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PlayStation’s Helldivers 2 fiasco underlines that publishers should nudge gamers, not push them

Cover image for PlayStation’s Helldivers 2 fiasco underlines that publishers should nudge gamers, not push them

Photo: Arrowhead Game Studios

Photo of Rhys Elliott
by Rhys Elliott

Helldivers 2 is one of the most popular games of the year so far and has been PlayStation’s biggest PC and live-service success story to date.

But PlayStation drew the ire of the game’s PC fanbase by announcing it would force Steam players to link their account to a PlayStation Network (PSN) account. It originally planned to force the account linking at launch, but the game’s server issues changed things.

While PlayStation PR cited security concerns as the reason for the forced linking, the user-tracking data was probably the bigger incentive.

Two days after the account-linking announcement, Helldivers 2 received over 200,000 negative reviews on Steam. Sony subsequently backpedalled on its account-linking mandate, leading many Helldivers 2 fans to revoke their negative reviews: 

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Other factors also forced PlayStation’s hand

Sony’s decision is without a doubt a win for the game’s community and underlines the power of consumers banding together to speak out against arguably anti-consumer corporate decisions. However, there are other factors at play:

  • PlayStation has essentially maxed out its console user base, so it has been targeting PC to grow its total addressable market. Helldivers 2 was the first day-in-date release on PC and console. It has been a huge success, so killing its PC momentum with the controversial decision goes directly against PlayStation plans to scale on PC
  • The company has been similarly eyeing the live-service segment and building new IP, but has found very little success there over the past few years, except Helldivers 2. It does not want to lose momentum here
  • PSN is unavailable in 177 countries where Steam is available. In light of the forced-account-linking news, Steam issued refunds to Helldivers 2 players in these countries, directly impacting PlayStation’s revenues during a challenging time for the market

The above are the likelier reasons for PlayStation reversing the mandate, but the fan outrage around the situation highlights a lesson that has been learned by the industry many, many times: nudge gamers, do not push them.

The power of easing in change

In terms of game design, monetisation, and getting consumers used to big sweeping changes, game developers have learned that nudging trumps forcing.

  • If game publishers tried to force gamers to pay $100 for new games, there would be an uproar. But publishers nudging players towards a higher price for early access? That works
  • Last generation, removing the option to buy physical console games would not have gone over well either. Yet, nudging via discless consoles, multi-game subscriptions, and convenience perks like pre-downloading for instant game access on release have slowly nudged console players towards a digital-first market
  • On that last point, the Xbox One tried to force players into an always-online, digital-only games ecosystem in 2013. Gamers rejected this, almost decimating the Xbox brand. Today, all those controversial things Xbox outlined have come to fruition across the board, but it was a slow, nudge-filled process

Had PlayStation simply nudged players to link their Steam accounts to a PSN account, the whole Helldivers 2fiasco could have been avoided. The game could have instead incentivised –nudged – players to link their accounts by offering:

  • A unique cosmetic
  • Level boosts and progression upgrades
  • A small discount from other PlayStation games on Steam (such as the imminent Ghost of Tsushima port)

That way, PlayStation could have kept its community happy and got some additional tracking data from those choosing to link their accounts.

Now, it has none of the tracking power and marred a huge success story – and a live-service and PC one to boot –  with a sour second act. 

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