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.