Helldivers 2 | The saviour of live service gaming?

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Arrowhead’s Helldivers 2 is a rare live service game that doesn’t gouge players at every turn. But can it survive in the longer term…?

Albert Einstein once said something to the effect that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ In 2024, a year marked out by lost jobs and cancelled projects, is the unending conveyor belt of live service games.

Just like that definition of insanity, despite failed live service titles becoming increasingly common over the last year or two, major studios still try to make them a success, even though players just keep on rejecting them. Warner Bros recently admitted that its own recent foray into the live service arena – Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League – had “fallen short of our expectations”, a comment that’s as much an understatement as saying Einstein ‘was a bit smart’. 

The term ‘insanity’ certainly doesn’t feel too far off the mark when it comes to Warner Bros. Even though Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League reportedly cost up to $250m to develop and at its peak only had 13,000 players on Steam, the company has publicly doubled down on its intention to make more live service games, even though it also published the highest selling game of last year, that being the (non-live service) single-player adventure game, Hogwarts Legacy.

And if making fewer of your successes and more of the titles that failed doesn’t sound like enough backwards logic, the company has even stated its desire to create a game “that is a live-service, where people can live and work and build and play in that world on an ongoing basis”. 

The Good News

Apart from sounding like eerily like an episode of Black Mirror, it paints a pretty grim picture for the future of gaming. So where’s the good news then? That would be Helldivers 2. 

Arrowhead’s squad-based, third-person shooter is effectively a videogame version of Paul Verhoeven’s 1998 sci-fi satire, Starship Troopers. The game gives you and three other squadmates the task of successfully infiltrating (a ‘helldive’) planets occupied by enemy bugs or robots, achieving strategic objectives while trying not to blow each other up. All of this valour and sacrifice (and intentional or otherwise, there is a lot of sacrifice – most of it messy) is undertaken in the name of Super-Earth, a shining utopian future for humanity which is in fact a fascist nightmare. 

Much like the Verhoeven movie, the satirical element is never in the foreground of events, instead adding to the game’s thematic tapestry and giving committed Helldivers something fun to role-play with as they charge headlong into battle, with strangers or friends via online play. 

The point of this piece isn’t really to talk about why Helldivers 2 is so great, though – the game has deservedly received universal praise, not least for finally being a title that does live service the way it should be done. Why? Simply put, it avoids all of the sketchy live service shenanigans that gamers hate.

Like other live service titles, it uses a ‘battle pass’ structure, but is respectful of your time by not putting countdown timers in place, forcing you to resent the game for making you grind for hours past your bedtime to unlock something before it disappears forever. Plus, everything in the game (thus far) can be unlocked with currency earned in the game. No pay-to-win mechanics here. 

Most of all though, it’s fun. The core gameplay loop which comprises any Helldivers 2 session is nothing short of a blast. The other stuff such as the unlocks, the cosmetics, the power-ups aren’t the goal that you set yourself as a means of achieving satisfaction. In short, playing the game is the satisfaction. 

Credit: Arrowhead/Sony.

Huh. When you write it down like that it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s a simple idea that so many live service games either fail to recognise or purposefully ignore. Why make a gameplay loop satisfying when you can make it tedious, encouraging players to pay real money to circumnavigate the core experience? You know, the very reason why they’re there in the first place?

So the question that we’ve been slowly working around to then, is this: is Helldivers 2 the template for a new era of live service games, a new dawn that will finally deliver on the promise of sustainable, ongoing income for developers… but also giving players engaging, enjoyable gameplay and a return on their investment (be it money, time or both). Can Helldivers 2 become the vanguard for a new wave of ongoing titles that can surprise and delight us, so we never get the sense that we’ve seen and done it all and are only present just to plump the numbers on a company’s quarterly profit margins?

The answer to that question requires a fair degree of speculation. Since the dawn of digital gaming, physical sales figures don’t provide us with the same quality of information that they used to. Furthermore, we don’t really have a clue how much real money players are spending in Helldivers 2, which is a problem given we’re curious to see if the game’s open attitude to unlocking items has effectively tanked its chances of making the kind of revenue it would need to continue operating for years to come. 

(Side note: on pitching the idea for this piece to Film Stories High Command, we did request permission to lead a surgical Helldive into Arrowhead Studio’s offices to find and retrieve such sensitive information, solely for the purpose of this article. Unfortunately, that request was not granted… although we were given a cup of tea and advised to lay off the PlayStation for a couple of days.)

Credit: Arrowhead/Sony.

The Numbers

What we do know is this. Unlike Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, a game probably more expensive to develop, Helldivers 2 may have cost around half as much to bring to the market. Arrowhead Studios has a team of around 100, compared to the 250 or so devs that make up Rocksteady, the team behind Suicide Squad. Some estimates have placed Helldivers 2 as having sold around 8 million copies, which if accurate would mean the game has comfortably made Arrowhead and Sony (the title’s publisher and partner of Arrowhead) well over $100m in profit (and that’s if we’re being conservative). At its peak, around 400,000 players on Steam were concurrently playing it.Suicide Squad, you may recall, was played by 13,000 people. It’s quite a difference.

However, even if the game has earned plenty of cash from a successful launch, live service games are in the business of making forever profits, so there’s no guarantee that all of those dollars will be made available by Arrowhead to finance Helldivers 2’s continuing evolution. We’ve known for a while that Sony is going all in on live service titles and as such, we’d imagine that no matter how good Arrowhead’s sales figures might be, creating an ongoing title that continues to earn profits each quarter is the floor level of Sony’s expectations for an ongoing partnership. Just look at the company’s alleged threat to take control of Bungie, the Sony-owned developer of the Destiny games, if you want an example of just how high the corporation’s expectations are. 

So how is this going to work? How is Helldivers 2, a game with an incredibly-engaging gameplay loop that locks none of its content behind a paywall, planning to continue making the kind of revenue that looks good on those graphs that people in suits point at? How is Helldivers 2 going to rewrite the blueprint for live service titles, drawing us into a utopian world where live service games are fun to play and offer real value? 

Credit: Arrowhead/Sony.

Can It Work?

Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt recently said that “we have a sole purpose – to make this the best live game you’ve ever played”. But to achieve that, the studio’s relatively small team will have to fix bugs while regularly producing new weapons, armours, planets, mission types and such. Then they’ll also have to figure out how to keep the game profitable while refusing to use any of the grubby forms of revenue enhancement embraced by some of their competitors. 

Can it work? Yes. It’s simple really. Beyond the upfront cost of buying the game, people will still choose to pay to play Helldivers 2. They just will. Even though everybody’s free to spend time in the game earning enough currency to buy the latest monthly Warbond (a collection of new weapons, cosmetics and such), some players will be happy to purchase it using real money instead. 

Why? For some, it will be because they don’t have the time to sink into earning the Warbond for free. This writer has been playing the game for an hour, sometimes two, for most nights since I bought it, and in the space of a month, I just about managed to cobble together the necessary Super Credits to acquire the latest batch of goodies. (It should be noted that the tendency of my team to keep blowing each other up may well be slowing my progress in this regard.)

Not everybody has that amount of time to spare, though, and some players will be more than happy to skip those hours and pay to add a new weapon or three into the mix and continue having a good time. Then there’s the Helldivers 2 players who actively want to give Arrowhead their money. They love the game and want to support it financially. As a Helldivers 1 player, I did this a couple of times with the original game and I’ll likely do it again with Helldivers 2 at some point. After all, being a patron of the art we love is the surest way to ensure we get more of it.

The point here is that with Helldivers 2, the choice to invest in the game beyond simply buying it is one made by players of their own free will. They don’t feel pushed, coerced or cornered into it by the kind of shady tactics that some other publishers have lined their pockets with over the years, such as loot boxes, timed exclusives or worse.

The Helldivers 2 experiment is one which could transform the live service industry with another of those ridiculously simple concepts: if you keep doing something great, people will continue to support it. Albert Einstein might have called that “the definition of sanity”. For the future health of the games industry, let’s hope it proves to be true. 

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