The Den of Wolves trailer at The Game Awards first announces that we’re looking at a new game from from the creator of Payday: The Heist and Payday 2, but then goes on to show something that has very little resemblance to a bank robbery: a pair of men growling at each other in a sci-fi dungeon that could’ve appeared in Cyberpunk 2077. So, what the heck is this game?
As implied by the Payday connection, Den of Wolves is a four-player co-op game from 10 Chambers, the Stockholm-based studio co-founded by Payday 1 and 2 designer Ulf Andersson. But it’s Andersson’s vision for, like, Payday 5. Rather than present-day burglaries, Den of Wolves takes place in 2097 in a city run by unregulated corporations who’ve secured their global stock exchange against AI-powered hackers by somehow using biological encryption—that is, living human brains.
It’s a heist game inspired by Inception, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner—in short, “mindfuck sci-fi,” as Den of Wolves narrative director Simon Viklund (also a Payday alum) put it to me when we met last week. The twist in The Game Awards trailer gives us a glimpse of what he’s talking about, as the corpo’s interrogation of some punk’s subconscious is revealed to actually be the opposite. Clearly we’re going to invade some mind palaces in this thing.
I didn’t get to see any Den of Wolves gameplay beyond the snippets of shooting everyone can see in the trailer, but Viklund spoke at length about the studio’s vision during a presentation and interview.
Heists of late stage capitalism
First of all, this is a much, much larger production than 10 Chambers’ niche, super-hard co-op shooter GTFO, which was made with around 10 people. The studio decided it could apply its design philosophy to a bigger project, snagged some Tencent investment, and grew to over 100 employees. For the past two years, they’ve been producing development tools and building a world, and even though this isn’t going to be an open world game where you’re wandering around a city on foot, they’ve gone hog wild in constructing a complete street map and comprehensive dystopian fiction for it.
Den of Wolves takes place on Midway Atoll, famous for its role in World War 2 and currently a US controlled nature preserve. The gist is that, in the future, AI-assisted hacking becomes so powerful that securing global stock exchanges becomes impossible. A spiraling United States designates Midway as a “corporate haven with no oversight from authorities and no human rights agencies to appease,” and the world’s corporations of course flock to the islands to violate human rights in the name of capital, ultimately inventing human-powered encryption that even AI can’t beat while constructing the lawless Midway City, with “megastructures coming out of the ocean.”
(Image credit: 10 Chambers)
As part of its world-building, the studio has already come up with 400 fictional companies, with brand descriptions and logos and approval from their legal department (to make sure they don’t too closely resemble any real companies), going so far as to differentiate things like airlines and aircraft producers. Their motto is “sci-fi with a purpose,” says Viklund, meaning that the setting should compliment or enable the kind of fun they want to design—I’m not sure how that many brands come into play, but I’m definitely curious to find out.
On the topic of purpose, Viklund says that they aren’t trying to make a political statement piece with Den of Wolves, but that he does want to express to players “what the world can really be like” through the setting and its “stories of late stage capitalism.” Some of the heists will involve digging up dirt on corporations, and as an example of their real-world inspiration, Viklund recalled a news story about a Swedish company that was importing stainless steel from a South American manufacturer that was found to be leaking toxic chemicals into a river with atrocious consequences for the locals.
What Viklund means when he says they’re “not making a political statement” is really just that players won’t inhabit Robin Hood-like heroes giving to the poor or trying to take down the corporations to save the world. Rather, they’re “part of the system,” making their fortunes by running jobs for corps against corps. “You’ll have blood in your hands,” says Viklund.
(Image credit: 10 Chambers)
What we know about the gameplay
So, how will these heists actually play out? Viklund offered some tantalizing hints, but not the full picture. Here’s what I know:
The heists involve breaking into physical buildings in the city, with outdoor areas and “massive indoor maps” inside superstructures, but everything about it suggests some kind of mind infiltration, too—no details on that yet.It will be a mix of stealth and action, but going loud won’t necessarily be a one-way move—it will in some cases be possible to quickly return to stealth mode, thanks somehow to that unelaborated on sci-fi aspect of the game.An NPC voice-over-the-radio will direct players to objectives, but those objectives will be set by the players in a pre-heist planning phase. The studio wants the players to feel like the masterminds, rather than that they’re following a checklist made for them.To that end, major heists will be preceded by smaller, preparatory missions in which players will discover information—eg, the location of a target—to use for the big job.There will be some randomization of elements, such as the location of an objective, and players can be involved in multiple “instances” of the same storyline, so that they can progress separately with different co-op groups if they want.
Payday 2, the last game in the series Andersson and Viklund worked on, remains the most popular Payday game on Steam, while the recently released Payday 3 has struggled to win over fans in its early days. (It’s got some good aspects and lots of room to grow, though.)
(Image credit: 10 Chambers)
Despite the success of that series, there’s nothing quite like it out there. Co-op shooters tend to take after Left 4 Dead more than the movie Heat, and the newly popular extraction shooter genre, exemplified by games like Hunt: Showdown and Escape from Tarkov, is only really similar in the superficial sense it involves acquiring loot as a team. There’s no PvP element in Payday or GTFO, and neither will there be in Den of Wolves.
I asked Viklund if they considered jumping on the extraction shooter trend instead of sticking with their more straightforward co-op mission structure, and he said nope—this is just what they like to do.
“We don’t look at the trends,” said Viklund. “GTFO is a good sign that we’re not too [interested in trends]. It goes against any kind of marketing analysis. We need to believe in the product ourselves, and not just have market analytics sort of guiding us. We’d like to think that if it’s something we’re super passionate about, it’ll show [in] the product and then somehow that’ll, if not guarantee, at least increase the chances of success.”
PC release first
10 Chambers isn’t ready to share a release window for Den of Wolves—it “learned the hard way” not to share a date too early after delaying GTFO a couple of times—but Viklund says it does plan to release the game first on Steam in early access, with console versions coming later.
(Image credit: 10 Chambers)
At The Game Awards, 10 Chambers also announced GTFO’s final chapter. That game will continue to be supported, and its peer-to-peer multiplayer means there’s no concern of it ‘going offline,’ but this is the last big content update it’ll get. It’s effectively a finished game, and 10 Chambers is moving on to Den of Wolves.
It’s hard to sustain a game studio on a niche multiplayer game with no DLC or microtransactions—Viklund said as much, but we could of course deduce that ourselves—and as a much bigger production with a more mainstream target audience, Den of Wolves will be supported after launch by DLC, and 10 Chambers won’t rule out the possibility of cosmetic microtransactions.
“We’re not 100% sure we’ll have microtransactions,” said Viklund, “but we hate when game companies don’t say that they’re going to have microtransactions [and then do] … so we’re making extra sure to say we might have them, even though we’re not sure.”
If they do include microtransactions, the studio promises “no pay-to-win, no gambling, and no math-fuckery”—as in, no awkward dollar-to-credit conversion rates that encourage extra spending. Sounds fine to me.