It seems Square Enix and IO Interactive have finally figured out the true shape of the all-new Hitman game. We knew something was up with the game yesterday when staffers on the PlayStation forum notified those who pre-ordered Hitman that their pre-orders had been cancelled. The reason? "The publisher has notified us that the configuration of the product you pre-ordered has changed significantly." The game had changed since the pre-orders were originally made, so Sony felt it was best to void all pre-orders and start over.
Today, Square Enix announced that Hitman will be a fully episodic title. The March 11, 2016 launch of the game will include a prologue mission and the Paris sandbox mission. This will be followed in April with the Italy mission, and then in May with the Morocco mission. IO Interactive will then have monthly updates, slowly doling out new missions and the final three locations: Thailand, the United States, and Japan. Japan will be the last location in this "season" according to the press release.
Back when Hitman's original launch details were announced, the game was going to release on March 11 with three sandbox locations: Paris, Sapienza and Morocco. Within those locations, there were going to be six campaign missions alongside a Contracts Mode providing unique non-campaign targets. In the original release schedule, Thailand was supposed to come in April, the United States in May, and Japan in June. So what we're seeing really is a shift in the original launch content.
The pricing model has changed to work with the new release schedule. Before today, players could either pay $34.99 for the Intro Pack, which included the first three launch locations or for an additional $29.99 they could upgrade to access all post-launch content. Now, the Intro Pack is just the Prologue and Paris for $15 and each subsequent location is $10. The new upgrade price is $50, bringing the new release pricing in line with what was announced previously. Like before, if you don't want to deal with piecemeal purchases, you can buy all content for $59.99. Square Enix is expected to ship a disc version of the game by the end of 2016.
Pre-ordering the game grants access to the Hitman beta, which starts on February 12 on PlayStation 4 and February 19 on PC.
"We decided to take the full leap and publish Hitman as a truly episodic game experience," said Hannes Seifert, Head of Studio at Io-Interactive. "Part of that decision is for that little bit of extra time to ensure every location we release is at the quality level fitting for a Hitman game. But the main driving reason is that this will allow us to create a living game that will expand and evolve over time and establish a foundation for the future – this is the first game in a storyline which will continue and expand with future Hitman games."
In a bit of spin, the Square Enix press release touts this as the game going "fully episodic" when what's really happening is some of the game's content is being delayed. What was a solid content launch with a significant post-release plan is now more measured and split up. That's different from other titles like Life is Strange and Final Fantasy VII Remake, which were or are planned as episodic titles.
The benefit of episodic gaming is heavily on the side of the developer and publisher. Yes, players have the benefit of exploring small, discrete chunks of a game and then moving on, but for developers they have a higher than average chance that players will pay for the entire game upfront. I'm sure there probably are players who buy Telltale games episode by episode, but anecdotally, I find many play the free first episode and then buy the Season Pass. That means the publisher/developer has the entire purchase price in-hand, but has more time to work on each section of the game.
In Hitman's case, making the game episodic means that IO Interactive has more time to work on the levels after Paris. In fact, they have the ability to incorporate feedback from the beta and Paris launch to improve later levels in the game. Square Enix also cleverly priced the game so that you'll be paying $65 if you buy the game piece by piece. If you're a Hitman fan, it seems smarter to just pay the $59.99 upfront and save that $5. No muss, no fuss. It's not wrong, but it's meant to mentally shift you towards giving all your money to SQ at once, even though the game won't be complete until the end of 2016.
You can't negate the idea of more time for the developer, because it's one ofthe pressing issues in game development. In the case of the Final Fantasy VII remake, Square Enix is releasing it in episodic format because if they did it all at once it'd be a very big game you wouldn't see until 2018 or 2019.
"To a great extent, we just couldn't take the plunge. Producing a proper HD remake of Final Fantasy 7 that maintains the same feeling of density of the original results in a volume of content that couldn't possibly fit into one installment," producer Yoshinori Kitase told Famitsu (translated via GameSpot).
"I'm sure everyone is anxious about the schedule, and we want everyone to get to play the game as soon as possible, too. Drawing the line on that front is another reason why we're taking this approach."
The developer has more time to work on the rest of the game, while giving fans a small piece of the game to keep them interested. Via concepts like betas and Early Access, the fervent fans have proven they're willing to jump into a game they love early. For Hitman fans, this means you get the game now, in March, instead of in October or November. It's just a matter if you want to trust Square Enix and IO, buying the game upfront, or waiting a bit to see what happens. I'm leaning towards the latter myself.