Creating and supporting a game, especially a large, popular game, is a task filled with massive challenges. Among those challenges, though, none is more daunting than the work required to shift a game's business model post-launch. As many games edge towards being more like services than products - their team staying together post-launch to tweak, refine and expand upon their original vision, keeping players engaged and paying for months or even years - this is a task which is occasionally required, but which very few developers have, as yet, actually experienced in action. Mistakes are inevitable; even some things that aren't mistakes can look pretty damned bad from the outside, which is a special kind of mistake in itself. A game's business model might not seem like the aspect closest to your players' hearts, but changing it can evoke far more powerful emotions than you might expect.
You know where this is going; Starbreeze subsidiary Overkill has been dragged over the coals in recent weeks for the introduction of microtransactions to its game Payday 2. The backlash from furious fans has spread across social media and, perhaps more damagingly, has started to impact the game's listings on services like Steam, not to mention being widely reported across the specialist press. The game's most vocal consumers absolutely hate the change, pointing out (not entirely unreasonably) that it flies in the face of very clear commitments made regarding microtransactions by the developers in previous statements.
"Turning your biggest fans against your game is a big, big loss... Ideally, when you transition between business models, your superfans should be your cheerleaders"
Overkill isn't the first studio to introduce changes to the business model of a game some time after launch. Many massively-multiplayer have gone down this line, shifting from a subscription model to an F2P model mid-course; Valve has also dipped toes in these troubled waters, turning Team Fortress 2 into an F2P game after several years on the market. In each case, the transition has been a tricky one - delicately handled, for the most part, but every team involved probably bears battle scars from things that simply didn't work out as intended, or were not received by the fanbase as anticipated. In each case (with the possible exception of TF2, which was more of an experiment than anything else), the change of business model was a necessity; the old model, perhaps outdated or simply ineffective, didn't support the team required to operate a game-as-a-service. A new, more profitable model had to be found, or the game was done for.
Payday 2, it seems, is in broadly the same position. Overkill hasn't done the greatest job of explaining what's going on; it says that the team working on Payday 2 has expanded greatly since its launch, from 25 members to 75 today, and that recent efforts to drive uptake (and hence, presumably, the customer base for its extensive set of DLC) by discounting the base game have failed to work very well. It has a contract with publisher 505 Games to build additional content through to 2017; the studio wants to over deliver on that contract, providing far more content, hence the massive expansion of the team. Revenues from the existing model don't justify that, so rather than reducing the team size, they've chosen to experiment with a new revenue model.
Honestly, that's fine. It's to be expected, even. Overkill has every right to experiment with different ways of funding the game it wants Payday 2 to be; indeed, I'd argue that the studio would be negligent not to do so. Payday is a very, very successful franchise and it ought to be able to support extensive post-launch development in some manner; if the approach it's taking now doesn't work (and honestly, releasing that much paid DLC for a game must run into some pretty enormous diminishing returns after a whole), it's absolutely the studio's responsibility to try something new.
The problem isn't trying something new. The problem is that they messed it up. Not perhaps from a direct business perspective - Overkill claims that their data shows that the microtransaction (you buy a "drill" for a few dollars which allows you to open special cases dropped in-game, giving you a chance at a special weapon which may have better stats than other weapons in the game) has been a success. For all the sturm und drang on Reddit and elsewhere, most players appear to have found Overkill's offering appealing. There are absolutely times when you need to listen to your data rather than your players; or rather, to recognise that your data truly is your players, all of your players, and not just the noisy handful who take to Internet forums to shout about things. This is probably one of those times; but Overkill still messed up, because that noisy handful is precious in its own way. They're your superfans, the people whose passion for your game translates into powerful word of mouth and social media virality, and my god; there's no fury like that of a superfan scorned.
Turning your biggest fans against your game is a big, big loss. It's easy to dismiss these people as a noisy minority in the face of your data, but this isn't a conflict you need to be having - or at least, it's a conflict you should be bending over backwards to avoid. Ideally, when you transition between business models, your superfans should be your cheerleaders; you bring the along with you on the journey, convince them of its value, and use their influence and noisiness to help to smooth the transition of the rest of the playerbase. Overkill did... Well, Overkill did the opposite. The company sprang the microtransaction on its players out of the blue, announcing an in-game event that would be free for everyone and only revealing the need for an in-game purchase to people who got one of the special chests. It felt sneaky and underhanded; hell, it genuinely was sneaky and underhanded, as if Overkill already knew their players would hate this and wanted to hide it until the last possible second.
"In part, this is down to an absolute failure of communication and community management, due perhaps to a certain sense of defensive embarrassment Overkill seems to have felt about the change from the outset"
Consider a counterfactual, if you will; a scenario where Overkill, instead of sneaking in a new business model under the cover of a misleadingly titled event, had engaged openly and honestly with their community (however small a sliver of the customer base that "community" may be) and worked through the reasoning and the plans for the introduction of new business aspects in the game. Consider a scenario where the company, in humble acknowledgement of its previous pledges (which would now be broken and should never have been made), figured out a way to make the new model work for existing players, so they felt benefits from it, not just an aggrieved sense of being gouged. It wouldn't have been smooth sailing - in-game purchase models raise some hackles regardless - but it would have been a much smoother transition than now, and the immense damage that's been done to the game's reputation and chances of future playerbase expansion could have been largely avoided.
In part, this is down to an absolute failure of communication and community management, due perhaps to a certain sense of defensive embarrassment Overkill seems to have felt about the change from the outset - which is absolutely no way to approach a change to your game. Beyond that, though, the change itself is a little half-hearted. Payday 2 isn't becoming a free-to-play game, which might have hugely expanded its audience; it's just added a financial barrier to accessing some of its best weapons, even for players who are already heavily (and I do mean heavily - all that DLC adds up) financially invested in the game. It's hard to escape the notion that Overkill's model change, far from being a radical shift, is just an attempt to eke more revenue out of existing users, and I'm not sure that's a model change that could ever go down terribly well with core fans - or, for that matter, one that's sustainable in the medium to long term with any group of fans.
I hope the experience, and the data it generated, are being carefully analysed at Overkill, and will result in a better, more popular game in future; the damage done to reputation from this blunder is going to be extremely costly to overcome, but perhaps a clever business model will emerge from the debacle that claws back some of that cost. For other studios and developers, there's a salutary lesson here. Changing tack with your business model is probably a task a great many game creators will encounter in the coming years; what's happened to Payday 2 shows the importance of committing to your change, of effectively communicating that change and of bringing your vocal fans with you on the journey if you want to reach the destination unscathed.