How Hitman rewrites the rules for major game releases

“Everyone likes progress, no-one likes change… that’s the way I’d put it,” explains Hitman’s creative director Christian Elverdam. His job is to set the overall tone and vision for the latest offering in the long-running assassination series – a series that’s adept at making you believe anything is possible in your attempt to kill given targets. If it’s about anything, Hitman is about choice.

How Hitman rewrites the rules for major game releases

Elverdam’s statement attempts to answer a difficult question: whether or not the game’s potential audience, and the video-game industry as a whole, is ready for Hitman’s unusual release structure. Once a month, beginning 11 March, a new game location will be released, each steadily building the storyline over the course of what developer IO Interactive is calling Hitman “season one”. It’s a bold departure for a franchise that has so far relied on the “traditional” approach of thrusting a disc full of content into our hands on day one.  

Admittedly, the episodic format isn’t a wholly novel idea within the video-game environment. Titles such as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Dontnod’s Life is Strange have seen considerable success, as have projects such as Kentucky Route Zero and MISSING that come from smaller production teams. Never, however, has a mega-budget, “triple-A” game risked embracing such an approach, and especially not one that has yet to work its way into a mainstream consciousness still defined by the likes of Call of Duty and EA Sports’ FIFA.

“Our colleagues in the industry are really interested in what we’re doing,” says Elverdam. “‘Episodic’ is the term you use because it relates to the story and that it comes out a little bit like a TV show. Depending on the brand and the game and other factors… it’s just such a good way of publishing a game that I simply can’t see how it’s not going to be natural for other games to do it.”

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With so much money on the line, companies tend to adhere to risk-averse policies wherever possible. It’s easy to understand why: they want to give themselves the best chance to recoup development costs and, hopefully, turn a profit. Episodic releases may have proven viable across titles that rely on a comparatively small audience to succeed commercially, but it’s untested where the biggest franchises are concerned.

To some extent, then, Hitman is a trailblazing enterprise. If it succeeds it will be considered a masterstroke from IO Interactive and publisher Square Enix. But failure will lead to ridicule from fans annoyed at the change, and potentially put off major publishers from following suit.

One of the benefits for the consumer is that you can pay in more manageable, bite-size chunks. Hitman episode one comes in at £12, and includes the Paris map and a prologue chapter. If you don’t like what you play, then you don’t have to invest in future episodes. Compared to “traditional” game releases that ask you to part with £50 or more in advance of any first-hand experience, that’s likely to tempt many more people to take the plunge.

Elverdam underlines that point: “We’re not asking you to put down a lot of money upfront and hope that our way of doing things is going to work for you and your tastes. You can take it one [episode] at a time if you like. I hope that will convince people to try it, because I honestly think that Paris is really good, and I think it will speak for itself once people play it.”

A new creative approach

The episodic format delivers not only a potential commercial benefit for the creator (longer product lifecycle) and player (lower cost of entry), but also paves the way for a new creative approach. Elverdam and the team’s goal is to provide a regular stream of updates to every episode post-release, with the additions coming from ideas generated in-house as well as from watching and reacting to how the player base is interacting with the game.

When episode one is released, for instance, a specific set of targets will be laid out for you to assassinate. As the inscrutable Agent 47, it’s your job to work out how to remove these individuals from their world without raising the suspicions of bystanders. Once the game is in the wild, however, new targets will be added to test players’ skills and help them understand and appreciate the same environment from a different perspective.hitman_3

This constant stream of alterations has changed how IO works as a studio and how it seeks to interpret data derived from players and commentary surrounding the game. Elverdam breaks down this feedback into two categories: hard and soft.

“Data like that is really cool because it tells us things like which parts of levels are underused.”

“Hard data is things like where people actually go in the game, how many times a specific door is opened and that sort of thing. That almost requires a statistician in order to understand how to read that data. Data like that is really cool because it tells us things like which parts of levels are underused, which is interesting because it might be somewhere we can look at putting an [assassination target] somewhere down the line.

“Then we have soft data, which is usually verbal feedback from the team itself; the fans; the press. You have to learn to interpret and evaluate that clearly. There are many different voices giving you soft data, but in my experience there tends to be an undercurrent that you can find and tap into.”

The question of which elements can be tweaked or added, and when to implement those changes, comes down to the complexity of the problem. A solution for a new piece of content might be easy to agree upon, but that doesn’t mean the delivery is simple. In a game as intricate as Hitman, in which hundreds of artificially intelligent digital avatars are interacting with each other and responding to the actions of the player, the smallest change can have enormous consequences down the line. Those consequences might not be obvious until the game is in the hands of players intent on constant experimentation.

Tweaking and improving

Releasing new episodes on a monthly basis means there is a constant hum of work being carried out to make sure the promised schedule is met. This means tweaks to previously released episodes must be performed with strict time management as a priority.

“What we will change depends on the nature of the content. Some systems we won’t touch,” declares Elverdam.Let’s say we made a scripting mistake somewhere in Paris, which I would say is highly likely because this is a complex game… if someone sees that then it would be right to fix that.

“It’s down to the essence of the problem as to whether we can change it quickly, whether it has to be changed slowly or whether we don’t change it at all and just have to live with it. I just think that the most important thing is that the game itself feels like a healthy game to the gamer.”

While this ability to patch the game post-release is available due to the episodic structure, more important is the fact that it’s being released digitally – although a physical edition of the game will be released at the end of season one later in the year.

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Given that Hitman has to be downloaded, IO can rest safe in the knowledge that everyone playing it will have access to a reasonably good internet connection. As a result, the studio can make and release changes that it knows will be received by every one of its players. If the game were offered on disc, then there would be no certainty that everyone would download the new content and, resultantly, there would exist the possibility that the player base will be segmented into those with the latest version and those without.

“When you ship a game in the old way, you think you have this perfect moment of clarity when it’s finished,” describes Elverdam. “That shipping process always felt like a conclusion because the verdicts start coming in and fans play it, then you disappear for two or three years before you come back with something new.

“Once Paris comes out we’ll all be watching how people play it and what they’re doing and figuring out how we can react.”

“Having the extra clarity that comes with the way we’re releasing is priceless. We can talk to each other, watch people playing on Twitch.tv and read what people are writing about it. Once Paris comes out, we’ll all be watching how people play it and what they’re doing, and figuring out how we can react to that and improve things. Being a digital release, we can do that and it means we can be aggressive when it comes to making changes.”

Just how successful those changes are will likely go a long way to determining whether Hitman’s audience ultimately considers the digital approach to be a smart one. In turn, that audience reaction will influence whether or not other triple-A franchises seek to follow IO Interactive’s lead.

With so many eyes watching, Hitman’s success, great or small, is about so much more than financial targets or positive review scores. If everything goes to plan, this could be the release that breathes life into the episodic format for AAA titles; a frontier that up until now has been the dominion of smaller studios. Given that this is a game about assassinations and death, the irony is palpable.

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