In early 2016, Square Enix and developer IO Interactive announced that the upcoming Hitman sequel would be "fully episodic", rather than a single release. Fans were a bit worried, especially after Hitman Absolution, which reached towards a more mainstream audience at the expense of the game's core audience and unique vision.
A year later, it looks like all the worry was for naught. Hardcore Hitman fans still have a few issues, but for the most part, Hitman has been a great success. Across the six episodes of the Season One, taking players to locales including Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, and Hokkaido, Hitman fell into a solid groove. Huge sandboxes and a host of diverse ways to kill your targets made Hitman a game you wanted to spend time exploring. And with the episodic release schedule, players had a chance to dive into everything each location had to offer.
With the first season finishing up, USgamer has a conversation with IO Interactive creative director Christian Elverdam about where this season succeeded and what changes might be coming to Hitman in the future.
USgamer: What is the quintessential Hitman experience to you?
Hitman Creative Director Christian Elverdam: I would say it's playful mastery of a sandbox. The rules are very simple - there's you and your target - but everything from then on is pretty much on your terms. The game doesn't care whether you are being incredibly playful and just fooling around, or if you're trying to go for Silent Assassin. Either way, the game should be fun for you.
Once you've mastered everything, you can feel almost godlike in your ability to manipulate what feels like a real world. We get close to a contemporary world; it's not post-apocalyptic, fantasy, or in the future. It's actually something you can relate to. We create this illusion that you're in this world that you know and because you've live in our world so long, you're free to do whatever you want.
It's a little bit like Groundhog Day, if you remember that old movie with Bill Murray. He ends up being almost godlike because he can see everything. He knows where everything goes and knows what everyone wants. That's the promise of the Hitman sandbox. Whether you use that to be a perfect assassin or screw around, it's entirely up to you. That's the freedom we want to provide.
USgamer: What planning went into the shift to an episodic release? What was it like at IO Interactive at the time?
Elverdam: That's quite some years ago. There were a few different things we were discussing. One of them was the desire to try to do a live game, a game where we could change how we see games into something where we felt like we're building a game with and for our community. We were always pretty close to our community, in the sense that we care a lot about what they think, but not in terms of how often we ship content.
In my mind, you can communicate a lot about your game, but another way of communication is the updates to your game. That's also a way of talking to your audience. We weren't active on that front because we were a traditional disc-based company. Every couple of years we would have a game out and that would be it. You have this feeling as a game developer a few weeks after your game is out: a complete clarity about what worked and didn't work. We wanted to see if we could get out of that rhythm by building an episodic game.
We also discussed the fact that we have a game where you have to play it quite a bit. Each location needs a certain amount of replay before you appreciate all the stuff we put in there. For a long while, that's been one of the problems working with Hitman.
Some people really get that and it clicks for them. But a lot of people may not cross that threshold and reach critical mass. For them, Hitman is like 'Okay. Good, but what's the great thing here?' Out of Blood Money, there came this desire to make Hitman more available to more people. That became Hitman: Absolution, which had a bigger audience, but sacrificed the complexity and the DNA of Hitman to get there. It succeeded in getting a lot of people to play Hitman, but not necessarily fall in love with the essence of what the franchise is.
We saw this new opportunity. We could actually play to the strengths of Hitman, building these complex and beautiful sandboxes, and because it's coming out in episodes, people will spend time in there. They get to appreciate each location for what it is. The way we published the game actually helped us maintain the DNA that we had strayed away from with Absolution.
There was also a very practical choice. We had reached a point where the first parties, Microsoft and Sony, were starting to open up with the [current generation home consoles], which was the next generation back then. With the new consoles, you were allowed to actually do these updates; the platforms were much closer to what you would get from a PC. We could see that was about to happen.
USgamer: What level released during Season One really captures that experience the most and why?
Elverdam: I think we had a few different levels that really captured Hitman. For many, the first love affair was Sapienza. We launched the game and it was a little bit bumpy, but when Sapienza came out, people really appreciated just how big the sandbox was and what sense of place we could create.
Sapienza clicked for so many people. It's a very pleasant location. Sapienza has this feel where you can never get lost. You might not know where you're going, but there's never a dead end. You're constantly on a journey, which is brilliant for a game about discovery. It has a bit of breathing space as well; if you get into trouble, it's easier to get out.
On the other hand, I think Paris had a really nice sense of event voyeurism. What would it feel like to be part of a high-end fashion show? Being in that specific venue is important, which I feel is a core component to Hitman.
If you take those two, the moment in time of Paris and the sense of place of Sapienza, those two are the building blocks of any Hitman location. If you look at the other locations, they are, on their own terms, trying to do the same things. You have the event and the globe-trotting, and those two promises need to be there.
USgamer: I noticed that you tried to make Hitman more accessible with things like Instinct, the map, and the list of challenges. Was it tough balancing a more accessible game with the more hardcore fanbase, who outright turns those things off?
Elverdam: That's a must. If I'm a Hitman fan, I might be like, 'What's this doing in the game?' As I said before, once you're reached critical mass and know that behind all the complexity there are some nice rewards for you to find if you play around on your own terms, then it's easy to say that you don't need a guide. You've already passed the threshold.
If you don't even know that you can fire a guy out through the ejector seat, how are you going to find that out? In a time where maybe people aren't as patient as they used to be. This is an answer to that problem, helping people ease into that sandbox.
It was very clear to us that all of these systems needed to be voluntary. It's not something you have to keep on. For some players, having a puzzle spoiled by waypoints is not great, but for others those breadcrumbs are exactly what they need to feel that they understand what the Hitman sandbox is about. I feel we've struck a happy compromise. Our game's nature is so much about you. How do you want to challenge yourself? How creative do you feel today?
I'm pretty happy with where we are. Most people realize that they can tone it down. The Opportunity system has three stages. Full on is giving you waypoints in the world, but a step below that is saying 'You need a cocktail recipe to poison the guard'. Knowing that is helpful, but where that is, you have to figure out. The most extreme is we don't even tell you that you have to listen to what [NPCs] are talking about.
USgamer: IO Interactive recently released the Professional Difficulty level for the game. Some fans have quibbled with it being an unlock, forcing players to play Standard difficulty to reach it. Why was that decision made? How has the response been overall?
Elverdam: This is obviously still a live game. The thought is that some of the stuff we've released in Professional Difficulty is pretty hardcore. If you've played the game a bit, then it's good that you show that you've mastered each level. There's also some feedback about one of the features, where a security camera will actually start working like a security camera would work. In Professional Difficulty, if you get spotted by a camera, the guards will come to check it out. If you shoot someone in front of a camera, they will know it was a crime. They'll know who they're looking for.
Some people say to us, 'Why is that not a part of normal difficulty?' That may be an idea to think about for the future. There's this balance; is this too hardcore or is it not? That's what we're trying to figure out. Professional Difficulty was a piece in a larger conversation about challenging the creativity of our expert fanbase.
USgamer: One of the bigger discussions in the community it losing the "Never Spotted" bonus for leg shots and frontal throws. What's behind the decision to take away "Never Spotted" for these moves?
Elverdam: We're trying to figure out what feels right and consistent. If you look at other games with a live nature, if you introduce a rule then change it, even though you might think that it's an improvement, it might not be to the community. The rule is out there. I think it's cool, because we have players who talk to us because they can see that this is a two-way street. We are looking at how people are playing and debating about some of those rules.
Without being specific, there is a theme about what is creativity; how do we challenge people the best? Sometimes making rules really strict is not the way to go. On the other hand, what is an exploit and what is not an exploit? As a baseline, I like a game where you can exploit it, but it shouldn't also feel cheap. Some of these ideas are quite intangible.
The fact that people debate your updates is because there's something to debate. It's a dialogue. There's someone on the other end, wanting to make the game that you love really good.
USgamer: Can we expect improved voice acting for the next season of Hitman? In other languages or with accents?
Elverdam: We had some limitations as to what we could do in Season One. The basic problem for us is that on one hand is we really like globe-trotting. But there is some complexity in that, some logistics about how we pull it off. We're still discussing it.
USgamer: Will the Elusive Targets ever loop back around? Some recent fans of the game are sad that they can't tackle the bigger targets before their time, like Gary Busey.
Elverdam: These targets are moments in time and I think it really clicks because you know that. You know it's not coming back. It's an interesting topic because I think our society is so used to second chances and do-overs. It feels almost incomprehensible that something could be lost. That's fascinating. I don't think it's the same mode if I know I'm getting a do-over. There are new Elusives coming.
USgamer: What's your favorite character or costume?
Elverdam: That's easy. Helmut Krueger. We built Helmut as an Opportunity and he became the poster child of Paris. You can't see Paris on YouTube without Helmut. For many people, the biggest moment in Paris is taking the catwalk disguised as a male model, which I think speaks volumes about the game we're actually building. He got so much love that we decided to put the character into Hokkaido. That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't gotten such a warm welcome in Paris.
USgamer: Where does IO Interactive want to take Hitman in Season Two?
Elverdam: It's a little too early to be specific about Season Two. We're very much still ending Season One. We're still learning. Mentally, we're in a really good place. I think the mentality at IO is one of pride and achievement, having shipped the disc. That represented a body of work. I feel like we're building on something that fundamentally worked.
We really don't want to promise stuff and then not do it. We change our minds. Everything is being discussed all the time. That's where we are now, searching, if you will.