Sniping games are one of those peculiar genres that are almost always praised by their players but mauled by the critics.
And the Sniper Elite franchise is no exception to the rule.
Critics may not have always backed the series, but it has built a massive community eagerly waiting each new entry in the franchise.
“One thing we’ve never struggled with has been great user reviews, particularly on Steam,” Robbie Cooke (pictured, far right), marketing and PR manager at developer Rebellion, says. “Steam, Amazon and YouTube in particular have really taught the gaming world that it’s player feedback that’s most important. If your core community and new players alike are enjoying the game, then you have every chance of success.”
He continues: “Of course, we want to push ourselves to make the best game possible. You only have to be in our studio on launch day and hear the hubbub as reviews come in to know that we care about what our peers think about our games. For the devs, they like to know they did the best work they could, and made an even better game than before. Personally, as a PR person I like to think I’ve given the game every chance to succeed critically, but it’s player feedback that’s most important.”
And to make sure new players and fans alike enjoy the upcoming Sniper Elite 4, Rebellion has given the new title the best possible odds.
“This is by far the largest Sniper Elite game we’ve ever created, and it’ll be the largest marketing campaign we’ve launched and the largest team that’s ever made a Sniper Elite game – so we’re very confident in where Sniper Elite 4 is, and where Rebellion as a studio is going,” Cooke continues.
One of the reasons why Sniper Elite 4 is such a big deal for the Oxford-based developer is that it’s self-publishing the title, having previously partnered with publisher 505 Games for the previous releases in the franchise.
“We’ve been forging ahead, working exclusively on our own IP and had great success self-publishing – including Zombie Army Trilogy which was our first self-published console and retail game – so going fully independent on Sniper Elite 4 is the next logical step,” Cooke explains.
“There’s no doubt 505 played a big part in making Sniper Elite V2 and 3 a success, but we’ve invested heavily in our own publishing functions over the last several years. We now have teams responsible for marketing, PR, trailers, advertising art, websites, digital stores, customer service and more. We’ve never been in a better position and there’s no time like the present.”
"One thing we’ve never struggled with
has been great user reviews."
Robbie Cooke, Rebellion
Sniper Elite 4 was due to launch Q4 2016, but Rebellion decided to move the title to February 2017, to avoid its own Battlezone.
However, it’s now launching on the same day as the much-awaited For Honor.
“It’s funny, we both announced our launch dates within hours of each other,” Cooke explains.
“We’re not overly concerned. It’s very rare to get a slot completely to yourself these days, so you have to mitigate for that in any planning. The games are very different, but that’s not to say someone can’t enjoy both, or play one and pick up the other a little later.
We just need to make sure that we give press and influencers the time they need to enjoy the game and create content, knowing they might want to be playing other games too. We’ve been keeping our first, third and retail partners in the loop too whenever we can, and we understand we can’t hog all their attention.”
To ensure a smooth launch, Rebellion has partnered with publisher Sold Out to deliver Sniper Elite 4’s boxed version.
“When you’re independent it doesn’t make sense to limit who can buy your game, and boxed is still really important to many players, for lots of different reasons. Rebellion’s success has been built on the freedom of digital distribution of course, and we do release digital-only titles when it’s right for the game and audience – like Battlezone 98 Redux for example.”
For the first time since the franchise debut in 2005, the PC version won’t have a physical release, though.
“Right now the boxed PC market has a few challenges and the vast majority of our players buy from Steam or their preferred licensed reseller. The benefits just don’t outweigh the costs for us at the moment,” Cooke says.
"Sniper Elite 4 is a formula that
focuses on player-driven choice."
Paul C. Wright, Rebellion
Rebellion’s greater ambitions don’t stop at how the game is sold, though, it was also keen to implement significant changes to Sniper Elite 4’s gameplay.
“The most noticeable change is the sheer scale and complexity of the maps,” lead designer Paul C. Wright (pictured, top right) tells MCV. “Our maps are huge compared to Sniper Elite 3, and that alone has an effect on how we’ve seen players approach and deal with the missions.”
The Sniper Elite franchise has been criticised for its AI in the past, so the way it works is also something Rebellion has been keen to change.
“The AI system had to complement the much more open environments, so there are big evolutions there too, and a much more emergent form of gameplay in Sniper Elite 4,” Wright adds. “We’ve also opened things up with traversing the environment, allowing players to climb and shimmy across and around structures, accessing parts of buildings that would have previously been off-limits, and using the natural verticality offered by our Italian setting. Then there’s the bevy of other additions, all the new unit types, weapons, items, vehicles, and so many other things. What we’ve got in Sniper Elite 4 is a formula that focuses on player-driven choice. There aren’t design-driven ‘biggest weapon wins’ scenarios or ‘you must use stealth here’ sections. This is a much, much more open game.“
The title is set in wartime Italy around 1943 “with the country mired by fascist rule,” Wright says. A setting that was not chosen at random, he adds.
“Our bosses Chris and Jason Kingsley are big World War Two aficionados, and there are more theatres of that conflict they want to explore, even if that means setting them in times and locations that aren’t that well known.
“Since Sniper Elite 4 is being developed from the ground up for the latest hardware, we have the ability to create the gigantic levels that the varied Italian setting demanded and that a sniper game deserves. The Italian campaign is something we wanted to show the world. Not many people are aware of the historical importance of the campaign, and how close it was to not even happening, so to be able to create a game in this setting is a great honour.”
Between self-publishing, gameplay innovations and a lesser-known setting, there are a lot of unknown factors surrounding Sniper Elite 4’s success. Cooke remains confident but is aware of the challenges facing the title.
“We wouldn’t be making Sniper Elite 4 if we didn’t think it could be the best-selling Sniper Elite game of all time, but that’s not the only measure of success. Do players stay with the game and support us when we make new content? Will players leave great player ratings, or want to share it over Twitch and YouTube? Will it keep its value over time? Will it attract new players who might want to explore previous games in the series, or even future ones? Now that we have complete control of the IP, its development and marketing, we can judge success on more than sales figures.”
So far, the public’s response has been positive, Rebellion having showcased the title at Insomnia and EGX.
“We’ve been out to Gamescom and Paris Games Week too,” Wright says. “We had people queuing for two to three hours to play the game, and with that kind of wait time you are expecting some criticism, but I can’t recall much at all. Most of the people I spoke to loved the game and couldn’t wait for it to come out.”
He concludes: “We’re making the kind of games we like to play at Rebellion, and I think our passion is what drives us to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do.”