Hitman’s fate proves there’s no bloody justice in the world

By Alex Donaldson, Thursday, 11 May 2017 10:21 GMT

Agent 47 deserved better than this.

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Well, this came out of nowhere. Square Enix is putting Hitman developer IO Interactive up for sale. IO will now be looking for another publisher to pick them up. With the owner of the IP selling off the series’ creator and custodian, in all likelihood Hitman is dead.

Like, what?! It’s hard to believe. But then, when you take a step back, it isn’t so hard to see. It’s just heartbreaking, and in a way is proof there’s no bloody justice at all.

Hitman was my favourite game of last year. It’s a clever, brilliant sandbox. Every level is an intricate rube goldberg machine where one interaction on your part will ripple through the level and change it in fascinating ways. That leads to more opportunities to pull off hits – some brutal, some silly, some expedient and some, of course, hilarious. It is fantastic. It was also sadly sort of doomed from the start.

“Hitman was my favourite game of last year. It is fantastic. It was also sadly sort of doomed from the start.”

Hitman 2016 had a rocky start. It was announced without much mention of its structure beyond talk of a “post launch content plan”, but then a month later IO Interactive stepped up in a statement. “What we release on December 8 is not the full game,” it said. You’d pay full price but get it in chunks. That was confusing enough, and it just got messier. The game became episodic. The game missed its December release, then launched digitally alongside a physical collectors edition that contained no disc. A disc wouldn’t come out until the next year entirely. It was a messaging shambles.

And it didn’t get any better; what was included on day one was shrunk from around half the game to about a quarter of it. There were cumbersome explanations of what the ‘live content’ of the game was. Writing it all out like this reminds me that, yeah, Hitman turned out well but was a bloody mess in the run-up. Crikey.

To be honest, all of this felt very Square Enix and in keeping with stories I’ve heard over the years about chopping and changing through development of games such as Deus Ex or Just Cause. It is without doubt one of the most confused publishers, with a habit of jumping on trends before fully understanding them. When those trends don’t pan out, it’s quick to second guess itself and pedal back. This is mostly true of the Western side of the company, of course. Square Enix Japan is quite happy to pump millions into bloated development cycles and stuff like dubious quality CG spin-off movies that shore up a game’s messy plot.

Hitman was a classic case of that search for the next big thing. Episodic was the buzz word, but nobody had been able to apply it to a large-scale game properly. Square wanted to have a crack, which I think was admirable and wise. To its credit Square and IO actually got there and delivered something that I feel is a glimpse of a potential future for games like Hitman. I actually think Hitman 2016 is a bit of a masterpiece, and its strange release schedule and structure actually enhanced the game rather than hamstrung it.

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There are multiple other games and genres I’d happily buy and play in this manner if delivered so strongly – but arguably by the time IO and Square actually found their feet with Hitman the damage was already done.

There are other factors at play too, of course. There’s a general slow struggle for the soul and survival of single-player only games happening right now (even Square’s Final Fantasy 15 is adding multiplayer features later this year) and I’ve no doubt Hitman was a victim of that. The episodic structure is something difficult for the press to cover, something I think personified in how the Hitman 2016 episodes all hover around the 70 mark on metacritic when this is in no way a 7/10 game. That’s something we need to think about some more.

The main factor was that confused messaging, however, and the fact that the market perhaps just wasn’t yet ready for this structure. I do think for some types of games it’s the future though, and I’ve defended this sort of thing in the past talking about Street Fighter’s season-based character addition structure and the like. I think it works.

“Square Enix is without doubt one of the most confused publishers, with a habit of jumping on trends before fully understanding them.”

That’s the saddest thing of all, honestly: Hitman felt like it was just getting started. Yes, Hitman 2016 wasn’t as strong as hoped, but it had potential. The game was a social hit, too – places like Outside Xbox and Giant Bomb created communities around streams of those games. It seemed like a game ready to be swept up into that streaming culture with its mad antics – but it never quite found the momentum to turn into a massive seller.

The team were talking about a three-season master plan for the game, and much as I argued that Capcom need to rerelease Street Fighter 5 with the added content from the last 2 years I think rereleases of Hitman as new seasons got underway could’ve helped the game to catch up and sink its claws into a mainstream audience.

That now most likely won’t happen. Though Hitman wasn’t as successful as hoped, in a bumper year for Square earnings-wise I’m surprised it didn’t decide to take the hit and let IO ride out at least one more season to see where it goes. But it’s backing out. I’m more disappointed than angry, but I also understand: despite selling over 3 million, Hitman Absolution also failed to reach Square’s targets back in 2013. That’s two swings and two misses, one deserved and one not. Hitman has now been put on the dusty shelf, alongside Deus Ex and Thief.

All eyes are now on what happens to IO. There are jobs at stake and it’s a good studio with a strong vision – it would be a good buy for many publishers. Long may it continue, and I’m eager to see what it does next.

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