What Lessons Can Modern Games Learn From Hitman?
As I was sitting down to write my review for 2016’s Hitman (here), it occurred to me that the developers, Io-Interactive, did some really cool things along the way that helped me rethink the way that modern games are released and rolled out.
Before we begin, let’s do a bit of a mental exercise. Think back, if you will, into the not so distant past. How many games can you think of within the last year that were simply fraught with issues during their release? How many offered game-altering microtransactions that punished the casual player? How many games were stuck in alpha hell for years, begging fans to fund them while more often than not rewarding those who waited for the full release? How many games charged blatantly exorbitant prices for half-finished content? How many of those games then turned around, only to roll out DLC content months later for an added fee, as if it were their birthright? I can count more than these two hands of mine allow, and if the temperature of the consumer market is anything, we gamers are beginning to get tired of it.
This isn’t representative of every video game out there; some games, such as Rocket League and Overwatch, have done an excellent job of remaining economically viable by offering players cosmetic microtransactions in return for a couple bucks while not affecting the gameplay (meaning they’re entirely optional). And, from the looks of things, this model seems to be working for plenty of companies, both small and large. The fact remains, however, that the majority of AAA game companies prefer the former methods of release, sucking as much cash as possible from the average gamer while providing dwindling returns.
In the midst of all this, a new model has been emerging, a model that I’d like to discuss in terms of the newest Hitman. Throughout this piece, I will be exploring Hitman’s rollout, covering the good, the bad, the nitty, and the gritty. What did it do right? What did it do wrong? What was interesting and unique? What was downright stupid? Let’s find out!
Like many games these days, Hitman did not see a traditional release, where all of the game’s content is released simultaneously as one package. At the same time, Hitman did not follow the modern trend where the base game is released as a standalone chunk, followed later by DLC content. Instead, it was released in six different installments, kind of like the way the newest King’s Quest was released back in 2015.
The first installment, or episode, gives some insight into how the iconic Agent 47 gets himself involved with the events of this game, while giving the player two mini missions that serve as tutorials for how the rest of the game will work. The complete Paris episode comes bundled with the first installment. After that, five more episodes were released over the course of many months, each of them deepening the central game mechanics while giving the player fresh and exotic locations ripe for exploration and committing acts of cold-blooded murder.
The catch is, you don’t have to buy all of them; each episode is available individually on the PlayStation Store for about 14 bucks. This innovative decision gave players who weren’t sure about what they were buying a chance to decide whether Hitman was the game for them or not. If you’re intrigued by the concept of Hitman but just aren’t sure, you can pick up the first episode (which has a ton of content on its own) and, if you don’t like it, avoid that dreaded buyer’s remorse that comes with so many ill-conceived gaming purchases.
Of course, that isn’t particularly ideal, since buying each episode individually will run you about $80 all told. That’s why the developers included the option to buy the episodes in bulk, charging the standard $60. There’s no simple solution to this, since the unsure gamer will inevitably pay more if they end up wanting the full game, but I think Hitman did a fairly decent job at keeping its pricing fair.
So, every couple of months, the developers at Io-Interactive continued to roll their game out. Each episode had a set release date, and people who bought them had full access to all of their content. As the episodes were released, small gameplay adjustments were made along the way, giving the developers full control of their product during the release process and allowing for corrections in real time. This was perhaps the coolest feature of Hitman’s rollout, and I really enjoyed the process of watching the game come into its own.
In concept, this is all well and good, but in reality Hitman hit a couple of snags along the way. First off, the release of the first chapter was delayed, developers citing the fact that it would allow them to release more content. The consequence was that each subsequent episode was released later than Io-Interactive probably planned on, and there were even episodes after that that were delayed, which was mildly annoying at the least for those of us who already paid full price for the game.
This is a little concerning, but certainly not outside of the realm of credibility, since game developers are notorious for giving misleading or false information regarding release dates. So how did Io-Interactive respond to this?
Well, they proceeded to release loads of free extra content. New challenges, optional assassinations, a dynamic difficulty mode, and even three (count em, three) complete mini missions are featured in the bonus content that offers hours and hours of playtime outside of the game’s main features. Think about that. Under no obligation to do such a thing, Io-Interactive elected to dish out countless hours of extra stuff just because they could. There’s so much extra content, I haven’t even looked at it all, focused still on completing the material available in the main game. In an era where developers are assailing gamers for their cash, Io-Interactive’s generous approach is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Let’s get this out of the way: The base game is huge. If you were to completely ignore all of the extra content, you would still have plenty to keep you busy if you want to experience everything. There are six full episodes, each of them with plenty of content to keep both the casual and the more hardcore gamer hard at work. I’ve sunk countless hours into this game, and I am still far from anywhere near 100% completion. At the same time, Hitman doesn’t force you to do all this stuff in order to experience its content and unlockables, striking a good compromise between attracting both completionist and more casual gamers. Taking this into consideration, it becomes doubly impressive that any sort of free content was offered at all.
Okay, so we’ve gone over quite a few of the pros, but what about the cons? Hitman did a wonderful job with its rollout, but there were still a couple of things that left a little more to be desired. As mentioned earlier, Io-Interactive bit off a little more than it could chew along the way, which resulted in delays for some of the episodes. Aside from this, probably the most egregious thing about this game is that in order to accent virtually any of the content, you are forced to remain online.
I have mixed feelings about this, but it mostly comes out negative. My best guess is that players are required to remain online in order to verify high scores, as well as to prevent cheating and content stealing. These are probably fair and valid reasons to require an online check-in, but it just sucks. The game’s website maintains that you only need to be online for the live events, but this is inconstistent with my experience. For just about all of the challenges in the main missions, my progress would not be recorded if I were offline, because they were simply unavailable. Maybe they consider everything live content? I dunno.
So if your wifi or internet isn’t working for whatever reason, boom. No more Hitman. There was actually a time when the PlayStation servers went down for a day, which was no fault of my own. Boom. No more Hitman. Why? Hitman is a single player game. Players shouldn’t be forced to maintain an internet connection just to access the content that they purchased. I cited cheating and content stealing as possible reasons, but not many other single player games do this kind of thing, so I’m really just baffled here. Out of all of the good things that Hitman’s rollout offered us, this just sticks out like a sore thumb.
Granted, some of these features have since been rolled back. For example, you can now access all of your unlocked items without being online now, but this only seems like a minor fix to me, since you still can’t save your progress towards challenges. Now that the full game is out, people who buy the disc may not have the same experience.
In an age where game developers are ever-zealously extracting more and more cash from gamers, Hitman offers a breath of fresh air. And this isn’t even to say anything about the gameplay (which is phenomenal). Eschewing the modern formula of ‘base game+paid DLC’, Hitman elected to release its game in installments, offering a compromise that should satisfy both devout and casual fans of the series, allowing unsure gamers options to try the game out while not punishing those who want to pay for the full game right away.
Along the way, this format has allowed Io-Interactive to tweak and update their game in real time as the community explored the ramifications of gameplay as a whole. Arriving at the ground floor of a game like Hitman really gave me the feeling that I was witnessing a video game powerhouse grow and come into its own.
Hitman’s rollout was not without its flaws. Hitting a couple of snags along the way, some of the episodes were released later than originally slated. Barring that, the most egregious offender by far was the bizarre choice to require players to stay online in order to access certain parts of the content. Perhaps there’s a reason for it, but it’s just so aggravating.
That said, I think Hitman’s handling of its rollout has plenty of lessons to teach many modern games out there. In this world full of money-hungry releases that seem hell-bent on robbing the average player, it really is refreshing to see a game like Hitman that puts service to its fans above all else.
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