Neither Early Access Nor Episodic: New Hitman Explained

I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Hitman sandbox murder simulator, which is named simply Hitman [official site]. Developers IO Interactive said encouraging things when Pip had a chat and a play during E3, which I might crudely boil down to “No, it won’t be like Absolution.”

One part of June’s big reveal was a little less clear: how will it be released? Is it episodic? Is it early access? Is it… what would I be buying? Presumably these are questions people have been asking a lot, and so they’ve now answered them.

In short, when Hitman launches on December 8th, it won’t be the full game. It’ll be a large chunk of it, and what you get straight away for $60 will be polished, but it won’t be the full game. The rest of the story arc, with more missions and locations, will trickle out over 2016 as downloaded updates.

Don’t call it Early Access, they say. “Early access can often mean something unfinished or unpolished. That’s simply not the approach we’re taking. All of the content we release live to our players will be complete and polished …”

So… episodic? Nope. “We think the word ‘episodic’ sets up the expectation that we will sell individual content drops for individual prices but that’s not something we’re planning to do. That said, there are some episodic elements to the story in the sense that it’s delivered in chunks over time, so experiencing the story will probably feel episodic.” Uh huh.

So it’s an episodic game only available as a season pass? I’d be inclined to go with that. IO themselves say “we’re calling it a ‘live’ experience” and I’m making a crude wanking gesture with my right hand as I type this hey I’m more ambidextrous than I thought. IO are also planning to sprinkle on “live events” separate from the game’s story, such as targets who’ll only pop up for a few days then be gone forever, and other non-story bits.

It’s an interesting experiment for a full-price AAA game in an established series, certainly; I’m keen to see how it plays out. If you want to be a bit more cynical, it’s also an interesting way to get money out of people while a game’s still being made. Pre-orders are declining, some say (about damn time) but games like this are expensive and risky things to make (‘AAA’ in games having strayed from its financial origins to now mean ‘it costs $60’). It’s possibly a way for publishers to release a game and start making money back earlier to keep numbers up. I’m making that wanking gesture at myself now too. Nice one, Alice.

45 Comments

  1. DarkFenix says:

    After the mess that was Absolution I won’t be putting any faith into this lot (at least not enough to give them money before the whole product is up for review, fool me twice and all that). I’ll wait until the game is finished, then if it can even hold a candle to Blood Money it might be worth a buy.

    • Boothie says:

      My thoughts exactly, which is why it rather pisses me off that they are talking off timed missions, ie content that are available for a few days then disappears never to return. Sounds like some kind of hostage situation “buy this game on release or you will miss out on content” Games industry at a new low

      • KenTWOu says:

        Absolution already had timed missions in its online Contracts mode. They didn’t ruin the game, because players could create their own missions and share them. The game, the mode and these missions were undermined by shallow game mechanics. The game wasn’t systemic enough, levels weren’t big enough and disguise system was balanced around small levels. Judging by previews this Hitman game is trying to fix all these issues. The only concern here is the game will be episodic.

  2. Wormerine says:

    Sounds possibly like a fine idea in this particular case. If it will be anything like Blood Money that is.

    While I love Hitman games, I always find them exhausting. I end up rushing through the game, and while I enjoy and properly replay early levels, the later ones I tend to skim over. Having one big mission per month means you can play them, and replay them multiple times before the new one is released. Sounds good to me, as I do tend to leech to one game at a time.

    Some more gameplay would be nice though.

  3. Kefren says:

    Your news summary made me laugh. :-) Call a spade a spade and wankery wankery.

    I’ll wait until it stops being “live”, becomes “dead”, then read the reviews. By then it will be 12 months later and I’ll be able to pick it up for much less (if it is worth buying). Bonus.

    • silentdan says:

      Agreed. When I want a “live experience” I play an MMO. I’ll seriously consider buying this game, but not until every shred of “live” is done with. I have no idea what they’re trying to pull, here, but it smells fishy. No one asked for a “live experience” Hitman game. Everyone pretty much just wants Blood Money 2. They could make that, and win. Or, they could decide that they really, really want to make a Hitman-themed DRM package, and hope that if they pay Blood Money enough lip service, we’ll never know the difference.

      I could be wrong. I hope I am. It’s just that what I’ve heard so far sounds really weird, and the justification seems dubious at best. It sounds like SimCity 2013, where they claimed that the always-online nature was both more fun and technically infeasible to change, and 30 hours later, some kid releases a patch that takes the game entirely offline, and a ton of people jump on it, calling the “fun” assessment into question. It really seems like this will be for Hitman, what SC2013 was to SimCity. And that’s fine. Sure, I’ll be bummed about the demise of the Hitman series, but a couple of years later, Hitguy: Skylines will come out, and everything will turn out fine in the end.

      • KenTWOu says:

        I have no idea what they’re trying to pull, here, but it smells fishy.

        I don’t understand why people keep saying that. It’s like they didn’t play Absolution and didn’t know anything about it and its innovative Contracts mode. Where both developers and players could create a custom assassination challenges (= live events) that could be saved and shared online. And it was the most important feature of Absolution. And players keep saying on Hitman forums, guys, release more maps, please, so we could create more contracts.
        Is it so hard to understand that the new game will continue to push this innovative concept further? And the game will be interesting both as offline and online experience if it will be deep enough from mechanics stand point?

        • silentdan says:

          Wow, two separate uses of “innovative?” That adjective is often used by publishers to describe their own product, and almost literally never by critics/consumers. Just FYI.

          The Contracts weren’t live events by any stretch of the imagination. You could download ’em and keep ’em. They were like mods or custom missions. It was slightly novel to let users tweak mission parameters, but it’s not as if there haven’t been thousands of games with mod support.

          It’s not at all hard to understand that they’re extending how Contracts work. The disconnect, I think, comes from what that has to do with releasing an unfinished game.

          • KenTWOu says:

            Wow, two separate uses of “innovative?” That adjective is often used by publishers to describe their own product, and almost literally never by critics/consumers. Just FYI.

            Seriously? Are you sure? Let me google this for you.
            Wot I Think: Invisible, Inc.: One part roguelike, one part persistent strategy game, it’s an innovative combination and it works gloriously.

          • KenTWOu says:

            The disconnect, I think, comes from what that has to do with releasing an unfinished game.

            Right now the only thing that concerns me is this one.

          • silentdan says:

            Touche, that was a bit hyperbolic; what I should have said is, “it makes you sound like a biased, interested party, and leads me to doubt your objectivity.”

    • slerbal says:

      Aye, I’m enjoying Alice’s sarky response to marketing bullshot . Keep it up! :)

    • HighlordKiwi says:

      Exactly my thoughts.

      They can call it what they like but if it looks like early access/episodic, walks like early access/episodic and quacks like early access/episodic…

  4. jezcentral says:

    I think it is more they want feedback on how people want the game to play. Absolution was so tone-deaf to how the previous games were, this can only be a good thing. If they released Absolution this way, there would have been a sharp turnaround in gameplay after initial launch, and the game would not have been so badly received. That on it’s own would justify a new approach, to me.

    I would like to see them lose the Deus Ex snap-to-wall stealth. Hitman should be about disguises and silently creeping up on people, not Jensen-ing around shouting “I’m an Eidos game!” (Yeah, Squeenix now, but that’s where the roots of that came from).

    Still, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Digital distribution gives them a chance to innovate. Unlike in Absolution, a Blood Money-type game is episodic in nature anyway, so it doesn’t suffer from this schedule.

    I’d like to see a putative roadmap of content, though.

  5. suibhne says:

    It’s worth noting that, from a business standpoint, this isn’t quite the slam-dunk you’d think. Eidos is owned by Squenix, which is a public company and is required to use standards-compliant accrual accounting methods. This means, roughly, that the company won’t be able to recognize all of that $60 from a Hitman sale until they’ve delivered the entire product. So yes, it’s true they get the cash up front, and they can reinvest that cash into interest-bearing accounts (typically pretty meager) or into new projects – but the $60 won’t be fully recognized as revenue on the company’s books until Hitman is fully complete, maybe a year later. This means Hitman won’t benefit the company’s financial statements and market performance to nearly the same degree as a $60 game that’s “complete” up front.

    It’s all a little more complicated than this, but my basic point is that, when we’re talking about public companies specifically (and often private companies too), deals like this aren’t really about getting the cash up front.

    The real benefit, I suspect, is twofold: reducing the risk of cash flow, and getting a longer tail on product sales. On the first count, that’s how pre-orders work, too; cash up front means it’s easier for Eidos to forecast its financial performance into the future, and this “season pass for $60” deal will also (likely) reduce the incidence of costly refunds. On the second count, well, I’m guessing that a steady stream of new content might have a positive effect on sales over the 6-9 months post-release, and might also help Eidos maintain a higher price point for longer. We’ll see.

    • aepervius says:

      That is not entirely true. If i read between the line they can legally declare the game finished, and the rest declared as DLC. So your theory might be incorrect.

      • suibhne says:

        Under either GAAP or IFRS (which is probably the Squenix standard since I believe they trade in Tokyo), there probably isn’t a reputable auditor anywhere who would agree with your interpretation. Revenue recognition for product/service delivery over time is pretty well-trod territory and auditors are very, very conservative in rev rec interpretations. (If Eidos charged more for all of the additional content releases, tho, that would be a different story.)

  6. zind says:

    “In short, when Hitman launches on December 8th, it won’t be the full game. It’ll be a large chunk of it, and what you get straight away for $60 will be polished, but it won’t be the full game. The rest of the story arc, with more missions and locations, will trickle out over 2016 as downloaded updates.”

    So basically, more reason than ever to just wait for the 2017 sales. Gotcha.

  7. Emeraude says:

    “It’s not early access in that we’re not making any promises the game will get better over time – though we reserve the right to use our paying customers as beta testers if so we chose, and it’s not episodic in that we’re not making any promises that the content between released chunks will be i any way related, tough it might be if it strikes our fancy*

    *: that’s how we call our planning schedule.”

  8. caff says:

    I’m sorry but this approach is bullshit. Just release a complete game that includes all the missions and the full story arc.

    Having said that I bought Life is Strange early and am enjoying the episodes as they appear. So I’m a massive hypocrite.

    But stop it.

    • silentdan says:

      I get what you mean, but I don’t think you’re a hypocrite. Different genres lend themselves to different means of presentation, and I think it’s fair to criticize one for inappropriately applying the techniques of the other. TV and movies are pretty similar; roughly as similar as adventure games are to stealth-based shooters, I think. If your next movie had long interruptions for commercial breaks, you’d be quite right to be upset, regardless of how you feel about commercials in TV shows. In that example, the basis for our outrage would be double-dipping on ad revenue and high ticket prices — pick one, but you can’t have both. In the case of the games, it’s a little less clear-cut, but we’ve seen AAA games at AAA price points release full games, so we know it’s perfectly feasible, and I, for one, am suspicious about why they’re trying to characterize this backsliding as something their customers actually want.

      • caff says:

        I agree with what you’re saying – certain stories work better with the way the receiver consumes & absorbs them.

        I think what irks me most is my nostalgia to the last level of Blood Money. It’s not really a level, it’s more of an elegy to what occurs before. It wraps up the game ending with a parcel of love, making it a complete experience that will last forever in your memory.

        I just cannot see that happening with this title, unless as others have mockingly stated, you buy it in a sale once all the free DLC is released.

        However, being even more of a critical luddite, I’d say the worst thing they did with Absolution was to lose the original voice artist for Diana.

  9. lordfrikk says:

    No, thanks.

  10. Lacero says:

    Didn’t blacklist do this?

    Then never actually finish the campaign because it didn’t sell enough?

    • slerbal says:

      I blacklisted Blacklist once they stopped working with Michael Ironside and his desire to humanise the character and situations. He brought so much more than just epic level voice acting.

    • KenTWOu says:

      Nope, Blacklist didn’t do this.

  11. Sensation says:

    Seems like a lot of thought going into lowering piracy rates for a singleplayer experience, to their credit this seems less awful than the ‘connectivity features’ other pubs/devs tie into their singleplayer games to justify online connections.

  12. pringles says:

    My first reactions to this were “cash grab” and “bait-n-switch”, but I suppose it can’t be that bad. Fingers crossed, but I’m almost happy I’m not invested in the franchise :x.

  13. P.Funk says:

    The sheer volume of flippant self congratulating cynicism is remarkable.

    I’m wary but intrigued. I guess I’ll be the only person actually withholding judgment until I see the actual game released.

    • Emeraude says:

      I don’t know bout self congratulation, but I do think cynicism as a default reaction to almost any announcement is not only warranted but *deserved* given the way this industry has been behaving toward its customers.

      And honestly, I’ve yet to see anyone present a valid argument as to why this is good for the customer. Why does this bring ?

    • Daemoroth says:

      And when will you make that judgement call? When the first piece is released for a full AAA price? Or (As many here) when the LAST piece is released?

      What does this price model offer a consumer? Releasing an episodic game while charging the full AAA price gives the publisher the opportunity to abandon development as soon as the sales slump. You have no guarantee that the second piece will be the same quality as the first, and by then you’ll be FAR outside of any refund windows.

      If they want to release it as an episodic game, by all means go ahead, but adjust your business model accordingly.

  14. Demon Beaver says:

    This seems to me like a dangerous business model, for the consumer. I can see them not putting much resources into the game a year from release, when sales have leveled.
    Like many others here, I’ll be patiently waiting until its completely done and then judge it by reception. Hopefully many people acting like that will get publishers to understand that they ought to provide a complete product straight up if they expect people to pay $60.

  15. KenTWOu says:

    The disconnect, I think, comes from what that has to do with releasing an unfinished game.

    Right now the only thing that concerns me is this one.

  16. Daemoroth says:

    I’ll pay full price for a product when I can see and make a judgement call on what the full product actually IS. It’s funny how the game industry is a place where consumers are expected to pay full price without knowing what is included (Or the quality thereof).

  17. JiminyJickers says:

    There is no way I’m paying for a half finished Hitman game. I’ll buy it down the line for a discount once everything is released and all this “live” bollocks is gone.

  18. alms says:

    In my mind I’m picturing Vinraith shaking his head gravely while reading this post.

  19. LetSam says:

    Isn’t it possible their marketing team is just shit at naming things for what they are? This seems to me like the free DLC stuff CD Projekt are doing for The Witcher 3 which Jim Sterling praised just a few days ago.

  20. crazyd says:

    If I judge the amount and quality of content available at launch to be worth $60, I will buy in. I mean, I’m not playing Hitman for the story, anyway, I wouldn’t care if the game didn’t have a narrative and was just a series of big open maps with targets in place. So long as the additional content is gravy, I’m all in, but they can’t half ass the launch. If it sells bad, there’s no way a publisher is going to finance additional content.

  21. manny says:

    Square may be dumb enough to think the failure of Absolution was due to piracy, so that’s why they are pushing the pay up front and we’ll trickle content via downloads to only registered users approach. IO though at least recognize the faults of Absolution.

    The main problem is Square Enix/IO thinks Hitman is a mainstream game, it’s not. It remains niche. If it had a compelling story it could become more mainstream but they failed spectacularly in Absolution attempting that. And Agent 47 is a difficult character to make compelling. My suggestion is they just focus on the gameplay, an episodic release of a few missions for $20 each. They can then get their house in order, hire the best writers they can and come out with a higher priced game with a storyline that’s worth the money.

    • manny says:

      Also them developing their own game engine was a poor decision as Hitman never relied much on it’s graphics. The manpower spent on the engine should instead be devoted to the content, the heart of the franchise. So they should switch to Cryengine in the future and stop this custom engine nonsense.