The other day, I wrote several thousand words on Payday 2, exploring why it was that parts of the game really rubbed me the wrong way. To put it simply, my biggest disappointment was the lack of complex missions—most in the game are simple smash and grabs, and it’s not really worth stealthing the missions or completing the optional objectives, especially during higher-level play. I sent the link to David Goldfarb, the game’s Director. He’s also super cool, despite all the crap people fling at him on Twitter all day.

Anyways, he responded (like I said, he’s super cool, and responds quickly; would seriously love to buy the guy a burger one day and pick his brain, learn his design philosophies, stuff like that), and his response, across several tweets, was this:

“I think they are fair criticisms. I don’t agree with it all, but a lot of it is valid.” He explained that the original missions couldn’t be ported, saying “We have to rebuild it all more or less. And, tbh, more interested in more systemic stuff than linearity.” That last bit intrigued me quite a bit—after all, my favorite genre is the immersive sim, which is essentially the pinnacle of the systemic experience. He continued, saying “I think we’re headed more in the direction of player agency now – hopefully you’ll come along for the ride. Will be fun.”

When I suggested that it didn’t seem like Payday 2 really exemplified this, he responded with “I’m not saying we got all the way there. But there is a ton of choice in terms of how you attack problems. Eg. Stealth or no, and a ton of choice in terms of how you can build your char/loadout that just wasn’t there before.”

This piece has two parts. The first part is a commentary on Payday 2. The second part is a thought experiment, a “what if?” based on a few years of thinking I’ve had about how to design a systemic heist game.

I love the conflicted games—the ones that aren’t perfect, but are interesting. It’s why STALKER, despite being one of the buggiest games ever made, is also my favorite. It’s why I love World in Conflict, despite my desire for RTSes to have base-building. Being able to spend hours thinking and talking about those unique, interesting design choices, ruminating over how the game would have been if this or that were different, appreciating the gutsiness of the people involved in making a game that isn’t like other things on the market… that, right there, is half the fun of video games for me.

Payday 2, in my mind, is absolutely a conflicted game.

On one hand, it’s bold—I can’t think of a single heist game out there aside from its precursor, Payday: The Heist. Additionally, it’s a co-op shooter that eschews competitive multiplayer and loot drop mechanics of other, more established co-op franchises (like Left 4 Dead or Borderlands), and unlike those games, actually seems to have put the PC first as a platform. Plus, the game has some of the best patch support I’ve ever seen, including an FOV slider that was tossed in during the beta (fingers crossed that the unsupported graphics mod options find their way into the game soon!).

On the other hand, I wrote three thousand words explaining why Payday 2 isn’t really a game I’m in love with. And it’s not just me—a few of my other friends are getting tired of it, and these are guys who once played the previous game’s Diamond Heist sixteen times in a row because we really wanted all the Sapphires and the Red Diamond in one go. Despite all that, despite the failure and frustration, we came back to Diamond Heist in our next play session.

Since I love sussing out just why it is I feel the way I do about games like this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past few days on just why my reaction is so different. After all, systemic gameplay is a big thing for me, and, thinking about it, Payday 2 does feature some light systemic elements, so what’s wrong?

What’s the big hangup?

Why I Don't Exactly Love Payday 2, Part 2 (and why I love Overkill)

I think I have… well, not the answer, but an answer. But first, please understand that this piece is significantly more speculative than the last one. I’ve already explored the stuff I feel super confident in; this is the unexplored territory.

First, it's a different game than Payday: The Heist. I came in with expectations that it would be an improved version of its predecessor, and, with the stated goal of allowing more player choice, it isn't. Trying to divorce my expectations of what a sequel should be from the end result has proved challenging.

But that's an easy answer.

During our most recent play session, my crew spent more time doing things for the XP, achievements, and cash than we did playing for the play’s sake. Instead of focusing on the gameplay, on what was more satisfying or fun, we went for watching little notifications pop up on screen while bars filled up and played happy noises. If you go watch the record of our livestream over on Twitch, there’s an audible “yaaaay” when we got an achievement or levled up. The only mission we tried to stealth was the FBI office, and we only did that because, yeah, there’s a (very annoying) achievement that you have to get while stealthed (I could write a whole thing on the problems I have with Payday 1 and Payday 2's approach to achievements; the short version is that I think being rewarded for failure is bad).

When we talked about things, our language was couched in terms of efficiency. We blew up our first batch of meth in Rats because it’s a lot quicker to do that than wait in a tiny little room and shoot the cops while cooking meth. Just have a fast player blow up the first batch while the others wait in the van, then leave. We did stay for all the money in the final mission, but only because, hey, money. The objective itself—run to a van, obtain money without blowing up, retrieve the money—is boring and repetitive.

Honestly, we enjoyed our experience as much as we did because of the 80s pop music we were playing through Mumble, not because of some really fulfilling gameplay.

We justified our focus on XP because of skill points—most after-mission discussion centers on what skills we want, rather than what missions we’re going to have the most fun playing. There’s a degree of irony in this, of course: we wanted skills to help us play better, but we spent all our time thinking about the next big skill. Maybe this kind of thinking changes at level 100, but, judging by the friend I've got that's at 100... he just decided to stop playing.

At this point, I could focus on Pavlovian response and XP in games and the concept of player motivation, but I’m betting you have a basic understanding of how the human mind works and responds to stimulus, and as such, you already know that yeah, XP and achievements and stuff can take precedence over the core gameplay. Some people actually enjoy this—many of my friends, especially those who are into tabletop gaming, seem to play games as if the gameplay is the grind, and the build is the real game. It’s a valid method of play, but not one I personally value.

And Payday 2… sort of leans towards encouraging this train of thought, which I find troubling. The challenges system in Payday: The Heist basically encouraged play within the game experience proper: it said “hey, that may be optimal path, but check this other thing out!” This was often very fun! Without challenges, I would never have tried using the Brenner, a gun so fun to use that I feel its absence from Payday 2 is as significant as the absence of level 145.

Why I Don't Exactly Love Payday 2, Part 2 (and why I love Overkill)

One reason I have a hard time enjoying ‘build’ games is because often, the most optimal path of doing things isn’t necessarily the most fun. I’ve discovered tons of really cool, clever things that designers have included in their games that are ultimately ignored by the players, because they’re ‘not optimal.’ And this entire mindset can permeate the whole experience: in Payday 2’s Nightclub level, I enjoy finding and picking up bundles of cash, but some members of my team usually just encourage me to leave it be; it’s not worth the time to go hunting for them, especially when they’re only worth $1,000 to $1,300, and adding a weapon mod to a gun can cost $100,000 or more. It’s quicker to just go speed run Jewelry Store or Rats.

So this whole ‘building a tree’ thing is a bit of a problem. As I’ve observed, even in myself, players are focused less on playing the game—less on using those systems for the play’s sake—and more on simply achieving the optimal outcome. This accounts for part of the problem I’ve had playing before, and my initial perplexed feeling at Goldfarb’s suggestion that the game had more choice, with my first thought being “what? No, that isn’t right…”

But then I thought about it and realized that, yeah, Payday 2 actually does have a bit of a focus on player choice. The build choice, however, seems to hold players back a bit. If someone said “alright, Doc, you get to make one drastic change to Payday 2’s existing mechanics,” I’d probably respond with “get rid of the skill tree, and focus more on all player choice being in regards to equipment.” One of the reasons I think STALKER’s such a great RPG is that there aren’t any skills or stats to speak of, just equipment. Depending on the job at hand, you equip yourself with the right gear, and then you tackle it.

It’s still about builds and optimization, but it’s much more flexible—based on the gameplay goals for a specific mission.

If you don’t believe achievements or external goals can affect a player experience, check out this piece by Chris Hecker talking about the possible harmful nature of achievements, then follow it up with Jamie Cheng—of Klei fame—talking about his company’s work on Don’t Starve, and how a game’s rewards greatly affect the way players approach video games.

It's also worth noting that a lot of the complaints surrounding bad behavior in online play is precisely because people are being kicked for not having X or Y equipment. “Oh, you don't have extended throwing? Bye bye! What's that? No C4? Get lost.” So the skill tree's actually created divisiveness.

That was a great deal longer than I meant it to be.

So yeah! I say the game’s more simple, to which Goldfarb says “but we’re focused on player choice,” I see missions that seem to go only one way… and I realize that they’re only going one way because they best facilitate one best possible outcome. Goldarb's absolutely right: there are multiple ways to complete them, it's just that they're not optimal, and most people will simply restart if they don't get what they want. That, right there, is part of the problem. As I said previously, Payday: The Heist was very much about things going wrong, and having to adapt to that situation; in Payday 2, things rarely go wrong, and when they do, the optimal thing to do is to hide away in one specific room and not really move around all that much.

Before I get into the second half, let's talk about money really quick.

For a while, money's a big goal. Everyone wants it. Eventually, you get the mods you want (or, like me, the only drops you get are small amounts of cash, lame color combinations (like “white”), or parts for guns you don't use or already own, and the heists start paying out so much money on Overkill that it isn't worth playing anything less... ugh. After a while, like, say, around level 50, money becomes practically worthless.

We could argue that it's because the skill tree isn't very well designed. We could argue that it's because the maps are short/small. We could argue that it's because making it through maps super quickly is preferable to making it through maps the long way, so cash accrues very quickly.

Personally, I feel that the biggest problem is that most of the drops in the games are for weapons, but the thing is, most people use a very limited selection of weapons (“Just get the Deagle” or “Mmm, dat Mosconi” are all too common). And it makes sense if you're limited to weapons while you're leveling up, then you'd expect the highest-powered weapons to be for the highest level. In a level-driven system, they should be a goal.

This, by the way, is why I point to STALKER as doing the whole 'roleplay through equipment' thing. Depending on the mission, you're going to want to really focus on different gear. This gun is good in this situation against these enemies and that gun is good in that map against those enemies. There is no 'best gun.' Again, I'm butting heads with the idea of leveling that drives Payday 2.

Why I Don't Exactly Love Payday 2, Part 2 (and why I love Overkill)

But, I dunno. I just kinda wish there was more to do with money later on in the game. Maybe Overkill could take cues from Turn 10 and go with a sort of Auction House, letting players buy and sell items, rather than waiting for the right item to drop—I still haven't found my much-desired The Jaw mask, blue and pink color, and Electric Center pattern, though I think I have a metal material. Maybe they could add weapon skins (seriously, give me a bright pink Brenner or M308 with blue highlights, guys). This is all a great deal of work, but it would provide more things for players to buy.

(I really like pink and blue and find it visually appealing—see games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Hotline Miami)

Getting lots of cash is good—makes you feel like you're becoming a more powerful criminal—but it eventually becomes worthless because there isn't enough to spend it on.

Right, so, that talking point was unexpected.

Let's talk about heist games and whether or not they should be all about player choice. The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that the short answer is wrong and isn't thinking very hard.

See, heists, in movies, work like clockwork: the team has a plan. They attempt to carry out that plan. They either succeed or fail and have to readjust while things go pear-shaped all around them. Heist stories, in general, are very, very linear experiences, so a genre expectation would be that the game should be as well. Payday: The Heist provided fairly linear missions, and as a result, they were complex. Payday 2's missions and systems tend to heavily encourage specific behaviors (waiting in just one cover spot between waves, rushing, etc), but are shorter as well, meaning that missions can feel far less fulfilling.

So the simple argument on how to avoid the whole 'people are only doing simple smash n' grabs' is that we should kinda ignore 'choice' and let players operate more as minions working for a mastermind than anything else.

But that argument isn't any fun.

Let's flash back to a couple years ago. I was chatting with people about what makes an RPG, explaining why JRPGs are a completely different kind of game (and RPG is a misapplied term), and the discussion swerved around to 'just because you have skill points and XP doesn't make a game an RPG.' I mentioned games like God of War and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which led our discussion into the whole 'nature of role-play' discussion, which meant explaining how 'role-play' is not 'playing a role,' because 'role-play' is a term with roots that are deep within improvisation—that is, defining your character's role within a space.

To illustrate my point, I came up with a thought experiment: how would a leveling system work in a game that takes place within the space of a few hours? You have one map. You are a thief. You are at a party. You are told to steal something. How do you do it?

Do you sneak? Do you charm your way in? Do you hold someone—or maybe the party itself—at gunpoint? You, at that moment in time, would have to become someone to obtain the goal you want—you'd be role-playing.

This idea started to grow as I earned my game design degree at school. Unfortunately, most of the students were more interested in playing or talking about games than actually making them, and the department's near-collapse and subsequent restructuring (which I helped with!) meant I spent less time working on development than I would have liked.

But still, I played with it. My final project for the degree was intended to be a prototype of the game's first mansion. Even now, I'm fleshing the idea out—the goal is to randomly generate an objective. Maybe one playthrough, you've got to steal someone's pearl necklace (so you could pickpocket her or lure her out into the garden or shoot her in front of everyone and run or...), or maybe you've got to steal a car (which means finding the keys or something to hotwire), or maybe you've got to kill a famous art critic (so you could poison him or wait for him to be alone or shoot everyone in the crowd). Anyways, you've got a lot of randomized objectives, you spawn at a bunch of randomized locations, and the entire game's a puzzle game.

I believe that thinking of this sort of game in terms of 'puzzle game' is really important, to be honest. It's all about 'how do I solve the problem of obtaining my goal and escaping with it on this map that changes every time I play it?'

Player choice is a big part of solving a puzzle. Do I choose to be the smooth talker who walks his way into the room, boldly? Do I play as the sneaky thief? Perhaps I'm a thug. Each of these methods means making a series of choices that affect the way the game's played. Assuming the skills are balanced, and each method is reasonably viable, then the entire game manages to be a heist game centered around player choice.

Payday is a lot like that. It's a randomized experience with multiple methods of interaction. Granted, you, the player, are really only limited to one character type, which puts a huge amount of restriction right then and there, because it means you kinda have to tackle all the missions in a limited amount of ways. You can't choose one day to charm your way in, and another day to commit genocide.

So how do we make choice in Payday 2 really stand out?

Why I Don't Exactly Love Payday 2, Part 2 (and why I love Overkill)

Let's be clear—this is a “what if?” Words are cheap; I can type them at 110 WPM. The ideas I'm suggesting here are probably not all doable in Payday 2, and if they are, then I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that they'd take a lot of work, time, and money to implement. These are not requests for anyone at Overkill, they're ideas for beginning dialog, or, uh, maybe requests for Payday 3, which should totally be set in 1986 because yes.

Right, so, choice.

The first thing to do would be to get rid of optimal paths, so that there are no obvious choices. Maybe that means varying the XP based on the time spent in the mission (though players could theoretically sit there, stealthed, for hours, and just rack up the XP; maybe it has a maximum possible limit). Maybe it means that specific choices—using the key card, for instance, warrants more cash and XP than, say, using a drill or an ECM jammer.

The next thing to do, I think, would be to have more complex and larger missions. Take Payday: The Heist's Mercy Hospital. What if you had the option to place down the fake sentry turrets? What if you could choose where to place them? What if the fake turrets controlled the flow of cops through the map for a few minutes, as well as the flow of people trying to hit the panic button?

As weird as this sounds, I think looking to Tower Defense games is actually a neat idea. Imagine a map where you fortify positions, controlling the flow of enemies into a kill box. I'm not saying that the entire game should focus on that; merely that it might make for an interesting option. Say you take a map that's all corridors, like the original game's Undercover, and you barricade certain doors. Maybe there's a special kind of enemy that can break barricades to counteract that. Maybe they use C4 or a SWAT vehicle to blow through walls, like in the original game.

Payday 2's already got ways to board up windows—what if that was expanded upon, and we could block off, say, three of the doors in Bank heist, and most of the windows, forcing the cops to come in through the front?

A variation on this might be the ability to interact with objects in more complex ways. Check out FEAR—look how the enemy AI alters the map space when they engage in a gunfight, with stuff like flipping over tables to create cover or shutting doors. Imagine if the players could do that?

Actively moving hostages would be really nice, by the way. The original game had a way to shout at people to get them to move, as seen in Green Bridge and Heat Street. Maybe something like that could work. Picking a location to move hostages to, distracting cops while you move, say, the cocaine, not to mention slowing them down, would be great. Having players think about whether they should take hostages and where they should herd the hostages would be great—think about all those classic heist movies that are all “everyone get down on the floor!” or “everyone, move to this or that room!”

My stealth game is predicated on the concept of complex player interactions; it's intended to be an immersive sim, after all, like Thief, STALKER, or System Shock 2. Complex player interactions are what facilitate choice, far more than being able to build a character through skill points.

I think part of the trouble Payday 2 might have is that the interactions, particularly with the AI, are all very simple. It's not like you can teach an enemy to fear you (as I did in Thief's Bonehoard), or you can trick an enemy into calling more enemies to its location, leading them to slaughter (again, Bonehoard). It's not like they really do much to affect the game space or demonstrate an awareness of the player (that's one thing I love about FEAR, by the way—the enemies recognize me as a threat and talk about it, freaking out because I've gone into superspeed or got a shotgun or that they're outnumbered or something).

Complex AI can do a lot to improve player choice, by the way. I've been having a fun conversation in Steam chat about this: for instance, if a cop sees you, and you kill a hostage, knowing it's going to cost you, he A) backs off, but B) calls in more buddies for the next wave and C) tries a different entrance. So killing hostages becomes a mechanic, rather than an 'oh you shot the wrong guy' thing. Again, another means of choice.

I'm sure there are other kinds of complex interactions that could be found (perhaps being able to bluff security guards, actually speaking with them); if there's one thing I've learned about the internet, is that despite all the bad ideas, there are some really good ones to be found. Talking about how to make an ideal horror game in the comments on my horror article the other day, for instance, was proof of that.

That said, it's worth noting that some missions do have optimal objectives: for instance, Big Oil allows players to steal from a bunch of ATMs in the basement. Thing is, the cash isn't really all that worthwhile; because the cops will show up no matter what you do, an assault's going to happen, so there's no point in opening the ATM's. It's best to simply run away in order to avoid wasting time on a car chase. In a mission like Diamond Heist, the sapphires and red diamond are worth a lot, but monetary value isn't the only possibility. Players could, in a mission like Mercy Hospital, choose to look for the patient's medical files, or they could let the doctor say where the guy is; maybe the medical files don't always spawn, or the doctor doesn't say as much as she should, making it risky to rely on just one source of information.

So, yeah. Plenty of ideas.

As it stands, the game's skill system has a lot of drawbacks, and I can't really find anything redeeming about it; I feel it encourages bad behavior, both in terms of 'why we play missions and what missions we play,' and in terms of 'how players interact with people they don't know.' The game's focus on co-op play doesn't go very well with a skill tree that makes it super important to have one crewmember in each tree. Payday: The Heist gave us choice by letting us have a lot of different abilities, but limiting our slots; we could essentially 'build' for a specific mission, and, as such, we were always focused on the mission, rather than what we'd be earning next.

The game's not very choice-encouraging as it stands now, but some mechanics, like taking hostages and barricading windows could be expanded, while other methods could come out of thin air. Coupling this with more complicated objectives would be a great start, but they can't be worthless, like, say, finding $1,000 cash bundles on a mission that pays out $500,000 or something.

Payday 2 is an interesting game, a conflicted game. I like it. I don't like it. I like the promise of it. I like the co-op. But most of all, I like that I can talk about this game and the developers will listen—not necessarily accept everything I say, but they'll listen. And you know what? Sometimes, they show me I was thinking about their game wrong.

Let's hope the future DLC is awesome. I can't wait to try it out.