Payday 3’s heists embrace flexible skills and unexpected tactics

My first 20 minutes with a preview build of Payday 3 at Gamescom were a comforting microcosm of the series at large. As per usual, I spent way too long prepping my character build, and after designing a gaudy metal mask glazed like a purple donut, I dilly-dallied my way through Payday 3’s toy box of targeted skill trees, min-maxing the coolest heist abilities, and feeling deep satisfaction in the process.

Way back in the day (when Payday 2 had only four skill trees), I was the Mastermind of my group, the guy responsible for tagging threats and barking at all the customers-turned-hostages in the bank. As such, I tended to skew toward a stealthy approach, and here I was, 10 years later, intentionally diverging from the muscly setup the demo build had given me so that I could experience just how much Payday 3 has altered the formula.

After a startling introduction from noted Payday fan Ice-T, my teammates and I booted into the Port Jersey heist, and I was ready to make my team proud with some wily sneaking. The objective was to determine which shipping containers in the yard contained valuable quantum processors. The catch? The processors start degrading when we remove them from their cooling stations, adding pressure to our escape. My mind was racing with ideas, but before I could suggest a plan or even tag a single security camera, I heard the familiar sound of gunfire, and my custom criminal begrudgingly pulled his daft donut mask on. My teammates were going loud, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. (At launch, you can set lobbies to private or friends only.)

Thankfully, Payday 3 is a far more malleable game than its predecessors, in which this plot twist would have been extra annoying. Even though I was woefully underequipped for a loud approach to the heist, my stealthy abilities still came in handy. I ran through locked doors to make escape routes, marked guards so my team could deal more damage to them, and used my Infiltrator skills to pick up loot quicker than the rest of the gang. Admirably, our team still made it to the exit phase until I was kicked to death by a Cloaker, a special guard variant with night vision, and we collectively bit the dust. After my session, I sat down for an interview with lead producer Andreas Häll Penninger to dig into this tricky pivot toward more profound player freedom in the threequel.

A team of robbers takes cover during a shootout with the police

Image: Starbreeze Studios, Overkill Software/Deep Silver

“We want people to be able to bring whatever they want to the heist,” Häll Penninger told Polygon. In Payday 2, if players messed up a heist in stealth and didn’t have heavy weapons or armor, they’d almost always have to restart. “We don’t want players to see failing stealth as a failure,” Häll Penninger added. “We just want them to try and do it. We want to ensure you still have an incentive to stay in the heist.”

It’s an awkward balance to get right, since giving players such adaptability will ostensibly limit the need for specialization. It would be difficult to pass judgment given the small amount of hands-on time I’ve had (with strangers), but I’m hoping this won’t kill the need to consistently communicate with your teammates, which has always been Payday’s lifeblood. Over the past decade of online multiplayer, few moments were as memorable as the tense, hilarious exchanges I’d have with my pals over Discord at the cusp of an hourlong heist.

Fortunately, Starbreeze Studios is trying to account for this with several iterative changes to smooth the transition. In line with the greater incentive to mix and match between a variety of skill trees, Starbreeze has removed the concealment rating, but introduced new stealth phases so you don’t fail immediately. It has also added a system called Security Modifiers, which can be applied to heists at higher difficulties. Häll Penninger mentioned indestructible cameras and a special guard that follows players and sets off pagers endlessly when killed. These Security Modifiers will rotate weekly to keep experienced players on their toes. It’s a lot to get used to, but Häll Penninger believes it will summon more of those frantic conversations I’m craving.

“We’re always trying to get you in a situation where, for a moment, it feels like you’re in control,” said Häll Penninger. “And then it feels like things are turning very quickly into, like, you almost got caught, or you’re almost downed. And I think we’re seeing more of those moments in Payday 3, and naturally, it triggers emotions where you’re panicking and calling your friend. We tried to design the game so that you’ll feel that experience a lot more frequently. And I think the fact that you have a lot more freedom in your skills and such will require you at higher difficulties to have very coordinated loadouts. There’s a lot more encouragement around, ‘Let’s talk before we get into it.’”

A robber coasts along a zipline while aiming his assault rifle in Payday 3

Ronnie is only here for the zipline
Image: Starbreeze Studios, Overkill Software/Deep Silver

Rounding out the significant changes, a trio of buffs called Edge, Grit, and Rush will provide players with damage, defense, and speed boosts, respectively. “Those are triggered depending on your skills, and you can retrigger those with other skills, so I think what we’ll see happening is a lot of people min-maxing to try to find a balance where they can maintain all three buffs active at the same time,” said Häll Penninger. I noticed that many of the game’s skills were focused on feeding into Edge, Grit, and Rush, but Payday 3 still maintains a good selection of new abilities and equipment that will have meaningful effects on gameplay.

Häll Penninger brought up the new spy camera as an example of how Payday 3 is nurturing criminal activity that the designers didn’t expect. “What I’ve seen people do is like, ‘I’m gonna place a spy camera on your ass, and then you’re gonna walk into the bank, and I’ll be able to mark cameras and the guards that are behind you.’”

Perhaps the most alarm-raising addition is C-Stacks, a new in-game currency for Payday 3 that runs parallel to your cash flow, but I’m quickly assured that this is anything but premium. “When you rob a bank, you don’t want to get away with 5,000 bucks, like it needs to be 100 or 200,000,” Häll Penninger explains. “That fucks with the economy a little bit. So we needed something to convert it into — another currency for some other special items.” Those exclusive items take shape as preset weapon variants as well as specific cosmetics that can only be bought with C-Stacks.

A team of robbers drops their loot bags to ward off police in Payday 3

Image: Starbreeze Studios, Overkill Software/Deep Silver

Some cute new minigames tied to lock-picking and cracking windows add an extra layer of manual physicality to heists. Enemies also seem more intelligent in how they flank, and the new damage-tracking hit markers are a lovely addition to the UI. “Something that we are doing very well is the feeling of really being inside the heist, like if you’re playing a bank, you’re shouting at civilians, you’re lowering the window blinds, you can close the door, and you actually enter the code to get into the vault,” Häll Penninger said. “And there’s a lot of interactions you’re not seeing in many other games. Take GTA Online, for example. I’d say that’s a more cinematic experience; it has higher production value, but you’re losing a part of the intensity. We’re really trying to zoom in on every objective that you’re doing. So it becomes sort of like a very isolated sandbox.”

But before hanging their mask on the next entry, many fans may be wondering how Starbreeze will support Payday 3 long-term. Payday 2 had a remarkable 10-year life cycle, and Starbreeze is consciously building on that foundation. “Payday 3 is going to live for a long time; that’s the plan,” said Häll Penninger.

There will be a balance of free and paid content after launch, but Starbreeze has learned important lessons from the absurd amount of collaborative DLC the developer brought to Payday 2, from Hotline Miami to H3H3. “Some of them fit the universe very well, some of them not from my point of view,” Häll Penninger said. “We’re gonna go back to the roots a little bit. From a tonality point of view, it’s closer to Payday: The Heist. Doing crossovers, we need to have our integrity remaining, you know.”

A team of four robbers strolls through a dock before (or maybe after) a heist in Payday 3

Image: Starbreeze Studios, Overkill Software/Deep Silver

An easy win for Starbreeze would be to port the community’s favorite Payday 2 heists to Payday 3 to flesh out the eight-strong pool of maps available at launch. Häll Penninger said he “can’t confirm yet” but thinks it’s a great idea and expressed an interest in working with the community to see what heists they want reimagined. One complication may be that some Payday 2 heists occur across multiple days, with separate stealth and assault missions to work through. With Payday 3, Starbreeze has stuck to one-day heists to ensure each “is its own set-piece.” However, Häll Penninger mentioned that Starbreeze is willing to evaluate that long-term if the community wants multiple-day heists back.

Payday 2 also had a substantial modding scene. While players won’t be able to mod Payday 3 at launch, Starbreeze is exploring it now that it’s built the core launch-day product. “We understand the importance of it from a community perspective, but we early on also understood the challenges of allowing modding,” said Häll Penninger. “Now we are investigating modding, though we can’t say anything yet, apart from that we’re passionate about it.”

So far, Starbreeze’s strategy with the Payday series has been to evolve and improve the base game rather than add new modes, but the studio is open to the idea further down the line. Häll Penninger mentioned cops versus robbers as a strong fantasy, as well as heisters versus heisters, but it’s all speculative for now as the team gears up for launch. “The most important thing for us right now is to make sure that the fan base that exists there, that are playing Payday 2 today — that they are pleased with [Payday 3].”

Payday 3 will be released on Sept. 21 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.

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