And then suddenly Hitman: Blood Money was free to play in a web browser.
Core Online, Square Enix's foray into the world of online gaming, is a system that lets you play ad-supported HD games in your browser, where you earn gaming time by watching ads. And they're launching it with one of the more loved Hitman games, Blood Money, along with Mini Ninjas. I have taken a look, and it's safe to say the system is in something of a mess at the moment. But it remains an interesting idea.
It asks you for your date of birth (I hope it remembers to get me something!) and then offers you each of the game's missions as a separate load. If you want to skip straight to the end, you can. Bearing in mind how infamously dull the first mission is, I picked mission two, A Vintage Year. And I'm informed that I've,
Time left: 10 minutes / Unlock ($0.49)
At 13 missions that would mean the game would cost a total of $6.37 or £4.03. Or you can get the whole game at once for $4.99/£3.15 That's pretty decent, albeit a slightly peculiar way of purchasing a game - it currently costs £6 on Steam, for instance.
Of course, it doesn't really run in your browser at all, but rather in a Java plugin that you're required to install to your PC first. So gone are ideas of running it on university library machines, etc. And of course my Java was out of date, so I had to update that first. It then asks for its software, the Square Enix Secure Launcher, to be installed. That's extremely simple - download it, run it, and the website automagically updates and offers the game.
The game runs in a window on the site, which captures your mouse cursor to prevent madness, with F12 changing things to fullscreen. And it's a very smooth change too - no mad flickering, no YouTube-like hesitation, but a neat, instantaneous appearance.
There's an options menu too, and while it doesn't give you any resolution choices, you can adjust everything else you'd want to, along with keyboard controls. There's also the option to save and load, with a limit of seven savegames available to you.
Although oddly, choose to restart a game, and your saves are wiped. Which means there's no option here for quitting the game and carrying on from where you were. You have to play each chapter through in as long as you can leave the tab open.
Having quit out of the chapter, and then tried to return, I'm given a popup window that tells me I can watch an ad to earn more time, with two choices, "Remove ads" or watch one. When I click the little cross to close the window and do neither, to carry on with the remaining time it says I have, it takes me back to the chapter select. It seems I have to do one or the other.
The amount an ad earns seems to depend upon the length of the ad. So a 1.15 ad for Mini Ninjas Adventures gets me 25 minutes, while 1.11 of Mensa Academy gets me 23. 1.01 for Koozac nets 20, and 24 seconds of Game Globe lets me play for another 8 minutes. And while they're YouTube embeds, they've done their best to have you watch them. I picked the Mini Ninjas, found there was no mute option, and then clicked over into this window to type these sentences, and the video stopped playing. Clever. No letting it run down quietly in the background then.
However, on a couple of occasions I've encountered bugs that let me skip all this. Deciding I didn't want to watch an ad at one point, I clicked "Cancel", and I seemed to be credited with another 9 minutes anyway. Weird. I even had the same results when blocking ads with Chrome. The ad options never load, but even here when I clicked cancel to get rid of the eternal loading screen, I was again credited with ten more minutes play.
And this is all without ever signing into it.
Registering promised me 60 minutes of game time, but it hasn't been added to my profile's count. Now cancelling ads no longer let me play the game. And logging out doesn't change that, so who knows what's happening there.
Letting all four current adverts play to themselves as I got on with some Words With Friends on my phone, I earned a total of 76 minutes with games on the site. But if I want more than that, I'm going to have to pay. The advert window informs me I need to come back tomorrow to get any more that way.
Except, oops, I did all that while not signed in. Those 76 minutes are not in my account, and to get them there I'll have to watch them all over again, including now a Red Bull advert in Spanish. But then, I've plenty of Words With Friends games on the go.
Perhaps most odd about the setup is there's no clear way to just load up on ads from its own front page. To get to them, you have to start trying to play a game first. That seems an odd choice, rather than it being something you can opt into as you arrive at the site. Also odd is the suggestion that chapters can be purchased for 49 cents, without anywhere on the front page mentioning this. To get to this option, again you have to start trying to play (where you'll be forced to either do this or go to the ad choices, no matter how much play time you may have), and select Remove Ads. This then lets you buy the chapter for $0.49, or the whole game for $4.99.
Mini Ninjas behaves even more strangely, by the way, presenting itself as loading within the Core site, and then taking you to Google's Play site without asking, wanting to be installed there, then when launching briefly taking me back to Core, then straight back to Google to ask me to launch it again. Not pretty at all. Completely impossible to play.
This is launch day, and clearly there are going to be teething problems. What's more interesting is whether people will be prepared to play games this way. Especially since they're all pretty old games, most of which have been in very low price sales in various places on a number of occasions. Sitting through two or three adverts isn't the most arduous of tasks, but it's still a pain in the arse when what you want to do is just start playing a game. And you're still stuck inside your browser, which asks questions of whether they'll be able to port bigger, more interesting titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. That crazy old father Time will eventually let us know.