Hitman Interview: “The Aspiration Is To Build The Perfect Hitman Game”

Front row, obviously. What? No. I'm definitely a fashiopn blogger.

The Hitman [official site] trailer shown at E3 gave a promising tease for a game which is provoking anxiety as well as anticipation. The sentiment I’ve heard echoing through editorials and comment sections boils down to “more Blood Money, less Absolution, please” but IO Interactive’s creative director, Christian Elverdam hopes to marry the best of both games, distilling them to find the essence of Hitman. Eau d’Assassin, perhaps?

“We’re trying to distil the essence of [Hitman],” Elverdam tells me. “We’ve been doing Hitman for fifteen years and we felt we had a chance now to try to build… I wouldn’t say the perfect hitman game, but the aspiration is to build the perfect Hitman game.”

We’re sitting in a little room at the back of the Square Enix booth a little removed from the scrum of the E3 show floor. Elverdam is about to take Agent 47 to a Parisian fashion show in an enormous mansion – possibly an art gallery. It’s at this swanky gathering that you’ll attempt to find a way to take out a gentleman by the name of Viktor Novikov.

“There’s a lot of legacy,” says Elverdam of the franchise. “When we looked at a game like Hitman Blood Money we had a very big sandbox game with a lot of freedom and this general promise that all missions are going to be hit missions. You’re a hitman; it’s why you’re there in the first place. That’s something we felt was a good starting point. With Absolution we felt we came quite far in building these living worlds. NPCs in our game are quite advanced. They can talk about a lot of stuff they see – they’re generally very talkative about everything. We wanted to keep that detail even if we went bigger, which in itself is a bit of a challenge.”

He adds that in Absolution the studio felt they had good controls, a good core that they could use. “What we’re basically saying is: imagine if you take the best parts of Absolution and marry them to the best parts of Blood Money. That’s the essence of the game we are building […] Mood-wise or tone-wise it’s a bit more mature and a little more modern. We also talk about Agent 47 being in his absolute prime, hunting these high profile targets. really powerful targets, across the globe. We felt that, looking back, one of the beautiful things is the feeling you can go anywhere. The world is basically 47’s oyster and he’s just waiting for contracts on high profile targets to come in.”

Hence the fashion show and hence Viktor Novikov.

Novikov’s public profile pegs him as an oligarch – the billionaire owner of a fashion label. But the contract you’re taking care of relates to his behind-the-scenes activities as a part of the spy ring, IAGO. IAGO is about to compromise a number of covert operatives and thus you are tasked with taking out Novikov.

As the level begins you see a journalist – “Lindsay Le Couer???” is what my notes have her named as – doing a piece to camera next to an ornate fountain. Elverdam explains that she’s meeting the target later in a subplot 47 could take advantage of if he (or you) were so inclined. We switch to debug mode and Elverdam sails around the space pointing out little outbuildings where you could stash equipment or weapons so as to avoid being asked awkward questions like “Why do you have that sniper rifle slung across your back, then?”

We glide inside and through the party crowd. There’s a fabulously well-stocked bar on one side of the ballroom and I recall the conference footage from a previous day where an Agent 47 in a bartender outfit mixes and serves a lethal cocktail to the target before slipping away. An intentionally stark contrast to the axe to the stomach in full view of everyone which was also part of that footage.

I call it the white-as-a-corpse Russian

The fashion show is in another large room, with a catwalk upon which the models will strut. A backstage area is peppered with stylists, models and other associated people. You can become a stylist, Elverdam point out, marking another potential disguise (alongside waiters, security guards, crew member and so on) to help you carry out your dastardly deeds.

“Can 47 become one of the models?” I ask. I mean he’s a stylish man and I think Vogue is crying out for an editorial about barcode head tattoos to sit alongside their obituary for Novikov.

“At the moment you can’t. We really want that to happen but you can’t at the moment. We’re still debating what the rules would be for the model. The stylist is a bit easier to figure out.”

You also can’t impersonate your target despite your extensive dress-up skills. He’s simply too well known. “Why is Viktor Novikov not blonde anymore? Why is he bald?” says Elverdam, doing an impression of the in-game party guests’ potential reaction to 47 glamming it up as a famous Russian billionaire.

We only have a few minutes for this demo so we continue with the breakneck tour, past a speedboat which I earmark as a potential getaway route and a sniper vantage point in the gardens. Towards the foot of a staircase is a frisk zone where security will pat you down for weapons. You’ll get arrested if you’re caught carrying so you’ll need to find a way to bypass security if you want to take your contraband upstairs. Or you could just get through unarmed and improvise.

It was really hard to get a picture that didn't look kind of dodgy, you guys

Upstairs and away from the fashion show a secondary plot is unfolding. There’s a clandestine auction involving Novikov’s partner, Dahlia. Elverdam explains that the level felt big enough that it needed a secondary target, hence Dahlia. Secondary targets won’t just be confined to the Parisian fashion show but will appear in other levels too.

I ask whether the Paris contract is one of the biggest levels, trying to get a sense of the scale of the game and its missions. “This is one of the bigger levels but all levels are going to be very big,” says Elverdam. Later in the interview he mentions a play session in the studio’s home city of Copenhagen. In four hours of Paris playtime the attendees only completed the mission once or twice and none managed to become silent assassins.

“They didn’t find all the things they could do and none became silent assassins yet. There’s a lot of stuff you can do within Paris and the big point of Hitman is not so much about taking out Novikov but how you do it and finding all the different ways of doing it. That’s what I would say to people. It’s going to be a big game.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of this new Hitman game is the content delivery system. When we first heard about it Alice described it as sounding like a “strange mix of expansion, DLC, early access, and episodic ideas.” I ask Elverdam to explain in a bit more detail.

“We’re doing something bold and new. The basic idea was – when we talked about ‘What is this Hitman universe and what feels right?’ – we really like the idea that you travel the world and […] new missions will appear over time. So Diana will pop up and say ‘Hey 47 we’re going to Italy!’

You could bring the whole fashion show crashing down on Novikov as he takes a bow

“What we’re basically saying at this point is we’ll have this Paris mission that we have talked about and hinted that there is an Italian location and there is an African location in Morocco and more after that. We’re obviously not talking about those yet.”

One of the ideas they can talk a little more about is the secret, time-limited targets:

“We could also have a secret target in [Paris] that only appears let’s say in the weekend. The plan is at the moment to say the only thing you’ll get is a portrait and you have to find him. It’s not like everyone is competing against each other. He’s live in your sandbox but the thing is he’s going to be gone in 48 hours and will never come back. There are going to be some unique challenges.

“What we expect to happen is that people will go to Twitch, they’ll start debating what’s going on, where’s he going, what are his habits in this level… Once you try to go for him that’s your one shot. If you kill him, he’s dead. If you killed him in a brutal, messy way that’s going to be the story of how he dies. If you do it silent assassin that’s perfect, that’s your shot. We really like this idea. No matter what – you’ve seen all the Twitch feeds, you’ve tried to do everything the experts are doing – now it’s you doing it.”

So it’s looking like a blend of solo and community play. The chance to discuss, to crib strategies, to learn from the failures of others and then, perhaps, attempt a silent assassination that culminates in a gory public blood bath disaster of your own.

“You have these locations that will appear over time and they’ll continue to have a lot of stuff going on. Also all these player-created contracts will be in there as well. The world will continue to grow and the story will move forward with each location. That’s my explanation. I don’t think there’s any model – if we had a simple word for it –”

Another gentleman who has been counting down the minutes until the interview is over chimes in at this point.

“Yes – please help us!”

Focus....

It wasn’t a serious request (not exactly, anyway) but I’ve come back to thinking about this several times since the interview. The process it most reminds me of is trying to learn something – maybe a dance routine – from practicing using YouTube videos, then going to perform it at the school dance show.

“People should feel like they’re taking part in this world as it happens, right?” Elverdam talks about players hopefully getting excited for new locations and events. “When you’re playing it you know people are playing alongside of you. The Hitman community talks about the stories – how did you do it? what happened?”

In terms of the pricing Elverdam assures me there’s no subscription fee attached to this ongoing development.

“It’s very simple. You pay the sixty bucks and that’s it. Then the levels will appear and have an overarching story that will conclude at some point. It’s very much akin to what you expect from any other game in terms of content and playtime. It’s a huge game – bigger than Absolution.”

Contract modes should also be live when the game ships and Elverdam adds that IO expect to find new ways to manipulate contracts and play with them. They want to listen to fans and keep a close eye on how they play as the game eolves – what they like and what they don’t like, or what they find and what they don’t find in the levels.

So will there be an early access element as part of that learning process? Elverdam is emphatic with his answer: No. When the game ships it will be the finished product. Well, as finished as you can get with an evolving, special event-peppered world…

42 Comments

  1. tonallyoff says:

    looking forward to seeing what sexist horror show they use to promote this one

    • gayreth says:

      In an industry that is woeful with that sort of thing, Absolution stuck out as being particularly egregious. Let’s hope that’s one of the lessons the devs learned moving into this one.

      • TobleroneRoloCombo says:

        To be fair, it’s important to keep in mind that while Absolution had the honour of having terrible gameplay, the previous games have always had the same problems in relation to sexism.

        • manny says:

          Actually IO’s sexism was rather insulting to real life sexists. Sort of posing. Not sexist enough really.

          They need to become real sexists and not disgrace 47 again. 47’s relationship with Diana for example is not one of mutual respect and affection. 47 has no ‘feelings’ for Diana, how absurd.

          It was also embarrassing to pit him against a team of female hitwomen. Sorry but such teams do not exist at least certainly not at the level 47 operates. 47 routinely needs to physically overpower his opponents, not to mention infiltrate groups that are mostly made up of men.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Women seemed to be either girlfriends or models in the trailer so I dunno.

  2. jonahcutter says:

    I’m excited about this. Absolution did have some good new elements. The “contracts” mode was a good idea to put into the game players had always done unofficially (basically custom contracts). Also disguises failing is a good idea, it needed better balancing though.

    And David Bateson is back as the voice of 47. They’re not attempting to make that mistake again (which they did rectify for Absolution, after much fan outcry).

    • P.Funk says:

      I was gonna say. That voice is as important to me as the guy’s bald freaking head.

  3. FoSmash says:

    I’m Absolution sure that IO had better make this one a Hit, otherwise there will be no Disguising the fact that this franchise has been Taken Out of contention as a AAA release. Albeit, they should be Contractually olbliged to release a finished game and hopefully avoid the online Assassination of the Bat Kerniggut.

    • Vandelay says:

      Bald move to start a pun thread like that!

    • Unclepauly says:

      Every pun knocked my head back a little bit more until I was reading from the floor after my chair fell. Good job sir but next time be more careful.

  4. Paul says:

    I just really, really hope they will bring back actual 47 (from Blood Money or Absolution) and not that weird young looking parody that looks closer to Peter Quinn from Homeland (or 47 from the disgusting upcoming film) than actual 47. They nailed the look in absolution, so what the hell.

    Other than that I like the sound of that, if every level is huge sandbox then I will be very very happy.

  5. silentdan says:

    “He’s live in your sandbox but the thing is he’s going to be gone in 48 hours and will never come back. … Once you try to go for him that’s your one shot. If you kill him, he’s dead. … We really like this idea.”

    I don’t. Content that I paid for gets arbitrarily removed after two days? That’s a feature, is it? I played through Blood Money again last year, and at no point was I thinking, “sure am glad they didn’t delete this target from the game permanently,” because I never felt at risk of that. Those were the days. I also wasn’t thinking, “I wish I wasn’t able to replay this level over and over because I really enjoy it; I’d much prefer a permanent outcome that I can’t ever change or play again.”

    Dear video games that want to delete their own content, possibly even before I’ve had a chance to play it: please don’t do that. Sincerely, Everyone.

    “People should feel like they’re taking part in this world as it happens, right?”

    Right for MMOs and possibly other primarily-online games, but not so for single-player. Single-player experiences should not be hindered by the passage of time in real-life. I’m fine with community content (read: Contracts) expanding the range of options available to me, but don’t tell me you’ll take things away from me if I don’t play your game this very weekend. I don’t work for you. You don’t tell me when to play. Once you have my money, you butt out, and make no attempts to manage my time for me.

    • 8080 says:

      I think this reply is spot on. In fact this idea of temporary content is so bad it’s made me very concerned about the entire direction of the game. If they thought this was a good idea, what else do we have to look forward to?
      This is definitely a game that I’ll be waiting on for a while after release to see how it turns out and how the full game is once they finish it.

    • Curry the Great says:

      You’re right. They’re looking for gimmicks to improve the hitman formula. They bombard us with marketing speech and all it does is confirm my conviction that whoever is managing the game is an incompetent moneyman who just wants arbitrary features like “people wanna feel like they’re part of a world!” “immersive enhanced always online experience hand crafted from player feedback” (a patch that fixes bugs and deletes levels from the old game).

      I’m pretty convinced that IO interactive are still just as incompetent as they have been since Bloody Money. The perfect formula for this game would be a big base interactivity and options, then specific missions that are unrelated from eachother or only related for 2 or 3 missions. Then milk the game with proper expansions that are just really nicely crafted levels. Then add an editor that allows players to do this work for them. Done.

      Of course, I am more competent than whatever head honcho idea guy they’ve got pitching ideas from focus groups without ever having played Blood Money.

      Call me a dirty cynic, and I am, but I don’t have high hopes for this game. My hopes are that it might be LIKE Blood Money. I wish I could trust these clowns to be able to improve on a 9-year-old game, but with Absolution they showed they have no idea what’s going on.

      • Jediben says:

        And imagine what happens when they decide to pull the plug on the servers. No more targets! This is just more DRM masquerading as content delivery.

        • silentdan says:

          Actually, that raises an important question: can this game be played entirely offline, and all you miss out on is new content? Or is it one of those things where they have a server issue, and I can’t play the game at all until it’s sorted out on their end?

      • silentdan says:

        Yeah, it smacks of “we’re counting on X, but aren’t sure what X is.” They way they talk about Twitch makes me nervous.

        What we expect to happen is that people will go to Twitch, they’ll start debating what’s going on

        Will they? Twitch isn’t much of a debate forum, as far as I can tell. I usually go for archived Let’s Plays instead of live streams, so maybe I’m a bit out of touch on this particular point, but it just doesn’t sound practical. I’m sure there will be conversations in venues like the Steam forums, or Reddit, and the like, but Twitch chat is too ephemeral to rally around, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.

        And when Pip described the process as learning rote dance moves for a school play … I’m pretty sure she’s warning us that this game is designed to be performed, not played. (I feel like we’re playing some sort of emotional-disturbance-poker, here, so I’ll see your dirty cynicism, and raise you outright paranoia!)

        • Lacero says:

          Blood Money, Thief, Deus Ex, all these games are performed and not played after you’ve done them once.

          It’s a good thing if that’s the case.

          • silentdan says:

            Whether or not it’s a good thing is a matter of personal taste, I suppose, but the three games you mentioned all have different ways of achieving the set goals, and as such, can be played in numerous different ways before one begins to ape prior behaviour. In Blood Money, you can poison the target, or shoot him, or rig his BBQ to blow, or something else entirely, and I never feel like I’m acting out someone else’s choreography when I make those choices. Perhaps “play” and “perform” aren’t the best terms to apply to this idea, but basically, I want to feel like I’m improvising one of many possible plans, instead of finding the one and only solution the developers blessed with a “success” state.

          • mukuste says:

            @silentdan: The article specifically mentioned that there will be many viable solutions to each situation.

      • manny says:

        Yeah I agree your average 12 year old classic hitman player would be able to handle this property better than IO. They are clueless. Still it looks like they are listening but still coming up with dumb ideas.

        What’s this ‘community’, Hitman games are remarkably SINGLE PLAYER only games. Why would you want to compete or collaborate with other ‘hitmen’ who are probably 14 year old boys most of the time. The whole idea of the franchise is your a human terminator, so good nobody can compete, you can reach people in ways nobody else can.

        If they want a community, then they should allow players to vote for a when, where, who of a target and then go off and make the level/s. They can even charge for it and people won’t complain about paying, after all a single level provides many many hours of entertainment. Release mod tools and polish the tools for the community to make their own levels. Then collaborate with the groups to polish the levels and then charge money for them while giving over some of the profits to the group. Basically a much better version of what Valve did with the Black Mesa mod.

    • Person of Interest says:

      Maybe they’re planning a new target every week? So it would be more like the daily Spelunky run or a Hearthstone quest. In that case, you wouldn’t be missing much if you skipped the event.

      Although they could probably provide the same tense experience, without the online-only shackles (is this, in part, an anti-piracy carrot?), by giving you only one attempt (unless you scummed the save files) but not expiring the event?

      • silentdan says:

        Those are good suggestions, but they wouldn’t make me entirely happy.

        For me, an absolutely indispensable characteristic of the Hitman games, is repeatability. “What happens if I try X?” “This!” “Neat! What happens if I try Y?” “Too bad, you already did X, and now you’re never allowed to play this content again, purely because I feel like restricting you.” That’s not Hitman — in fact, I’m not sure that’s any game at all. Can anyone think of a mainly single-player game where a failure state was recorded on a remote server, forever prohibiting you from experiencing that content again? Because I honestly can’t. Even MMOs usually offer some way to make repeated attempts on a difficult goal.

        Tension is great, but Hitman games have it baked in. I’m a lone assassin going up against a well-protected target, using nothing but my stealth and guile to negate their overwhelming advantage of numbers and firepower. That’s it, that’s “tension achieved.” You don’t have to start clawing stuff back.

        Furthermore, if I had such an easy time planning and successfully executing a flawless assassination on the first attempt, I wouldn’t be arguing about pixel-toys, I’d be ending fools and getting paid. :)

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yep, fully agree.

    • ffordesoon says:

      Mmh, I slightly disagree. I think there’s a lot to be concerned about in terms of the implementation (foremost among those questions being “Is this always-online or is there an offline mode?”), but the idea of a Hitman version of Spelunky’s daily challenge is actually quite interesting.

      If there were full, hand-designed missions in exclusive locations with a forty-eight hour expiry date, that would be cause for concern, but if I’m reading between the lines correctly, the plan is for Io to do something similar to what players already do in Contracts mode – that is, they send you after another character in the same levels from the single-player. I doubt they’ll lock away content; the point will more likely be to reuse preexisting assets efficiently. I’m picturing a less elaborate version of the Side Ops in MGS: Ground Zeroes, and I have no problem with that.

      Now, there are plenty of ways to screw this up, a couple of which I already mentioned. But I’m reserving judgment until I know more about the particulars of the implementation. The key is not to attach an extrinsic reward to the mission – at least, not one you can’t earn in the base game. It needs to be something players choose to do because they want to do it, not because you get the Candy Cane Shotgun for killing a dude in a Santa hat on Christmas.

      • silentdan says:

        Solid points. Re: Spelunky daily challenge: if the Hitman challenges are procedurally generated, and there’s always one available, then it’s not nearly so problematic. I still think expecting people to huddle around a virtual campfire and discuss is silly, though. :)

  6. Sin Vega says:

    I think they have it in them to turn this series back on track, and it sounds like they’re keeping level heads about the mistakes they made (as well as the good ideas) in Absolution.

    One thing that sounds like a mistake though, is if they really are making all the levels “very big”. Some of the best Hitman levels were the small but really intricate ones. The witness protection level from Blood Money comes to mind. Big is great for some levels, sure, but if they’re all like that it could became quite a chore trudging back and forth across them all day.

    • jonahcutter says:

      It’s a good point. The level you’re talking about is one of the defining levels of Blood Money, while also being one of the most mundane and small in setting. It’s great because of it’s intricate, clockwork nature.

  7. edwardh says:

    The headline makes me wonder whether you could ever quote someone saying “The Aspiration Is To Build The Most Subpar Yet Sellable Hitman Game”

    • Jane Doe says:

      Honesty has no part in marketing. Therefore believing in commercials and PR-headlines is like going to church.

      This game becoming anything other than the next disastrous example of “how to beat a dead franchise-horse” would be the surprise of the decade.

      • P.Funk says:

        “Honesty has no part in marketing.”

        Thats not true at all. The principles underpinning advertising are dishonest, seeking to defeat people’s ability to make sound rational choices, but the act of marketing to people often involves plenty of truth.

        A good liar would happily tell you how much truth helps tell a good lie.

        • UppityTeapot says:

          But if they are a good liar, how do you know that statement is not in itself a lie?

        • Emeraude says:

          One of the meanest tool of advertising is not lying but re-contextualising. Passing on info with the tone and ways befitting other info to elicit a modified response. As such it can accommodate truth without hassle.

  8. tonicer says:

    It’s easy to make the perfect Game. First and foremost forget those fucking video game consoles and their shitty gamepads, develop for PC and for mouse and keyboard.

    Plus a fully fledged SDK for those lovely modders out there and viola the game has all the potential to be fucking awesome.

    • mukuste says:

      I want to believe that this post is satire, but then I remember that there really are these “hardcore PC gamers” who think that a game is automatically better if it’s played with mouse and keyboard.

    • UppityTeapot says:

      Okay, ‘fess up. Who let the master race out of its basement again?

    • manny says:

      Combat is secondary, I’m thinking consoles should be given auto aiming headshots since 47 missing like a retard takes away from immersion, same thing with pc (although you should be able to turn it off).

      The tactical fps aspects of the game are still immature and should be improved, but not at the cost of the focus of the game.