty and narrative), and should in practice also feed end-game missions to high-level players, the fact of the matter is that whatever your experience level, you seldom get the one mission you want.

In addition, there is a massive discrepancy between EXP and money received from different missions; a basic one-day heist that takes 20 minutes can net you just 10% of the rewards you get from a 20-minute three-day heist! This is why all players effectively pine for the same three missions and their above-average rewards. Pre-“Death Wish”, the simple solution to this major issue would have been either to a) tie the amount of received rewards to acquired loot, creating a clear-cut correlation between risk and reward, or b) introduce level-based group modifiers to mission rewards, making short and easy missions just as playable as hard, long ones. It is my understanding that some modifiers are already in place, but they are far too small and inconsequential to be of any use.3

Be Careful What You Wish For: What Players Got

In their latest patch, Overkill answered these three needs by adding an all-new difficulty level, “Death Wish,” and additional randomization to stealth mechanics. Both are very, very cruel, and not in a desirable way.

Payday 2 Death Wish 01On the surface, the wants and needs of the players met those of the devs; only, it feels as though the aforementioned trees ultimately blocked the forest from Overkill’s view – at least enough to make the update seem a bit near-sighted. After all, difficulty is theoretically altogether welcome! As players of the first game can attest to, Payday 2 is much the easier game, its “Overkill” difficulty something akin to the 1st game’s “Hard” mode. Payday 1’s difficulty, however, ultimately came to splinter its community in two: the overkillers, and the overkilled; less than 5% of players got to complete a mission on the game’s hardest difficulty.

Hence, just a minor increase in difficulty would have been just fine. Alas, that was not to be, with Overkill definitely living up to the company name: Instead, the “Death Wish” difficulty simply operates by upgrading every enemy to the Great P’thulice, the Destroyer of Worlds. Iä, iä! Almost every enemy in the game can now take and dish out more damage than the player. This does not make the game challenging, so much as it completely changes (breaks?) it; players can no longer move around the levels freely, for fear of – god forbid! – being shot at. All players can do is get to max rank, hole up four guys in a box, and exploit their equipment, the game’s AI, and pathfinding.

The other changes have to do with stealth randomization; rudimentary aspects of stealth have been changed, gimping solo-stealth play for singleplayers, and making successful stealth heists much more improbable.

Also new with “Death Wish” is the boost system: If you play the same heists too often in the row, the game will begin to penalize you by increasingly reducing the rewards you receive. In turn, it will also boost a random mission to make it more attractive. However, since the boosts are player-based, and not group-wide, your boosted heist might actually have reduced rewards for your team and vice versa. Ultimately this probably means that finding good missions is only going to become harder and harder for four-player teams in the long run.

To be sure, Payday 2 has its hardcore audience that it inherited from Payday: The Heist. As such, there are probably fans that are willing and able to tolerate “Death Wish” and “New Stealth” (admittedly, I may belong to this group; my friends and I did complete a few maps). For most of Payday 2’s relatively large active community, however, “Death Wish” is a difficulty increase of the wrong kind.

What Went Wrong: Binary States

The philosophy behind Overkill’s attempts at satiating the needs of high-level, end-game players is solid – in theory. Adding in more randomization and difficulty are all the right things – again, in theory. Why does an unfairly difficult mode not fit Payday 2, then? In practice, the devs have failed to account for just one thing:

Payday 2 is a binary-state PvE game. In every way.

Either you win, or you don’t; matches aren’t so much about playing them, but about completing them. Player techniques, tactics, weapon selection and class builds are all about nothing but maximizing everyone’s chances at victory and, in turn, maximum rewards. Time/inconvenience ratio is key to every action, and every match; min-maxing weapons, skills, classes – all key. Payday 2, in terms of its mechanics, is simply not conducive to failure states.

“Death Wish” is the polar opposite of this concept.

Here’s the thing: The original Payday: The Heist was much more forgiving, as players were also able to receive EXP and level-ups in-mission, and from doing personal challenges that weren’t always tied to the full completion of a particular heist. In this way, the difficulty level, and the looming possibility of failure, made more sense. In Payday 2, though, completing a mission is everything! Loot drops (weapons, modifications, and customization items) and EXP are awarded only after completing a full mission successfully.

Again, this means there is only one proper style of playing Payday 2:

Winning. Every time.

Stealth in Payday 2 is equally binary, with immediate fail states, glitched alarms and guards, and overall poor feedback. One single mistake will always fail a stealth attempt in the blink of an eye. Even then, players were able to find ways to complete missions in full stealth, creating effective tactics, which included waiting for minutes on end for patrolling guards to hit the right spots.

Good stealth mechanics are about controlling and manipulating chance. Due to its binary nature, Overkill’s attempts at adding randomness to Payday 2’s stealth have made what was already a finicky, unfair system that could fail you out of the blue for no reason, now devolves into utter chaos, with the changes (such as new Titan cameras and randomly spawning guards) contributing only to further uncertainty and insecurity for players.

Randomness in stealth ultimately boils down to good randomness (more choices, branching paths, real alternatives, emergence) and bad randomization, which makes things – you guessed it – simply more random and unpredictable. Good randomization is the kind of thing that Payday 2 would benefit greatly from, as much of its touted randomization seldom (if ever) truly changed tactics and common patterns of play. Now it does, certainly, but to the worse.

The Net Effect

In grind games, players will always and forever seek out the best ways to min-max risk, time, and reward. Trying to add complexity and uncertainty to grinding is only ever going to make people try even harder at controlling their chance of success – or, if this is deemed impossible, dissuade folks from doing it altogether. It’s not rare for folks to bail out of games if their habits are being tinkered with.

Be it difficulty, stealth changes, or the new “boost” system, touching grinding habits – which are very much conjoined with the game’s design philosophies – seems like a lose-lose scenario for developers, and the high-volume reaction from the community speaks for itself. In my mind, the voracious response is not wrong; after all, we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours invested into developing characters in Payday 2. Simply getting the first of many max ranks in Payday 2 can take a hundred hours.

Grinding is exchanging time for rewards. While Payday 2 has been somewhat failing at this from the beginning, especially for high-end players, the new changes only serve to make things worse, ultimately rendering players unable to play how they want. The main thing that went wrong with “Death Wish” was Overkill failing to take into account the game’s ultra-binary core, even if catering so strongly to the needs of their best players was admirable in theory. But marketing the patch as an upgrade to the rest – the 99% – of the players to me feels like an obvious mistake.

Each subsequent change and feature in Payday 2 should, above all, respect the fact that its players will always want to complete a heist in the best, most effective, fastest way. Every time. As many times in the row as possible. Dissuading players from this very fact is asking for trouble for every party. Perhaps it’s time for Overkill to re-evaluate the way in which the Crime.net mission system works, and whether these new additions are consonant with the original philosophies – the choices, possibilities, and freedoms – of the system.

To wrap up on a positive note, however, we should not forget Overkill’s fantastic track record so far. Here’s to hoping we shall be receiving a new roll-back patch soon – that’s my wish for today!

  1. Console owners have been left somewhat wanting due to a multitude of reasons, but let’s brush that aside for a moment []
  2. “Big Oil,” “Watchdogs,” “Framing Frame” and the super-elusive Train Heist are okay! []
  3. I still get money and EXP drops at level I-75, for instance, and it burns. Every time. []

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