During a recent Payday 3 event, I sat down with Global Brand Director and Head of Community of Starbreeze Entertainment Almir Listo to talk about post-launch plans for Payday 3, how the Ice T heist came to be, and how to keep a community engaged for over a decade.
Payday 3 Head of Community Talks Year One Roadmap, Ice-T Heist, & Comically Large Spoons
Jesse Vitelli: Do me a favor and introduce yourself real quick.
Almir Listo: “Sure. My name is Almir Listo. I work as the Global Brand Director and Head of Community at Starbreeze Entertainment.”
JV: Payday has had a very strong community for a long time, right? Like Payday 2, we’re talking 10 years ago. Now you’re coming back with Payday 3 the game is launching with eight heists upfront. How did you come to the number eight? Do you just feel like that was content complete for what Payday 3’s scope was?
Almir: “I think during any game developments, you have like a spectrum of how much content you think you can make it out the door with kinda. Right? Right. And ultimately, through our design phase our production stage, we felt that eight is a good number to start with. It’s a good foundation. I mean, Payday The Heist had six heists at launch. Payday 2 had 12.
Although they were some of them were like copies of each other. You know, one was deposit, one was cash, but they were essentially the same level. So we felt that with Payday 3 coming to a new engine, and a completely new foundation like an evolution and we felt eight was the perfect starting point. And I think that’s also reflected in the price point of the game that it starts at 40 bucks.”
JV: So for those of you unfamiliar with it, what do you consider when you say heist? What does that mean to a player who maybe hasn’t played Payday before? What entails a heist?
Almir: “So what is a heist? A heist is the sum of the purpose, and the purpose is to get your payday. And depending on the contractor involved, the person who gives you your job, you’re asked to do various set of criminal activities, right? And for the two heists here to show you have the branch bank, where you’re supposed to like rob it of its money, right, and you have the mission, we call that the ICE T mission, or the one where the contractor Mac who was portrayed by ICE T gives you an opportunity to rob a warehouse in New Jersey for some special stuff that he needs you to get. And with the Payday gang historically, they can steal anything, as long as there’s someone willing to pay for it.”
JV: So Payday 2’s last heist is stealing the presidential pardons from the White House. How do you top that? How do you go bigger than that? Is there anything bigger than that?
Almir: “That’s a good question. I think you can. But what you need to do is to like pull it back, you know, drive back, because with Payday 2, we went all over the place, right? I mean, we supported the game for a decade. And that’s exactly what we’re looking to do with Payday 3 as well to continue supporting it for a decade, right, starting out with 18 months together with Plaion, and we’ll see where we go from there.
When we met before, we spoke about Pearl and Joy, but what I want to share with you as well is the post-launch update plan. Obviously, having a great product at launch, a game that everyone feels reflects the Payday essence, the Payday DNA, but also has a very clear direction in the post-launch, because that was ultimately what Payday 2 was about as well. I mean, in the post-launch, in total, Payday 2 got 88 heists, so a lot more than 12, right, and we’re looking to do something similar, I hope with Payday 3. So for Payday 3 in the first year, we’re looking to do four different heists, and then tie on a monthly basis, a lot of other content in between quality-of-life updates, patches, and whatnot.
But the four ones are, and let me see if I can recall this. First one is called Syntax Error, and the second one is Boys in Blue. The third one is the Land of The Free and the fourth one is called, let me just double check, and the fourth one is called Fear and Greed. And we call this year one The Bad Apple. Something’s rotten in New York City. So that’s like we have a narrative idea that we want to drive. And we have a clear heist scenario design that we wanted, right between these four different heists.”
JV: And so those heists are part of just like the year one roadmap out at some point, or post-launch where you do have a timetable for that kind of stuff. Yeah.
Almir: “So that’s all year one. Yeah. So first one is going to pop in winter, second one in spring, third one in summer and last one in the fall. So I’m going to keep people coming back. Yeah, precisely. And that’s going to be the year one. And then we’re going to have the year two, the year three. however long we choose to continue, but I think, you know, with Payday 2 as well. I mean, from the get-go, we never anticipated we continue for a decade. That’s unreal to do that. Right. But I think that’s all tied together with the community expectation. If they want more, we’ll deliver more. And I think that’s both of our ambition.”
JV: And so jumping off the White House thing again real quick, why is the gang getting out of retirement?
Almir: “That’s a good question. It’s something that I don’t fully want to spoil right now because it’s part of the launch narrative. But what we have said is that five years ago, they got their presidential pardons, right, and for what decided to leave the life of crime. But obviously, during their many, many years of active activity, they made a lot of powerful enemies. And in the Payday 2 narrative the past year, we created something called the lead tapes, The Lost Tapes, that tells you a story about these different enemies to the Payday gang are somehow damaged by the heisting and they are now looking to get their money worth essentially right. So enemies of old have decided to hit back at the Payday gang, and essentially forced them out of retirement. So that’s why five years later, the OG gang and now including Pearl and Joy come back to New York City to Yeah, put on the masks again.”
JV: Okay. And to touch on the community a little bit. Y’all have done a lot of collaborations in the past. Some the community loves, some of the community, you know, had their problems with.
Almir: “No love so much.”
JV: Weird revisionist history where suddenly they’re like, why aren’t you bringing this back?
Almir: “Yeah, oh, that’s super funny. Yeah, with John Wick. For example, when we launched John Wick, the movies weren’t a thing yet, right? The Payday 2 update was two days before the movies got out in cinemas in the US. And as part of that campaign, we put out 50,000 copies for Payday 2 on the back of Grim Fandango tickets for the John Wick movie, right. And at the time, they were like, hashtag kick the wick, you know, because they were so disappointed with us doing a collab as part of that event. However, over the years, you know, John Wick has become a huge big thing. Right? And I think we are for the better for it.
And in so many interviews and different conversations about Payday 3 people have been asking, you know, we’re gonna do something we don’t wait. And I just that, that just goes to show how much time affects that, but also how we maybe curate that partnership, because with John Wick, as an example, we’ve made several different beats over the years where we introduced different John Wick weapon packs, heists and so on, and himself as a playable character.
And I think, you know, for Payday 2 we did over 30 collabs One of the most popular ones being Hotline Miami with Jacket, you know, being introduced and a few heists based on Hotline Miami. So I definitely think we’ll be seeing collabs for Payday 3. However, it won’t be early on, it might be in half a year to a year or two, maybe longer depending, because we want to keep the we want to keep the brand and the identity of the game intact.”
JV: Yeah, you don’t need to break that seal.
Almir: “You know what I mean? Yeah, exactly like that. Because if you go at it too fast, then you get the kind of situation again, where people are just not being able to appreciate it and, instead just look at the like, the bad parts of it.”
JV: And then its identity becomes something else.
Almir: “Yeah, diluted.”
Almir: “And we don’t want to dilute it. We want to keep it intact, the integrity of it all. You just make sure that whatever call I would have, it’s like on brand is kind of amplify the universe amplify the story and the fantasy of being a heist.”
JV: Would you say that collabs are in the year one roadmap, or is that something that will happen if it happens?
Almir: “Yeah, we haven’t announced exactly when we do that. But you know, there are so many different discussions ongoing because there’s excitement both from past, you know, potential new ones. So we’ll see. But I think timing is of essence, you know, it’s key in this and we will need to time it properly and not just like, try to plaster it on like, Oh, here’s something new, you know.”
JV: 10 years is a long time to manage a community to foster and to let it grow. And you said the idea is you want that to be Payday 3. So what’s the key to keeping the community thriving for 10 years?
Almir: “Respect is key. Respect is everything. I think trying to the best of our ability as a developer, because I’ve been with the community for 12 years now. And to be truthful, like any other relationship in your life, you know, with so or wherever, if you manage, whenever you hit some kind of turning point, like a point of no return, when there is a problem, you need to act accordingly.
Like, you can just try to sweep it under the rug because the community will remember, I think one of my issues with how, and I generalize, but how developers tend to behave towards the players is that they don’t give them the respect they deserve when it comes to their intelligence, their maturity, how involved and invested they are in the games, and I think we’ve done a good job at trying to realize that.
Yeah, so I think that’s that’s key, you know, respect is key and building on trust over time, you know, if we fuck up, which we’re bound to do at some point, even for Payday 3, then the way we save that or, like, become something great out of that is by making sure that we come to an agreement, where the community knows where we go, like, oh, yeah, we get what you why you did that, and that we learn from our mistakes. Yeah, we’ve tried to do our best to do that in the past. And I think you need to try to be humble towards that. Yeah. A lot of humility involved. For sure.”
JV: Let’s talk about the Ice-T mission for a minute, because we really haven’t much. How’d that collaboration happen?
Almir: “I guess it came about with me. tweeting him and DMS. Yeah. Like I see you’re a huge Payday 2 fan. We’re working on Payday 3, would you be interested in this? Because I realized many years ago, I saw him tweeting about Payday 2 like, and he’s been a fan for eight years, playing the game, you know, and he is a huge gamer, working with other games, but also playing a lot of games in his spare time.
And when we spoke for the first time, I was just so excited, you know about the game, like the direction of it. And I think for him as well, having worked on Law and Order, you know, having these OG roots, it was a beautiful opportunity for him to involve himself with one of his favorite games, but also something that’s like super on brand for him and his persona. And for us, it was super important that it didn’t feel tacky, right, it was someone who has that levity, and that like, criminal gravitas to really portray that character.
So we created Mac together, who’s from New Jersey, and one of the contractors, the first one who helps to pay the gang to get to New York, for whatever reason. And I’m super excited to see where we take that, because that’s I mean, launch for us. And I can’t underline that enough. It’s only the beginning, right? Especially if we look at Payday 2. And what we learn from that is that launch is only the beginning, it’s in the post-launch, that we’re really gonna start diving deeper together with the community on what we want to do what we want to see where we want to go together.”
JV: What is one lesson that you learned from Payday2 that you are absolutely bringing with you into Payday 3?
Almir: “That’s a good one. To really listen to the community, be as straightforward as we possibly can with them. And to realize, or to remind ourselves that even though we might screw up, because, you know, you can never say never, there is always a way back, right? Because it’s in the community’s like, it’s in their interest to see us succeed. And I would love for us to succeed together and really, you know, elevate that relationship, you know, because I think, you know, video games haven’t been around for that long, a couple of decades now. I think there is so much more that we can achieve together some of the more interesting things that we can explore community events, you know, where the community has the ability to inject themselves into the experience in various ways.
We have a really good example. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, so I’ll explain it. We had a meme and inside joke about a comically large golden spoon. Have you heard about that? So definitely check this out. There’s a huge YouTuber called Russian Badger. And him and his friends. They did a huge YouTube video on Payday. They got millions of views and they were joking about this comically large golden spoon. And suddenly, in the video, they said, Yeah, we should pull the Almir to make it into the game. And the community started to you know, voice ya know, get the golden spoon in the game. So for April Fool’s we’ve actually put in a golden spoon into the game.
But we pulled the community’s leg, and said here’s a comically large fork, because that’s not what they wanted, right? They wanted the spoon and then we gave them the spoon. And we added this comically large, yellow golden spoon to the game that when you use it in the lead, it can set enemies on fire. And it has nothing to do with heisting. Yeah, it has nothing to do with anything, really.
But it’s part of the culture, you know, in between the lines of the community and the game, like the kind of thing where like, you had to be there to get it. Yeah. And it became this huge thing, right. And I just love for that, because I see so many positive memories being generated as a consequence of that collaboration between us and them, you know, and, and then creating this narrative of having bullied it to the game because of them, you know, pressuring us, which is love, because it’s that kind of back and forth.
We want, you know, that is kind of jovial, you know, and just fun, you know, because that’s what it’s about. Why are we playing video games, as some as an escapism? Some just to have a good time? Yeah, that’s what it’s about. So that’s what we want Payday to be a platform for.”
JV: Right? Yeah, there’s so many times where like, a community of a game will react negatively to a balance change or a new piece of content or whatever. Then you have to remember that there are moments when they bullied you into putting the comically large spoon into the game.
Almir: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And that’s just such a beautiful moment. Because again, it has nothing to do with heisting. But at the same time, it has everything to do with what makes Payday, Payday, right. And I think that’s the that’s the secret sauce right there. Us acting on stuff like that, right.
JV: And so with Payday 3, your goal is to put more comically large spoons into the video game.
Almir: “Every time I stream by myself as well on my own Twitch channel, but also for the studio on the official channel. And every time I get that question, I say, there have been no comically large utensils, confirmed for Payday 3, because obviously, there’s so many people asking for it. But they do that because they love how it happened in Payday 2. Yeah.
But the point we want to make is that happened in Payday 2, and it’s a Payday 2 thing. It might happen with Payday 3, but then it needs to find the right timing right, because we want to start serious with Payday 3, we want to make it into like this mature experience, you know, like pull it back again, like because it became a bit all over the place with Payday 2.”
JV: Games have to escalate to that point, they started as their own thing. And then as you and the community sort of build up things together, then it can warp into whatever we exactly think it wants to.
Almir: “I feel like with Payday 2, we were at times feeling that we were diluting it. Whereas with Payday 3 our goal is to never do that. But instead, find ways to refine it, you know, and just build on that and improve it.”
JV: Right, because in the presentation you were like Payday: The Heist was the concept, Payday 2 was the refinement, and then Payday 3 is like the evolution.
Almir: The foundation is the engine switch because Payday 2 was made in Diesel, which is our own engine.
JV: And now you’re on Unreal 4, soon to be 5?
Almir: “We’re gonna upgrade it to fight within the first year. So it’s going to be a huge difference, I hope for our players. But also just goes to show that we’re, you know, putting ourselves so much into this.”
JV: Is the reason the Unreal Engine 5 switch is coming later, just because you didn’t have the tools when you started developing 3?
Almir: “I would argue we had the tools, but we didn’t want to take the risk. Okay, so when we started development, we started in Unreal 4. And when we were offered the opportunity to upgrade, we were like, you know, the pros and cons type that if we were to hit our release date, and if we wanted to make sure that everything worked as well as possible for launch, we decided that you know what, let’s save that. Because we know we’re going to support the game anyway. In the post-launch let’s save that as part of the post-launch plan.”
JV: Right. And then that’s a whole other thing for people to look forward to.
Almir: “Precisely because it’s not going to be like a $20 upgrade to the fight right? It’s going to be something that affects everyone whether or not you play on PC or PlayStation.”
JV: Sometimes in Payday 2, there was like a little bit of a disparity between the PC version getting stuff before console.
Almir: “Huge disparity. That’s something that we’ve talked a lot about in our community, and especially during the 10-year celebration we did just the other week. And so what happened was that for Payday 2 on console, we had to stop development a few years in because essentially, we met with so many technical challenges that we were unable to fulfill that. And I think that’s such an unfortunate thing. Because at the time when we made Payday 2 we’d never thought or dreamed that we could support it for such a long time afterwards.
But with Payday 3 we’ve managed to realize that build the proper foundation, in order to make sure that we can have one community no matter what platform you play on, you can do cross-progression, cross-play, and just have an equally as good of a time on PC as you can on consoles.”
JV: I’m sure people are thrilled about that. I played Payday 2 on console for the first time, I played it on PS4, and I enjoyed it. It was good. But I would talk to my friends who played on PC, and they’re like, Oh, y’all don’t have that or that? Oh, yeah, I guess I don’t.
Almir: “And that creates two communities. Yes. And that’s, that’s the worst place to be in as a developer, because you want everyone to experience the same thing. And like in any new update, we would do for PC, we would see people going like, when is this coming to console, you know, and you would have to explain it again and again.
So you never like left with it. It’s like an open wound. Right. I’m super happy for us to start fresh with Payday 3. And we explained this in one of our developer diaries, that was focusing on consoles that, you know, we apologize for that. We own up to that, you know, it was our screw up. And hopefully, they will give us the opportunity with Payday 3 to regain their trust because that’s essentially what it’s about. Right? I think definitely a lot of them, maybe not you, but a lot of them felt betrayed almost like, why am I not supportive? Because not everyone realizes the reasons behind it.”