The first episode of IO Intereactive's new, episodic Hitman is due for release this Friday (11 March), so ahead of the anticipated release we spoke to studio head Hannes Seifert about what we can expect from the latest installment in the popular stealth assassination series.
IBTimes UK: The trailer last year had a very different tone to the ones released for Absolution. Was this a message that the series was going back to its roots?
Seifert: Yes. In the new Hitman, Agent 47 is in his prime. Absolution was more in the style of a grindhouse road movie. Now we are in the world of the most powerful and most challenging targets. The evil masterminds that try to run our world. This is what the announcement trailer already started to convey. The tone is closer to a modern thriller, but not without the trademark Hitman black humour.
The naming of this entry suggests that it's a soft reboot of the series. What are the challenges of re-introducing such an established series? How do you keep it interesting for fans without alienating newcomers?
It's the first game in the series ever that is just called 'Hitman'. We deliberately chose that name to underline that this is the start of our ever expanding World of Assassination. Hitman is not a reboot. The story takes place after Absolution, except for the prologue that takes you back to the time when Agent 47 joined the ICA. But it is not a continuation of the events in Hitman: Absolution
When a game series is successful and beloved for almost 16 years it comes with a lot of legacy and expectations. We looked at all the 5 major games we have shipped so far and tried to distil what our players liked and disliked about each of them. This was the foundation for bringing it to the latest generation of hardware. For instance we focused on the freedom of approach and world travelling from Blood Money and the technical sophistication and playability from Absolution.
In Hitman we introduced a new approach to difficulty by providing guidance in the form of the 'Opportunities' feature and an elaborate tutorial. But we also created sandboxes that will challenge and hopefully excite our long term fans. I think it's mostly due to our backlog of ideas being so tremendously long that we always have to choose what we use in each game and that keeps the games fresh and interesting. Only six games in 16 years also helps keeping each one unique and new.
The episodic release model is a new approach. What kind of feedback will you be taking on board throughout the release schedule and how will you implement any changes?
Whenever we ship a game we think it's the best possible game we can currently create. That's something that is true for most creative people I think. But that's not necessarily always the way our players see it. Our art form is not static like a painting, we create interactive entertainment. Therefore, we can create a much improved experience tailored to what players like and don't like using a live approach.
We distinguish two fundamental forms of feedback: what players tell us and what players actually do in the game. These two sources don't always tell us the same. We need to be mindful that there is a vocal minority, say 100,000, who sent us their feedback for Hitman: Absolution but 99% of the players never write a word. We have anonymous metrics that show us where players go, where they spend their time and what features they use. It also showed us that for instance the story missions' playtime paled compared to the time players spent in the Hitman: Absolution Contracts game mode.
Based on these two sources we need to make the decisions what to tweak, what to change and what to add. When it comes to features, we can react fast. For levels, obviously the later in the season they come the more we can still adjust. We already started this with the Beta. It's absolutely thrilling to have these possibilities. I am convinced there's no better way to get to the perfect Hitman experience. I hope players will feel that very strongly when they are part of the journey.
Absolution was criticised for being too linear by long-time fans of the series. Was this criticism at the core of your approach to this new game?
Yes, absolutely. We diligently looked at the feedback and likes and dislikes of each previous game. And although fans thought Hitman: Absolution was a very good third person action game it was not necessarily the strongest Hitman game ever.
What trends in the gaming market have influenced Hitman?
Right after Absolution shipped, we had two major influences: the unexpected huge success of the Contracts game mode and that we updated the balancing of the disguise gameplay post release. Both gave us a taste of what is possible. In the meantime, live games have emerged more and more, consoles are online more now. At the same time, terms like "episodic gaming" have emerged, a term that hadn't even existed when we created our original vision for Hitman.
When we announced Hitman, our challenge was that we had to find a way to talk about what we were doing and we weren't spot on with that. That created confusion. Now we are very clear about what we mean by a true AAA episodic live experience. I am very much looking forward to seeing what players will think about it!