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Helldivers 2

Democracy manifest: The story behind Helldivers 2’s unprecedented success

On 8th February 2024, the gaming landscape saw a bit of a Hallmark moment. Helldivers 2 hit PlayStation and PC, which took the gaming community by storm. This third person, PVE squad-based shooter sees the Helldivers fight to win a continuing intergalactic war against Terminids and Automatons.

In the wake of thousands of layoffs in the industry, and the catastrophic failure of the mega-budget live service Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, Helldivers 2 has shattered modest expectations and become the kind of success that will have publishers scratching their heads and the community at large cheering.

Helldivers 2 has done what many have failed to: it gets live service right. Why? Because first and foremost, it is a game players want to play.

Democracy just got fun

The secret to Helldivers 2’s success isn’t all that secret. Simply put, it is a lot of fun to play. It’s easy to pick up, enemies vary in their shapes, sizes, difficulty to kill, and their ability to kill you. Drops into enemy territory are timed, keeping the pace going and the action frantic.

Missions are varied and never overstay their welcome, while the sheer amount of ordinance, big and small, gives players carte blanche when it comes to how they want to take on these alien threats to democracy. But you’ll often find you and your teammates getting caught up in the crossfire — and it’s all part of the fun.

Nothing feels forced or on rails, and the emergent gameplay can often take a turn for the hopeless or hilarious. As we put in our review: “Helldivers 2 is full of intense action and, more often than not, unintended comedy [… ] even when things go wrong you’ll be having fun.”

Helldivers 2 screenshot
Image: PlayStation/Arrowhead Game Studios

Development hell

It wasn’t an easy ride to get the game to ship, though. Helldivers 2 was eight years in the making at the hands of Arrowhead Studios, a team of just over 100 employees based in Stockholm, Sweden. Compared to other studios making AAA games on much bigger budgets with much larger teams spread across the world, just how did David beat Goliath? With great difficulty.

The game was built on an engine discontinued in 2018, leaving the team with a difficult decision to make: switch to something else or continue with a defunct engine and no support. Of course, it decided to do the latter.

Arrowhead’s CEO and Helldivers 2’s creative director Johan Pilestedt even took to X to say how crazy his development team was to build a game that was supposed to compete with AAA titles on abandonware.

Things turned out pretty well in the end. In fact, a little too well.

Suffering from success

With a fraction of the marketing budget other big titles had in the run-up to its release, Arrowhead hoped it would see some success once the game came out and people started playing it and showing it to others.

Word of mouth spread and Helldivers 2 quickly became a testament to that if your game is good, you don’t need to worry about marketing. When people have something they like, they won’t hesitate to show it off to whoever they can.

It wasn’t long before social media feeds were full of hilarious clips of Helldivers failing, comparisons to the classic film Starship Troopers (which is even funnier given it already has its own game out there).

People were sharing the game’s fun, witty writing, and overt satire, and more and more people were getting involved as a result. People were coming together for the sake of democracy and getting swept up in the game’s fictional war. It has been such a collective push, that Arrowhead even has its own Dungeons & Dragons-esque game master to manage the war as well.

Helldivers 2 screenshot
Image: PlayStation/Arrowhead Game Studios

And when toxic elements and meta-gamers started to emerge, so did awareness to start stamping it out. Helldivers 2 was everywhere in the blink of an eye and it seemed like anyone who could play it was playing it.

Until they couldn’t.

Due to such massive popularity, many were left on the sidelines as the servers were quickly overwhelmed and unable to support so many players. Amid crashes and disconnects, Arrowhead was forced to put in a server cap of 450,000 players.

This led to many not logging out of the game in order to save their spot, and so measures were brought in to boot idle players. Eventually, this cap was lifted from 450,000 to 700,000 and then again to 800,000 to cater to the masses of players trying to play.

With the servers no longer a problem, the team is now hard at work bringing in updates to the game, including vehicles, mechs, new weapons and drops.

A call for reinforcements?

Ever since the game’s release, the community of players has been rallying a call to bring Xbox players into the fold as well to fight the good fight for democracy.

Just as recently as the notorious fall of Malevelon Creek, a planet that fell to the Automaton forces, many cried out for the game to come to Xbox, drawing comparisons to the fall of Halo’s fictional planet Reach. There have been countless memes on social media alluding to their extensive experience in dealing with intergalactic warfare, having faced off against the Covenant threat for twenty years.

Things have even gone as far as a petition, which at the time of writing has reached well over 90,000 signatures.

But what would be in it for Sony to do such a thing? Well, maybe a fair bit. Helldivers 2 is the first of Sony’s exclusive games to see a simultaneous publication on PC, which is arguably the biggest contributor to the game’s wild popularity. The game is sitting comfortably in Steam’s top 5 most-played games, consistently reaching daily peaks of over 400,000 concurrent players.

While it is touching to see such positivity between the two platforms which is seldom seen, the likelihood of it happening is in reality quite slim. Even if it got the green light, porting it to Xbox is no simple process.

Much to the detriment of Terminids and Automatons, Helldivers 2’s success has been nothing short of a boon for the industry and a beacon of hope for gaming’s future.

And for democracy as well.

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