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Arrowhead Games: "We want to be the next From Software or Blizzard"

The Helldivers 2 developer on handling the shock success of its game and its thirst for more

Nobody expected the success of Helldivers 2.

The co-op third-person shooter, which was published by PlayStation and developed by Arrowhead Games, was released in February and has gone on to sell 12 million copies in three months. It is now PlayStation's fastest-selling game – bigger than God of War, or Spider-Man or Uncharted.

"Depending on who you are, you’ll always point to different things [as to why it was successful]," says Arrowhead's chief creative officer Johan Pilestedt. "If you’re a business exec at a major publisher, you’d say it is the live service element that keeps players coming back, and the cheaper price point. If you’re a game designer, you’ll point to the systematic nature of the game. If you’re an artist, you’ll talk about the day and night cycle, the destructible environments and the beautiful worlds. It’s the balance between all these elements.

Johan Pilestedt, Arrowhead

"But speaking personally, I would say it’s the fact that we’re doing something with Helldivers that is outside of the inflection point that the games industry is heading towards. What you’re seeing through these cycles in the industry is people taking inspiration from each other, and building upon that. But that means people are building towards a single point, because you lose something through each iteration.

"With Helldivers, we made the strong decision that we’re not going to go with the status quo. We’re going to place ourselves outside of that by making a lot of mechanics that are generally not seen in games. We have friendly fire on, always. I think people are surprised that we make games this way. They’re surprised that the responsibility to not blow up your friends is on you."

For Pilestedt personally, the success of Helldivers 2 was the realisation of a dream he has had since he was eight years-old.

"I asked my dad ‘how do I make a video game company?’ And he said ‘Get really good grades’. Of course, that was a lie," he laughs.

The problem with realising a dream (albeit a good problem), is working out what to do next.

"We pride ourself on being an independent studio." Johan Pilestedt, Arrowhead

"Helldivers 2 put me into a strange mode of contemplation," he admits. "Because the problem with achieving such wild success, achieving your calling, is you have to choose your next chapter. It doesn’t come from within like knowing what you wanted to do since you were eight."

This led Pilestedt to Shams Jorjani. Jorjani's history with Arrowhead stretches back to the start. He was one of the organisers of the Swedish Game Awards, which Arrowhead won with its game Magicka. Jorjani then joined Paradox Interactive, which had just signed the game, and he was assigned to the project. He helped launch that and then Arrowhead's second (and significantly less successful) game, The Showdown Effect.

"We then had an intense negotiation over Magicka 2, which was finally resolved in an Icelandic hotel room overnight," Jorjani said. "Both of us were drunk at the time and we decided that ‘no, we won’t do that project’."

But the two stayed in touch. And then in 2021, Jorjani left Paradox.

"I had a bit of ‘big company PTSD’," he continues. "Paradox was 800 people, ten studios in six countries and a public company. After leaving Paradox, I came to Johan and said ‘let’s do something together. We might end up killing each other, but we’ll have fun’. And Johan, as wise as he is, told me to 'f off', because he had a game to ship."

That game was Helldivers 2. Eventually, Jorjani did start advising Arrowhead and then, with Helldivers 2 out the door, Pilestedt asked him to become CEO.

The move means Jorjani will take over the day-to-day running of the business, allowing Pilestedt to focus on game creation.

"We were both at a stage where we’re wondering what’s next in our careers," Jorjani says. "And we realised we probably couldn’t quite get to those places if we didn’t have the other one to help us get there."

Pilestedt adds: "When it comes to the overall direction of the organisation, I am still the chairman. So me and Shams are still going to have strategic conversations on how are we going to take Arrowhead into the future."

Jorjani again: "My job is to enable him and the other creative people to be able to do more games. And that’s also what matters to the players. I play Helldivers and I hear my friends ask… ‘are we going to get more stuff?’ And I’m like ‘yes, soon, because Johan will have more time to do it’. ‘We want more enemies!’ I’ll tell Johan."

Helldivers 2 is PlayStation's fastest selling game of all time

Part of Jorjani's role will be to help Arrowhead navigate the impact of Helldivers 2's success. The firm was a successful developer already. The first Helldivers game sold four million copies, while Magicka was also a breakout hit. "They were all massive games in their genres," Pilestedt observes.

But Helldivers 2 is on a different level. And right from the start, the team has had to contend with a series of issues, beginning with "the servers burning to a crisp".

"We tried to fan that… but you shouldn't fan flames," Pilestedt says. "I told people to not buy the game until we can manage the servers… but that actually increased the amount of users, unfortunately."

Then there was the issue around adding the need to log-in to PlayStation Network to play the game, which resulted in a backlash from fans and Helldivers 2 becoming unavailable in certain markets. Sony eventually backtracked on the requirement.

Plus, there are other general live-service issues, too, such as concerns around game balancing.

"This is something the organisation has seen before," Pilestedt tells us. "We had the horrible launch of Magicka, which was really buggy, and me and Shams recognised that we had to interact with the community, talk to them in an honest way, and tell them what’s going on as much as we could. And then take action immediately to resolve the issues. So we’ve seen and been through it before, albeit at a much smaller scale. It is higher stakes this time."

"The big difference is the amount of threats and rude behaviour that people in the studio are getting from some really shitty individuals within the community"Johan Pilestedt, Arrowhead

He adds: "When we look at the challenge ahead of us, we feel like Frodo and Sam going towards Mordor. The oblivious approach of ‘we’ll take one step at a time, and then we will solve the issues as they come’. The strength of Arrowhead is the camaraderie that we share amongst the team, and the desire to help each other. We know that whatever we’re going through, we’re there for each other and we will be able to take on any challenge, almost, and come out stronger on the other side."

Pilestedt says that the experience so far has been "extremely enjoyable and a little bit daunting". Helldivers was inspired by Dragons & Demons (Sweden's answer to Dungeons & Dragons), and the team has enjoyed playing the game master role with its community.

"Our game design is about transitioning our love for pen and paper RPGs into games that don’t necessarily have dice rolls and stats. A lot of these pen and paper sessions are based on a serious premise, which dissolves into farce. We’re seeing this with how the community interacts with Helldivers 2, but also how we interact with them."

But with 12 million fans, there's been some challenges with the community that the team hasn't experienced much before.

"The big difference now, which is horrifying, is the amount of threats and rude behaviour that people in the studio are getting from some really shitty individuals within the community," Pilestedt says. "That’s something new we have to deal with."

Pilestedt says that frustration is part of the essence of the Helldivers: "If you don't have those lows, you can't get those highs." And although this is something that is understood by more hardcore players, when you're reaching 12 million people, it's not something everyone is going to appreciate.

Shams Jorjani, Arrowhead

"Arrowhead’s philosophy has always been 'a game for everyone is a game for no-one'," Jorjani explains. "That is the company slogan. It’s how our games are designed. You can feel it in every feature. I think it’s one of the big reasons that Helldivers 2 has been so successful. It feels fresh because it does a lot of unpopular stuff.

"When you hit this big, much bigger than anyone thought – Sony, us, everyone – what happens is the game finds an audience outside of that niche fan group. So you get this amplification of different voices. Almost all games have a bit of toxicity in the community, but with these big numbers you just get so many, so we need to work with the community to get them to self-moderate, give people the tools to speak with each other in a positive fashion, so we can keep talking to the players openly. The more voices being added to the choir does add complexity."

"We will see growth, but growth as a means to an ends, not as an end itself"

Shams Jorjani, Arrowhead

He continues: "Valve is supposedly launching a new PVP game, and I am sure they’ve put in hundreds, if not thousands of hours into how to handle toxic players, because they have that experience from DOTA and Counter-Strike. It’s ingrained into their product development and they can just lift those systems. All of that investment and process we’re learning painfully now will carry through to the next thing, whatever that may be."

It's something that's also a bit of a learning process for PlayStation. Sony isn't the most experienced publisher when it comes to live service products, although it's starting to invest in this area through new games and acquisitions of companies like Bungie.

"It’s been a great partnership and we’re learning together, and they’re recognising that Arrowhead can be the spearhead in learning how to do [live service] better in the future," Jorjani says. "It’s just great to have somebody there with you as you figure this out."

Pilestedt adds: "We’re always chasing our tail in one way or another. We have to lay the tracks as the train moves forward. There are optimisations and workflow improvements we can make. We’re going in and tuning the organisation to have the team work at a reasonable rate. Because, right now, to some degree, we’re burning the candle at both ends. And we want to get to the point where we’re producing as much candle as we are burning."

The focus today is on Helldivers 2 and getting that balance right. But the studio is feeling confident, it is a strong financial position, it has strengthened its leadership team, and is now looking ahead to what's next.

"We feel there we have so much more to give, and so many more games we want to make," Pilestedt says. "The ambition level and appetite of the organisation has grown significantly. We now have a taste of blood, and we want more."

The first Helldivers was very different, but still sold four million copies

But that doesn't necessarily mean growing its headcount exponentially, or being acquired, or going public. For Pilestedt and Jorjani, it's all about what's needed to make the games they want to create.

"We pride ourselves on being an independent studio," Pilestedt says. "We have to see what the future holds, but there’s nothing in the plans where we want to be acquired by somebody. I want to see how high we can fly. And bringing Shams on board, we have a good potential to realise that future of turning into the next From Software or Blizzard."

Jorjani adds: "The goal of the studio is to make really great co-op games. We really want to turn Arrowhead into a flagship studio, where people who want to make these kind-of games say to themselves: ‘I want to work at Arrowhead’. When we were growing up, we really wanted to work at Blizzard, it was one of the bucket list places to work at. I think Arrowhead has the potential to be that.

"But that doesn’t mean we have to be a 500-person company. In fact, a 500-person company is quite painful in a lot of ways. We will see growth, but growth as a means to an ends, not as an end itself. We don’t have plans to go public. None of those shenanigans. Measured growth that allows us to make amazing game and be a good place to work.

Pilestedt concludes: "We don’t run the business for monetary gain. The humbleness and the desire to just make great games is the only reason we exist."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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