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Why 'Hitman' Is Ditching the Long, Traditional AAA Game Development Cycle

Murder in small(er) doses as the series goes episodic.
February 13, 2016, 3:00pm
Image: Square Enix

Most games are pretty straightforward when it comes to taking down enemies: you run up to them, take out your weapons, and kick ass. Hitman, however, is a series where killing your targets is a combination of careful planning and skillful execution: You've got tools, you've got a target, and you need to figure out a way for the target to end up dead, and preferably it looks like you were never there. It's a more cunning and cerebral exercise than just curb-stomping a bunch of jerks you run into, and the elaborate murder methods players can devise has helped make the series a popular series since its first release back in 2000.

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But there are big changes afoot for Hitman in 2016. After the unveiling of a new entry in the franchise at E3 2015 (and a subsequent delay into this year), it was announced that the game's content would be doled out episodically. When players purchase the full-price game at $60, they're getting a set of basic prologue missions and a trip to Paris to take down some targets. Later locations and missions will be added monthly at no extra charge.

Image: Square Enix

It's a major change to an established method of packaging a game: Rather than paying for and getting the whole game right away or doling out episodes piecemeal for smaller fees, you'll be paying upfront for a base game and getting new areas and missions regularly as time goes by.

The episodic format isn't an entirely new concept—critically acclaimed games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange have worked with the format before, though they usually sell each episode individually (and package them together as a full-priced collection at a later date). Other AAA games have attempted episodic expansions, most notably Half-Life 2. Usually that process hasn't turned out so well: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was released in 2007, and Episode 3 has now been delayed to the point of being vaporware. It's a format that works for narrative-heavy games, and with developers like Telltale Games, where the production pipeline is incredibly efficient at pushing out a very specific, and relatively limited type of game.

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Hitman, on the other hand, is a big, expensive action game, which takes years to prototype and develop.

"After we shipped [the previous entry in the series] Hitman: Absolution, we had to look back and think, 'honestly, we're not the biggest development studio out there," Hitman developer IO Interactive's studio head Hannes Seifert told me. IO Interactive has a team of 120 people. "What do we do about the fact that it took us six years from Hitman: Absolution, and the game before that, Hitman: Blood Money?'"

"We also saw that games [in general] were more and more connected," Seifert said. "[It gave us] inspiration: How can we make Hitman better? How can we add content to it? Can we make it a game where we interact with our fans as well?"

The end result of the studio's soul-searching was the new content format. "It's the starting point for what we call our 'World of Assassination,'" Seifert continued. "It's a vision of more games to come in the future featuring a multi-season, multi-game storyline."

He explained how the format would play into Hitman's narrative. "[You'll encounter missions early on] and it'll just be a typical hit, and you'll see the story cutscene once it's done… but once the season and the story is complete, we expect people to go back and play from a different perspective… It uses an episodic narrative like your favorite TV shows, where when you've seen the finale, maybe there's an episode you want to see again, just to get a different perspective on it. That's something we want to do with the game."

Image: Square Enix

Seifert hinted that the time between episodes would be used to help make adjustments to the game, as well. "We make a game, we make our creative decisions. Then players play the game, we listen to what they say about it, but we also observe what they do in the game. We can now do this on a level we were never able to before… many [live online games] have improved themselves over time, but haven't added a lot of content; at least, not for free. Other episodic games add content, but don't do much to improve the experience. We wondered for the longest time why you couldn't combine that."

Ultimately, Seifert realizes that he's making a bold move, but it's one he feels is absolutely the right step for the series. "I know it's daring and controversial, because it's something new. Nobody has done it before - especially not in the AAA gaming space. But we are also really excited about the opportunities that it opens up… this is the most promising way for us to make the best possible game."