Hitman's new episodic model didn't get off to the best of starts. From the three-month delay to the altered launch package, the controversies and ever-changing discussions around the new model appeared to leave more fans confused than it did convinced.
But IO seems to have turned it around since, and as the season draws to a close with the release of today's sixth episode, Hokkaido, I speak to creative director Christian Elverdam about how he thinks the year has gone, the struggles and successes of the episodic model, and whether he believes IO has proven to fans that making such significant changes was the right way to go for such a well-loved franchise.
VideoGamer: Hokkaido marks the end of the first season. How well do you think the year has gone? Has the season been received as well as you had hoped?
Christian Elverdam, Creative Director, Hitman: The last few months especially have been very nice, because obviously we had a little bit of a bumpy start. I think we can look at ourselves and say maybe we weren't super clear in everything we were talking about and were back and forth on what this is going to be, and that is definitely because we were doing something new. We were also asking ourselves some questions, [like] when we start doing episodic, how much can we expect out of a level?
I'm happy with where we ended. I'm happy that we put out the Prologue and Paris, and made a bet that each level with live activities would be enough; that you could say, 'I understand why this is an episode'. And I think that actually worked if I'm looking back at the entire season. I'm really happy about that, and I think we get a lot of praise and feedback that it's worked.
"There was a lot of scepticism, which I think is very common when you're doing something new."
There was a lot of scepticism, which I think is very common when you're doing something new. Part of the scepticism was, is this going to work? Are you going to be delayed? How does this even work for a game like this? And that kind of scepticism, I think we proved that we have a good way of doing it. I especially say that because some of the feedback we get from people enjoying the game, they're not talking about models, they're actually giving us some very detailed feedback that we didn't used to get on that level. It's like we have more of our core fans now. In Blood Money you would get detailed feedback from people playing it, but it was a small subset of players, whereas now it's actually almost everyone that has tried some of the more elaborate, creative ways of playing the game.
And I really love that people actually see the game for what it is. That was the major reason for doing the things we're doing. This desire to say we think Blood Money is great, but how can we get more people to understand what the game is? Absolution, I think, succeeded in making the game playable and also created this little living world where people are talking, but ended up sacrificing some of the core DNA by being more linear than is good for Hitman. But that's still a journey, right? Then, how can we get people to appreciate a classic Hitman sandbox? And I think the episodes, where you actually have to spend some time getting under the skin of the level, and a little bit of guidance from the Opportunities system…
When I talked about these things in February/March, people were like, 'what is this Opportunities system? Are you killing the game? Are you dumbing it down?' I think now it's a different thing. People understand it. I can tell you from looking at maybe not our most hardcore fans, it's a really good way of showing people why they should play Hitman because it gives you that, 'ooh, I can do that' experience and then you can turn it off once you master it.
When you talk about sceptics, to be honest I was actually one of them, concerned that you wouldn't be able to hit a monthly schedule. How difficult has it been to hit those monthly deadlines?
I think we anticipated it to be hard. And then still it was hard! [laughs] I'm not going to lie. One of the most important things for us, part of why we're doing this - now we're talking outside of the game - was also to get out of this... Typically in the industry you push yourself very hard to release a game. Sometimes you crunch and all that stuff, which has been a curse of the industry, and we really wanted to stop that. And this is actually a very effective way of doing that because we cannot - or at least we don't want to - crunch for such a long time. So we simply had to find a way to make it work without doing crazy hours all the time. Obviously it's been intense and you have your deadlines, but I'm actually very happy that we managed to do that without killing ourselves.
Has it not felt like a year-long crunch?
"Typically in the industry you push yourself very hard to release a game. Sometimes you crunch... We really wanted to stop that."
Crunch to me, if you look at the industry, it's very hard hours and stuff like that. I think it has felt very intense and I know that all of us are kind of, 'woah, this is a major submission and obviously we have some stuff to go', but it will feel like we can take a breath. Also, because we're basically trying to see what people were doing in the earlier levels and see how it could affect some of our thinking about the later levels, it's been intense on so many fronts. There's been so much, you know, what feedback to take in and when and how do we actually sort all this, and I think we need a little bit of breathing room.
So it has been super intense and we felt that we had to prove that this can work. If we had been delayed quite a bit, people would have said, 'yeah, told you so'. I feel that we are in a good spot right now. It feels like ages ago but I recall talking about the game very early and saying there's going to be this live period of the game and it's going to have live elements, and then there's going to be a period where the game is done and you can also jump in and play. And I think that's where we are now. So I'm happy now that if you were waiting for the full thing and you're [someone that said] 'they have to prove what it is', then they will jump in. And it's going to be interesting to follow. We have some pretty interesting design problems like, when we do the next Elusive Target what is that going to be like? What level is it going to be? So I think we have a ton of interesting decisions ahead of us there as well.
In terms of player retention, have you seen a trend of players following the season all the way through, or have there been players dropping off at any particular episode?
I think we actually had way better player retention than we had hoped for. Obviously people will drop off eventually and that happens. But looking back at the season, the Elusive Targets were an especially good way of reminding people to get in and play the game. So I actually think that when we looked at whatever data we have from other episodic games, that doesn't really apply to Hitman, so that means we have a much steadier returning audience. So I think we're pretty happy.
"We absolutely made it hard [for ourselves] in the beginning. I would have loved to have launched with a little less controversy."
When I talked about the game in the first place with the live elements, we wanted it to feel like you are an assassin, and when the Elusive Targets come, you feel a bit like putting on the gloves and going in, and I think that clicked with a lot of people. To be a legend that has to complete all the Elusive Targets, that number obviously [decreases], every time they get a little bit fewer, and I hope we can talk about them soon and bring some of them forward. I think that's been fascinating to follow.
You mentioned some of the problems at the beginning. What has been the biggest learning curve throughout the experience?
I think we made it hard for ourselves [by] not being clearer about what we wanted and subsequently also what we communicated. If you're going to do something like we're doing the internet is a fairly unforgiving place, and so I think we got ourselves into some trouble there. No matter what we would have to have the game speak for itself, but you can make that journey easier or harder. I think we absolutely made it hard in the beginning. So I would have loved us to have launched with a little less controversy.
The model also changed slightly from when you first announced to when you actually launched.
The original vision behind this was to make people spend time in Paris and actually appreciate what we did, again out of a long conversation about how to make the essence of why Hitman is a good game a little more apparent to people. But then we knew we were doing something new so there was this debate: do we have more levels to begin with? If we have a bigger starter package will it alleviate some concerns about what we're doing? But I have to say I'm happy that we ended up going for the purest version that was also the highest risk version.
And again, with all this, I'm very happy that everything sort of clicked, because in a parallel universe somewhere something got delayed or something didn't happen. So I think we were both lucky and hardworking to make it actually happen in a timely manner.
What has been your highlight of the season?
There have been many. There was one - I can't recall who wrote it - but there was an article saying how Paris had more gameplay than many other entire games. And I was like, fuck yeah! Because that was why we did it! And you don't say that unless you actually spend a lot of time in Paris. That was the first real 'Yes!' [moment], because that was the game speaking. And then we had our first Elusive Target. Personally it was a such a good moment. I played the first Elusive Target in Paris and I'm wondering, what is this going to feel like? And I just had sweaty palms from the beginning because I'm like, I cannot fuck this. And then I went in and got the target, and then the first thing I do after killing the target is wander right in front of a security camera so I didn't get Silent Assassin. And I was like, 'I've played this level for literally a bazillion hours and ugh!' But the sweaty palms and the heart beating just proved that this is working.
Then out of that also came some of the more skilful kills. One of our hardcore guys in the community, he played around with what he can do with different gameplay elements, and figured out that if he explodes a fire extinguisher he can actually make it bounce quite a lot. So what he did - and this is super cheeky - on the first Elusive Target he figures out that The Forger goes to the balcony, and then he explodes a gas canister from the lawn so it'll [rise] and take him out. And that's an Elusive Target! I'm like... wow! I wouldn't have dared done that. So that's also a highlight.
And then Sapienza came and I really felt like that level… It came at a time where people were not debating whether we were doing sandboxes, so they were ready for Sapienza. And I think Sapienza is a really good level. It always felt like a really good level as well, even in the grey mesh just walking around without any of the polish. It just felt super organic and nice, and I'm so happy that it came at that point in time because I think that helped a lot of people say, 'okay, you know what, this is a great game and this is a great sandbox'. I think that was very nice for the team. With the roughness of the beginning that was such a nice level to launch.
I loved Sapienza, but I've also enjoyed levels like Bangkok that give you room to experiment without having large crowds of people to contend with. I've liked the variation.
[With] Hokkaido we also allowed it to go a little bit further with some of the disguise gameplay, because we could see that just following what it does to our player base, when they're playing the game this intently they become rather good at the game, right? But I would say that when we look at the entire season, if you think about where we were 2 or 3 years ago, and how to bring the beloved sandbox from Blood Money and previous titles into [a modern game]... 10 years later how does that actually become a relevant sandbox? I think we know that now and we can actually look at the season and see what worked.
"We want a game that can span seasons."
One of the things we got is that sometimes space is a good thing, and that's really interesting because we are not an open world game. So we need a certain density of events and items and all these things that you are constantly busy [with], but just how dense and how much space can there be. And I think Sapienza has taught us something about that where sometimes it's actually okay to give a little bit more air. But technically Sapienza was a benchmark for us because it's huge, and if you think about what Absolution did, you know, you had 40 characters at a maximum in a checkpoint. And then you take the scale and it's like a cube, right? If you do this with a cube [stretches cube], it's not like 2x, it's an exponential growth, and what we have to do to make it happen… When you think about it, 300 characters, all the storylines and all the dialogue, the fact that we pulled off Sapienza I'm super happy about because that tells us just how far we can go. And now we have a spectrum, I would say, from some of the smaller, more dense locations to some of the larger locations, and we can look at it and say what's going to be an even better version.
Where do you go from here? There has been the suggestion of another two seasons.
Well we talked about it already at E3. The way everything is laid out is we want a game that can span seasons, and we want a universe that feels like it's growing, which is also why we adapted this version of storytelling. We closed one door quite effectively on (Hokkaido target) Soders, for instance, but then we also opened some doors and I think there's a certain sense that this is a universe that wants to grow. Specifically for the next season we can't really share that much yet. But our ambition, obviously as we said, is that this is going to grow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hitman Episode 6: Hokkaido launches digitally on PS4, Xbox One and PC today. A disc release containing all six episodes is due to follow in January 2017.