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Hitman's episodic launch is a statement of confidence

By Rob Fahey

Hitman's episodic launch is a statement of confidence

Fri 22 Jan 2016 8:30am GMT / 3:30am EST / 12:30am PST
Publishing

Lowering the cost to entry should encourage more players to try it out - and if the game is good, it'll deliver handsome returns for Square Enix

Changing the business model for a highly anticipated game only a few months ahead of its launch is, on the face of it, not the kind of decision that inspires confidence. A business model is a pretty integral part of any game, and some of the most unfortunate disappointments of the past few years have come about through games which simply didn't suit their business model - more often than not a consequence of trying to shoe-horn a microtransaction or subscription model into a game that had been designed from the outset for the up-front purchase business model, although the mobile space is now offering up plenty of examples of the reverse, games ideally suited to F2P which collapse commercially due to an inappropriately applied premium model. The point is, this is something you decide on day one and build your game around; changing the plan so close to the finish line is a pretty suspect move.

In the case of Square Enix' upcoming Hitman, though, there's cause for something of a free pass. The company announced this week that it's making the whole game "truly" episodic, with a $15 starter pack featuring two major locations, followed by a number of $10 episodes to be released over a period of months. It's a significant change from its previous plans, but Hitman was always intended to be episodic to some degree; the former plan was a bit of a mess, with various different pricing plans involved, but the end result was always that some of the game's content would not be available until a fair bit after launch. Switching to a more conventional episodic model does change things around, but the game was always designed to be split into parts in this way; it's not the case that the developers will be scrambling to modify the game to fit this new paradigm.

"Square Enix' very smart and confident response is to let players buy their way in to a sizeable chunk of the game's content for a 'bargain bin' price"

What, then, is the change intended to accomplish? It's certainly made some fans a bit unhappy - a likelihood which the company acknowledged when it made the change, although there's a strong sense that many of these soi disant fans didn't actually know that the game had an episodic structure even before this change, and are expressing displeasure at the ditching of a conventional "boxed game" structure that was never on the cards. However, any such displeasure must be balanced out against the potential positives of the change - and when you look at the possibilities opened up by the new episodic structure for Hitman, I think that far from being a cause for concern, it speaks to a confidence in the game on Square Enix' part.

Here is the biggest net change from the new model; Hitman is going to make less money up front from each individual player. The new price of entry to the game is $15, which is significantly lower than the proposed "starter pack" price in the previous model and, of course, far lower than the $60 you'd pay for the whole game under the traditional model. The game will then start to make more money as more episodes are released at $10 a pop, but players have the option of buying a season pass - and if they do so, their total outlay for the full game will still be around $60, or the usual price of a full game. Even if they buy episodes individually, their outlay won't be much higher. In short, the game is being divided up into chunks, but so is the cost of the game; this is not an attempt to drive up the all-important Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) figure, as is the case with DLC or microtransactions. In fact, Hitman's ARPU will inevitably be lower as a result of this change, because the top end of its revenue is no higher than before, and quite a number of users will, inevitably, be lost to natural attrition between episodes.

What's the reason for doing something like this if it'll reduce ARPU? Well, the flip side is that the change will massively increase accessibility. If you think about it, a $60 up-front price is the single least accessible business model that the games industry has ever conceived; it demands that you be so certain of the quality of what you're buying, practically sight unseen, that you're willing to drop a substantial chunk of cash on it up front. As you fall away from that price point, accessibility rises; the reason so many indie games have coalesced around the $10 to $20 price range is that this puts them firmly into "that looks interesting, I'll give it a punt" territory for a large proportion of users. Finally, as the price tends towards zero, you reach games with almost zero barrier to entry, which is absolutely essential on mobile devices where a negative feedback loop between a torrential flood of low-quality software and a dearth of information for making good buying choices has made users highly unwilling to spend money up-front on anything.

At $15, Hitman makes itself into an impulse purchase - a most unusual impulse purchase, at that, as it will have full AAA production values and (presumably) a strong marketing push, but an indie game price point. This is where Square Enix' confidence in the game comes in. The company must believe, and firmly believe, that the new Hitman game is good enough to ensure that a solid majority of the audience for its $15 first episode will convert into regular players of the subsequent episodes. If the game isn't great, this is the equivalent of pushing it out the door and straight into the bargain bin; it'll lose a huge amount of money. If it is great, though, the $15 price of entry means that a lot more players will try it out than would have otherwise, and a sizeable proportion of them will end up paying full price in the end. It's a marketing push, in other words, an effort to get a much, much larger audience of people playing and invested in Hitman than would have ever considered shelling out for the game at $60, but it's a marketing push that relies incredibly heavily on the game itself being good.

This is a strategy that is perfectly matched with where the Hitman franchise finds itself right now. The last game, Hitman Absolution, went down badly with fans of the franchise, largely because it seemed to forget what people had actually enjoyed about the series in the first place in favour of a shoehorned (and woefully poorly composed) story and a number of set pieces that removed from players the agency that Hitman had formerly excelled at offering. The new game, then, finds itself in territory that many franchises have faced; it's part of a series that people enjoy and will be intrigued by, but it follows on from a poorly-received game that will make lots of players very wary of investing. What do many players say in this instance? "I'm interested, but I'll wait for the price to drop" - an entirely reasonable sentiment which, if shared by enough players, can be hugely damaging to a game's commercial performance. Square Enix' very smart and confident response is to let players buy their way in to a sizeable chunk of the game's content for a "bargain bin" price, and judge for themselves whether they're going to spend more money on the rest of the game.

"I can't help wondering if I'd be far more likely to actually finish more games if they came in manageable four or five-hour chunks that you look forward to for a couple of months, rather than as daunting 50-hour endurance challenges"

Episodic gaming isn't a new idea, of course - I doubt it's the originator of the concept, but I recall playing a couple of episodes of Capcom's episodic RPG series El Dorado Gate on the Dreamcast way back in 2000, long before digital distribution made the concept trivial to implement - but it's coming into its own at the moment, not least thanks to the success of episodic titles like Telltale Games' The Walking Dead and Minecraft: Story Mode, which have helped to demonstrate some of the real strengths of this business model. Aside from the advantage of lowering the cost of entry for new players, there are other major marketing advantages - notably that whereas an ordinary pay-up-front game needs to focus all of its marketing and word of mouth into the weeks around its launch, an episodic title can generate fresh word of mouth and media attention with the launch of every episode. This is a commercial boon which book authors are familiar with - the launch of a new title drives fresh sales of older titles as people are enticed by the fresh attention and go back to explore your back catalogue - and has the potential to give episodic games "long tail" sales that they wouldn't enjoy as monolithic "boxed" titles.

Square Enix is one of the main publishers experimenting with this model, and a lot of commentators have drawn comparisons between the firm's announcement of an episodic model for Final Fantasy VII's remake and the episodic model for Hitman. I'm not convinced that these are being done for the same reason or in the same way, though; there's no indication that Final Fantasy VII's episodes will be priced low to encourage uptake (why would they be, given that the game is one of the world's best-known and best-loved titles?) and it's more likely that in this case Square Enix is hoping to use an episodic structure to increase ARPU significantly and justify the huge cost of remaking a game as sprawling and content-heavy as FF7. Hitman is quite a different case - far from boosting ARPU, it's an attempt to boost the size of the audience and open up the game to people who wouldn't try it out otherwise, and as such it's a vote of confidence in the new game.

I don't doubt that if Hitman's experiment works, Square Enix will use this model more regularly in future - and I think that would be a very welcome move indeed. It will allow consumers to take more risks on interesting games, developers to take more risks on creative ideas and, ultimately, I can't help wondering if I'd be far more likely to actually finish more games if they came in manageable four or five-hour chunks that you look forward to for a couple of months, rather than as daunting 50-hour endurance challenges. Episodic may be having its moment not just because the distribution technology and marketing advantages are right; it may also simply be the case that consumers have reached a point where this is the structure many of us like best.

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6 Comments

Andreia Quinta Creative & People Photographer, Studio52 London

252 716 2.8
Popular Comment
It sounds like a good idea that can definitely work. And I believe story driven single player games are a perfect match for episodic content.
But in the end, what will count is if the story is actually good. For people that buy this on a per episoede basis, they need to make sure they grab the consumer's full attention by the end of episode one, to make them crave that second chapter.

Posted:4 months ago

#1

Joo Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom

67 63 0.9
Could this be the return of the shareware model? Even with the upfront fee it is still a very interesting proposition. The 60/70 price point is a huge barrier to entry for the general public, so I do hope this works out and other publishers follow this path.

And, as Rob points out, its a move that implies a high degree of confidence on the quality of your product. As long as the structure of the games lends itself to being split in chunks.

Posted:4 months ago

#2

Chris Payne Associate Lead Programmer, Traveller's Tales

170 555 3.3
It's a great fit for Hitman, which always excelled when it gave the player very self-contained sandbox missions. That means players can go back and play in those sandboxes while they're waiting for the next episode, which should make each release much more satisfying than a linear story ending on a cliffhanger - although I expect this Hitman will still have cliffhangers, to mitigate audience attrition.

Posted:4 months ago

#3

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

638 370 0.6
ah yes... the creative daring of making sequels.

Posted:4 months ago

#4

Thomas Kennedy Unemployed (Seeking work)

26 31 1.2
While it can work for Hitman the episodic release format can have it's own issues, for example lets look at another company that always released Episodic content: TellTale, sources from Steamspy (Which according to devs are quite accurate) show that there is typically less sales in their games after each episode, the most common reason is they don't want to wait, In the case of telltale it's you get one episode and then have to wait 2+ months for another to come out or wait for around a year after episode 1 for the full series to be released, at that point you're at massive risk of being spoilt by the internet.

For Hitman it wouldn't be a surprise if we had much longer waits between episodes which can amplify those problems.

Posted:4 months ago

#5

Chris Payne Associate Lead Programmer, Traveller's Tales

170 555 3.3
@Thomas - I'm not convinced Hitman would be any slower to develop episodes for - quite the opposite, because each level is a collection of opportunites to use existing mechanics (assuming they stick to the classic gameplay style). Telltale's episodes are 95% brand new content from every department.

As to customer attrition...that's the tradeoff against a lower barrier to entry. Your first episode sells to a bigger audience at 5 than the full game would sell to at 40, and you can get it to market faster. That tradeoff will be cost-effective for some, but not for others.

Posted:4 months ago

#6

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