Hitmanᵀᴹ (which, for the sake of our sanity and yours, we'll just call Hitman from now on thank you very much) has just wrapped up its first season, and it's fair to say it's been a success. Since March this year, IO Interactive has delivered a succession of murderous playgrounds dense with the kind of devious detail that helped forge the studio's name back with the lauded Blood Money, and to my mind this reboot is at least the equal of that modern day classic. This new Hitman has frequently been outstanding.
From the splendour and scope of Sapienza to the bustle of the markets in Marrakesh, IO has delivered the open-ended stealth and skullduggery that fans have been pining for for what seems like an entire generation. It's not been without hitches, though, and when the episodic structure was first announced it seemed IO were blundering their way through rather than going for the Silent Assassin approach, with confused messaging not helping win over those disgruntled by the fact the new Hitman would initially be spread out over a series of instalments rather than delivered as a single standalone game. Even IO itself didn't seem entirely convinced of the approach.
"We debated a quite a few things, and we knew that it was going to be controversial," Hitman's creative director Christian Elverdam tells us at a recent London event. "And we didn't make it easy by being back and forth in what we were saying. We knew people would be sceptical. And we had a debate about how much content could launch a season. How much is enough to start? We went back and forth on that. How do you get that critical mass so people start playing and then want to go on and enjoy the game?
"We went quite full-on, and said we're going with episodes. Paris [the first level] will have to stand on its own. And I'm happy now - a lot of people think it's a nice way to play the game. The debate is, if we put in more levels already these will be binged, and it'll be less of a season we can evolve and learn stuff like with the elusive targets. Personally I think it was a good spot we ended in. But it was a bit messy getting there."
Rewind a few years and the new Hitman wasn't even being made in IO's Copenhagen headquarters, the series being shuffled off to a new team in Montreal. IO's last Hitman, Absolution, proved to be divisive, a handsome and well-built AAA action game but not necessarily a great Hitman game. What was the studio trying to achieve back then?
"A lot of the ambition in Absolution was to create a more living, cinematic game world - which I really think we accomplished," says Elverdam. "We also wanted to open up Hitman to more people, and make it a game that wasn't as frightening - Blood Money was very frightening to a lot of people. When you play Hitman today, you feel like you can jump in and have a chance, and that's because of Absolution. It's still to this day one of our big accomplishments - making a game people can play.
"Absolution took some choices with where the story fit in, how much the story can dictate what goes on in the game, which was at odds with the essence of the Hitman sandbox. It did it for many different reasons. One of them, which I think worked, was how it made the very complex sandbox a little less frightening."
You can see Absolution's legacy in the new Hitman - in the optional opportunities that give players a breadcrumb to follow, for example, a kind of racing line through levels that reduces the complexity associated with older Hitman games. "If you follow it, it feels like you're pulling on a string and it's solving the game for you," says Elverdam. "That's our contemporary answer to the same problem - how do you get someone who doesn't know anything about your game. Consider Blood Money is 10 years old. That's 10 years of new gamers who haven't played a Hitman before."
Following Absolution, IO found itself working on a new Hitman sooner than it might have anticipated when Square Enix Montreal was shifted away from the series. The episodic approach, as well as the live elements - themselves an extension of the contracts introduced in Absolution - were part of the plan from the start. "We had the idea of wanting to build a world, basically - when we talk about the world of assassination, it's a topic we talk about quite a bit. How do we make a game that has live elements? Many people in the industry had this feeling that sometimes when you build a boxed game, you build if for a few years and then it's out - right when your game is coming out, everyone's giving you feedback and you have this clear 20/20 insight into what worked and what doesn't work. I think at that point in time, we saw there was an opportunity to try something different.
"It couldn't really have been done before - it was also down to the different platform owners, how they're letting you update your content. We were looking at a landscape where it was starting to become a possibility. We had this conundrum with Hitman for the longest time - if you're into our universe, you know the games, it's a given you're patient and take your time and try to find the intricate details. The feedback we get, that's also for the team super nice, is that it's very detailed. We feel like people have touched almost everything in Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh - it's satisfying to see that people are finding them and interacting with them. We didn't really get that before. Normally when a game launches there's a stampede, and that doesn't fit our game so well."
Hitman is getting a standalone boxed release next January where all the episodes are bundled together, but I've personally been a fan of the staggered release. It's an excuse to take things slowly and play levels over and over again - and it's through repetition that Hitman often shines. Offering players the choice to have everything at once is one thing, but if you've seen what I'm like with a fresh bag of sweets I'm not sure allowing me choice is a good thing. I don't think I'd have enjoyed Hitman half as much if it had been released all at once. Could it have worked so well any other way?
"Well, it's a vague term, worked, so sure it could! We have people who've waited until the content is done, and I think it will work for them. They can jump in and play it. I absolutely think it can. I don't think it'd get the same praise from people about how much content there is. It's one of our traditional problems - we felt that people missed out on tonnes of stuff, and didn't really see a lot of the value we'd put into the game. There are 100s of hours in here. I think it can work. For me it works better the way we did it with the seasonal stuff. But I also think if you jump in right now it's fine. You have the ability to binge on it. When there's debate and controversy about stuff it can become black and white, but I recall when I was at E3 we said for a while we'll do a live part of the game, and you're free to jump in when it's done."
There's an evolution in Hitman's levels, too, that comes about through the episodic approach as IO Interactive folds in what it's learnt from player behaviours. Hokkaido, the final mission, is presented as a more challenging mission, but conversely I found it easier than what's gone before - perhaps thanks to some of the friction in earlier episodes as IO experimented with the formula has now been removed.
"We've worked with an increasing degree of confidence - what's a cool moment, what's a cool opportunity?" Elverdam says. "When I play Hokkaido, there's a certain sense of mastery. We've really learnt how to build this stuff. There are tonnes of moments, from the surgeon who's got a neuro-chip to the AI governing all the doors. We had it on paper, but it would have been daunting to do it if we didn't have the backdrop of Paris and Sapienza and seeing what worked. If you look at Colorado and Hokkaido, they're a little more difficult - it's us looking at how we can challenge the players."
IO's been able to adapt on the fly to how people play Hitman, too, working out new challenges and figuring out how best to employ its tools. It all sounds a little like how Agent 47 approaches any given level, observing and adjusting plans as they go along and encountering the occasional delightful surprise on the way. "One of our community guys killed the first elusive target by bouncing a fire extinguisher. It's incredibly risky, placing it and blowing it up so it flies up and kills the elusive target. That's one end of the spectrum, and then there's us mortals. What surprises me - you can think about how diverse your player base is, and this long-term exposure tells you how different our audience is. Some are into all the story, digging it out, others are exploiting AI, punching around with it. I love that! It's two different ways of looking at it, and we need to embrace all of that."
So where next for Hitman? The official Twitter account has been slightly more candid than Elverdam is allowed to be at present, saying three seasons have been planned although the second has still to be confirmed. That was back in August - has it been greenlit since? "I can't talk about that just yet!" How about, then, talking about how you'd like to build upon Hitman, and whether a new season would introduce new mechanics or simply fold in new maps? Again IO can't commit to anything just yet, but surely it knows it's onto a good thing.
"It's still a little too early. I can tell you though - what we didn't have at the beginning of season was an ease. The team aren't worried about building a sandbox anymore. They're looking at this body of work and saying what did we learn, what moments would we like to do more of. When we started, it wasn't like that. 10 years ago, we build a sandbox. How is that going to play out? This whole concept of opportunities - how's that going to play out? That was controversial at the time. It's time to take a breather, look at what we've accomplished and figure out what's the next evolution."