Hitman is a weird video game franchise. You incarnate an assassin-for-hire and you have to kill various targets in different cities around the world. But you get to decide how you want to do it.
While many AAA games are putting a lot of emphasis on cut scenes, story lines and closed environments, game developer IO Interactive is taking an opposite approach by going all-in on sandbox gameplay.
But that wasn’t always the case. While the game series is 16 years old today, it has been a bumpy ride. In 2012, Hitman: Absolution provided a much more linear gameplay. In other words, the 2012 episode looked like countless of other games out there.
That’s why IO Interactive took a risky yet ambitious bet. The Hitman franchise needed a reboot, and the company wanted to go back to the original game’s core features. Hitman is a sandbox game with huge levels and countless of possibilities to kill your targets. It relies on your creativity and sense of observation, but it can also feel like a daunting game.
When the company announced the game last year, it also said that the game would be released in six episodes over the course of 2016. Many fans were worried, thinking that a game like Hitman didn’t make any sense in an episodic format.
I’ve played the game for dozens of hours, and it was by far my favorite Hitman game. Each level was deep enough that you could easily play for 10 or 20 hours trying all sorts of disguises and contracts.
I interviewed IO Interactive creative director Christian Elverdam right before the release of the last episode. It was a good opportunity to look back at the Hitman reboot. This interview was slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
TechCrunch: How happy are you with the game now that you’ve finished developing all the episodes?
Christian Elverdam: I think we’re quite happy right now. It’s been quite a journey building all these levels and shipping them out. Now, looking at everything together, it’s very nice. It’s also been nice to follow people talking about the episodes together and digging into all the details of each individual level.
Also, we managed to bring back sandbox-typed gameplay after ten years and people liked it. That was obviously really exciting at the beginning of the season. How would people receive the game? Would they get it? Would they like it?
TC: Talking about sandbox games, I feel like you’re not the only one and there are a few other games following this trend right now, like Deus Ex, Dishonored, etc. Do you think gamers are asking for this kind of games now? And why not five years ago?
CE: I think there are more gamers now. And also more generally we’re all getting older, the average gamer age is just getting higher because all of us are now gamers. 30 years from now, we’ll have retired people who play games, which is still uncommon right now. I just think, as a medium, we’re maturing.
More specifically, for Hitman, what’s different this time around is that the episodic format gives people more time to get used to the depth of the game, especially for people who were not into a game like Hitman: Blood Money. And I think that’s new for us, even when looking at Hitman: Absolution as well. We’ve managed to make more people understand how to approach a deep and complex sandbox game.
TC: That’s how I felt as well playing the game from the first episode. What do you think about gamers who are going to buy the game now with all the episodes? Are they going to understand that they’re supposed to spend ten or twenty hours on each level?
CE: I think they will. If you spend any time reading articles or watching videos on the web for the last seven months, you’ll see that a lot of people are talking about the depth of the game. It makes it much easier for people who are jumping in.
I also think that part of the people who jump in right now are people who might know Hitman really well but they want the full package so they can play it at their own pace. And we said that it’s fine — if you want to wait, you should wait. We don’t want to change that mindset. So I think people who jump in now have a good chance of understanding just how much is in there. We’ll also have to see if there���s a difference in behavior. The risk obviously is that they might not get the depth of the game. Based on how many people have talked about the game already, I’m pretty confident that they will.
TC: I’m curious about how it went as well when it comes to sales. Is it a success?
CE: We feel like Hitman is a success. We can’t talk about that too much specifically. We’re pretty happy.
TC: Did people buy it mostly around the first episode and continued playing it or was it more spread out over the different episodes?
CE: Again, I can’t be too specific. But in general, it’s been going on the entire season. One of the advantages of building a game that is live is that there are many entry points to jump into the game. Also we’re still continuing to release elusive targets and escalation contracts. I think we’ve managed to create a game with many starting points and I can also see that in how people buy it.
TC: Many people are saying that video games are becoming like services — with live content, it feels like that. You’re providing a service and adding more content all year long. Do you think it’s a big trend in video games and not just Hitman?
CE: You can now release patches for console games, it has become much easier. A few years ago, when we decided to work on this version of the game, part of what made it possible is that Microsoft and Sony changed their policies so that developing a game for a console would feel more like developing a game for the PC.
That trend in itself will lead a lot people to think like us. Based on our conversations with other people in the industry, a lot of people are looking at what we’re doing and think it’s fascinating. I think there could be a lot of people who want to go this way.
I still think it needs to fit with the video game world at some level. For us, the concept of Agent 47, an assassin who is getting his assignments ever so often — you’re going to Paris, you’re going to Morocco, you’re going to Japan… That felt like a good fit with the world of Agent 47. You get these missions that pop up. “Oh, by the way, there’s a target in Italy for the next 48 hours, you need to hurry.” All that stuff plays a part when it comes to building a game like that.
TC: The idea of video games as a service seems quite popular with multiplayer games already. Do you think it would work for more single player games in addition to Hitman?
CE: Our game is a single player game. So I think we’re a proof that you can do this with a single player game. I think it’s also really tied with the video game universe. Does it help the universe? When you get a notification that there’s an elusive target, a part of you feels a little bit like an agent with an assignment. And that’s why it clicks with you. I don’t know if any game could do it, but I think many games could probably do it.
TC: You probably expected me to ask this question. Will there be a season 2?
CE: A lot of people are asking about that. I take that as a sign that people really like what we’re doing.
Going back to when we announced the game, I talked about it at E3 a few years ago. We had this ambition to build a world that would expand. And we talked about the fact that we would like to tell a story that could span over multiple seasons of Hitman.
So our approach, our thoughts and our overall vision for the game is something that lasts more than a season obviously. Hitman is like what you’d expect from your favorite TV shows. It closes some story arc at the end of the season, and then it also opens some new doors for the future.
I can’t really be super specific about it but we’re definitely thinking about something that will continue.
TC: Like a good TV show, we could expect a break between seasons…
CE: Obviously, we need time to build a season. But at the moment, we’re wrapping up season one and we’re looking back at the season. We’re fortunate as we’re looking back at a season during which a lot of things worked. Now, it’s more about thinking how we can improve it. And then, at some point we’ll figure out what’s next.
TC: I’m curious about the production challenges as well. You released so many episodes in very little time. How much did you work on all the different levels in advance even before releasing the first episode?
CE: We had to fundamentally rethink a lot of things. We had big ambitions and such a small amount of time. Some things are planned a long time in advance. We know where the story is going to go, we know the locations as well because we need to start building the geometry and all that.
But there’s a difference between knowing the locations and the way we build it. With the final episode in Japan, Hokkaido was heavily influenced by having shipped both Paris and Sapienza. Seeing that the sandbox was well-received, it gave us some confidence to shape up the Colorado and Hokkaido levels.
There are many things that we’ve been playing around with, and I don’t think we’d have played around with them if we had released everything at once. There’s nothing more honest than watching people playing your game. That’s the mindset we’ve been in for the last several months.
Previously, we shipped a game and then you could see what you did for two weeks and understand how people received it. This time, it’s been a longer period. We can tweak the game.
TC: You’ve been at IO Interactive for a while. What do you think are the biggest changes between when you started and now?
CE: I’ve been there for almost nine years now. We shipped a game over a period of seven months. The way we did that was by actually not working crazy hours all the time. Some years ago, the industry was at a different place. People worked crazy hours before releasing a game, then shipped a game, went on vacation and took a break.
When you do that, you start doing a lot of mistakes and a lot of errors. We had seven months ahead of us during which we needed to execute with almost no error, otherwise we would be delayed. Also, as human beings, you can’t work like crazy for that long. We’ve worked with some pressure, but it hasn’t been crazy all the time. That’s definitely something that feels really good. It has become more professional at IO and in the industry in general as well.