Assassins are modern anti-heroes, doing the dirty work of their corporate or government overseers. If the jobs is done right, then the assassin will get no attention for that work and will be long gone before the victim is discovered.
And it’s the job of Hannes Seifert, studio head at Io-Interactive, to take the nasty business of being a professional killer and turn it into something fun. Seifert is in charge of the reboot of Hitman, the latest installment in a 16-year-old stealth assassination series. One way he has made the life of a hitman more palatable is through the fantasy of “assassination tourism,” where you as the player can travel to exotic places, impersonate interesting people, drive expensive cars, and then kill your targets in complete stealth. If Seifert does his job right, he’ll have a massive hit on his hands — pun intended.
In the new Hitman, the “hero” of the game is a merciless assassin. As Agent 47, you get a chance to stalk elusive targets — like the billionaire who is holding a giant party and fashion show at his estate — and take them down while drawing as little attention as possible. In this game, you’ll be part of massive simulations where you have to find a target in the crowd of 300 people at a heavily guarded fashion show in suave Paris. Agent 47 has to take the uniform of a guard or fashion show employee and make the kill as stealthily as possible. Hitman fans know they’ll have to play this scenario over and over again to get it right.
Another cool thing is that the game will come out in episodic fashion, with major new open-world areas released one by one. Square Enix is publishing the game in March. I caught up with Seifert at a recent Square Enix preview event for the Hitman reboot. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How many Hitman games have you worked on, as a company?
Hannes Seifert: If you’re talking about major releases, this is the sixth one now in 15 years. Every few years we have a game. Sometimes the gap is bigger, sometimes smaller. There were also a few successful mobile games, like Hitman Gold and Hitman Sniper, and some other smaller spin-offs in the past. We didn’t make those, though.
GamesBeat: Is there something you’d say Hitman is known for, a trademark that’s developed over that time?
Seifert: As a character, he’s very strong, very iconic. He’s recognizable. His fashion is kind of timeless, if you see what I mean. If you look at the games, one reason it’s survived so long successfully is that he’s a canvas. You project your imagination onto him. He’s an agent. He does what you tell him to. He’s a clone. He doesn’t show much emotion. Occasionally he shows a bit more, like in Absolution, but we’ve taken that out again.
He’s iconic, but he has a few markers that people remember — the barcode, the tie, the bald head and so on. Otherwise, you can make him yours. That’s a big part of it.
GamesBeat: Over time, your technology has gotten a lot better. Do you remember what you were stuck with early on?
Seifert: I’ve been in games for 29 years now. One thing that’s interesting, looking at what we do with the game now — let’s take his current look. It’s changed a bit since the announcement because we went back and forth with the fans, but there was a discussion of whether he looks younger or older. In fact, what people remember is that at the time, the technology was just so much more limited. The barcode was five or six pixels. His head was a few polygons. His clothes didn’t move.
Nowadays we model things like pores and eyelashes and every fiber in the cloth. It’s a completely different ballgame. We’re competing with the memory of our long-time fans, the things they saw that weren’t actually there in the modeling. It was in their imagination, almost like when you’re reading a book, and then that became what we can render now, where every detail is there. We need to make all these decisions about what he looks like.
We were stuck with something in the beginning that was constraining, but it also led to some great ideas. He’s bald because we couldn’t model hair at the time. [laughs] At least not to our satisfaction.
GamesBeat: The level of simulation that’s possible now, with 300 characters at once — you couldn’t even do crowds in the past.
Seifert: No, of course not. Crowds came along with Contracts. The Mardi Gras level was the first one with a serious crowd simulation. Obviously it was much more simple than what we have now. Now the crowd reacts even when you crouch or do something weird. The level of detail in each character is way beyond what we did in previous games even for the main character. 15 years is a long time in computing terms.
GamesBeat: How dialed-up do you want to make it as far as difficulty goes? When I was doing the training, if I threw a coin, the guy would go look at it, but if I took him out someone would see me. There are too many guards for just a simple approach.
Seifert: It depends on how you do it. One thing for sure, Hitman is a game for connoisseurs. It’s not the most casual game. We think that makes it stronger. We want to cater to our fans. We don’t want to alienate new people either, but it’s a game for gamers, if I might say. It’s not a game you can pick up and play for five minutes and you’ve got it all. It’s the complete opposite.
The beauty of it is, once you take the time to get into it — you see that with the fans and the press. When you get into it you can’t stop. It’s a very detailed world. That’s our strength. Many games are casual and linear, shooters or whatever. But there’s only one game that lets you do what Hitman does. You have a very elaborate puzzle game here. The mission is clear — kill these two guys and get away. That’s all. Anything else is up to you. Use a gun, use a disco ball, whatever.
When you face it the first time it can be daunting. It can feel like there are too many opportunities. We try to bring people into it. But if it’s the absolute first game you play, the learning curve will be longer.
GamesBeat: You’re encouraging people to play for quite a while before they figure out how they’re going to do the job.
Seifert: We don’t necessarily encourage that, but people are motivated by it. Also, when you hit the target once, that’s just the beginning. You can go in shooting and try to get away with that, but it’s really hard when you play this as a shooter.
Obviously the ultimate goal our fans set for themselves is to be unseen, to only use the suit, to make it look like an accident, and go away. Silent assassin, suit only. People set challenges for themselves. We do have challenges in the game that you can try, to show people the opportunities and possibilities they have, but how they take out the target is up to them.
GamesBeat: In that Paris level, how many ways to succeed might there be?
Seifert: That’s a very good question. I can only give you a real answer once people have played it millions of times. But we try to make sure that in a level of that size, there are at least 10 unique ways to take him out. That excludes all the emergent stuff you can do, the opportunities that guide you. And people always come up with crazy stuff, stacking things up or combining weapons or mixing up different gameplay elements. Things wind up in dumpsters. People go to sleep and wake up and try to get dressed again.
GamesBeat: Do you want the player to feel like everything is emergent?
Seifert: Players should feel like they’re in a living world, a world that makes sense in its own context. This is still a game. If everything were completely hyper-realistic it wouldn’t be fun. It might be unplayably difficult. Getting into the world, though, you understand how it works. This is how people react. This is what they do. It should feel like a real place.
When that’s achieved, the immersion serves its purpose. It shouldn’t feel predetermined — like when he takes the Coke and finds that it’s poisoned he runs to a specific toilet. It’s procedural. Any drink that gets poisoned, you shove him around, something happens, he takes another drink, he looks for the nearest bathroom he knows about. None of this is deterministic. That makes it feel interesting each time you play it. If you have a game you replay a lot and everything is the same each time, it gets boring really fast.
GamesBeat: How long have you worked on this?
Seifert: We’re a pretty small developer compared to who we compete with. We have around 120 people at IO right now. The technology is the next step from what we did for Absolution, which was our first revamp of the Glacier engine. This is Glacier 2. We started on that more or less right after Absolution in 2012.
GamesBeat: Have you picked up any inspiration that’s led this in a different direction?
Seifert: Every iconic bit of culture, popular art, whatever you want to call it, it’s inspired in some way by every other bit. It’s movies, games, books, comics, music, everything. We know we have our own style. We’re always trying to feel contemporary. We have a certain dark Scandinavian humor that makes the game a bit more digestible. I think that’s one of our signatures.
Sometimes that leads to parody of different things. James Bond movies might come to mind. We reference pop culture in a broader sense, like different fashion brands. Did you get through the Paris level?
GamesBeat: A little bit, yeah.
Seifert: You have all the fashion labels, the equipment there, the food that gets catered. It just takes a little work to make it funny, to make it feel contemporary and relatable.
GamesBeat: You mentioned the phrase “assassination tourism.” Is that where some of the appeal comes from?
Seifert: I think it is, going to exotic locations. Games are about things you can’t do in real life, or that you shouldn’t do in real life. Our game is about something you should never do in real life. [laughs] But it’s an entertaining artform. Traveling to exotic locations, feeling like a world traveler, going places you might never go, going into the spaces of the rich and famous and powerful, that’s an interesting part of the game. It fulfills a fantasy. Then you get to meet those interesting people and kill them.
The tourism aspect is an important part of keeping the game fresh. It’s challenging from a design perspective. If you decide that everything takes place in just one city, it’s easy to build that. You don’t need to create new characters, new landscape, new architecture every time. We pride ourselves on these high-density sandboxes. They’re not hundreds of miles across, but they’re still very big, and they’re very dense. They’re worth spending a lot of time in.
GamesBeat: As far as changes go, the opportunities seem like a clue for the player. They’ve stumbled on something important, something to pay attention to.
Seifert: Right. We know our serious fans will turn it off, and that’s fine. After you’ve played the tutorial and you know what opportunities do for you, it’ll ask if you want to use it. If you say no it’ll deactivate that feature. You can always turn it back on if you want to.
GamesBeat: Is that part of the way you want to help new players, giving them some more clues?
Seifert: Right. We know that it helps. People who’ve played most of the previous Hitman games will always approach from different angles. They explore and study the level before they make their decisions and their attempts. People who are playing their first Hitman game might feel overwhelmed by the level’s possibilities. Guiding them a bit — you can do this or try that — is helpful.
The opportunities don’t just say, “Go kill the guy this way at this time.” But it lines up the situation so you can think about it. “He’s alone with me. I have this bomb here. Nobody’s watching.” “I’m disguised as a model. She’ll go to the bedroom with me.” Things like that. Then you can make your own decisions. It’s what we call onboarding. People stop using it over time, but in the beginning it’s important. When you replay the level and try to find more elegant or more fun ways to complete the mission, it helps a lot.
GamesBeat: What was the thinking behind the episodic approach, having these different cities appear and adding more live content?
Seifert: When we conceived the game, one of the closest ways to get to feeling like an assassin is just like that. You get new missions at different points in time. Go to that location, study it, take out the target, make it perfect. Some of these might even be under time pressure, an elusive target where you only have 48 hours and then they’re gone again. If you think about the real life of an assassin, that’s what it might be like. But it fits the game as well.
We’re determined to have a game that, when it’s played, we can see what’s working well and what’s not working. We did that with Absolution a bit, on the surface. When it came out there were, in the first weeks, some discussions among our fans about how the disguise gameplay was balanced. After a while we made the decision to tweak that and update it. Consoles were 70 percent connected at the time, and PCs 99 percent, so we could do an update.
That’s just the beginning of what we want to do now. We think the game will become better when it’s being played. What we ship now is what we think the best possible game can be, but we don’t want to wait another six years to make a better game. We can do that a month after we ship. That’s our promise as far as what we’ll use live updates for.
The episodic features help us make the story fit together well, traveling to different locations and all. We conclude this year. If people want to wait, they can wait. Nobody’s holding anyone back from buying it later when it’s all finished and out. But we don’t want to hold back people who want to buy it earlier. At the end of the year, you can also have it on the disc. It’s your choice.
GamesBeat: The things you learn as people play, can you share any of that with the players? Like at the end of Telltale games, where they show you how 25 percent of players made this decision and 75 percent made the other one. Your game has a wide variety of paths. Can you tell people whether they pursued the most popular path or something like that?
Seifert: We’ve done that in the past and we’ll keep doing it. In Absolution we showed the community things like heat maps, how many kills took place where, how targets were taken out, exactly that. How many people used the disco ball in Absolution, or the whale skeleton. But it wasn’t built in to the game. We want to continue with that on a grander scale.
What we do right now, every gameplay session creates a log for the player with all the events that took place. At the end of the mission you can look at a detailed score — what you’ve done, why you’re ranked a certain way, how clean you were, whether you hurt civilians, things like that. That’s all shareable. When you create a contract, you can look at what somebody did, how they played. In a high score entry you can see the same things.
I’m not sure how much we can do statistically, because it’s a game that involves so many choices. But what’s interesting for people normally might be, “Hey, one percent of people killed him with the fireworks. How do you even do that?” That’s what we want to pass on.
The key thing as far as how we’re releasing the game, we want to do a really good combination of an episodic game and a live game. Episodic games often don’t improve themselves. They just add content. Live games often don’t add much content, but they keep improving and rebalancing themselves. We want to lead in both areas. We’re the first triple-A game doing it on this scale. My hope is that we can lead the way. I’m convinced that Hitman is the ideal game for it.