A discussion on what it takes to make an effective sandbox.
Hitman looks to be a refreshing return to form for a franchise that many have feared had lost its way recently. But after the disappointing Hitman Absolution, the upcoming game, simply titled Hitman, is a refreshing ‘back to basics’ approach for the franchise- it’s a game that isn’t afraid to empower the player, giving them powerful, flexible tools, and then letting them figure out what to do with them.
Just yesterday, we sat down with IO Interactive’s Christian Elverdam, to discuss the upcoming game, and how IO Interactive approached its development after the generally disappointingly received Absolution. Along the way, we managed to learn a lot about how IO approached the development of a sandbox stealth game, while still delivering focused stealth mechanics.
"We have a living game- we can work with the game that people are playing as they are playing it."
Okay, so first off, I wanted to ask you, the tone of the new game has changed significantly from the gritty noir look of Absolution.
It’s more exotic, and it’s not just the aesthetic, the entire game’s tone seems to have changed dramatically from Absolution. I’d like to know what caused the change in direction, and what can you tell us about this change? How does it affect your story and storytelling?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s very true. We wanted to create sort of a framework for Season One, and for seasons to come, where 47 is sort of at the peak of his career. And for us that meant, that meant looking also at what we thought worked really well in different installments of the series. In a game like Hitman: Silent Assassin, we had a bit of a- a serious plot, if you will, a more grounded tone to it, and we saw that traveling the world would be a big part of the fascination of following Agent 47. So even if the game itself is a sandbox, which can be quite hilarious, because people can do some crazy stuff in there, we wanted the tone for this universe and for this story, and how we tell it, to be a bit more grounded, and a bit more serious about what’s going on in the plot.
It’s interesting that you bring up the sandbox gameplay, and this idea of following Agent 47 around the world. It ties into my question, actually, of what made you go in the direction of monthly and episodic updates with this game? Especially since you want to have a big sandbox.
Yeah, so there are quite a few different things that affected our thinking in that regard. First of all, what we wanted to do, before we even started to talk about the narrative structure we did for the game, before we even did that, we knew we were going to build a game that is digitally distributed, right? So we saw a few years back, with faster internet connections, and Sony and Microsoft being open to new ways of patching on new consoles, that was sort of when we reached the critical mass of when we could do that. And before we I talk about episodic, I’d just like to say that we already saw in the beta that our game went live, and the studio was looking, everyone at IO was looking at YouTube and Twitch, and enjoying all the moments where the game was doing everything that it was supposed to do, moments like that. And we could agonize about the parts where it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be. And I mean, obviously, that was a beta, so there were a lot of glitches in it that are not present in the final game, but even then when Paris comes out, I know that we’re going to be glued to the internet. And all around the office, we’re going to keep an eye on what players are doing.
And that means we have a living game- we can work with the game that people are playing as they are playing it. But, when we decided we wanted the game to work like that, then we could say ‘okay, we had a problem with the narrative in our games, typically in our games that, in a classic sort of Hollywood narrative, in a movie basically, we have the main character’s journey, where the character undergoes basically change, he’s facing confrontation, he overcomes these, and when he emerges on the other side, he’s a better person. But see, that conflicts quite a bit with the essence of Agent 47- traditionally he’s been very minimalistic as a character, you can almost call him a blank canvas. So that means that forcing any of these motivations on him doesn’t do anything good for us. With that in mind, with all of that in mind, if you look at what has been happening with TV series, with just how much creativity and evolution there has been in that domain, that really started to inspire us. So in that context, if you think about, let’s say a character like Sherlock Holmes- your fascination with him is that he’s brilliant, he’s almost like a sociopath, but you enjoy watching him solve mysteries. You don’t expect him to come out of those mysteries changed- you just want to watch him solve the next mystery, basically. And that’s the fascination with seeing him do what he does best.
And then around him you introduce all these characters, like Dr. Watson, or all the criminals he faces in each episode, or maybe there’s even a nemesis character thrown into the mix to make things more interesting-
Exactly! So, I think Sherlock even got depressed once Moriarty died, because his life has no meaning anymore. So if you think about that and Agent 47, I think there are some very cool similarities. Like, watching him work, seeing him going on new missions and taking out high profile targets – they need to be high profile, so you feel like the stakes are high, and 47 is the only guy who can pull it off – and our ambition is to introduce characters around 47, we’ve already introduced Diana in the prologue- in the opening cinematic, sort of spanning the prologue to Paris, you see a new character introduced, who talks a little bit about 47’s past, and does he realize what kind of world he has been shaping? And that character is also in the end cinematic of the episode set in Paris, so again, we’re establishing new characters around Diana and Agent 47, with the ambition to establish sort of a spy thriller plot around them. Where the point is not so much that 47 changes, but more of what’s going on, and how these characters interact. And there are a lot of interesting stories we can do with that.
So like James Bond, or Jason Bourne, in a sense.
Well, yeah, I think the whole, what’s been really intriguing to people with Agent 47 is that whole agent fantasy. And I think there are many different variations of that, like you mentioned- and there are also TV series like Homeland. And then we have Agent 47, and yeah, Jason Bourne, and 007, and Mission Impossible. There are so many of these different fantasies out there, but I think the most important thing here is that the character is allowed to stay the same- and watching him accomplish what he does the best is sort of the nucleus of the storytelling.
"You won’t see a lot of car chases, but we really wanted to push the bar for how two characters can interact, and how we can portray them."
So there has been this concern that story may take a back seat in this game- you are saying that the episodic structure ensures that it won’t, that it will always be compelling.
Absolutely, I think that what we said, which might lead people to think that it would be different, is that inside the sandbox level, we won’t let the overarching story affect how things end- because it’s a game about freedom. So we don’t want to dictate things like how targets die, or events happening in a certain way. Because that goes against the core of the game. But the story itself, I think it’s really good. And we have some good cinematics, between the different missions, that are really focusing on character more than anything else. So you won’t see a lot of car chases, but we really wanted to push the bar for how two characters can interact, and how we can portray them. And then what we also did as well, we took these overarching story elements, yeah- but inside the sandboxes we have a lot of these smaller narratives, small story nuggets that are actually connected to the overarching story, so if you- as an example of what I think may happen, if you play Paris – and this is a minor spoiler, so be mindful – but when you play Paris, you will see the character from the opening cinematic, you see him at the end of episode one. He’s already talking to your target in Paris. And you figure out that he was there the day before, and it was actually him that caused the contract to happen in the first place. And once you understand that meeting took place in the cutscene, if you go back into Paris, and listen to what they’re talking about, there’s a lot of talk about this meeting that occurred. So I think it’s a rich story, in that sense. There’s so much to dig out. But obviously, we can’t guarantee that everyone will find everything inside the level. Which is one of the reasons we encourage the players to play levels, play them many times, dig out all the treasures in each.
Yeah, basically, you get as much as you put into it.
So trying to find the story nuggets, trying to explore all these little stories, would you say that is one of the incentives for replaying missions?
Yeah, I think that things that will really attract players- one of them is the story, right? So if you think about TV shows, think of this as though we are in Season One. So what it will feel like is, like any sort of good spy thriller, we show you stuff in the beginning that you don’t necessarily understand how everything is connected yet. We give you small nuggets, and people obviously speculate. And as the season unfolds, it will become more clear what the overarching plot is about, and as the season concludes, it will end on a cliffhanger, and a sort of really clear indication as to where this universe is going in seasons to come, basically. So that’s a very classic season structure.
So that’s one thing. But the other thing that will be a big part of it is that the flavor of each individual episode will be, much like when we talked about Sherlock, I think the mystery and the crime, and the actual essence of what you are doing in each mission, if we can keep that varied, so it doesn’t feel like it’s the same thing you’re doing, then that will be a big part of the attraction. And you’ll see, when you travel to the second episode in Italy, it’s completely different from Paris, it’s sort of very lazy, very beautiful Italian town, and the contrast between that and Paris is quite substantial. And the targets themselves also, as characters, are quite different. And again, when we go to the third episode, it changes- then it’s more about a conspiracy and a military coup, and taking out a general, and so, we constantly shake up what it feels like to visit each episode. And we want to do that every step of the way in season one, that you should be excited about going to new places, and having new problems with new targets, basically. I think that’s a very big part of the attraction.
Okay, so you discussed how you plan to keep the player invested in the story, and you discussed how you plan to keep the atmosphere varied, through the missions, the episodes. You also discuss how you want to create these sandboxes, and how each level will ultimately have a different experience based on how they are played. I guess one of my questions is, how do you think having multiple big sandbox missions- how do you basically approach so many different sandboxes, ensuring that they all play differently, ensuring that the player doesn’t have the same experience across multiple levels?
There are so many things you can do! I think it’s down to how you can construct the flow of the levels, the physical flow. That determines quite a bit, and so that’s obviously something we change from mission to mission. But there’s also other things going on. For instance, if I tell you that you’re going to infiltrate a palace, then your mental projection of what that is is quite clear: there’s an entrance, an exit, a garden, there are walls. But if I tell you you’re going to infiltrate an old mansion in a coastal Italian town, then that image starts to dissipate, and you get something where you can get much more lost in that area. So the very nature of what it feels like to be in different levels can also be affected by how we construct them as a mental space in the beginning. So I think that’s also a big part of it.
The reason we built them to be rather big and complex is also because we have Elusive Targets in there, that appear for sort of limited time periods. And this is – how do I explain it – when an Elusive Target is live inside a level, you can’t see them in Instinct. So you can’t just press a button and see where they are. That means you have to visually identify them inside the level, which means that if a level is complex enough, that becomes a really exciting part of the mission: stalking your prey, trying to figure out where they’re going, where they disappeared to, and all that. So we knew we needed a sort of critical mass of complexity per level, much inspired by [Hitman] Black Money, so that the sandboxes feel like you could never sort of fully understand everything that’s going on within them. At least, we don’t feel we have. We expect to be quite surprised by how people are going to play the individual levels.
"I think the most honest thing you can experience as a game developer is someone playing your game."
I actually saw my brother playing through the beta, and he attempted the ship tutorial level at least seven or eight times, and it was a different experience each time, it was really fascinating to see just how different the experience could get each time.
Absolutely- I agree, this whole feeling we had as well at IO- so obviously when we did the beta, we were a little bit nervous, because it’s some smaller levels, if you will, compared to the larger ones that we will see in the game. But I love this fact that this first part is sort of hand holdy, and tightly scripted. But the second you’re out of that, it’s completely impossible to predict what people are going to do with the game. And I think that’s the fascination of it. It’s very unforeseeable what people decide to do in the game.
So the beta was actually a massive success, from what I understand. It changed people’s perception of the game! Because there was a fair bit of skepticism going in.
So, what kind of feedback- you said it yourself, the beta has smaller areas compared to the final game-
So what kind of feedback did you get from the beta, and how are you going to translate that into the final release?
So obviously, we had this sort of pleasure of watching stuff together in the studio. And again, if you think about the philosophy of why we wanted to do a live game in the first place, I think the most honest thing you can experience as a game developer is someone playing your game. So when something works, you can- you feel sort of a tremendous sense of joy and achievement, because, you know, you worked towards something and it works and people like it.
And you also feel super agonized, when something doesn’t work, like ‘agh, that’s not what we wanted!’ So in terms of the team, it’s super motivational- we get to do this every single time a new episode comes out, that’s the experience we get. But in terms of what happened at the beta specifically, there are quite a few things. So some people asked questions like ‘it’s a beta, but it’s very close to launch, so can you fix all your bugs and glitches and performance, and stuff like that. But I think the simple answer to that is, yes, we could do that, and when you try the final code, you’ll find that that’s fixed. And that’s obviously because we are not on a disc, so we don’t have a gold master. And we know that when we patch the game, everyone gets the patch, because it’s a game to download.
So that means that our time window for reacting was bigger than people anticipated. So that’s pretty cool. But that wasn’t surprising I would say, that’s something we knew we needed to do. What surprised us most in the beta was the- we have this opportunity system. We have a lot of small angles that you can take to eliminate your target. For instance in the Cuban mission, one of the things you can do is cause the target to have a big accident with the ejector seat. That’s one example, right? There are quite a few in the game. And what we have done is ensured that at least new players have a chance of funding these sort of really cool side missions, or ways of taking out your targets. So we have a guidance system that basically tells you where to go. Now, our core fans were really upset about that- they felt that this makes the game way too easy. And I completely agree on that! It does make the game way too easy for people who are already good at the game. But what we expected was that they would go into the settings and turn it off! But we saw that they didn’t, so one of the things that we did was, we added a step in the tutorial, where we remind you to actually change the settings if you don’t want to be guided too much. So that’s a direct response. And, one of the other things that we saw was, that on the boat- you know you have that first part where it’s very guided, and then you have the second part where you can do it on your own. And on the second part, we saw that some of the scripting from the first part was actually still present. So we didn’t feel that the target was unleashed enough, if you will. So we’re gonna change some of that stuff as well. And there are tons of other things- I mean, the way we built the game, it’s actually possible to react to some of these things. That’s not to say we can react to everything, but from the time we see something to the time we fix it, that depends on what it is.
So it’s a real, actual living sandbox, because you keep updating it in response to how players play.
Absolutely. Another aspect of that is obviously, we talked about that with the Challenge system. There are many Challenges in the game that reward you for playing the game in many different ways. And what we also did is, we looked at the beta, we added some new Challenges based on some of the guys who managed to knock out everyone in the Cuban mission with the Hammer, except the target. So, it’s not going to be there at launch, but the team is working on making a Challenge called Hammer Time for that specific level, and a little throwback to the guys who found it out. And we’ll continuously add these challenges to the game as well.
Maybe I should just talk about that point for a second, because people have been asking about the Challenges as well. So the Challenges, when you get to Paris, there are, I think it’s just short of 80 challenges in Paris- there are 77, or something. And when you play the game in different ways, you complete your missions in different ways, you start unlocking them. And they will then give you experience points that are not for 47, because he’s already pretty cool. But they are for what we call Location Mastery. So you can level up each location, and as you earn more and more levels in Paris, you’re going to start unlocking new starting locations, and undercover locations, where you start as maybe a chef down in the kitchen, or you unlock the opportunity to place weapons already found in the levels, or you unlock gear for you, like new items or new weapons.
So the level can change based on how you start, then.
Well, I think the level won’t necessarily change, but your ability to have a strategic choice about where you start is quite significant, especially when you think about the Elusive Targets you find in each level- that could really mean something. Or if you are playing on a different contract basically. That could be really significant.
That sounds really exciting- I really need to play through the first episode when it comes out.
So, do you ever think about adding any co-op or multiplayer elements into the game? I mean, I know that’s not a part of the core of what Hitman is, but did you ever think about it?
Well, we’ve thought about it! It’s not on the agenda for the game right now, but we think about what concepts there could be in the game with multiplayer. At the moment we have this more asynchronous multiplayer mode with Contracts, and… we’ll see. I really can’t say anything substantial about it right now. It’s not something we’re actively working on right now, but I wouldn’t rule it out for some point in the future.
I wanted to know. Hitman runs at 1080p on the PS4- does it also run at 1080p on Xbox One?
You have me there, actually! I think it does, I think it does, but I would need to check with the tech guys.
"We have a Season One, where we have the locations and the storyline for Season One, and we are sort of slowly starting to figure out exactly what portion of the next overarching story we’ll take for Season Two."
That’s fine! So any chance you would happen to know what is going on with the DirectX 12 version of the game for PC?
Yeah, we just announced a few days back that the game will ship with DirectX12 support for PC at launch- again, back in London we had our principal technical artist go over some of the technical features of the engine, I guess he would know more about the technical specifications of the game.
That’s alright! I guess my last question is, what does the future hold for Hitman? Is there going to be an Expansion Pass for next year’s content? Have you begun planning for next year’s content yet?
Absolutely, I mean, what we know is, we have a Season One, where we have the locations and the storyline for Season One, and we are sort of slowly starting to figure out exactly what portion of the next overarching story we’ll take for Season Two. So obviously, yeah, there will be more seasons, and I think that’s the future- this universe we’ve created, with this version of 47… we actually have quite a few ideas for where we want to take the story. And I think it will be quite exciting for people to see that whole universe of the game. So yeah, the future holds many seasons of Hitman!
Alright, is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
No, I mean I really look forward to Friday- I have to say we are doing so many new things with the game, it’s about time it comes out and speaks for itself, if you know what I mean. So I encourage people to jump in and try it. And soon after launch, we will also launch our first Elusive Target, so people jump in and try that, and give us feedback on how that feels like. It’s very new to us, and I guess that’s it. As you know, we have a fairly straightforward way of trying the game, where you just buy a small intro pack, and get a feel for what it’s going to be like, so I say just try it and see if you like it!
Okay, all the best for the launch, and I hope it goes great for you, and I look forward to playing it myself!
Thank you very much!