At Starbreeze’s 2016 Christmas meeting, held in a cinema close by to the studio’s Stockholm headquarters, CEO Bo Andersson told staff the company was in rude health. Payday 2, a co-op first-person shooter Steam hit, was still making money, virtual reality investments were about getting ahead of the game, and in-development titles, such as Raid: World War 2 and Overkill’s The Walking Dead, were on course for success. Starbreeze’s top brass even announced a new staff bonus system. The message was loud and clear: Starbreeze had evolved from the plucky developer of Payday into a big, important, successful entertainment company.
Just two years later, Starbreeze is on the brink of extinction. Following the disastrous release of Overkill’s The Walking Dead in November, Starbreeze’s board of directors unceremoniously booted Andersson out of the company. In a remarkable email obtained by Eurogamer and sent to everyone at the company the day after he was fired, Andersson lamented the laziness of his staff – the same staff who had just endured months of crunch for a project that was doomed from the start. A day later, Swedish authorities raided Starbreeze’s office, arresting two people as part of an investigation into alleged insider trading. Riddled with millions of pounds of debt, Starbreeze has effectively gone into administration and is looking to sell off as many of its ill-advised virtual reality ventures as possible while it still can. The future of Payday, that old reliable cash cow, is in doubt. And for the staff who remain – those who put their blood, sweat and tears into Starbreeze games even as they endured late nights and mismanagement – the threat of layoffs looms.
How did things go so badly wrong in such a short space of time? According to over a dozen current and former Starbreeze staff members, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect their careers, the writing had been on the wall for some time. But even as staff lost faith in the studio and its bosses, nobody, it seemed, thought Starbreeze’s fall from grace would turn out to be quite so dramatic.