When Hitman 3 recently changed its name to Hitman World of Assassination, I had no idea how significant that moment was. From the outside it looked very simple: Hitman 3 would now be known by its new name and would include levels from Hitman and Hitman 2, uniting the trilogy into a single game. But inside, at IO Interactive, there was much more going on.
World of Assassination is the culmination of a decade-long plan, one that has survived many turmoil within the company. He survived an ownership transfer during which Hitman’s entire future was called into question. But all the while the vision was there, a vision of what Hitman could be and what the World of Assassination is.
The story begins with the release and reception of Hitman Absolution in 2012. It was the first Hitman in a few years, and expectations were very high. But it failed, and fond memories of 2006’s Hitman Blood Money seemed distant.
“That game didn’t sit well with our audience,” said Christian Elverdam, creative director and co-owner of IO Interactive. “A lot of Hitman fans said ‘well, this isn’t a Hitman game’.” Or worse: “We had some fans who doubted we’d be able to make more Hitman.”
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Elverdam understands. The wild years that followed Hitman: Blood Money caused anger among IO fans. Those times were dominated by Kane & Lynch, a new IP that bet on ultraviolence and left behind any hint of subtlety. The first Kane & Lynch, Dead Men, wasn’t bad, but the campaign was short and in the end left many feeling like a missed opportunity. The 2011 sequel, Kane & Lynch: Dog Days, was much worse. Both failed commercially, and the mass-market game that IO published between them, Mini Ninjas, did little to improve the situation.
IO was having difficulties because of this. It was acquired by Eidos in 2004 and later, in 2009, Eidos was acquired by Square Enix. Both acquisitions led to changes in leadership and management, as well as restructuring processes. To top it off, Microsoft canceled an unannounced game IO was working on. The result: layoffs. A significant and demoralizing number of layoffs.
This is the stage IO was in when Absolution was released, and why its apparent failure hurt so much. The stakes were high. However, Christian Elverdam still believes that Absolution “is fundamentally a good stealth game” and says that much of what the studio learned while creating it can be seen today in World of Assassination. Either way, both he and IO understood that something needed to change.
So IO canceled everything that wasn’t Hitman, including Kane & Lynch, and set about defining Hitman’s future. It was the year 2013; Elverdam was promoted to the studio’s creative director to lead these changes, and Hakan Abrak, then production director, would assist him. Abrak, interestingly enough, is now the CEO and the other co-owner of IO.
What ideas did you have for the future of Hitman? One was a change in tone. Elverdam has long wanted to “change the feel of the Hitman universe to be something more ambitious and humorous,” he explains. “From the start, you’re a top-notch assassin. You get a sense of being the best of the best, and you get to travel the world, which to me is an ambitious fantasy.”
Humor, or satire, was another key ingredient they wanted to add to the formula. “When we say it now, it seems like a very self-evident thing,” he tells us, “a good place to go with Hitman. But then there was a lot of skepticism and doubt, both internally and externally.”
The big idea, though, was a grand, unified vision of Hitman as a platform that would continually expand. The World of Assassination.
“To illustrate…” explains Elverdam, “we just celebrated the release of Freelancer, and one of the producers who’s been a big part of that content has retrieved a 2013 video called Hitman: The World from the old archives. of Assassination”.
World of Assassination therefore existed in both idea form and name as early as 2013.
“We make these videos to inspire us and talk about where we want to go,” he adds. “And in that video it says… this is the first time we’re calling this ever-expanding, dangerous world the World of Assassination, where targets pop up and new arenas unlock and everything.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing to see it now because he used all kinds of weird devices, and we had to beg and borrow and steal to get it all together. But a lot of what’s being said in that video is really what brought this whole thing together.” Trinity”.
“Is this a scam? What are you doing? Why are you only doing an episodic release?”
In other words, the approach was “to change the formula from monolithic releases with a cadence of five to six years to have that heart and constantly be out there,” explains Elverdam.
“The idea then was that it was a single executable”, adds Abrak. “Imagine something like World of Warcraft, but for single-player games, like a service, where those things would expand and add new settings.”
The first manifestation of this was the fact that 2016’s Hitman was an episodic title, a game that would expand over time. And, as Abrak points out, the original idea was for a single Hitman to grow and grow, not that there would be a Hitman 2 and 3. But a strange technical impediment prevented IO from being able to make that happen.
Abrak explains that “the reason everything fits together now and not before is because when we parted ways with Square Enix [en 2017], they had an identifier like publisher in Sony’s backend. So some of these things we could only do on one platform, but not others. We had to split it up and call it Hitman 2.”
As is often the case with major changes, there was some concern. Fans weren’t sold on the idea of the episodes. Some journalists were “cautiously optimistic”, recalls Elverdam, but within the Hitman community opinions varied to the point where people thought “this is a scam, what are you doing? Why are you only doing an episodic release?”?
But when people played 2016’s Hitman, opinions changed radically.
Elverdam recalls having “this weird feeling that people went from asking what the hell we were doing to saying it was great, that it was a fantastic take on Hitman, that it was a great game. We won Game of the Year. It was surreal.” ” go from so many doubts to so much applause”.
However, the turmoil was not over. In May 2017, Square Enix made a surprise announcement of its intention to sell IO to focus on other games and other studios. Months passed and no buyers emerged, with the expected result: more layoffs.
That’s when Abrak and Elverdam got to work and came up with the plan to buy IO, giving the studio back its independence while retaining the rights to the Hitman franchise.
“When we made the purchase there were some tough conditions and things really looked pretty bad, really.”
For a while, it was a fragile existence. Warner Bros. released Hitman 2, which felt more like an expansion than a full sequel, but a community was starting to form around it. Hitman’s approach to sandboxing and his fresh sense of humor and fun resonated with streamers. And when Hitman 3 came out, this time already published by IO itself, the public was already there. Hitman 3 quickly became the most successful installment in the series, and IO is proud to say that over fifty million people have played the trilogy worldwide.
“It feels like we went back to the franchise,” explains Elverdam, looking back on that era.
“Hitman is a complex game, and being autonomous and setting your own goals, even if you fail, is not for everyone. Some people want less challenges, goals that are more easily understood, or at least goals that escalate more gradually, whereas Hitman it’s unfiltered freedom of choice, in many ways.”
Acquittal was necessary for IO to discover the mass approach, and the Hitman trilogy laid the groundwork for that. “I think we’re more deliberate now. We know who we are. We don’t want to ruin the reason we exist. That’s where we found our foundation, during those years.”
IO is now in a very different place than it was a few years ago. Today, the studio is recruiting for several projects, including a prestigious James Bond game that could be the start of a new saga and an ambitious online fantasy RPG. And expanded to three physical locations: Malmo, Barcelona and Copenhagen.
“Honestly, I feel really good about it,” enthuses Abrak. “That’s first.”
“But sometimes it’s hard to digest because, like you said, we came from a point where it was tough. When we made the purchase, there were some tough conditions and things really looked pretty bad, really. We had one hundred and seventy-eight people and We survived because we literally had three months to spare before we went bankrupt. Part of that, unfortunately, was laying off almost half of the team, team members. And there was no guarantee that we were going to do that.”
“And the day of defeat went from three months to four months and then to five months. The vision we had, the plan we had, the team believed in itself, in us and that we would make it. we just survived, but now we’re almost 280 people and three studios… and who knows, there might be announcements from other studios soon too.”
“And it’s not surviving anymore,” he adds. “She is spreading our wings with other titles. Hitman will always be, as you say, tied to IO Interactive, but we’ve done other IPs before and we have an unannounced project. [el RPG online de fantasía]the James Bond game we’re working on, so it’s really great that in addition to the Hitman franchise, which we love, we can also spread our creative wings to other things that we want to achieve.”
“Sometimes I have to ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?'” he admits. “And yes, it’s happening and it feels really good.”
“Right now a big new Hitman game… it’s kind of on hiatus.”
As for what’s going to happen with Hitman now that we’ve come full circle with the implementation of World of Assassination and the end of the trilogy… well, it’s both a beginning and an end, in a way.
The World of Assassination will continue to grow and expand, as was always intended, and a good example of this can be seen in the new roguelike mode Freelancer. That came from seeing how players played, and the studio wants to do more of that.
“Hopefully we can have our cake and eat it,” says Elverdam, “in the sense that we have a wonderful platform where we can continue to experiment with the formula and do what people expect from it. And then, at a certain point, obviously, like any creative, it’s going to be nice to say ‘ok, well with everything we’ve learned, what if we revamped the sandbox, what would that look like’.”
But as far as a new game goes, which Elverdam seems to hint at there, I’m afraid Hitman is on hiatus right now.
“Right now, a big new Hitman game…it’s kind of on hold,” acknowledges Elverdam, “because we’re working on another fantasy with an agent that’s taking up too much of our time.” He refers to Bond, of course, “but obviously we’re going back to the beloved Agent 47. He’s still at the heart of this company.”
What is clear is that the next decade will be very different for IO Interactive than this last one.
Translated by Josep Maria Sempere.