Helldivers 2: how Arrowhead turned the twin-stick shooter original into a bombastic PS5 sequel

Helldivers 2 has exploded onto the gaming scene in a massive way. This co-operative third-person shooter packed with danger, action, humor, and surprises has already become one of this year’s most talked-about games. What some people may be less familiar with though is its progenitor. The original Helldivers, which debuted in 2015 (and is still active) is a co-op, multiplayer overhead twin-stick shooter packed with action, intensity, and plenty of challenging situations that a player might find themselves in.

We asked Johan Pilestedt, CEO & Creative Director at Arrowhead Studios about the process of adapting the original overhead-view gameplay of Helldivers into the third-person format–after first congratulating him for the rip-roaring success of the game. We asked how the team felt about the positive reception. “Overwhelmed and ecstatic! Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a keen interest in the types of games we make and it was great to see our work recognized at this scale.”

He then elaborated on the process of choosing to go third-person view. “After the successful launch of the original Helldivers, we knew we wanted to test the game design philosophy in first- or third-person. Our stance has never been about ‘only top-down.’ However, a lot of the things we are aiming for when we make games lend themselves to perspectives that are a bit more “removed” from play, such as our commitment to draw inspiration from real life and pop culture. We tried this by pulling down the camera in Helldivers. We wound up feeling really excited by the viscerality of the combat, which made us committed to exploring what Helldivers would be like in third-person.”

“A good co-op game forces players to play together, but a great one makes players want to play together” 

Maintaining a persistent sense of danger and chaos was crucial to both games. “Maintaining the sense of chaos was one of the largest challenges we had in creating Helldivers 2. In a top-down perspective, everyone knows what the team members are doing and shares the same reality. But in Helldivers 2, each player has their own perception of events that have unfolded. You gain some and lose some from both approaches.

The launch trailer for the original Helldivers, showing many elements that’ll be familiar to players playing the PS5 sequel today.

The launch trailer for Helldivers 2.

“Since Helldivers is fundamentally a game where collaboration and cooperation is key, we struggled with this early on. The key thing that resolved this was the need for the “watering hole” which encourages players to

gather in certain locations. We created these locations dynamically by making the shared resupply stratagem, players dropping sample containers upon death, and through reinforcement Placement. I believe that a good co-op game forces players to play together, but a great one makes players want to play together. Helldivers 2 should feel like when you are going into a dark basement – You want a friend by your side. And we could only achieve this by creating the sensation that no single person can do this alone–even though some crazy people out there have done so!”

“Feeling human is a key part to the Helldivers experience.”

How did the team reference the first Helldivers’ core gameplay mechanics and progression loop when creating Helldivers 2? “Initially we went further away from the original Helldivers,” explains Pilestedt. “Our philosophy is always “don’t mimic, understand deeply and go from there”. Helldivers 1 took a lot of inspiration from real life and military-sim experiences – merged with combat against extraterrestrials. The distance in top-down viewpoints, however, does not allow for more immersive experiences. We also had pivotal functions that we knew we wanted to include: The viscerality and intensity of combat, the haphazardness and friendly fire. We always knew we wanted the juxtaposition between the fragility of humans with overpowered tools versus physically superior foes only vulnerable to heavy weapons. Feeling human is a key part to the Helldivers experience.”

Which brings us to another major element of both titles: friendly fire always being turned on, and all of the headaches and hilarity that ensues. Pilestedt described the logic behind its inclusion. “The most important thing when we make games is believability. Things should be consistent in the game world and therefore, we must have friendly fire. If your bullets can kill enemies, and the enemies can kill you, then logic dictates that your bullets must also be able to kill your friends. This kind of design is inherently systematic, where we create a rule set that applies to everything in the game world, with minor exceptions.”

“What this does, and maybe most clearly noted by friendly fire, is create a complexity to the gameplay where players have to actively think during combat sequences – not in a “solve the puzzle” way but instead in a very primal creative problem solving way. Also, the chuckles that happen when you accidentally carpet bomb your friends allows for a playfulness that in reality would be a tragedy – but within the self bounds of games we can explore the dark humor of these situations. And finally,, the friendly fire element makes the players a true interactable part of the game world that plays a great part in positioning and helps with team play.”

“Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a mech?” 

Another element that appears in both games are the stratagems, powerful tools that can be accessed using a special code and called onto the battlefield when needed. We asked how the concept emerged, and how they developed between the two games. “Generally, stratagems are based on real world examples. We’re interested in both war movies and pop culture, so in some cases the concept may be inspired by a pop-culture reference, but realism is added by taking real world guns and applying them to the mechanics.”

“All-in-all, stratagems are generally designed in an iterative and sprint based fashion. We play the game and get bored by the current selection, so we add another one. Maybe a designer that has an idea, such as the walking barrage, or something more advanced. The Exo-44 Walker that came about by the team saying “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a mech?” Then the process started. What would a mech be like in this universe? What would the armament be? What would be the strengths and weaknesses of a mech? It all comes back to believability.”

Helldivers II looks to have a long and prosperous future ahead of itself, so we wanted to know what players can expect in the future. “So much! The game is designed from the ground up to be an expandable universe. We have grand plans, but we do not want to make any early announcements as we love to surprise and delight players with new stuff. What I can say is that we have a massive list of quality of life improvement ideas that we source from the community.”

And any advice for new Helldivers? “Come in with an open mind, be kind and do your part. This is a fun community where everyone is on the same side. We’d love to have you spread some democracy with us. You never know what’s going to happen – login to Helldivers 2 and help create the history of Super Earth and the Galactic War.”

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