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Helldivers 2's Messed-Up War Is Really Controlled By One Man

"Helldivers 2" might not have immediately exploded onto the scene with the overwhelming player enthusiasm (or the ensuing playerbase discourse) of "Palworld," but it has quickly become one of the most beloved games of 2024. Part of what makes the game so enjoyable is that players get to have deep and meaningful effects on the overarching story. Success is never guaranteed in the battles raging across the game's many, many worlds. Good decisions can bring massive victories, and bad luck can bring devastating defeats. No one player truly knows what will happen to the shared galaxy of "Helldivers 2" – but there is one person who's able to influence the course of the galactic war more than anyone else.

In a recent interview, Arrowhead Games Studio CEO Johan Pilestedt revealed that the developer has a Game Master working behind the scenes. His job mirrors that of a "Dungeons and Dragons" Dungeon Master in that he's constantly adjusting the game world to bring new challenges and surprises to players. His name is Joel, and the next time your carefully planned offensive falls apart because of an unexpected twist in the battle, you might be able to blame/thank him for your loss.

Planned chaos in Helldivers 2

So, what does a Game Master for an online multiplayer game actually do? Much like what would happen during a tabletop role-playing game, the Game Master for "Helldivers 2" responds to what players are doing in the game to try and make their experience as satisfying as possible. Sometimes that's as simple as planning a big set piece that doesn't kick off until players reach a certain benchmark in the game. Other times, it can take the form of a more immediate response.

"There have been some sudden moments where maybe one planet was too easy or one was too hard," Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt told PC Gamer, "and [Game Master Joel] had to get up in the middle of the night to give the Automatons a bit of reinforcements so the players don't take [the planet] too quickly." As any experienced TTRPG player can tell you, the Game Master has to manage a careful balancing act. Sometimes he needs to put a finger on the scale to keep the game exciting, but he can't overstep to the point where players feel like their own decisions don't matter.

Pilestedt acknowledged that Arrowhead is always experimenting with different ways the Game Master can influence what's happening in the world. The studio is always keeping its eye on the TTRPG experience as a sort of goalpost, but for now it can't reveal much more about what Joel can really do to influence "Helldivers 2." As Pilestedt said in that interview with PC Gamer, "There are things that we want to keep secret because we want to surprise and delight."

A constant feedback loop

Does anyone remember the day the Incendiary Mine stratagem was available for free? That came about because "Helldivers 2" players captured Terminid planets faster than anyone at Arrowhead had anticipated. In response, Game Master Joel pushed that stratagem through because victorious armies need to mine for resources on planets that they capture, which kept players from feeling like they were just sitting around waiting for the next invasion. It's a great example of how "Helldivers 2" is taking some of the best aspects of the tabletop role-playing experience and incorporating it into its ongoing campaign.

The long and short of all this is that "Helldivers 2" feels so alive because Arrowhead is doing everything possible to make it that way — all without the aid of shameful microtransactions, too. After all, this is the developer that encouraged some fans to wait to buy "Helldivers 2" when it's running at peak efficiency. The studio isn't taking a "set it and forget it" approach with its galaxy, and behind the scenes there's a Game Master subtly changing the course of the war. That ends up creating a best-case scenario for players. There's always going to be another surprise down the road, because their actions influence the Game Master's plans. 

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