Payday 3 | What happens when your live service game isn’t live?

Payday 3 live service

As Payday 3 struggles with launch “day” woes, Vikki Blake wonders how long the live service bubble can survive.

How long is long enough, do you think? A day? A weekend? A full week? How long is long enough to wait for a game to get over its “launch day” issues?

Take Payday 3. It’s not that I don’t love it. It’s tapped into a hitherto unknown glee I only get when I work alongside strangers to pull off a heist without triggering an alarm, and I’ve spent the last few days wading through oceans of broken glass and cop corpses, having an absolute ball.

However. During the seven days since Payday 3 was launched (September 21), server woes wouldn’t let me play for five of them. Every time I tried to log on – because, much to some players’ chagrin, the game requires always-on, always-matchmaking even if you want to play solo or in a private lobby – I’d get a matchmaking error. Over and over and over again. Like Groundhog Day, only with clown masks.

In those early days, developer Starbreeze popped up frequently on social media to assure players it was trying to get on top of things. But perhaps more frustratingly still, they only popped up again to tell us that the servers had stabilised when the majority of its European and US audience were asleep or at work. By the time we’d finished feeding the kids or sending that last work email and jump on expectantly, the servers would collapse again. It felt like the only people who could get on in those first few days were Australians and insomniacs.

A quick glance on Steam, however, and it’s clear that by the time the servers did stabilise roughly five days later, it was already late for some. No, not all of the 25,000+ negative reviews take issue with the server troubles, but many, many do. And no, Starbreeze isn’t the first to have these issues and let’s face it: it won’t be the last, either. But Payday 3′s sadly shambolic arrival is a timely reminder that our ability to play a game no longer just relies on whether or not you have the money or means to pick it up or invest in next-gen consoles; it also depends on whether or not the publisher has the time, money, or inclination to invest in servers.

At least it’s the kind of despair and frustration that applies equally among the developers and audience alike, I guess. I know misery loves company and all that, but I can’t imagine it’s fun to be on the other side of reddit or social media when the game you’ve hyped up for the last however many years has gone tits up an hour after it launched, just as it’s no fun to be a player forced to stare at a “matchmaking error” placeholder all night. But why does it feel as though launch day “issues” are pretty much the only constant we have in gaming right now? And how long is too long when it comes to waiting for a game – a game you might have saved for, pre-ordered, and waited a long time for – to work?

According to Starbreeze, it was caught unawares by demand. But beyond the controversy – and added server strain – brought in by its new never-offline-always-online matchmaking system, Payday 3 was a day one release for all Xbox Game Pass subscribers which, at last count (January 2022) was around 25 million people. And no, I don’t suppose all 25 million people simultaneously jumped on to play Payday 3 on launch day… but you have to assume that at least some of the Xbox Game Pass subscribers not engrossed in Starfield stopped by to give it a go. Even if we went with a conservative guesstimate of around 10 per cent of the potential player base, that’s 2.5 million – and that’s a lot of extra players to accommodate on top of the player bases on PS5 and PC.

But as frustrating as it is to be unable to play a game you download via subscription (despite how some may spin it, it’s not free, is it, if it costs you thirteen quid a month?), it’s the players who forked out for the PS5 and PC versions – not to mention the shiny silver and gold editions – that I feel most for. Games aren’t cheap, and nor is our free time. The idea of sinking £70 into a game – a game you may even have taken time off work to play! – and being unable to touch it for five days is woeful at best, and cruel at worst, and beyond apologies, Starbreeze has yet to outline how it hopes to make it up to them.

But again: Starbreeze is not the first and it won’t be the last studio to struggle on launch day. But as games become ever more expensive – with some executives insisting they’re still not expensive enough – the question remains: how long can the live service bubble survive when some games seem dead on arrival?

Vikki Blake has a column every week here at whynow Gaming. You can read her previous dispatch here.

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