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How IO turned Hitman around, from Absolution to World of Assassination

"It felt surreal to go from so much doubt to so much praise."

Hitman's Agent 47, up close and personal, staring into the camera. The background is blank and he's in suit and tie. Isn't he always?
Image credit: IO Interactive / Hitman

When Hitman 3 recently changed its name to Hitman World of Assassination, I had no idea how meaningful the moment was. On the outside it looked like a simple thing: Hitman 3 would now be known by this name and include levels from Hitman 2 and 3 - the trilogy would all be in one place. But on the inside, at IO Interactive, much more was going on.

World of Assassination is the culmination of a plan that was 10 years in the making - a plan that survived enormous upheaval at the company. It survived a management buyout during which the entire future of Hitman was in doubt. But all the time the vision was there, a vision of what Hitman could be, and World of Assasination is it.

The story begins with the release of, and feedback to, Hitman Absolution in 2012. Remember, this was the first Hitman game in several years and expectations were high. But it wasn't the return to form people hope for, and memories of Hitman Blood Money from 2006, a series high point, loomed large and distant. "Absolution isn't its finest hour," Tom Bramwell wrote in our Hitman Absolution review.

"That game was not well received within our audience," Christian Elverdam tells me. He's the chief creative officer and co-owner of IO Interactive. "Many Hitman fans said, 'Well, that's not a Hitman game.'" Or worse: "We had a fanbase who were like, 'Can you even do Hitman any more?'"

The full interview with IO co-owners Christian Elverdam and Hakan Abrak. Besides World of Assassination and Bond, there are some lovely discussions about their first impressions of Hitman, and their roundabout routes into the industry. I'm always inspired by the passion for games that pulls people through.

Elverdam gets it. The wilderness years that followed Hitman: Blood Money had really shaken IO's fans. These years were dominated by Kane & Lynch, the studio's loud new IP that was all guns-blazing ultra-violence and no subtlety. The first Kane & Lynch game, Dead Men, was okay, but the campaign was short and it ended up feeling, as reviewer Kristan Reed said at the time, like "a very big missed opportunity". The follow-up in 2011, Kane & Lynch: Dog Days, was much worse. Both tanked commercially, and the family-friendly and very average action game Mini Ninjas, that IO put out in between, did nothing to help the studio's fortunes.

IO was having a hard time behind the scenes because of it. It was acquired by Eidos in 2004, before Eidos was acquired by Square Enix in 2009, and both acquisitions brought changes in leadership and direction, and an amount of restructuring. And during those years, IO's original founders began to peel away, taking other IO staff with them. To top it all off, Microsoft cancelled an unknown game IO had been working on for it. The upshot: lay-offs - significant, emotionally draining, lay-offs.

That's the backdrop to what was riding on Absolution's release, and why its apparent miss stung so much. There was a lot at stake. Though, for what it's worth, Christian Elverdam still believes Absolution "is fundamentally a really good stealth-action game", and says a lot of what the studio learned building that game can be seen in World of Assassination today. Nevertheless, he and IO realised something significant had to change.

So, IO cancelled everything that wasn't Hitman, including Kane & Lynch, and set about mapping out Hitman's future. The year was 2013, Elverdam was promoted to studio creative director to lead the new charge, and Hakan Abrak, production director at the time, would help him. Abrak is now the CEO, incidentally, and the other co-owner of IO. He also joins us on the call.

What were the ideas they had for Hitman's future? One of them was a change of tone. Elverdam had long wanted "to change the feel of the Hitman universe into something more aspirational and more humoristic", he says. "So from being down and out and vengeful, you're more this high profile assassin. You get this feeling of being the best of the best, and you get to travel the world, which to me is like an aspirational fantasy."

Humour, or satire, was another crucial ingredient he wanted to add in. "When we say it now, it feels like, 'Ah, yeah, that's almost self-evident,'" he says - "'that would be a good place for Hitman to go.' But back then, [there was] a lot of scepticism and self-doubt and external doubt."

But the big idea was one grand, unifying vision of Hitman as one ever-expanding platform - a World of Asssassination.

Agent 47 from Hitman, close-up, arms pressed against his chest and holding two guns, with silences framing either side of his sinister face. The background is blood red.
Artwork from Hitman Absolution. Agent 47 was much more sinister then. He's much more blank-slate and neutral now. It's actually quite hard to find specific art for him today. Maybe it's because the character is supposed to be anyone and everyone. | Image credit: IO Interactive / Hitman Absolution

"Just to showcase that..." Elverdam says: "We just celebrated Freelancer launching, and one of the producers who was a big part of that launch dug out of the old archives a video we made back in 2013, which is called Hitman: The World of Assassination."

World of Assassination, then, existed both as a name and idea back in 2013.

"We do these videos to inspire ourselves and others to talk about where we want to go," Elverdam adds. "And that video talks - it's the first time we labelled it the World of Assassination - about this ever-expanding, ever-dangerous world where targets appear and new locations unlock, and all that stuff.

"And it's kind of cringey when you see it now because it was using all sorts of weird assets, and we had to beg, borrow and steal to bring it together. But a lot of what got said in that video is actually what wrapped up with the whole trinity coming together."

"Is this a hoax - what are you doing? Why are you only doing one episodic release?"

In other words, the idea was to "change the formula from monolithic releases on a five-to-six year cadence, to having this heartbeat and being constantly out there", Elverdam says.

"It was meant to be one executable back then," Hakan Abrak adds. "Just imagine World of Warcraft but for single-player [games], as a service, where these things would just expand and add locations."

The manifestation of this was Hitman 2016 being episodic - one game that would expand over time. And as Abrak points out, the original idea was for one Hitman that would grow and grow, not to have a Hitman 2 and 3. But an odd technical quirk prevented IO doing it.

As Abrak explains: "The reason why it's coming together now and not back then is because when we split from Square Enix [in 2017], they had the publisher ID in the backend with Sony. So some of these things we could do on one platform, but we couldn't do on the other platforms. So we had to split it up and call it Hitman 2."

As with any big change, there was concern. Fans weren't sure about the episodic idea. Some journalists were "cautiously optimistic", Elverdam remembers, but within the Hitman community, opinions ranged all the way to, "Is this a hoax - what are you doing? Why are you only doing one episodic release?"

Ian takes on Hitman World of Assassination's fancy new Freelancer mode.Watch on YouTube

But as people got to play Hitman 2016, opinions changed. "Hitman rediscovers its agency in this strong start for IO's episodic series," Edwin Evans-Thirlwell wrote in his Eurogamer Hitman review. He then added, when he reviewed the entire first season of Hitman, "With six episodes under its belt, Hitman has proven itself to be a decadent, deadly comeback for IO Interactive."

Everdam adds: "I recall this sense that it went from people asking, 'What the hell are you doing?' To people saying, 'That's great - this is an amazing way to take Hitman. It's such a good game.' We won Game of the Year. It felt surreal to go from so much doubt to so much praise."

Yet, significant turbulence lay ahead. In May 2017, Square Enix made the surprise announcement it was going to sell IO to refocus on other games and studios. But months passed and no buyer emerged, with a similar consequence: lay-offs.

That's when Abrak and Elverdam took matters into their own hands and engineered the remarkable management buyout of IO, returning the studio to independence while retaining the rights to the Hitman IP in the process.

"When we did the management buyout, there were some difficult conditions and things looked really, really bleak, honestly."

It was a fraught existence for a while. Warner Bros. published Hitman 2, which felt more like an expansion pack than full sequel, but around it, an audience was building. Hitman's sandbox, assassinate-your-way approach, and its revitalised sense of fun and humour, resonated with streamers. And by time Hitman 3 came around, this time self-published by IO, the audience was already there. Hitman 3 quickly became the best-selling game in the series, and IO boasted that more than 50 million people had played the trilogy worldwide.

"It feels like we came home to the franchise," Elverdam says, reflecting on that period.

"Hitman is a complex game, and being autonomous and setting your own goals, even failing, is something that is not for all people. Some people just like less of a challenge, more easily understood goals, or at least more gradually escalated goals, whereas Hitman is like, 'no, no' - it's unfiltered free choice, in many ways."

It took Absolution for IO to realise that the mainstream approach, "that's not Hitman", and the refocused Hitman trilogy cemented this. "I think we're more deliberate [now]. We know who we are. We don't want to go so wide that we ruin what is actually our reason to exist. That's where we found our bedrock over these years."

IO is in a very different place now to where it was even a handful of years ago. Today, the studio is hiring for multiple projects, including for an prestigious James Bond game, which will potentially be the beginning of a whole new IO James Bond saga, and for an ambitious online fantasy RPG. And it's spread across three physical locations: Malmo, Barcelona and Copenhagen.

"I mean, I'm feeling absolutely amazing about it," Hakan Abrak says, beaming. "That's the first thing.

"[But it's] sometimes difficult to digest it because as you said, we're coming from a point where it was difficult. When we did the management buyout, there were some difficult conditions and things looked really, really bleak, honestly. We were a-hundred-and-seventy-eight people and surviving, because we literally had three months of runway before we would go bankrupt. So part of it was, unfortunately, to let go of almost half of the workforce - team members. And there were no guarantees that we would make it.

Ian had the enviable chance to meet iconic Agent 47 actor David Bateson a few years ago. Let's hope he doesn't ask the wrong question, eh?Watch on YouTube

"And the day of defeat went from three months to four months to five months. The vision we had, the plan we had, the team believing in each other, in us on the road ahead - we pulled it off. And getting from there to a point where not only did we survive, but we are like two-hundred-and-almost-eighty people today, and we are in three different studios, and who knows, maybe there's going to be some other studios announced sometime soon as well..."

"And it's not about survival now," he adds. "It's about spreading our wings with other titles as well. Hitman will always be, as you said, intertwined with with IO Interactive, but we've done IPs before, and we have an unannounced project [the online fantasy game], we have Bond we're working on, so it's also absolutely amazing that besides the Hitman franchise that we absolutely love, we can also spread our creative wings and and expand a bit on the things that we want to achieve.

"Sometimes I have to ask myself, 'Is this really happening?'" he adds. "Yes it is, and it just feels really good."

"Right now a major, major new Hitman game: that's a little bit on hiatus..."

As for what happens with Hitman now we've come full-circle to the implementation of the World of Assasination, and to the end of the trilogy: well, it's both a beginning and an end, of sorts.

The World of Assassination will continue to grow and expand, as was always intended, and a good example of how can be seen in the considerable new Roguelike Freelancer mode. This came from watching how players played the game and riffing off of them, so to speak - and the studio wants to do this more.

"I hope we can have our cake and eat it too," Elverdam says, "in the sense that we have such a wonderful platform where we can keep experimenting with what the formula can do and what people expect of it. And then at some point, obviously, as any creative, it would be nice to then go in and say, 'Okay, well, with everything we've learned, what would that be if we had to re-articulate a sandbox - what would that look like?'"

But in terms of an actual new game - the kind of thing Elverdam is insinuating at the end there - Hitman is, I'm afraid, on hold.

"Right now a major, major new Hitman game: that's a little bit on hiatus," Elverdam says, "as we're building another agent fantasy that's also taking up a lot of our time." He means Bond of course - we talk a bit about it in the fuller interview. "But obviously we'll come back to beloved Agent 47. He's still very much in the heart of this company."

The next decade will be very different for IO Interactive than the one that's just been.

Oh, by the way, that full podcast interview with IO's Christian Elverdam and Hakan Abrak is available now wherever you listen to podcasts. Look for "Eurogamer Podcasts". Alternatively, you can watch or listen to it in this article instead.