Last month’s announcement that assassin would stick to an episodic release format, in which new locations and missions are released each month, was greeted with an understandable degree of ire from an audience expecting to get their hands on a full product in March. While episodic structures are nothing new at this point, the decision is to change assassin to an episodic release just two months prior to launch raised questions. Why was this not communicated earlier? Is the game not finished? Will players eventually get all previously promised content? Does it benefit the consumer?
Like Hans Seifert, studio head at assassin developer IO Interactive tells Ars that going episodic wasn’t a last-minute decision, at least from a development standpoint.
“We started talking about it when we were done Absolution [in 2012]actually,” says Seifert. “It took six years Hit man blood money and Hitman: Absoluteand we thought this was too long a period of time to respond to any feedback we had from behind Blood money. After all, every game is a child of its time. Customizing the game after it has been released has become increasingly important. If you look at the current games out there, some of them have a very long lifespan. Many of these didn’t rely on adding content over time, but the game itself has been tweaked post-release. Then there are episodic games that do add new content, but the game itself hasn’t necessarily changed or improved.”
Seifert’s plan with assassin circa-2016 is to have the best of both worlds: modifying the game’s underlying formation over time and adding new content to it. This, Seifert says, has potentially more impact than trying to rework or upgrade something launched as a standalone product. Instead of spending time figuring out what the public likes and dislikes about a game, and then releasing a patch to address such feedback and possibly undo work already done, releasing bits and pieces of a game that timely feedback can more easily be introduced into the development cycle.
But that doesn’t mean players will see it that way – and Seifert knows it. assassin is not an “episodic” game, he says, but – buzzword alarms at the ready – is instead a “platform”. Or that means assassin will enjoy the kind of long-term support a true platform needs remains to be seen.
“We want to create a platform for assassin and I know that’s controversial,” Seifert tells me. “Many people have said, ‘why don’t you wait to ship the game?’ My answer to that is we ship the game at the end of the season. So if you’re a traditional player, you can buy it on disc at the end of 2016, if you want to. No one is stopping you from doing that, but why should the people who want to travel with us have to wait for all this time to pass?
Whenever we ship a game, we think it’s the best possible assassin game we could have done. That is of course also the case this time: we think that is the best possible assassin game we can now. But you know what? That is not always true. There are sometimes things that you don’t realize can be improved until you see people play, and we can now make those improvements thanks to this episodic structure.”
The other problem is the price. In this era of free-to-play and subscription models, discounted early access and episodic releases such as assassin means players don’t have to part with a significant chunk of cash up front for a game they might not necessarily enjoy.
“[That’s] something I’ve personally wanted to solve for a long time: how we make a triple-A accessible to people who can’t spend $60 [£40] on day one… and for those people who don’t want to spend $60 on day one. Still, the promise remains that if you spend $60, you get absolutely everything. We won’t have microtransactions and we won’t have additional DLC. The entire season is a $60 offer, but there are several ways to buy that.
However, change sometimes encounters resistance. The first assassin release, Hitman: Codename 47, arrived in 2000. As such, the series has a 16-year relationship with its audience, and some of those fans will fear major changes to the series they love.
“When you’re doing something new and groundbreaking, it’s natural for people to scrutinize us, and I think that’s only fair,” says Seifert. “That goes for anything when you’re trying to change something as entrenched and as old as assassin. After so many years, people have certain expectations. We do try to live up to those expectations, but we also know that we have to do something to move into the future. release [the game] in this way we open up to so many more opportunities than we have had in the past. Those opportunities are for the players and for us as developers.”
So the message seems to be that progress isn’t always easy, but the end result makes any pain worth it.
Success will depend on how IO Interactive manages itself. The studio has no real history of maintaining a game post-release, and nothing major has been released in the form of downloadable content or significant additions to existing products. That needs to change, at least in the medium term, to continue providing players with monthly content. The production cycle will no longer involve a crazy crunch in the months leading up to a release, followed by a period of downtime before development on the next project begins.
“When we get to March 11, our stressful period really starts,” Seifert anticipates, “because this approach is more like running a TV show or a newspaper. You always have to do something and keep working to keep up with the promises we made.”
If the game is a success, the plan seems to continue with the game assassin platform in the long run. The idea is that what Seifert calls “season one” will wrap up at the end of 2016, with each of the monthly locations having a storyline that works in isolation as well as a year-long plot. That will be just the beginning, he hopes. Past assassin games tend to kill off characters quickly, which is understandable given the series’ premise, but now the writing team needs a longer-term vision to keep players engaged.
Seifert wouldn’t be interested in how long the story could go on, or how many episodes there could be.
“If we keep our plan, we need to know what we’re doing during the year. If we were to make a plan for the next five years, our promises would fail, because that’s too long. It’s a time for us to structure and it wouldn’t allow us to listen to and respond to what the audience wants. The further we go into the first season, the more we can respond to all the information we’ve been given up to that point.”