IO Interactive is chasing the most elusive target of all
Hannes Seifert reflects on a successful first season for Hitman, and IO's bold embrace of the "digital AAA age"
Among developers innovation is the highest of all ambitions, and yet the industry's most lavishly produced games often seem to have abandoned the pursuit altogether. The word is still used, of course, liberally scattered throughout the marketing materials of any AAA franchise you care to name, its true meaning stretched and warped to fit even the most shuffling of forward steps: FIFA, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty; bringing the innovation, year after year after year. These are good games, of course, but it's not unreasonable to suggest that the lot of the AAA developer - particularly those working with an established IP - is to pour ever more time and resources into the creation of faster and faster horses.
With this year's Hitman, IO Interactive tried to build a motorcar; a conceptual overhaul of its most valuable IP, and a clear statement about the shifting balance between physical and digital console sales. Speaking at GDC Europe earlier this year, Hannes Seifert, IO Interactive's studio head, stated that "the digital distribution change has fully reached the mainstream AAA console market." There was no longer a need to let physical sales restrict the creative possibilities the digital landscape afforded. "I am convinced this is going to be the best Hitman game we have ever done because of that," he said. "That alone makes it worth doing."
"There were many other companies trying to move in this direction, but you have to be daring"
The sixth and final episode in what IO describes as "Season One" of Hitman has just been released, capping seven months in which the Danish studio has put forward a new way of thinking about AAA games. Speaking to Seifert in person, it's clear that his plan to "lead IO into the digital AAA age" has satisfied his expectations. It's also clear that he views Hitman's AAA status as a key to what the studio has achieved.
Despite games being fundamentally digital, and the industry being "the most modern" in entertainment, Seifert notes a certain conservatism in the way that blockbuster games have approached new distribution and pricing models. The success of Telltale's The Walking Dead series started a conversation within the industry, he says, to the point that, by the time IO was seriously planning an episodic model for Hitman, Seifert was convinced that it would be beaten to market by another AAA developer. "There were many other companies trying to move in this direction, but you have to be daring," he says. "You need to have a publisher that supports it, and has the willingness to take the risk to innovate. Whenever you do something like that, it can be very successful. It can also be a total flop."
Worst of all, it can be the right idea at the wrong time, blazing a trail while leaving the the riches for those that follow. Given that IO is part of Square Enix, a publicly traded company, Seifert is not able to disclose sales numbers, but he displays only confidence in Hitman's performance. "It was the right point in time to do it," he says. "We saw in 2015 the market really started to change a lot. Just looking at the consoles, that infrastructure, and the number of consoles that were connected. The previous generation was pretty well connected, but now it's almost 100% penetration."
Of course, one need only look to the announcement of Xbox One to see how much trouble assumptions about internet access can cause. When asked if the "always on" fiasco deterred AAA publishers and developers from a tighter embrace of digital, Seifert demures. For IO, he says, the main lesson from that ordeal related to messaging. If you're challenging the way people have consumed and played games for a couple of decades, you'd better be clear about the how and the why.
"We tried to make it clear that we were doing something new, and while doing that we tried not to use expressions that created an image of something that was already there," he says. "Episodic games being a good example; up until that point, episodic games meant Telltale Games, mostly, and a few indie games. When you looked at live games and online games, the peak of that [on console] was Destiny. We couldn't say that either, because that would be the wrong promise."
"We always wanted to be episodic and live, but the moment we said that...people immediately thought, 'it's Early Access, it's not going to be finished'"
Hitman had its own problems in that respect, Seifert says. IO quickly discovered the necessity of using terms like "episodic" when describing its plans; it was better to provide a positive, somewhat inaccurate context for players than allow a negative, even more inaccurate one to flourish. In his GDC talk, Seifert described a fleeting 24-hour window following the announcement at E3 2015 in which IO's gamble was embraced - even venerated - but that rapidly gave way to confusion and, in extreme cases, suspicion. Hitman would be released and sold in discrete missions, which could be purchased individually or as a package for the industry standard $60 - as much like an all-encompassing Season Pass as a Telltale-esque episodic story. The one thing it definitely wasn't, however, was the thing to which it was most frequently compared.
"We wanted to stay away from Early Access, because that's the one thing we really never were," Seifert says. "We always wanted to be episodic and live, but the moment we said that the Early Access thing came up. This is what held is back, because people immediately thought, 'it's Early Access, it's not going to be finished.'"
This is the underbelly of Seifert's digital evangelism. While the emergence of crowdfunding and Early Access have allowed fascinating games to emerge, that contribution has been sullied by good money wasted on badly planned and unfinished projects. In his GDC talk, Seifert also noted that "people don't trust the publisher... no matter what you try to do, no matter how open you are." The mistrust to which he refers is industry wide, and it doesn't take an expert to think of examples of broken or misrepresented games that have provoked ire among consumers. According to Seifert, one question was asked about Hitman more than any other.
"What happens if the first episode tanks and I've paid $60?" he says. "You're a business reporter, and I don't need to tell you that as a public company you have to deliver, even at a loss. But why should a player know that, or even care about it? We had to counteract that. Our messaging on that was pretty clear, but it kept coming back. I lost count of the times we made it clear. 'If you pay $60, there's no way to spend more money and you get absolutely everything.' That was a promise we made on day one."
Despite these patches of resistance, however, Hitman is notable for managing to be both a new idea and precisely what the series' fans had been asking for. IO's previous game, Hitman: Absolution, attracted some criticism for departing from the series' unique identity; an attempt, perhaps, to appeal to a wider audience by aligning the game with more conventional third-person action titles. The new Hitman was a conscious return to the immaculately crafted sandboxes that defined Blood Money, widely regarded as the best game in the franchise. If anything, the digital distribution and episodic business model that so concerned its fanbase actually allowed IO to push that distinctive approach further than ever before.
"It's a new feeling when you play the game. In this day and age it's hard to come up with new feelings"
Ultimately, the early missions were enough to assuage those fears. In his GDC talk, Seifert described a "mid-season sentiment change" following the launch of Sapienza - which, in the opinion of this journalist, is as good a mission as IO has ever made - and the introduction of new features that took full advantage of its connected audience. The studio worked on the missions in parallel to ensure that it could stick to its monthly release schedule, but Seifert saw Hitman's live features as "the pulse" of the experience; incentives to keep people playing even after each mission had been completed.
The most important of these are the Elusive Targets: specially created characters dropped into the game world for a limited period of time, which players must track and kill before they disappear. Sapienza was improved due to IO's ability to monitor and interact with its players, Seifert says, but it would still be a good experience offline. An idea like Elusive Targets, however, would be impossible to achieve without an internet connection. "You can only do it this way," he adds. "I'm somewhat proud that our team came up with something that... it's a new feeling when you play the game. In this day and age it's hard to come up with new feelings."
The live events also had a commercial impact. Elusive Targets energised the game's community, prompting enthusiastic discussion before during and after each one dropped. "The more people play [live events], the more people talk about it, and that translates to sales," Seifert says. "This is new to us. I can say that. We haven't seen this pattern before."
According to Seifert, more than 60% of the game's players either purchased the full season for $60 immediately, or upgraded to it after playing one or more of the missions. Square Enix has avoided discounts, too, and yet Hitman continues to attract new players every single day. "With disc releases, we have the tendency to discount - sometimes too early - just because it's on physical shelves and the space is needed. You don't really have control over you pricing. In digital that's different.
"Every single unit we sell is in the hand of the consumer. With discs you have this huge day one sell-in, but with digital you sell through on day one. I've sold more [on day one] in the past, but then you see a spike, and another spike - it's constant sell through. That's what amazes me the most."
"With a TV show, when a new episode comes out there might be some new people who watch the previous ones as they enter, but it won't be evenly distributed. What we've seen is that, people who come in, no matter how much content is out, it's almost equally distributed."
Hitman's entire first season will be eventually be released in a box, but Seifert is keen to puncture any notion that the physical release is what IO has been working towards. The collected version is likely to get better reviews than the discrete missions - a trend that Seifert claims is true of The Walking Dead, Life is Strange, and the majority of episodic games - but it exists principally for those who lack an online connection that can handle large downloads, and those who, well, really like boxes. Seifert has no desire to alienate any potential customer, but the simple fact is that discs and boxes are antithetical to IO's ambitions. "That's not what it's about," Seifert says. "It's about something that runs continuously and expands continuously."
With no microtransactions or in-game monetisation, Hitman must necessarily be sold in seasons for the economics to work, but Seifert is very clear that the game is a "multi-season proposition." It may not be as fast as a TV show, with a new season each year, but IO has reduced its development time drastically since the six year gap between Blood Money and Absolution, and the goal is to keep bringing that number down.
"When we say an ever expanding world of assassination, it means we don't have to take everything that's out there, throw it away and make a new game," Seifert says "We can actually build on that. Just imagine after two or three seasons, you enter at that point in time, the amount of content will just blow your mind. That's where we want to be."