At E3 2015, IO and Square Enix revealed a new entry in its Hitman series.
Simply called Hitman, this was a departure for the franchise, being released in an episodic fashion. Square had seen success with this model the year before with Dontnod’s episodic surprise smash hit, Life is Strange. But it was the first time the firm had attempted something like this with one of its triple-A, established franchises.
“We knew that doing this was likely to raise some eyebrows, both from our fans and from the gaming community as a whole,” creative director at developer IO Interactive Christian Elverdam says.
“We expected that it would be up to us to prove why we thought an episodic format would work well for the sandbox-levels.”
Though it may have raised questions about the episodic release model, it appears to have been a more-or-less perfect fit for Hitman’s sandbox design. Gamers could experiment with a variety of ways to approach their targets and weren’t ‘forced’ to move straight on to the next level.
“One of fundamental problems with building Hitman, a problem more than a decade old, is how to make sure people get the depth and variety in each sandbox mission,” he explains.
“[2012’s] Hitman: Absolution tried to streamline the gameplay to make this more clear, and the mechanics improved tremendously. However the levels suffered from a loss of complexity. This time around we adopted a different approach. We wanted streamlined mechanics but we also wanted to bring back the depth and creativity that made the Hitman series stand out. Our solution was to let the episodes stand alone as individual episodes, thus really encouraging people to dig in and discover the depth. At the same time, one level being ‘live’ at a time meant that everyone playing Hitman would have a feeling of playing together with everyone else. You were all in the same chapter, discovering many new ways of completing the missions as a community. Following that activity has been pretty amazing to watch.”
Before launch, there was a great deal of skepticism around this new Hitman, but Elverdam says that ultimately the business model was met positively by fans.
“There was a lot of skepticism, which we expected, as we were doing something new,” he admits.
“I think it’s natural that some players were thinking ‘Will this work?’ or ‘Will it be delayed?’ and we proved that we have a good way of doing things. And I really love that people actually see the game for what it is. That was the major reason for doing the things we’re doing. How can we get people to appreciate a classic Hitman sandbox? Being episodic, where you spend time getting to know a location, really get under the skin of it, that’s the best way to appreciate the depth in a game like Hitman. So I would say we have proven our case. I also want to underline that if you prefer all the content at once, which I think many players do, we always said that you should jump in when the season concludes. We will still continue with a lot of activities, not least the Elusive Targets that have become extremely popular.”
"There was a lot of skepticism, as we were doing something new."
Christian Elverdam, IO
It wasn’t all clear sailing, however. The fact that the launch model and content available upon release changed a lot meant that many were a bit concerned about the title. Initially set for release at the end of 2015 with a ‘sizeable chunk’ of content, the plan was to release episodes throughout 2016, including different locations and extra missions. That later changed with a three-month delay to March 2016, and the news that only three maps would be present upon launch, with others joining over the summer. One final change before launch saw just one map – Paris – ship with the Day One version of the game, with subsequent locations launching monthly.
“I think we made it hard for ourselves by not being clearer about what we wanted and also what we communicated,” Elverdam admits.
“If you’re going to do something like we’re doing, the internet is a fairly unforgiving place. If you remember back to when we announced the game, we were trying to work out ‘How much content is enough content to start with?’ and that led to communication confusion and skepticism, which is a perfectly normal reaction which we had created ourselves.
“When we confirmed episodic, it was terminology which players understood so it was less confusing – and then we had to just let the game do the talking and let players dive into our world of assassination.
“We also knew that we needed to hit the episodic beats on time and reliably. If we had had delays on all episodes, I think many skeptics would have remained skeptical, whereas today we get so much praise for what we did, and that we dared to do something different.”
Ultimately, IO feels vindicated by Hitman 2016’s performance and that the development team learned a great deal from its debut episodic release.
“First of all, this format means there is a place for the wonderful, complex and humouristic Hitman sandbox. That in a time where many things are bite-sized, people can still dig deep and explore a game experience that cannot be boiled down to five-to-ten minute segments,” Elverdam says.
“That said, the first season was one big exciting and ongoing learning phase, this is our first live game, our first episodic game. Getting that infrastructure and those processes fluid, whilst a dull answer have been a huge learning for us.
He added: “The team at IOI have worked incredibly hard, and we’ve collectively learnt how to do things better and more efficiently.
“Also being able to react to feedback from the community during the season has been a big element for us, it’s helped us improve the game so the learnings from Season One are invaluable to us.”
After being released over the course of 2016 digitally, Hitman is sneaking into retail in the form of a physical Steelbook release in just a few days.
This includes all six episodes of the title, as well as all the additional content that came out during the game’s first year.
“In 2016 we delivered Hitman in a totally new and innovative way, but the plan was always to release the full game physically as well,” Chris Arnold, UK senior product manager at publisher Square Enix, says.
“Some consumers prefer to wait for a full game rather than purchasing episodically, want to avoid downloads or just like having a physical box on the shelf. We want to give gamers the choice on how they want to purchase and play Hitman.”
He continues: “We’re very happy with the digital release of Hitman, but we know there are more players out there who have yet to jump into our world of assassination and who have been waiting for the disc version.
“The Hitman series and Agent 47 in particular are incredibly well-known and we have a big opportunity to make this the key release of early 2017.”