Hellbomb: How Sony and Arrowhead Studios (Almost) Killed Helldivers 2

For about the last three months or so, as Baldur’s Gate III was starting to drift out of the headlines after winning pretty much every game award on the planet, a new game came out which grabbed the popular consciousness by the throat. The sequel to a top-down co-op shooter from 2015, Helldivers 2 seemed to become an overnight success, blasting its way into the zeitgeist with its over-the-top satire and frenetic gameplay. Arrowhead Game Studios seemed to be winning legions of fans over with their remarkably generous “premium” content that players could obtain without paying stupid money for or engaging in a frustratingly miserly grind to obtain. Sony appeared to have another bona fide hit on their hands, right alongside the likes of Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon Forbidden West. It was entirely possible that Helldivers 2 would be a strong candidate for Game of The Year.

And then, last week, they pissed it all away with a single change that led to it being review bombed into the worst rated game on Steam.

“They see us Helldivin’, they hatin’.”

The State of The Galaxy

I should probably start by pointing out while the decision was almost certainly made by Sony, Arrowhead is not entirely blameless. Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt had already gone on record stating he’d been talking to people over at Sony to get the decision reversed. But he also acknowledged that he was aware it could have been an issue which would crop up eventually. Well, “eventually” came to pass.

The crux of the problem lies with the Steam userbase and Sony’s decision to require a PSN account to play Helldivers 2. Originally, there was a prompt to link a PSN account to a player’s Steam account, but this prompt was apparently a one-time thing which a lot of people skipped over. Ostensibly, the integration between the PSN and Steam accounts was to allow PS5 players to report bad behavior from Steam players and vice versa. However, that particular integration never seemed to work very well. Indeed, the presence of the integration (not even its active use) seemed to be causing a lot more problems than it solved. Sure, there wasn’t any cross-progression (kind of a big deal, particularly for those who perhaps didn’t want to be doubling up on the amount of “Super Credits” currency needed for the Premium Warbonds), but even just basic cross-platform play between PlayStation and Steam players was a nightmare. Forget getting your friends added on a buddy list. Worse, it affected functionality within the PSN environment, such as being able to add friends from PSN as well as various statistics compiled from gameplay. These were known issues, and Arrowhead turning off the integration component seemed to help quite a bit, particularly with matchmaking and general stability.

With more people being able to play Helldivers 2 in a reliable fashion, it quickly became the latest Internet phenomenon. The memes, the videos, the streams, it was hard not to pick up on at least some elements of Helldivers 2 purely by osmosis. You’d have to play it to get the full effect, of course, but being able to play it reliably went a long way towards fueling that explosive presence. It became a self-sustaining reaction, a virtuous circle that went through ups and downs, highs and lows, triumph and tragedy. Events in the game such as the fall of Malevelon Creek were being read all over the Internet, a piece of ludonarrative news with a reach that probably hasn’t been seen outside of EVE Online in ages. It’s kind of hard to believe the game only came out near the start of February.

Pictured: Sony’s new Fast INdiscriminate Gamer Extermination Rocket

Sweet Liberty, My Leg!

The Helldivers 2 fanbase seemed a little unsettled towards the end of April when an update to the game came out and made a number of adjustments to weapons and enemy patrol density. So it’s perhaps understandable that they had a truly adverse reaction to the announcement which came on May 2. This was when Sony apparently decided that enough was enough and Arrowhead needed to actually use the PSN integration they were supposed to be using this whole time. You know, the one that was basically breaking the game, or at least making it wildly unplayable for a large segment of the player base.

Unfortunately for Sony, and for Arrowhead, this particular diktat didn’t go over well. One of the interesting numbers that came up from this whole incident is that only about a quarter of the fanbase is playing on PlayStation. The bulk of the fanbase is on Steam. Even more interestingly, a not-insignificant chunk of that Steam segment is apparently outside of the US, Japan, and Europe. Their placement is such that, for some reason, they can set up a Steam account easily but cannot set up a PSN account. So right there, the requirement just cut a bunch of players off from a game they’ve purchased. The review bombing started a couple of days later. One big surprise that came about was Arrowhead actually encouraging players on their Discord server to give Helldivers 2 a negative rating. It’s a move akin to calling down an artillery barrage on your own position. Even more surprising, Steam was starting to grant refunds to players with more than two hours of time on the game.

As a tactic to make one’s displeasure known, review bombing is crude and sometimes ineffective. Its relative effectiveness in this instance seemed to be made clear when Valve delisted Helldivers 2 from Steam in countries which apparently were prohibited for one reason or another from making a PSN account. All 177 of them. Granted, I don’t imagine there’s a lot of Steam players in Afghanistan or Burkina Faso, but Valve apparently thought it was important enough to delist the game from Steam in those locales. Did the review bombing stop because of all those delisted countries? Nope. Not in the slightest. Helldivers 2 overtook Overwatch 2 as the worst reviewed game on Steam before the weekend ended.

“It’s just such a giant lumbering thing! Nothing that clumsy should be able to survive!”

Have A Taste Of Democracy!

So, first weekend in May, the game’s no longer being listed on the biggest PC marketplace, an impending update about to cast the new changes in concrete come Monday morning, and…Sony put a stop to it. Late Sunday evening, Sony put out a tweet indicating, “We’ve heard your feedback on the Helldivers 2 account linking update. The May 6 update, which would have required Steam and PlayStation Network account linking for new players and for current players beginning May 30, will not be moving forward.”

It would seem that Sony finally woke up to the fact that doubling down on player discontent was much like trying to kill somebody else by shooting yourself in the head. Theoretically possible, but everything has to line up just right. And this situation wasn’t even close.

Yet this isn’t the end of the story, nor is it inherently the end of the situation. A lot of bridges weren’t just burned, they were damned near nuked from orbit. Let’s tally up the collateral damage, shall we?

  • Arrowhead has just taken an absolutely vicious beating. The fans aren’t only yelling at them about Helldivers 2, they’ve been review bombing the original Helldivers along with an earlier title, Magicka, which haven’t been relevant in years. I can appreciate that they were operating under contractual constraints, but I’m understandably disappointed they couldn’t come up with a sufficiently persuasive argument to present Sony with an alternative to an Internet lynch mob. Granted, it was a lynch mob they ultimately ended up encouraging on their Discord, but still. What’s going to be really interesting is the conversations between Arrowhead and Sony going forward, since Sony might theoretically try to punish Arrowhead in some fashion for supporting the player insurgency.

  • Sony is catching a lot of hell, and rightly so, for being willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of what they were trying to force players to do. This move was all stick and no carrot. Though, being fair, it’s hard to think of a carrot sufficiently toothsome to get people to go along with something like the proposed “mandatory” linking of accounts. What’s worse, the way they didn’t make a move to even try to defend Arrowhead until it was clear the game would be review bombed back to the Stone Age smacks of an organization that’s too full of hubris to make sensible and nimble choices. In all fairness, though, it’s arguably awkward to try and defend a studio who’s openly encouraging players to sandbag you.

  • Valve is now in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, they’re the final arbiters of what games can or cannot be sold on Steam. So, if Helldivers 2 is going to be coming back, Sony can ask, but Valve has to give it the nod. As of the time of this writing, they haven’t. On the other hand, Valve has to be looking at Sony and thinking to themselves, “Is this a company worth doing business with?” Folks are already kind of upset about the less-than-stellar quality of PlayStation ports to PC of late, but this incident just feels gratuitously aggravating. Unless Sony thinks they can pull off the same sort of stunt Epic did with Epic Games Store, the future of porting PlayStation games to PC just got a lot more iffy.

Pictured: the aftermath of a scorched earth campaign against a playerbase.

So where does this leave us? The players who’ve flipped their reviews back to “positive” on Steam probably aren’t sweating too awful much. The players who might have bought Helldivers 2 in one of those 177 countries are out of luck for the immediate future. But, much like the Automatons coming back out of nowhere, there’s always the possibility that Sony will make another attempt at this ill-conceived idea. The question is whether or not a similar rallying of the players can stop it again.

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