Warhammer: Vermintide 2 was in a bit of a rut last year. Winds of Magic, its first expansion, was poorly received, while the negative Steam reviews for the previously popular base game started to mount up. Instead of carrying on with business as usual, however, the studio changed direction, and a year later it seems to have managed to turn things around.
In September, Fatshark noticed the wind changing, with players expressing their discontent with both old and new elements of the rat-smashing co-op romp. CEO Martin Wahlund recalls that, when the team realised things weren't going well, they decided, "OK, this is not good, we are trending downwards and we need to change this."
Significantly, Fatshark paused and delayed a lot of the features it had been working on, including the Versus mode, instead focusing on getting the game back to a good place. Wahlund sees the work as redemptive and ultimately worth it. "There's no point in us pushing out new features if people don't like the current game," he says.
Conveniently, this change in plans actually seems to have slotted quite neatly into the seasonal structure, which the studio had already announced. It's on its third season now, and each of them is centred around some new additions, but bolstered a longer list of tweaks and improvements. The latest, for instance, includes a new career, the Grail Knight, and different weather in existing maps, while an earlier one introduced the in-game shop and new maps inspired by the first game.
New careers are something the studio has wanted to add for a long time, and it plans to keep doing it. While the roadmap may have changed, there's still been a decent cadence of new free and premium stuff so adventurers have a reason to come back and slaughter more rats.
"We did a lot of levels for the first game," recalls Wahlund, "but after a while, players wanted to see other things than levels. They wanted to see characters, weapons, new game modes, stuff like that. So I think it's important to have a mix."
Now Vermintide 2 has managed to climb its way up to a Mostly Positive rating, while the recent reviews rating is Very Positive, suggesting it's going to keep climbing. Some of the changes Fatshark has made are less visible—new approaches to its ongoing development, for instance, and quality control. Live game director Mårten Stormdal says the studio doesn't want to release new features that aren't "up to snuff" and believes that the improvements to these processes are just as big a factor in Vermintide 2's turnaround. And of course there's all the external feedback that it gathers from tests, Reddit, forums and articles.
"You're never done with that process," says Stormdal. "You need to be vigilant all the time. So it's more of a mindset change than something you do with the actual product."
The team has its ear to the ground, trying to figure out what players want, but Wahlund says Fatshark also has to have a clear vision of its own. Sometimes they bump up against each other. The Grail Knight, for example, seems to have been generally well received, but the way it was released, as a premium DLC that you can also buy with a second bit of cosmetic DLC in a bundle, has ruffled some feathers. The career itself is very cheap, and you can get the bundle with everything for less than a tenner, but there are plenty of players that aren't convinced.
For future careers, Fatshark is open to making adjustments based on what players want, though it's not ready to talk specifics. Some more transparency appears to be the goal, with the game director, designers, the narrative team, testers and the community all participating to some degree.
"What we try to do nowadays is bring in people from the community a bit earlier so we can try stuff and get some feedback before we actually launch it, which has worked pretty well," says Wahlund. "That's what we do in Versus, for example. We have a really small playtest, then we get feedback, then we go back and fix stuff, then we do another small playtest and get more feedback. When we feel like we're done with it, then we're going to ship it, but we don't set an end date for that."
So there's no release date for Versus yet—it'll be ready when it's ready. In the meantime, it's putting the villains through their paces. Versus will pit the heroes against player-controlled enemy specialists drawn from the horrible ratty monstrosities normally trying to murder players. They're not quite as complex as their heroic counterparts, but there will still be a lot for players to get used to. And you won't be able to stick with just what you know, as each match will consist of two rounds, letting both teams experience the fight from both perspectives.
Fatshark is still refining the new player experience, something it also thinks could be improved in the base game. It's not settled on how many villainous characters it will launch with, but the goal is to eventually have as many as possible. Right now, though, it wants to keep their numbers small so players don't get overwhelmed and they're easier to test.
Like the Adventure mode, you can expect Versus to grow and adapt, along with some of the other new additions. The shop, for instance, is something Stormdal believes can still be improved.
"You can always do more, but as a tool for people to be able to see what's there and see what they can strive for, it's a really good and powerful tool," he says. "What we want to do is make it a more active place where we add things and where things happen in the store. When you open the store every time, or at least once a week, there should be something new, or it should feel like opening up presents. That's at least what I am aiming for."
One addition being considered is more lore. Fatshark wants to ground the shop and its inventory more firmly in Warhammer's Old World by giving both more flavour. Think item descriptions from Baldur's Gate and you're on the right track. And while the shop does offer some premium items, most of its contents can be snatched up by throwing in-game currency at them. It lets players escape RNG hell and go on a cosmetics spending spree.
With things looking rosier—or as rosy as a game about chopping up waves of monsters in gloomy medieval streets can be—Fatshark's planning a new expansion. It's called The Chaos Wastes and it's coming at the end of the year.
"It's very different," promises Stormdal. "It will take place in the actual Chaos Wastes. "Things in the wastes are very weird sometimes because the Winds of Magic are very strong up there. It's close to the portal to the Realm of Chaos, where the daemons live."
An internal test will begin after the summer, but with a lot subject to change, Fatshark hasn't given too much away. Expect new maps, of course, and a location that will be a big departure from the existing battlefields.
The Chaos Wastes contains countless monsters and other terrors, corrupted by pure Chaos and all fighting for the squabbling Dark Gods. It's not the sort of place where mortals should be hanging out, but a bit of danger has never stopped the Vermintide crew before.
There will be new elements or features, but aside from saying they'll be "exciting," Stormdal and Wahlund are keeping their secrets for a little while longer. New enemies? The corrupting influence of Chaos? We'll have to wait and see what's in store for us this winter.
And beyond the Chaos Wastes? Wahlund says that, while there's plenty of new things coming to Vermintide 2 this year, Fatshark is still looking to the future—to "new things." What shape these new things will take is still a mystery, but he adds that the studio is focused on Vermintide-style games. Chopping stuff up with your buddies doesn't get old.