I wanted to write a quick article about perk decks in Payday 2, because I find them pretty fascinating as a concept. Not the fact that they exist (they’re identical in function to the level-up trees from Payday the Heist) but that they exist in conjunction to the standard character classes, each of which has a ton of random abilities and playstyles with different weapons, equippables, armors, and concealment levels. As someone who loves game design, I’ve spent way more time than I should trying to figure out what criteria Overkill put into deciding when an ability is worthy of a perk deck, and when it fits better as a skill in one of the five skill trees.
The first (and probably most pessimistic) possibility is that Overkill put no thought into it whatsoever, and merely assigned new ideas to perk decks whenever they came up with them. After all, the 5 character classes were added to the game first, upon the game’s release in 2013, and perk decks were added on Day 5 of CrimeFest 2014, over a year later.
Era 1: The “Buff this one gameplay mechanic” decks
But even then, such an interpretation is not nearly so cut-and-dry. Overkill had removed, reworked, or (in Fugitive’s case) added entirely new skills to the 5 character classes since then, and (probably even more importantly) there are patterns to the sort of things you unlock in a perk deck compared to what you get from the character classes. As already mentioned, character classes tended to pigeonhole your playstyle by specializing your build into specific weapons and team roles. In contrast, perk decks (especially the early ones) tended to grab a specific mechanic (dodge, health regen, armor regen) and build itself around that mechanic, keeping them open-ended and ever-functional. This gave them more versatility than skill trees essentially for free, since these mechanics exist in every character class and the player was merely choosing one to specialize in. (The exception, Crew Chief, was a grab-bag of assorted team-boosting skills just because it’s the beginner deck and it helped starting players be useful, essentially Payday 2‘s interpretation of the “Noob lube” crew bonus from Payday the Heist).
Era 2: The “health regeneration” decks
The challenges started happening when all the obvious single-focus mechanics ran out, forcing Overkill to come up with more inventive mechanics. Their first attempt to foray into something more unique was with Hitman, which I’ve written about because it was so unbelievably horrible on release and for years afterward. The problem was that it reduced your armor and required akimbo pistols to function properly, which is limiting the player’s options. It’s behaving like something you’d see in the skill trees, which is why it didn’t work as a perk deck concept. Overkill learned their lesson and never added downsides to a perk deck again.
After Hitman failed, Overkill’s next attempt at a playstyle-defining was Sociopath, which was far more successful and (in my opinion) caused Overkill to fall into a design rut. Because Sociopath worked, and Sociopath was built around health regeneration, the next eight decks all more-or-less dealt with new and inventive ways for the player to give themselves health regen. While I recognize that health regen is a fun mechanic (and, more importantly, was very rare in the skill trees, forming an obvious way for perk decks to stand apart), I do think they could have found more inventive ways for the player to define alternate playstyles without falling back on health regen everytime. I remember back in the day I posted a tongue-in-cheek “Messiah” perk deck that is not even remotely balanced, but does give some examples of non-health ways a perk deck can define a playstyle.
Era 3: The “tie-in throwable” decks
Last but not least, I’d be remiss to not discuss the final age of perk decks, when Overkill started bundling them with tie-in throwables that, while technically optional, were usually mandatory equips in practice. I was never a huge fan of that as a concept, and I think it only succeeds because throwables are the only loadout slot that basically don’t interact with the skill trees in any way. I don’t think a single skill buffs them, swaps them, or alters how many you get, mostly because throwables didn’t exist until Gage’s Weapon Pack #1 was added, after 4/5 skill trees were already in the game.
Assuming the reactivation of Payday 2‘s development brings new characters to the gang, are we still in this final era of perk decks, or has Overkill grown out of throwable-based gimmicks? It’s possible they’ve grown out of making perk decks altogether, and frankly I wouldn’t blame them. It’s a difficult challenge, creating something worth equipping that doesn’t feel like it’s stepping on the toes of the already-labyrinthine character advancement system this game has in place.