In the weeks since Payday 3’s launch, it’s been hard to shake the feeling of disappointment at the state that it has launched in. After the surprisingly enduring success of Payday 2, you would have thought that Starbreeze Studios would be going out of its way to ensure that the co-op shooter’s follow-up strikes while the iron is hot. Releasing at a time where co-op multiplayer shooters have a bigger market than they ever had, and coming as a follow-up to a successful, known quantity, the pieces were in place for Payday 3 to continue the series’ meteoric rise.
Or, well, they should have been, because things have certainly not gone right for the game since it came out in September. From the state that it launched in to the chaos that has surrounding the process of Starbreeze beginning the process of fixing it, Payday 3 has stumbled right out the gate, and so much of the momentum that the franchise had built up over the last several years has dissipated thanks to all of that bad press. The Payday series’ graph, which had been consistently rising for over a decade, suddenly feels like it’s plummeting.
When the first Payday released for PS3 and PC back in the day, it was very much the opposite of a big deal. Coming from a smaller studio and released as a digital-only title (which, back in 2011, was far less common than it is now), it was a smaller-scale title that went on to achieve greater success than perhaps most would have anticipated. While reviews for Payday: The Heist were lukewarm at best, word of mouth was strong, and those who did play the game had plenty of good things to say about its co-op mechanics, entertaining shooting, and tense heists, even if it was a little rough around the edges. Within a year of its release, Payday: The Heist had sold over 700,000 units. Though not an earth-shattering number, those were impressive sales for smaller, digital-only game nonetheless- and most importantly, they were enough to warrant a sequel.
Because that’s where the Payday franchise really took off. A couple of years after the first game’s launch, Payday 2 came out, and marked the beginning of an impressive explosion in popularity for the series. With its pre-orders alone, Payday 2 had sold enough copies to begin turning a profit, and within a month of its release, it had sold 1.58 million units. And that early success was only the beginning, because the game went on to enjoy a far longer tail than most would have expected. In fact, as of early 2023, it had sold over 40 million units worldwide, while also having one of the largest active communities on Steam with over 8 million lifetime players on the platform.
Of course, Payday 2 has had its fair share of ups and downs as well, in spite of the success that it has enjoyed. For starters, the disparity between the game’s PC and console versions is a major issue that plagued the game for years on end, thanks to the frustrating optimization issues across platforms brought about by the Diesel Engine, which the game was developed on. Meanwhile, in 2015, a couple of years after its launch, Payday 2 also attracted plenty of controversy with its inclusion of pay-to-win microtransactions, made even worse by the fact that the game’s developers had said prior to its release that all of its microtransactions would be purely cosmetic. Additionally, even from a content and mechanics perspective, it was clear upon Payday 2’s launch that it was very much a work in progress.
In spite of its issues, however, the game had plenty going for it, with everything from its heists to the smart and significant ways in which it expanded upon the original’s co-op formula creating a solid, steady foundation for the game to build on. And build on it did. Payday 2 was supported for several years, far longer than most people would have anticipated- including, funnily enough, the developers. Post-launch support for the game technically ended in late 2018, but a year later, it was announced that support had resumed once again. And when all was said and done, looking back at Payday 2, it was hard not to be impressed with how the game grew and improved over the years.
Enter: Payday 3, a game that very much feels like a case of one step forward, two steps back. Payday 3 surely makes some notable improvements over its predecessors, from its excellent shooting mechanics to some of its more interesting ideas with the Skills system, while playing through heists still remains an exciting endeavor. On the development side of things, meanwhile, with the game having shifted to Unreal Engine, it also has parity across all platforms, something that, as we’ve mentioned, was a big issue with Payday 2.
But those improvements are lost in a glut of poor design decisions, baffling choices, and technical issues, all of which have let down Payday 3 in some fundamental ways. The game’s always-online nature, for starters, has irked plenty of players quite a bit, as have the many connectivity problems it has faced since release. In the days and weeks after its launch, finding a lobby full of players to play with in Payday 3 felt almost like an impossible task, which meant having to play with bots, which in turn meant having to suffer their braindead AI and utter incompetence.
Another major issue that has crippled the game in the early stages of its life is its grindy Infamy progression system, and the inordinate emphasis it places on challenges, which feels like it’s almost missing the point of why people want to play Payday. Add to that some baffling omissions (like there being no quick play options) and the game lacking enough content to keep players occupied for too long, and things have certainly not got off to a great start for Payday 3.
To top it off, all of that has been made worse by the chaos surrounding the release of its first patch, which was delayed multiple times due to what were described as “critical” development errors, only to arrive last week, a month and a half after the game’s release, with over a hundred fixes. Unsurprisingly, the game has drawn widespread criticism from players since its release, and that has been reflected in its numbers. Though it managed to attract an impressive 3.1 million players in September alone, there were periods following its release where its concurrent player numbers were consistently falling below those of Payday 2.
Thankfully, Payday 3 doesn’t seem to be a completely unsalvageable mess. For starters, at its core, the game boasts excellent shooting mechanics, and heists are still a lot of fun (at least when the game is functioning as intended). Of course, it’s everything around that core that needs work. Payday 3 needs a serious injection of quality-of-life features, content, and technical polish, because right now, it’s in very rough shape. If Starbreeze can support it the way its predecessor was supported, we can definitely see a future where the co-op shooter makes an impressive recovery. Will that actually happen? That remains to be seen, but given how big of a money-maker the Payday property has been over the last decade, we’d be surprised if Starbreeze didn’t give it its best shot.
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