The hit is on
The Hitman series has been a beloved staple in the action-stealth genre for a decade and a half now, and continues to force players to think outside the box when carrying out their objectives. Now, on the verge of the sixth mainline release for the series, we sat down with Io Interactive Studio Head Hannes Seifert to talk about how this latest adventure looks to reinvent Agent 47 and turn the series on its head by going episodic while still trying to stay true to the franchise’s gameplay roots.
EGM: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Why make Hitman episodic?
Hannes Seifert: We had the vision of doing this very soon after finishing Hitman: Absolution. We didn’t call it episodic then, but we had this vision of our games having longer lives, and of being able to update and change the game post-launch. We had two epiphanies that led to that.
The first came when we had released Absolution in 2012, and we had done a few things new in that. One was we actually thought about what it meant for Hitman to have multiplayer, and multiplayer was something that, when we talked about it to fans and players, they didn’t want us to do it, usually talking about Hitman’s single-player nature. And if we were to do something PvP, that’d have been a fair assessment.
But that was also the time when YouTube was becoming big for gaming, and when we looked at what people did with older Hitman games, especially Blood Money. They had created these YouTube channels where they would make their own hits. They’d go through a level and say this is my target and I must kill him with a knife while disguised as a plumber, or something like that. They’d post the video, and then challenge their friends and viewers to do it better, faster, smarter—and post a competing video that led to them escalating the challenge.
And that inspired Contracts. It was basically those YouTube videos, but properly gamified. And we thought it was a nice gimmick, but it ended up being a runaway success. When it launched, we had server issues because so many people picked it up. Forty-percent of people who ever played Absolution played Contracts, and put at least one contract online. We now have 30 million contracts from Absolution, and that was a game where we didn’t have any DLC, we didn’t update with new features, yet 400,000 people are still playing it every month. That was when we saw the long life capabilities of the game, and wanted to do something that better catered to the fans.
So, when looking at Contracts, we asked ourselves if there was an opportunity to do some DLC that focused on that mode. We realized it really wouldn’t fit with the narrative nature of Absolution, though, to just do new maps. Looking back, we realized it made the most sense when compared to Blood Money, and that’s when the idea for a non-linear episodic unfolding of our vision really came to be—which led to our World of Assassination. That was the ultimate vision for it. We wanted to have something we could ship, but then react to and grow the game while our players are playing, and learn what they like and don’t like more easily.
The second thing was when we patched Absolution post-release with a balance update to the disguise gameplay after seeing what the fanbase was saying. It was the first time Io Interactive had used a post-launch patch to not fix a bug, but change balancing according to feedback. And, to be honest, Absolution wasn’t made for that. It wasn’t easy, it was a classic AAA-release, and old technology was really more about shipping and less about modifying—so that also heavily influenced our mindset about how the next game should run. Really, just scratching the surface of what we wanted to do. So, having Contracts that come from us, and also from the community, plus some new features as well, and it’s all about catering towards the community playing it, because Hitman is not meant to be a game you play once on a weekend—it’s a game meant for you to keep coming back to.
So, those two things are what inspired us to go episodic with Hitman. It was a long journey—convincing ourselves that it could work—because we needed to plan and think differently as a development team for this, and have the technology change enough to better accommodate this. But, I’m actually very proud we’re still the first to do it with a such a big title, even if that might leave us open to being scrutinized a bit more, and looked at from more angles. When you do something new with something that people are so passionate about, you also need to be respectful with that. Now, we just have to prove this is the best possible way to make a Hitman game.
EGM: With the episodic release schedule of maps, though, are you worried it could hurt the life cycle of each location? What will you do to keep interest up in older content?
HS: We didn’t see that in Absolution, even though you could see some people did have their favorites. I think Absolution’s linearity really worked in its favor. I do expect when we ship Italy in April, America in May, etc., that people will focus on those for a while. But, we also are growing features overall in the game, polishing them and tweaking them, adding content to all locations over time in the ever-growing World of Assassination to give you those reasons to travel back and forth. One of these features is Elusive Targets. It’s a hardcore feature for the online community, where a target is available for only 48 hours. So, imagine Thailand just came out, and you are playing that, and then an elusive target is spotted in Paris. You don’t want to miss out on that, so you spend that weekend going back to Paris and getting that elusive target before heading back to Thailand.
We also have a large chunk of players who care about the story, and the way we structured this is like a modern thriller. So, we have an overarching storyline that weaves through the missions like a TV show, and a lot of the story is told in the actual level. There are cutscenes that carry the narrative forward, but when you are in the level and listening to conversations and seeing what people are doing, you can get a better understanding of what’s going on in the overall plot. So, once you have played a few episodes, you may realize that a character you may have interacted with earlier on plays a specific role in the story. As things unfold, I expect some people will go back and play those early levels again just to get the different perspective and context they now have.
So, yes, the new stuff is obviously going to be the exciting stuff that garner attention, but Elusive Targets will keep coming, Power Escalation targets will keep coming, Contracts will keep coming from us, and then there’s the idea of fully understanding everything that’s happening.
Of course, I’m also curious to see how it all actually plays out, because that’s what we can do with data. We can see what the majority of the people are playing, and how they are playing, and tailor content more towards what players want. And, we also know that one-percent of the people are the most vocal and 99-percent will rarely say anything, so we also need to look at both and balance that, too.
EGM: You show Agent 47 meeting Diana Burnwood for the first time in the very beginning of the game. Why go back to his early day as an assassin and what does this do for the story of the game? Are you rebooting the universe?
HS: Well, first off, it’s not a reboot. Nothing in the game is a reboot. It’s a compliment to the lore and universe of Hitman. I think why people see this as a reboot is because of the name. There was never any Hitman game called simply “Hitman”. You had Codename 47, Silent Assassin, Blood Money, etc. And we did that to emphasize the start of this World of Assassination. It’s setting up a foundation for more games to come. It’s the first time in Io’s history that we are thinking of this multi-season storyline. In the past we weren’t very good at that. It was six years between Blood Money and Absolution, right? And the most interesting characters we introduced in each game we killed off. [Laughs]
So, all we have to carry forward is Diana and Agent 47. But that’s what we want to emphasize: this is the start of a new generation. The game will take you back 20 years to when Diana and 47 first meet, because that is a pivotal moment. But, in the timeline it fits into all the previous games. The main story takes place after Absolution, except that Prologue, which focuses on this meeting between Diana and 47. Absolution was more like a road movie, and now Hitman is a modern thriller. Agent 47 is back at his peak after hitting his low in Absolution.
EGM: Given we see the first meeting between Agent 47 and Diana, do you think this is a good time for new fans to get into Hitman, considering it does have such lore and history behind it?
HS: We are always trying to cater to both new players and our longtime fans, but that doesn’t always align 100-percent, because we have a reputation of being a difficult game. Absolution was the exception I would say, but a lot of longtime fans disliked that because it made it feel more like a third-person action game, and not necessarily the best Hitman game there ever was. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve now.
You could play Absolution like a Hitman game, mind you, but you couldn’t kill every target, as you might have wanted, with some characters dying in cutscenes. It was a deliberate decision, but we learned it’s not necessary to cater to everyone. We are a game for gamers, and want to make sure our fans are happy with it.
Of course, the advantage of doing this episodic model now, though, is that if you are new to the series and have heard how hard it is and are not sure if it’ll be for you, you can try it for a few dollars and see if it’s the game for you. I think many people will take that step and find out.
The other thing is that we took the controls to a new level. I admit they were perhaps a bit clunky in the past, and Absolution was the first that felt really right on the sticks. So, we built on that with this game, so it feels right. That should make it easier not only for gamers, but also newcomers to the series, to jump right in.
Lastly, we have the opportunities feature now that gives you hints on how to take our your target. We know from the beta already that our fans don’t use this. New people use it a lot, though, and it’s great seeing the statistical distribution. Of course, some are more popular than others based on who saw the trailer or previews and wanted to replicate what they saw, but there isn’t one that dominated the statistics. No assassination opportunity even hit 30-percent according to our data. So, everyone is getting completely different experiences when playing the game, and it’s very evenly distributed. Some fans just want to find everything themselves and take pride in that, but when new to the franchise, I think it’s important you understand the buffet of opportunities you have in a true Hitman level. I think this is where we have to teach players, and we try with the tutorial to show that this is how you get the maximum enjoyment out of a Hitman game.
You can still play it how you want, though. If you want to go full action, you can; it’s not the easiest shooter, but you can try it out. If you like pure stealth, go for it. If you like adventure, it’s like solving puzzles when trying to get the most impressive kills. And that’s what we have to teach new players. I sincerely think we found the right balance now, because Absolution alienated some of our hardcore fans who felt we were taking them by the hand. It’s much more open now, and you can only be taken by the hand if you want to.
The game will even ask you after showing you everything if you want waypoints and opportunities and notifications, or nothing at all. It’s our new take on difficulty. All the notifications being on is super easy, and going pure with no notifications is super hard, where even the producer like me can’t finish it, because it is so hardcore.
EGM: The freedom or illusion of choice in games has come up in a lot of topics of discussion lately. Hitman is one of many games where everyone has the same start and the same end, but the choice is in how you get there. How difficult is it to work in a system like that, and how do you keep every choice entertaining?
HS: There are a lot of games where you do work exactly like that. You give people subtle guidance. For example, in level design you’ll often use light. People always follow light, and follow the position that will lead them along that path. That is a very valid design approach, giving people a sense of choice where choices are really limited.
In Hitman, we approach things differently in that we don’t necessarily approach every path with the idea of making it enjoyable. When we look at our opportunities for example, we have plans to have 10, maybe 15 per level, and hope they are memorable more than enjoyable. Like in the tutorial level with the ejector seat, or crashing the light rig in Paris—we have a few of these in each level, because they are funny or impressive moments. But when you look at the statistics, the maturity of players leads them on their own path, and they find their own way to kill the target. This is because we do our levels systemically.
The game design is actually very simple. There are two characters, you kill them, and you get away with it. Go in. Kill. Get out. There are so many ways of doing that, and the game environment is made for you to try them all out. I saw this in the beta: One guy actually killed the target by burying him under the bodies he stacked on top of him. It was so crazy when I saw the video. He lured the target to a morgue, blocked the target with body bags, and then killed him by dropping bodies on top of the target. And that is not enjoyable. That takes hours and is a chore, but people find ways like that all the time. And the game allows this kind of choice. So, that’s what I mean when I say we don’t make everything enjoyable. You simply use the tools that we provide, and they are systemic.
Sure, some scripted things always take place. There’s always a fashion show in Paris. The show will start, climax, and finish. But, say you just stand around the entrance at the start of the mission and wait two hours. Eventually the show will end and it will go into an after party and you’ll never again have the stage kill opportunity because he only does his speech once. So there are certain scripted elements in how the level is directed, but the moment you step into the level, you’ve changed the outcome. It’s a butterfly effect. Say you have a favorite sniper spot. Getting to that spot unobstructed the same exact way twice is really difficult because you need the right timing and mustn’t interact with anything else. The second you distract someone, or someone sees you, it might send guards on a different patrol pattern or delays timing by just a second so your gap is now non-existent. And that could affect other characters who are set to interact with that NPC—and it just multiplies. It’s a butterfly effect. If you kill all the waiters, who can serve the poisoned food?
That is something that happens when you interact with the level and that’s why it’s so unpredictable—and I think that’s what people really like. Everyone having different experiences excites me because it means we succeeded.
The first episode of the new Hitman drops on March 11 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.