The makers of Hitman at Danish developer IO Interactive pioneered a new model for releasing a major video game with six episodes released over eight months. The full season of “assassination tourism” comes to a close with this week’s Hokkaido episode.
In the game’s episodes, you can live out the fantasy of being Agent 47, a professional killer who goes to exotic places, dresses in tuxedos, drives fancy cars, and assassinates people without mercy.
The first installment arrived in March as a $15 set that included a prologue (where you learn about Agent 47’s origins and learn how to take people out) and an open world in the city of Paris. Then, the game moved on to scenic places in Sapienza, Italy; Marrakesh, Morocco; Bangkok, Thailand; a farm compound in Colorado; and the final episode in Hokkaido, Japan.
During the release, IO Interactive kept players busy with weekly contracts and “elusive targets,” where players had a limited time to take out a particular target. We talked with Christian Elverdam, creative director of the studio, about the Square Enix game and what the team learned from fans’ feedback of the various episodes.
Hitman debuted on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. You can buy an “intro pack” with the prologue and Paris missions for $15 or purchase a full year of content for $60. The full year-disk will be available in January.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Where are you on Hitman now? Do you have an update?
Christian Elverdam: We’re completing the season, the final episode. We’re in a good place. It’s been quite a long season, seven months of episodes, but it’s also been nice to see how much appreciation we’re getting for the Hitman sandbox.
We’re also looking back on everything a bit. We had a bit of a rough start, maybe, when we were wondering what the episodic model would do for Hitman. In this case, I feel that the game and our live services have shown people that it works. We have some gamers who are saying that instead of going episode by episode, they’d rather get the whole season and binge on that. They can do that now.
When we set out to work on Hitman, it had been about 10 years since we built a large, complex sandbox like this. We were pretty excited and nervous when we released the first episode. But now, we’re in a place where we feel confident about the game and how it’s going.
GamesBeat: When you talk about some hiccups at the beginning, what do you mean, more specifically? How did you address those?
Elverdam: One of the bigger issues in the beginning was that we communicated rather vaguely around what we were doing. To begin with, we weren’t clear about how many episodes would be in the starting pack. At some point, we had three levels. That obviously hurt us. When you’re doing something new, people tend to be skeptical. If you’re not clear about what you’re saying, you seem like you’re not sure yourself.
In truth, I think we weren’t completely sure. We knew we wanted to launch a season of content, so the content between each episode would feel worthwhile and give players something to do. At some point, we were debating whether one level would be enough and whether we needed more. But the down side to that is that if you have more content, people will just cruise through it. That’s what we saw with other games like [Hitman] Blood Money. Some people will understand the depth in the game, but others might just play it like a normal game. They’ll take out one or two targets and decide that they’ve beaten the level, which is obviously not our game.
At the end of all that, we decided to go with one episode. I’m happy we chose that now, but it wasn’t totally clear to us at the beginning. So that’s one example of something that was rough for us early on.
GamesBeat: Were you changing a fair amount of the content in real time, dynamically, in response to how people were playing in that episode?
Elverdam: We changed quite a few things. It’s almost … you can talk about reactions, but it’s a long answer. Some of the major things like the story and where we’re traveling in the world — obviously, that’s out of our control after the content launches. But there’s a difference between saying you’re going to build a hospital in the end — knowing where the story will end up — and the actuality of building that.
At this point, we’re changing the formula into something more straight up stealth action. With Hokkaido, we’re going to throw some curveballs at the player in terms of what you can expect, both out of our disguise mechanics — this hospital is run by an artificial intelligence. That shakes up the entire foundation of the disguise gameplay. Also, ideas like how the target can be revived in the hospital if you kill him.
We’ve gained a certain confidence level out of building the first few levels and watching how people play them. Also, we’re making the levels more challenging after watching our fan base play the game. Some of the larger things we’ve done, they might feel a little bit intangible, but those are some of the major things we’ve changed.
On some smaller levels, we’ve changed how challenges are described in the game. People felt that they were giving too much away, so we added a menu option to change how much info we spoil. We added a lot of small visual stuff. People requested a re-holstering animation. We got that in. We tweaked vision cones on the NPCs. We’re constantly adjusting the game. Going back to some of the old levels, it honestly feels rather new because of how the NPCs behave compared to where it was back in March.
GamesBeat: What did you mean by how much information you’re giving away?
Elverdam: When we do a challenge in the game — we reward you for replaying the game by completing challenges and unlocking different elements like starting locations or weapons and stuff like that. But the challenges themselves have an image, a title, and then a pretty precise description of what you need to do to accomplish them. A lot of people felt like that spoiled too much content in the level. We added an element where you can just get the image, or we won’t tell you exactly what to do. It affects how verbose that description is.
GamesBeat: You mentioned Hokkaido. What are some things about it that players are going to enjoy?
Elverdam: The hospital is an interesting setting in the Hitman context. We wanted to do that for a long time. Looking at what people expect, it’s safe to say we’ll live to expectations as far as what can actually happen in the hospital. It’s a serious location in our game, but at the same time, it’s rather playful. I think people can look forward to a very dense level. The amount of things you can do and interact with is pretty incredible.
We pulled off some memorable moments as far as what can happen. You can tamper a lot with the NPCs. They’ll have some fun and profound consequences on what happens in the level. To me, it feels like a worthy end to everything in the season. The elusive targets will continue after this as well. They’ll be part of the live element continuing on.
GamesBeat: So there’s a lot of emergent gameplay opportunities there?
Elverdam: Absolutely. Some affect the NPCs in a rather fun way. Obviously, I can’t spoil too much, but there’s a surgeon with an implanted neural chip, for example, to interface with the AI. There’s a guy who’s had facial surgery. That can play to your advantage. Or a yoga teacher with a bad back. You can find many different things and interact with [them], and it all has a sort of darkly humorous tone to it.
GamesBeat: Where are we story-wise? What can you say about the story in general?
Elverdam: The story obviously concludes for season one with the final cinematic and what goes on [in] the level. It’s very much like a series finale. We’ve established a few different story arcs during season one. Some of them we close down when the season ends, and we also open up some new story arcs. We close the book on some of the characters and open up new avenues. People will feel like there was a lot going on in season one, and hopefully, there will be a desire to see where this is going to go. Now we’ve established a world, a good foundation for the universe.
GamesBeat: What happens next? Do you have a timing window on the full disc-based version of the game?
Elverdam: As of Monday, we’ll conclude the season. Then we expect to have a lot of people jumping in and being part of the elusive targets. By January 31, we’ll have a disc out as well for people who prefer that.
GamesBeat: Are some things going to be different about the version on disc, given the way you’ve released this?
Elverdam: The disc is a compilation of what we call the full season pass. We talked about how — for everyone there will be a bonus episode around that time, much like we did with the summer bonus episodes. We had two episodes in Marrakesh and Sapienza. But the disc is identical to what you’d have if you were a full season pass holder.
GamesBeat: Is there anything additional motivating people to get the disc if they’re just a casual player?
Elverdam: I don’t think so. As I say, we have a certain subset of players who’d like the full experience to be ready before they jump in. They’re free to jump in now with the disc. That’s the thinking.
GamesBeat: Do you feel that you have a different audience or an expanded audience because of the way you’ve released this?
Elverdam: I’d say so. One thing we’re most happy with about going episodic is it’s a way to showcase how much goes on in a Hitman level. We’ve always had very deep levels, at least with Blood Money and before. But we also had a lot of people who didn’t quite get it. Some fans would break through that barrier and find the extra depth in the games, but others wouldn’t.
Episodic has allowed our players to discuss and break down each level together while they’re live. When Paris is out, everyone’s talking about Paris. When Sapienza’s out, everyone’s talking about Sapienza. That means the depth of each episode really comes under the magnifying glass for everyone who’s playing the game. You don’t have to be as hardcore as you would have been in the old days to get under the hood of a Hitman level and understand all the things you can do. We’ve found a balance where we can get many people to appreciate what the game is about without sacrificing the complexity and depth of the sandbox.
GamesBeat: So you’re getting more repeat gameplay on each level?
Elverdam: Absolutely. A big part of playing Hitman is replaying the game to master the individual sandboxes. It’s never been a game about just killing the targets and moving on. We can definitely see that people are playing a lot more. Also, with the elusive targets, people come back and play those, and then sometimes, they stick around to just play a little more Hitman because they’re pulled back into it.
GamesBeat: Did it help you out on the development side as far as giving you an easier working schedule?
Elverdam: I think you could say so. There’s been a curse in this industry where you sprint toward the finish line on a game, work super hard, and then everything resets after you ship it. When we do what we’re doing, that’s not possible because it comes out over a longer period. It made us work more efficiently. We didn’t work as many long hours because we couldn’t afford to exhaust ourselves and start making stupid mistakes.
It’s been tough. The pressure has been on. We’ve been pushing to meet deadlines for a long time. That’s mentally taxing. But it was nice to keep decent hours for a long time now. Where we are right now at IO is a good place. We pulled it off without getting delayed, which we were obviously afraid of. We feel like we have a good grip on this version of the Hitman sandbox. We seem to be getting a lot of positive reactions.
GamesBeat: You’re delivering something in the style of a game as a service. It’s not exactly like a free-to-play game, where the updates happen constantly, but you’re still delivering something in a similar model.
Elverdam: Our ambition was to deliver a game that feels like it’s alive. We managed to put out an update each week, whether it’s a level or a challenge pack or an escalation contract or an elusive target. There’s been some kind of update every week. That was the ambition, that this would feel like a live season. That’s why we were so happy about the elusive targets as the pinnacle of the live assassination part of what we were doing. It’s a living world.
GamesBeat: If you think about this like an esport, did you find anybody in particular who was your most talented player?
Elverdam: We have some incredibly gifted fans doing amazing things. One guy, on the first elusive target, launched a fire extinguisher from the lawn of the palace in Paris. It shot up to the balcony and killed the target, which is completely crazy considering it’s an elusive target. He only got the one shot.
We’re still monitoring the elusive targets. We’re not down to the final list, but every time we do an elusive target, the number of people who have accomplished all of them shrinks a little. We’re waiting to see. We still have elusive targets ahead, but we’re following that crew of people. At some point, the club will be small enough that we can start celebrating them a bit more.
GamesBeat: That’s an interesting bonus for the fans, that you can identify who’s doing the best over the season.
Elverdam: We’re about to recognize some pretty legendary gamers, yeah.
GamesBeat: Did you have any other interesting surprises, like the fire extinguisher shot?
Elverdam: After launching the game with Paris, we were all pleasantly surprised at how Sapienza could speak for itself, speak for the game, and change what people thought about what we’re doing. That was great to witness. We have a fairly complex game, but it was good to see that even in a time where people are sometimes impatient — they want everything very fast — our game could be appreciated for its depth and exploration.
GamesBeat: What are you thinking about regarding lessons for the future? Do you have anything particular in mind you’d like to do?
Elverdam: We’re just now shipping Hokkaido. That in itself shows a lot that we’ve already learned. But now we’re in a good position where we can look at all these different sandbox levels and figure out what worked well, what we’d like to do more of. We learned a lot from elusive targets. That was a first. Even the elusive targets we have coming up will be affected by what we’ve already learned.
We learned a lot about how to strike a balance between guiding the player, so many people can appreciate what we’re doing, and still having a game that caters to an audience of dedicated, skilled gamers. That will continue to be an interesting balance to work on.
GamesBeat: Anything else you’d like to add?
Elverdam: It’s a remarkable place we’re in right now. I feel a bit of nostalgia, looking at all the levels we’ve done over the season. I’m happy for the people who’ve given us such good feedback. And I’d say to anyone who’s been waiting, go ahead and jump in now. We still have some live elements coming, so it’s a very good time to get started.