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In March of last year, publisher Square Enix kicked off a six-episode season of content for the latest Hitman game. From the outside, it looked like an experiment in a new business model, but inside developer IO Interactive, it made complete sense.
Hitman was one of my favorite games last year, and IO recently launched the entire first season on disc for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and that provided me an excuse to talk to IO creative director Christian Elverdam about the sandbox assassination simulator. This also gave Elverdam the opportunity to correct the record on one thing: Hitman is not an episodic game. Instead, it is a “live” game or a game-as-a-service where the developer frequently adds content.
“There’s a bit of a distinction in that we have content every week for a year,” Elverdam explained to GamesBeat. “There’s something happening — whether in the form of challenge packs, contracts, elusive targets — all this stuff I see as things that fit into a live game. Whereas the episodes are just bigger content drops.”
You can see the difference by comparing Hitman to something like a Telltale game where that studio launches new story episodes once a month with nothing in between for games like Batman or Game of Thrones. Hitman, however, is more like a mobile game where players can expect new missions and remixed versions of the levels on a weekly cadence.
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“If [Hitman] were a purely episodic game, it would just consist of those episodes,” said Elverdam. “But the point of the game was more this feeling of the living sandbox.”
As an example of how well this works, Elverdam pointed to the Elusive Targets, which were occasional missions that would pop up and ask players to take out an enemy in one go. You only have seven days to complete this objective, and failing an Elusive assassination just once would close it out for you. It seems like a harsh penalty, but it’s a way for players who are playing low-stakes objectives over and over in the core game to apply what they’ve learned in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation.
“We predicted that people were going to stick around in the levels for a longer time, simply because of the gap between episodes,” Elverdam explained. “At the same time, if we kept content coming to justify that [by] bringing more of the live experience to those levels, we bet that more people would reach that threshold where they would understand how to play in the Hitman sandbox. You don’t just go in and find one way to kill a single target. The purpose of the game is finding that mastery, learning where everyone and everything goes in the level. That’s what we wanted the players to reach. I think the episodic format allowed that to happen in a much more organic way. It felt like it reached a lot of people.”
Check out my entire interview with Elverdam below for more about Hitman’s first season and what the developer is thinking for season two.
GamesBeat: Where are you today? How do you feel about getting the disc out the door?
Christian Elverdam, Hitman creative director at IO Interactive: Getting the final episode out, and obviously the disc, felt like the completion of a very long journey. We’ve been shipping levels for almost a year now. When we said we wanted to do a live game, we had this feeling that we’d be stepping into a different universe with the community. There was some relief at IO that we made all of this happen, that all the levels got finished. You’ve probably also been following the very good reception we’ve been getting. It’s been very nice for the team to see that.
GamesBeat: It was one of my favorite games last year, and a lot of other people liked it a lot. Does that give you more confidence in the disc version?
Christian Elverdam: I think that’s safe to say. We felt that confidence already, especially by the time we started working on the later episodes, like Colorado and Hokkaido. By then we’d already gotten feedback from the early episodes. Sapienza especially got a lot of praise. But in general, people were starting to focus a lot on how this was not just a good Hitman game, but the episodic format was working. We didn’t find that we had a lot of feature problems.
One thing that could have been difficult is if the online system had been giving us problems, or other things. But in general it felt like the game was in a good state, which meant that we could experiment a little bit more around the time of Hokkaido. And then obviously when we did the disc, I think we felt confident that it would be a good thing. We were a little bit anxious still, because there might be some change in the perception of the game, now that it’s out on a disc and you can play all the levels at once.
GamesBeat: You mentioned a bit earlier that Hitman wasn’t exactly an episodic game, but more like a live game, a game as a service. Do you see a distinction there?
Christian Elverdam: There’s a bit of a distinction in the sense that we have content every week for a year. There’s something happening, whether in the form of challenge packs, contracts, elusive targets — all this stuff I see as things that fit into a live game. Whereas the episodes are just bigger new content drops. If it were a purely episodic game, it would just consist of those episodes. But the point of the game was more this feeling of the living sandbox. The elusive targets turned out to be one of the best examples of that.
GamesBeat: Do you think that the game worked this well because it had that living quality, that it wasn’t just episodic?
Christian Elverdam: I certainly think it helped with understanding why we were doing the game this way. At the heart of it, it’s actually a long journey. It started back at the time of [2006’s Hitman: Blood Money], when we did the big sandbox levels. We saw that for some people, when we reached critical mass, when we crossed beyond the barriers of a Blood Money level, they appreciated how much was in there. But if you don’t find that sort of sweet spot, you might be left wondering just what Hitman is about. In its own way, [2012’s Hitman: Absolution] tried to deal with that by making the levels more simple, if you will. A lot more people got into them, but that came at the cost of losing some of that DNA.
This time around, our goal was — we predicted that people were going to stick around in the levels for a longer time, simply because of the gap between episodes. At the same time, if we kept content coming to justify that [by] bringing more of the live experience to those levels, we bet that more people would reach that threshold where they would understand how to play in the Hitman sandbox. You don’t just go in and find one way to kill a single target. The purpose of the game is finding that mastery, learning where everyone and everything goes in the level. That’s what we wanted the players to reach. I think the episodic format allowed that to happen in a much more organic way. It felt like it reached a lot of people.
GamesBeat: When you translate that to a disc, it seems like it might be a different audience than the people purchasing the game digitally. Do you think about the living aspect, the episodic aspect any differently when you bring it to the disc?
Christian Elverdam: Mainly, when the disc arrives we want to make sure we still have some live content coming. Elusive targets and escalation contracts will continue for a little while. I don’t think it changes how we see things too much. When we announced the game, we said that there would be a live period of the game, and then we’d wrap it up on a disc for people who prefer their content that way. Some people like to have it all at once and that’s perfectly fine. You can jump in and play the game with all of the adjustments we made throughout the year. It’s a super polished experience. You do obviously need to pace yourself and make sure you enjoy the levels enough, I would say, so you understand the depth that’s there.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that the game works so well in this live version, as well as the everything-at-once version. When I was playing one episode at a time originally, it made sense. I play that one level over and over again, and then I get the elusive contracts that use everything I’ve learned. Then when I got the disc, it was interesting that it still works. Did you just luck into that structure that works both ways? Or was there some forethought in planning ahead for that?
Christian Elverdam: Some of it is just basic, classic game development. The levels are still paced in a way where they make sense if you get them all at once. It plays to our advantage that the difficulty level of challenging the game comes as much from the players as from the game itself. If we had taken a more traditional approach, beat one level and then play the next one, I think would be more problematic to try and have a game that worked both as a package and as a series of episodes. With a normal game, you’d start with an entry level, a tutorial level, and then you’d make the levels progressively harder, which takes away some of the fun of playing the first few levels many, many times. In that sense I think the game lends itself well to both play styles.
Also, the fact that it’s been out now for so long, it’s pretty clear to people that it’s not a small package. If we were launching the disc right off without any prior knowledge out there, people might wonder if we had enough locations and everything else. So it’s to our benefit that the game’s been out and people understand that there’s easily 100 hours you can spend there. But if you approached it as a straight, classic game, you might not actually find those 100 hours just looking at the surface. That might be a problem if we had only done this as a stand-alone product. But in combination with the live season, it turned out to work really nicely. A lot of players, because they know other people who’ve played it or they’ve read online about the game, they know it’s a substantial game.
GamesBeat: You’re now working on season two. How is that going to work when it comes time to release that as a disc? Does it just arrive as Hitman season two? Or do you plan to do a compilation of season one and season two?
Christian Elverdam: There are many thoughts we’re considering at the moment. We’ve only just delivered season one. We’re in a place right now where we can look back at a season that worked. It’s a little bit of a different outlook than if we were in a situation where a lot of things didn’t work. It’s not that we don’t see a lot of things we’d like to tweak in the game, improvements we want to make, but in general we’re in a very nice place.
We have a formula we can rely on as far as what a Hitman sandbox is, which we didn’t have three years ago when we started this. Three years ago, when we started building the game, it had actually been 10 years since we built a Hitman sandbox. Now we have this feeling that we have a good, firm grasp on what the blueprint for a Hitman experience should be. That guides us a lot when we think about what we want to do. But as far as how we’ll package season one and season two, what we’ll call it, it’s still too early to talk about that. We have tons of discussions going on internally. But it’s still early days.
GamesBeat: What specific things have you learned from season one that you’re applying to season two?
Christian Elverdam: In a way, this game is unique in the sense of how the sandbox works. Having established that mix of events in a level — it needs to feel like a proper, credible, contemporary world that we’ve built. All that stuff is learnings we had. And like anyone who played the game, you probably looked at stuff and thought, hmm, we could do more with that, or wouldn’t it be nice to touch that part of the game. If you think about it, Hitman is really built out of the locations you choose, the events you put in those locations, and then the artificial intelligence that governs the NPCs. What we learned is that we hit those points, and they actually worked, but they each had areas where we think, okay, what’s the next version of this element?
People should expect that we’ll build on what we know now. When we announced the game at E3 and it was about to come out, there was a lot of talk about whether this would be a proper Hitman game. That was a question we got quite a lot. But I don’t think, as we go into season two, that that’s a question anymore, if you see what I mean.
GamesBeat: Is there a possibility that you could make a season two episode, have it ready to go, and release it as soon as you announce it? Is that something you’d ever do?
Christian Elverdam: [laughs] Well, it’s an interesting idea. I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s an interesting comment on where we are right now, though. Where we are right now, I wouldn’t say we could do whatever we wanted to do, but we have some freedom based on having just finished something that worked. I don’t think we’ve specifically talked about anything like that, but in general it feels like we’re more free this time around.
I recall how anxious we were when we launched the game, about making sure that people understand that this is a proper Hitman game, a proper sandbox game and all that. All the talk about it back then was how controversial it was. I think there’ll be very less controversy this time, which in turn will make us a bit more free in how we think about the content coming up.
GamesBeat: For the second season, are you worried at all about a sophomore slump? Now that you’ve had such a big hit, do you worry about losing that?
Christian Elverdam: That’s only natural. We have something to live up to now, which is very nice. That’s part of doing a successful game, how you live to up it afterward. I still think we have some very good ideas about what we can improve, although I can’t be super specific about that right now. But there is a bit of a worry about how we can make sure to keep it fresh.
On the other hand, as I said, out there is the fundamental proof that the Hitman sandbox that worked 10 years ago — we just found out that it works very nicely today as well. That’s a good starting point. It’s very reassuring.
GamesBeat: Are we going to get more Helmut Kruger? I want more Helmut Kruger.
Christian Elverdam: [laughs] I feel you. I feel you completely. It’s such an amazing story for Helmut. He was just a side character we built for Paris, but if you played it — he made it back in Hokkaido by way of this obsession with wanting a face change. I can tell you that he wouldn’t have appeared in Hokkaido if it hadn’t been for the crazy reception and the fanbase following Helmut Kruger that came around Paris.
We decided to add more content with Helmut there. So who knows? It’s not unlikely that somehow, somewhere, he may show up again. It’s kind of remarkable. Speaking of stuff you can learn as the season progresses, doing Hitman in the sandbox again like we did, one very wonderful surprise out of Paris was that Helmut Kruger became so popular. Part of it is because you get to walk the catwalk and feel super badass because nobody knows who you are. It’s the perfect moment of hiding in plain sight.
GamesBeat: Yeah, it’s a very empowering moment.
Christian Elverdam: Right. And if you think about it, it’s not a moment where you’re tailing your target. If anything, it just told us that the fantasy fulfillment of being the fly on the wall, being the voyeur, the social chameleon moments, all of that is a very powerful experience. It’s not necessarily the kill itself. It’s the path to it, the experience around it. I think that’s really nice, because that’s the essence of Hitman. It’s these wonderful, crazy things that can happen in the game.
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