The first time I murdered Viktor Novikov, I shot him in the back of the head whilst dressed as his bodyguard. Watching his limp corpse twitch on the ground, I found myself reflecting that a prime, grade-A scumbag like Novikov deserved a far more ignominious death. The next time we met, I drowned him in a toilet filled with his own vomit. That was much more fitting — and satisfying.
IO Interactive’s 2016 Hitman is a great game. In fact, one might even be so bold as to say the game is the best iteration of the franchise since Blood Money, way back in 2006. Nonetheless, the initial excitement surrounding Hitman’s announcement at E3 2015 was swiftly overshadowed by ‘controversy’ when the developer revealed the game would be released episodically, rather than as a single, complete game. Many people at the time complained about paying full-price for a game that would be delivered piecemeal. However, when the game eventually released, one thing became clear almost immediately: the decision to go episodic had created one of the best Hitman titles in the franchise’s venerable history. Here, OnlySP discusses why that decision was so brilliant, and why IO Interactive may have made a mistake in reverting back to a single release for Hitman 2.
The Hitman series has always been about exploration and experimentation and in this regard 2016’s Hitman is no different. While players can simply run in, guns blazing, killing anything that moves, the game’s mechanics and rewards favour a more measured approach. In each level, 47’s targets can be expunged in myriad ways, with players left to discover the many different possibilities for themselves. A large part of the player’s satisfaction comes from setting into motion a complex chain of events that leads to a target’s elaborate demise. Hitman’s episodic release played perfectly into this style of play.
The unfortunate truth is that many players never finish the games they start. In fact, the number of gamers completing the final level of any given game has been put as low as only 10%. With the average gamer today being in their mid 30’s, real life commitments and responsibilities mean that many gamers simply do not have the time necessary to fully complete a game that stretches beyond a couple of hours. High bounce rate is also affected by the fact that many gamers also have a long list of games yet to even be started; an issue so pervasive as to have spawned entire websites dedicated to helping gamers clear their backlogs.
In practice, what all this means is that gamers have a tendency to try to get through a game as quickly as possible, so as to move on to the next game on the list. Sometimes that process might mean simply getting close to the end and considering it ‘done’. The Witcher 3, as an example, is one of my favourite games of all time but about 30 hours into it, and with the ‘end’ nowhere in sight, I had to move on to something else. Most gamers need to have a sense that the game they are playing is realistically completable in the given time they have free in which to play. If the perceived ‘end’ feels out of reach, 90% simply stop playing and move on to the next game.
Considering Hitman then, a time-conscious player buying the game today could probably whizz through it in a matter of hours if they adopted the trigger-happy method mentioned before. However, that is not how Hitman was designed to be played and those who bought the game as it released, episode by episode, would have had a totally different experience. By only having one level to play for a whole month, players were able to complete it without feeling like they needed to rush through to get to the next level. The periodic release meant that players had the time to really explore each location, picking the level apart, piece by piece, and then using all that knowledge to fatal effect.
A case in point: attempting a suit-only, double sniper kill in the Sapienza mission. One way of doing so involves heading straight to the church and hiding in the morgue to steal the laptop key from the mourning scientist before heading back into town to wake the sleeping private investigator. After that, players work their way into the sewers to retrieve the sniper rifle they had the ICA plant for them ahead of time and then sneak back into the church and up to the top of the tower. From there, they can shoot out the power transformer of Villa Caruso’s telescope observatory, opening the observatory and causing one of their targets to make his way there to look through the telescope. If they have timed this right, the player can then snipe target one as he is looking through the telescope and target two as she waits to meet the P.I. on the pier. Finally, the player can run down to the beach and, avoiding the searching guards, snatch the lab keycard from target two’s corpse, sneak into the secret lab via the hidden entrance, destroy the virus with the stolen laptop key, and escape via the boat in the harbour without ever having been seen.
Of course, pulling off a double-hit like this requires an intimate knowledge of both the layout of the level and the mechanics at play, which only comes from many hours spent exploring the map, watching the NPCs, learning the patterns, and experimenting with the systems. Sure, players could simply storm Villa Caruso with an automatic shotgun and a couple of explosive rubber ducks, but that would not provide nearly the same level of satisfaction as having manipulated all of the game’s systems into doing their diabolical bidding. Instead, players were encouraged to take their time and to play — not simply to finish, but to discover. For players coming to the game as a single release, able to jump straight to the next mission, a large number of them would likely never devote the amount of time necessary to carry out some of the more complex and satisfying kills in Hitman.
The episodic release of Hitman harkens back to a golden age of gaming, when a player might have reasonably expected to not only finish a game, but to try to uncover every last secret that it held. Whether discovering the secret shortcut through the Labyrinth Zone in Sonic The Hedgehog, working out how to fire the tank shells without the tank in Goldeneye 64, or figuring out how to beat Reptile in Mortal Kombat, delving deep into a game and working out what makes it tick has always been part of what makes gaming great. In today’s gaming landscape, where titles can stretch into the hundreds of hours, some of the magic of exploration and discovery is being lost.
All this is not to say that Hitman 2 is not a great game; it is. Mechanically, Hitman 2 is every bit as enjoyable to play as its predecessor. The problem is that, since IO Interactive ditched the episodic release this time around, all the levels have been available since launch day. For the reasons already stated, my worry is that many players will not stick around long enough to really get to know each level. Considering that Hitman 2 released just after the Halloween sales and right before the huge Black Friday Sales, anyone picking up the game likely also has a slew of other titles waiting for them. One can hardly blame them if they choose not to spend six hours completing every challenge on each level before moving to the next.
That really is quite a shame, not only because they may be potentially missing out on the satisfaction of setting up some of the game’s more convoluted hits, but also because some of the hard work of the developer may be going to waste. How many players remember the guy at the Swedish embassy in Hitman, trying desperately to assemble the IKEA chair? He had nothing to do with the mission; he was just great background content. How much will players be missing if they rush through Hitman 2 before jumping to the next game? Dedicated fans, of course, will absolutely put in the time to hunt down all the hidden secrets in Hitman 2, but 90% of players will likely move on before they even complete the whole game.
Episodically released games give players the smaller, bite-sized experiences they need in order to feel like they can comfortably complete them, while also allowing more time for each level to be fully explored. Each episode builds on the last, eventually resulting in a whole, fully-formed, multi-hour title, which players who prefer a ready-fire-aim approach can then plough through and tick another title off their Steam list.
Obviously, not every game is suited to be broken up into episodes. One cannot imagine any scenario in which an episodic Assassin’s Creed or Elder Scrolls would be a good idea. Games that feature sprawling, story-driven narratives would not, generally, work but a number of examples could have absolutely benefited from being released in smaller, more concise bites. The Sniper Elite games for instance, which centre around tightly built levels in which there are often multiple ways of achieving an objective, could totally make a success out of an episodic release. Dishonored is another, where intricate locations provide a veritable playground for players to explore and experiment as they look for the perfect way to kill their targets. What about the rumoured Splinter Cell supposedly in development? Could Sam Fisher make a successful jump to episodic? I believe he could.
The popularity of episodic games such as Life is Strange, Kentucky Route Zero, and pretty much anything by Telltale Games, shows that players are keen on these smaller, shorter, more concise experiences. So far, indie developers have mostly been tasked with providing for these players. As we head into 2019 and beyond, perhaps the time has come for the larger companies to start thinking about ways to make games more approachable to those who do not have 100 hours spare for conquering ancient Greece?
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