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Joel On Joel

Blaseball's Joel reviews the new Joel in town: Helldivers Joel

Arrowhead / Aftermath

If you’ve been following the grand man-vs-bug-and-robot space opera that is Helldivers 2, you probably know that players and NPCs aren’t alone out there. They’re being watched by an all-seeing war orchestrator known only as Joel, who can give individual players access to special stratagems, cue up surprise intergalactic invasions, and pull numerous strings in between. Would you believe, though, that he’s not the first Joel in this kind of role? 

Joel A. Clark, game design lead at The Game Band, also had the distinct honor of essentially DM-ing a live game played by an entire community of people at once. In his case, that game was Blaseball, the now sadly-deceased fantasy baseball simulator that was about a little more than just baseball. Early on, players voted to open Blaseball’s forbidden rulebook, which took America’s national pastime in some fun new directions. As summed up by The Verge, those included “a hellmouth that devoured the Moab desert, three eldritch gods in the form of a giant peanut, a huge floating microphone that may have been a player’s ghost or something, and, naturally, a massive squid that seemed to mostly hang out, but once tried to eat someone.” 

As simulated teams threw down (and up and sideways, and all the other directions a baseball can go) over the course of “seasons” that lasted one week a piece, fans could bet fake money on outcomes and earn the ability to vote on world-altering rule changes between seasons. Those included everything from weather effects like “eclipse,” “birds,” and “bloodrain” to a rule that added an entire evolution mechanic at the beginning of season 12. Clark and others at The Game Band would have to design and implement features based on the sheer chaos that emerged from a simulator the team described as “malevolent” and an increasingly organized player base. And again, they were doing all of this a week at a time. 

Blaseball Joel thinks he and Helldivers Joel have a lot in common – if, indeed, Helldivers Joel is real.

"I wanted to go commiserate with other Joel as soon as I read the article [that revealed his existence],” Clark told Aftermath. “I was gonna be like 'Hey, how are you doing?' That's what got me suspicious. I realized I had no way of finding this other Joel. I know from my own experience when I was GM-ing [Blaseball], I wanted to talk about it constantly because it was such a weird experience that I just wanted to ramble about it. That was my biggest red flag in thinking other Joel's not real. I was like 'Why doesn't other Joel want to talk about this? Why aren't they in these articles?'"

If Joel is merely a pseudonym, it’s an awfully coincidental choice as far as these things go. Blaseball Joel says he’s not quite “vain” enough to believe that Helldivers Joel is named after him, though. In this case, he hopes the most obvious answer is also the correct one: Helldivers Joel is real, and he’s having a great time.

"If you are real, other Joel, I'll be Joel 2, you can be Joel 1,” said Clark. “And I hope you're doing well and not stressed out, and even if you're a pseudonym for a team, I hope you're all not stressed out and doing well – and enjoying this process."

However, based on personal experience, Blaseball Joel imagines that Helldivers Joel is under a lot of pressure.

"I bet you other Joel's probably very stressed,” Clark told Aftermath. “[Blaseball] was the most stressful thing in the world, and I hope I never have a job as fun as that again."

That said, from the outside looking in, Blaseball Joel thinks Helldivers Joel and company have engineered a slightly more manageable variation on the theme than Blaseball did.

"With the randomness of Blaseball, we created this sense for ourselves that there was always something over our shoulder that we had to be ready for,” said Clark. “At any moment, one of those things could trigger, and we'd have to suddenly respond to it. Where in Helldivers, if the players are organizing around something or all pushing for a planet or doing something unexpected, the developers have some warning, right? It's a lot of slow-developing progress bars. So they get to be like 'OK, it's about two hours until they'll have this planet liberated. We can have our ducks in a row and not be shocked by it.'"

But even then, players can be unpredictable. Last week Helldivers 2 players liberated a planet called Tien Kwan – which allowed them to begin using oft-hinted-at and much-anticipated mechs, a brand new feature – “four times” more quickly than Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt expected. The sheer excitement of it all led to an influx of players, which caused the game’s servers to topple over. Much like Blaseball’s dev team, the creators of Helldivers 2 are learning lessons on the fly.

"Blaseball was a surprise hit,” said Clark. “We had no idea that the week-on-week pace was gonna be so hellish.”

Blaseball, though, had the benefit of a certain clarity to its structure. Each week, a season would play out, then there’d be an election, and that election would decide where the game went next. Helldivers 2 just keeps going and going.

"I don't envy the constant fluctuating nature of Helldivers where, sure, they get some warning time when stuff's gonna happen, but there's not these clean break moments,” said Clark. “It's constantly ebbing and flowing.”

That, Blaseball Joel believes, forces Helldivers 2 Joel into a position where sometimes he has to do things that frustrate players, like suddenly making enemies tougher or taking other subtle actions to stem the tide of liberation.

"It feels like they're doing much more live balance to push back on a planet so it's not liberated so quickly or to delay an event or drive the war a little bit, and I think that has potential to feel bad sometimes,” said Clark. “If [players] are about to liberate a planet and suddenly it's slowed way down or is going the other way, [that can be annoying]. … I felt so weird about balance stuff [on Blaseball], because it felt like cheating. If I accidentally tuned a dial and 30 players were getting incinerated in Blaseball, it felt like 'Well, that's cool. That's the story. I shouldn't turn that down. I dug my grave and I should lie in it.'"

Some of this, as it turns out, is just a matter of Helldivers 2’s structure. After players began to blame Joel for meddling too much, Pilestedt took to Twitter to explain that planets’ liberation meters tick down during non-peak hours simply because fewer people are hurling themselves into the meat grinder. Enemies, meanwhile, continue to seize planets regardless, so sometimes they get the upper hand. 

The structure of Helldivers 2, Blaseball Joel thinks, kind of forces Arrowhead to clarify what Helldivers Joel is and isn’t doing.

"Most of our job as [Blaseball] GM was to set up the election that happened at the end of the week, because that's where all the content gets introduced; that's when the season changes, so we rebalance things. I feel like it made it much clearer what we were doing versus what the simulation was doing,” said Clark. “It doesn't surprise me that [Helldivers] had to go clarify, because if they hadn't told people there was a Joel operating this world, I don't know if people would have assumed it. It's much less obvious what the GM's hand is in things. It feels like it could just be the simulation, which is probably to their advantage in some ways. It lets the audience speculate. Other Joel could be doing anything, any change or any bad thing that happens to them, they can be like 'JOOOOOEL.' Are they setting the spawn rates of the planets live, or is that just something they set ages ago and I just got a bad spawn this match?"

Blaseball Joel thinks this ambiguity also allows for some of Helldivers 2’s coolest bits of community puppeteering, like when Helldivers Joel (seemingly) began dropping future features – like vehicles and a new flying enemy type – into a small handful of matches, pouring rocket fuel into the game’s ever-buzzing rumor mill.  

"I love that,” Clark said. “I hope they get to spectate the matches, too – kind of fly around and watch it happen. There's a good, strategic weapon to have those sorts of tools, but it also sounds like a really fun way to mess with people. ... I would totally do that if I had those tools. But I mean, it just seems like a really fun, mysterious way to roll out content. People start seeing vehicles appear in worlds and get really curious about them."

The coolest, most difficult part of a game like this, in Blaseball Joel’s eyes, is the relationship that develops between developers and a highly-organized community. As with Helldivers 2 players’ mobilization around a planet they came to call “Robot Vietnam,” Blaseball players latched onto elements of the game the developers weren’t expecting. Blaseball Joel thinks the best stories emerged when the team leaned into that.

"[In season six], whoever won the raffle item got to steal a player from another team,” said Clark. “But instead of stealing at random, we had it steal from slot 14 on the [top-20 most popular fictional Blaseball players board]. And the community had control of who was at what slot. So they coordinated to put Jaylen Hotdogfingers, who had died, at slot 14. They were like 'We're gonna bring this player back from the dead by stealing them from death.' And we were like 'That's great! Let's roll with that and design mechanics.'"

Of course, warping the very fiber of the game to allow for necromancy wasn’t easy, and Blaseball’s dev team didn’t have much time to make it happen.

"On Thursday [of season six] we were talking like 'Hey, did you see what the community is trying to do?'” said Clark. “[Then we] designed the mechanics. We created three quick systems on the fly so that when Jaylen did come back, he was beaning players and hitting the batters with the ball, and that caused this chain effect of these other systems that happened. We designed it all on Thursday, wrote the code on Friday, shipped it on Saturday, and it went live on Sunday. Jaylen came back, and the next four or five weeks were centered on Jaylen Hotdogfingers' wild necromancy story and the heel turn of Jaylen that the community caused."

That creative reactivity allowed Blaseball’s community to flourish, developing its own landscape of fictional news networks and other in-character resources. Helldivers 2’s community – already much larger than Blaseball’s ever got – loves to roleplay en masse for a lot of the same reasons. But in the long run, that dynamic took a toll on Blaseball’s development team. Ultimately, they couldn’t keep it up. Now The Game Band is trying to carry the idea of a large-scale, live-DM-ed community game forward, but in a more sustainable way.

“A slower pace helps a lot – and better tools,” said Clark. “Having a clearer idea of what your game is gonna look like a few years down the line so that you can build all of the tools you need for all of the content, so that when you're GM-ing, you're not building stuff on the fly. I bet you Helldivers has cracked that egg a little bit and they have some idea of what their content is going to be. They're not building it on the fly. So pace, better tools, and a clear structure of when stuff is going to change and when stuff gets released. That's one thing Blaseball did have, and it was our friend. It was just too fast of a pace." 

“I don't think the formula has been totally cracked yet,” Clark continued. “I think there's a way to do this sort of development in a less chaotic, stressful way for the team. But I don't know! Maybe other Joel's not stressed at all. I wish the best for other Joel. I hope there's no stress, he has the best tools in the world, and he's having the time of his life. I hope he's real."

One thing Blaseball Joel can say for certain is that he, personally, is not Helldivers Joel. Unless, of course, he’s regularly losing consciousness and being displaced by a second, Mr Hype-type identity with the diabolical goal of working at Arrowhead Game Studios every day.

"I guess we can't totally rule that out,” Clark said. “I could be blacking out and doing this when I'm not aware. So I can confirm that during my waking hours, I'm not live GM-ing Helldivers 2. But I can't confirm anything otherwise."

Inside Baseball is a week of stories about the lesser-known parts of game development, the ins and outs of games journalism, and a peek behind the curtain at Aftermath. It's part of our first subscription drive, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing!

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