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New  Hitman  asks players to improvise, but have they forgotten how?
New Hitman asks players to improvise, but have they forgotten how?
November 2, 2012 | By Staff

November 2, 2012 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Design

Tore Blystad, director of Hitman: Absolution at IO Interactive, tells Gamaustra the team is struggling to teach players that they have freedom to choose -- “are we teaching the players everything that they need to understand about the gameplay and the possibilities of the game?”

The core of the Hitman franchise is improvisation -- players are encouraged to find their own solutions to the game’s missions. This is a challenge with today’s audiences, says director Tore Blystad.

“it's quite difficult, actually, to educate players that this is what the game is trying to serve you, because people are increasingly used to games where you're told to do one thing, and if you stray from this line, there will be nothing else around,” says Blystad.

“It's like, you have this experience, and that's it. So we're telling people, actually, ‘No, no, no. You choose by yourself.’”

The team, says Blystad, is striving for a feeling that “you could try and you could fail, and then you could improvise from there and try something else.” He believes this sense of “playfulness” is very important -- “it's so much about your experience, and you trying to find your own way -- your own kind of way of solving the game.”

The game changes from player to player, says Blystad, but only “when you understand that you have the choice.”

The full interview with Blystad is live now on Gamasutra.

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Maria Jayne
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I think often developers are afraid all that effort and time spent making a feature will be wasted if players don't figure it out immediately. Gamers as a community, with the power of friends and the internet are significantly more creative than people give them credit for.

"If you build it, they will come" ....So build it and have a little faith!

Jeremy Reaban
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This is a little patronizing (which I think is one reason the game industry is where it is). Players have no trouble finding (and exploiting) glitches, I doubt they will have trouble finding things they are allowed to do.

Harlan Sumgui
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big games have lots of play testing and data to back up what they are saying. And because the games industry is risk averse, if a significant portion of the audience doesn't get 'it' (whatever the it is in a particular game), the devs have to change things. Sometimes there are tidbits put in, like ironman mode in Xcom or Borderlands2 permadeath switch for old skool types.

But game devs are loathe to put anything in a game that that even a small percentage might find frustrating. Just compare Skyward Sword's design to Ocarina.

Kristian Hogberg
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I think it's a bit patronizing too but you probably play some games differently today compared to how you did 5, 10, 20 years ago. You lose some skills but gain others so people might need to be educated/reeducated... But don't think the learning curve is that steep.

Groove Stomp
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It's patronizing that IO are deciding to let players decide how to complete levels?

I think it's patronizing that "The Modern Military Shooter" is so on-rails and unforgiving in terms of restricting user freedom.

I think what IO are doing is amazing.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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"It's patronizing that IO are deciding to let players decide how to complete levels?"

Not what's being said here, rather that IO worries that players might not understand a little freedom. Tbh, I think it is something that would come naturally if they design the game more open, unless there is a "main path" with the freedom being taken on the sides I don't see how players could miss all the choices.

Joshua Kahelin
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Games are made to sell. This means bright shiny objects, follow the arrows, hint sparkles, giant location icons, etc. I like games where you can turn that stuff off but I'd imagine some people heavily depend on it to get through a game or else they wouldn't get anywhere. It's conditioning. The other extreme would be before auto-maps and journal systems. You had to actually explore the space and write shit down!

But look at Dark Souls? No auto-map. Complex environments. Steep learning curve. Gamers will find a way. Looking forward to BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode.

Michael Joseph
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You've hit the nail on the head Joshua.... at least in so far as identifying the real motive.

Let them eat cake? It's not for the players' own good that so many games have become the heavy handed designed experiences that puts the player on rails through the content rollercoaster ride... it's for the companies own good. It all stems from the idea of managing the experience.. managing the triggering of those yummy yummy endorphines.

We can only hope that enough players grow tired of these types of games to make a difference. A steady diet of cake only goes so far before one begins to demand meat and potatoes. [citation needed]

To the extent that honest developers buy into the idea that it's all done for the player so they can have "fun" I think there's a ton of factors going on there. A little bit of projection, a little bit of defense mechanisms, a little bit of denial, a little bit of greed, a little bit of following the heard, a little bit of quit worrying and love the bomb...

Remember how just 12+ months ago a lot of designers were talking about how unfair it was to make a game that not every player could finish... that some of the content was effectively "locked away from players" and that, that was wrong. This was the mentality of the content rollercoaster design school graduates. It's the proverbial milk for everyone because the baby can't eat steak. And it wasn't even true. Players could figure it out but maybe they wouldn't like having to try so hard and maybe that would impact sales because some other game was racing to the bottom and eliminating the need for higher brain functioning to play their game... that was the real truth. (and can you believe Id software with Rage went from mazes and keycard and switch/lever hunting to roller coaster school?! but i digress...)

Of course the players are going to figure out these simple games. IO, Hitman Absolution looks really slick and cool and more sophisticated than your standard slaughter game but don't flatter yourselves too much. :) Players can figure it out easy. What really concerns you IO Interactive and co. is whether people will LIKE it and BUY it. Will they still insist on devil's food cake or will they start to appreciate just a little bit of that carrot cake they've just baked? Marketers I think would prefer to sell the devil's food cake than the carrot cake. It's the lowest common denominator marketing and it's an incredibly difficult thing to argue against if you're a business in it solely for the money. It can be done but it requires a lengthy education campaign.

p.s. Do you know anyone who played portal and didn't finish it because they got stuck despite the fact that there weren't all these overt hint mechanics in place to help players progress or progress faster...? What company other than Valve Software would take a portal mechanic and makea PUZZLE game! Praise be to Valve! Moderately diffciutly puzzles still have a place in FPS games.

Michael DeFazio
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I agree with your sentiment and yet can understand IOs trepidation on the topic...
First off, Dark Souls is my favorite game (of all time). So don't take this the wrong way please.

Dark Souls (much as its predecessor) is a niche game, and while I love it to pieces, there are many folks who picked it up, played till the Asylum Demon, got killed and thought "This game isn't fair" and gave up... or made it to Lordran, headed to the cemetery, got killed (a few times) by skeletons and gave up (then went online to complain how the game is cheap and bad).

But for the folks who stuck with it like myself (and the light finally goes off) they love the game and sing it's praises. I have (unfortunately) highly recommended this game to others, and on two occasions (out of 3) been told that they "hated" the game and never wish to go back...

The folks I recommended the game to are perhaps not "core" enough, but the fact remains that the game just is not for them, and although both of those who hated the game enjoy open world experiences (like Fallout 3, Skyrim, etc.) feel like they weren't informed on what to do, and hated the game for it (different strokes for different folks).

I guess we sometimes like to generalize and say "Gamers" want this or that, but there really is a wide spectrum of players, and (much as I want games to follow in the footsteps of Dark Souls) I just don't see the appeal reaching beyond a certain niche audience, and (for a big time AAA franchise like Hitman with many expectations heaped on it) can understand the devs needed to connect with players who are familiar with current mainstream game conventions (all those things you pointed out like quest markers, etc.) and the history of the game, otherwise (by omitting them) you can alienate many players and sales could suffer.

OTOH, I think it is brilliant what they are doing with "Contracts mode", you can tell the developers getting giddy behind the mode since it rewards players for skill, strategy and creativity... (which is rare for games in this day and age IMHO)

Christopher Enderle
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All those things you listed off are crutches for bad level design. If your average person can find their way through an Ikea or Disney World (and ya, they do have maps, but how many people do you see wandering around with their faces glued to the things) then I think developers could go far with not much more effort.

John McMahon
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Now, somethings are excessive. But you're complaining about Journals?

I've never completed Morrowind because I had tons and tons of stuff written down and when I would go back to it, I'd have to figure out where and what I was doing.

Playing Fallout: New Vegas or even BioShock was a lot easier to get back into because I didn't have to devote a whole drawer to a single game. Everything was recorded.

When I got Morrowind I was heading off to college and wanted something I could play and work at, but it became more work and I just wanted to relax and take some enjoyment.

I'm not saying that is bad design, but what I am saying is that some systems like Journals are a good thing as games get bigger and more complicated.

I do think developers could implement more methods for the player to customize their experience. Not just disabling gore or blood, but curse words (for mommies and daddies), autosaves, and other systems a player may want to tweak.

I think Arturo Nereu said it best, "Our next challenge is to make the experience fits the player and not otherwise"

Maybe not all games follow that thought, but I think that is a very good challenge for developers, programmers, and designers in the next decade.

Arturo Nereu
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True! But also we as industry have lead the players towards this.

Also, I think that games can give different players different experiences. In a movie, all the public will have the same shots and dialogues. But in a video game, we can hide hints, clues, etc.

Our next challenge is to make the experience fits the player and not otherwise.

Justin Sawchuk
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I think what they found was that the game is going to be short in terms of playtime and the developers will argue that it has alot of replayability (go and replay it doing this that or the other). For some type of gamers that could be okay but I like many gamers are a "one and done type player", I hardly ever play a game more then once. Maybe when people hear its what ~6 hours of gameplay they are going to wait for to go on sale.

Merc Hoffner
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If you give the player enough freedoms, to what extent does the designer have to protect against the player 'breaking the game'?

I suppose publishers have become increasingly petrified of the prospect of playtesting all of that, what with the increasing density of variables and factors that have come into play. They believe that should one literally break the game it looks markedly unprofessional, unpolished and rushed. The costs of freedom would be so high that they dare not give the player open reign to make play up - better to distract them with an exciting illusion of freedom over a 10 hour period

The reality may be very different however, where so long as there's a solid game underneath it (and it doesn't result in a literal crash), the breakages become points of interest all on their own and the idiosynchracies generated by scenarios that the developers cannot possibly plan for become endearing. Perhaps Goldeneye succeeds so well not despite having a seven man team but because of it - the small team's inability to possibly keep track of the player's potential to abuse systems they were throwing together was a great boon for both fun and longevity.

Patrick Lavelle
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I think that the problem is that the handholding is the result of bad tutorials. The easiest way to do them (from a development standpoint) is to turn control off and display a text box, and because there's never enough time, we (at least in my experience) go with the lowest risk, least time intensive solution for something that is often a low priority compared to the other big features and nasty bugs that need to be addressed.

The best tutorials are ones that allow the player to learn through experience, with situations that effectively communicate a problem and present the player with objects they can interact with that have robust feedback and are designed to look and behave in accordance with the set of rules the player is intended to be learning. That requires significant art, engineering, and design time, and it's easy to cut stuff like "fancy tutorials" when they take up 2 months of development time.

Mario Galaxy did a mixture of experience, demonstration, and text tutorials, and to see them all exist in the same game was very insightful to me. The situations where you learn through experience (a setup where you slide down a stalk and butt-stomp a breakable stone disc, or where you defeat a cactus enemy (pokey) with melons for the first time) are fantastic. Demonstration is almost as good but lacks the rush of self sufficiency (the bees that play a looped animation of the butt stomp, next to a breakable stone disc). The beginning of the game, though, is filled with text boxes and that is just boring and inelegant and stands out against the grace of the interactive tutorials.

Vote no on unskippable text!

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Do a robust tutorial mission that shows a taste of all the options available to 47 (eg. at various points Diana or whoever could prompt you as to being able to do A or B).

At the end of it, the average player will at least have those techniques available to them, and advanced players will realize that branches out into far-reaching possibilities.

The Dark Souls style tutorial (eg. lack of explaining the majority of systems in the game in more than a cursory anner) could be fun, but I don't believe this has the same kind of skill curve to require/benefit from that; I found previous Hitman games were pretty easy with planning, rather than even a lot of actual co-ordination.

Jonathan Gilmore
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As someone who has a limited amount of time to play games, I'm not a fan of the hide-the-ball style of game design/tutorials in something like Dark Souls. Therefore, I'm a big fan of the tutorial you describe, that gives the player an opportunity to see what type of options they have in order to play the game the way they want while simultaneously completeing objectives and exploring the game world.

As an aside, I think leaving a lot up to the player is always good (not a fan of the on-rails shooter experience) but it requires excellent level design. Nothing worse than spending an hour looking for a switch or key that is hard to find simply because it is poorly thought out.

Richard Redding
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One of the things I enjoy the most as a player in a more recent game, which in a way bares some similarity to what IO is doing is Bethesda's Skyrim game. Some of you may not see the similarity, but it is very open in how you play it and complete the overall game. There are very few "required" quests that you need to complete to finish the game, but the richness of the world in terms of storyline and back story is quite amazing. With the exception of the main quest line, you do not have to complete quest A to complete quest B to get access to quest C. If you don't want to do quest A, you don't have to, granted you might not get access to certain areas or certain items if you don't but nothing says you have to.

The sense of freedom this granted me as a player, brought back so many feelings of nostalgia with games from the text based genres up to the modern day games. It was this freedom, the kind of freedom that I feel that IO is trying to bring back to their games that made games so enjoyable for me as a player.

I remember when the game Star Wars Galaxies first came out, you could create your character in any way that you wanted, in accordance with your play style, use your powers or abilities in any way or combination that you wanted to, in short your character didn't have to be locked down into any certain class, but it could be whatever you wanted. Then the developers began to change the way the game worked, making it a lot less enjoyable for me, and so at that point I left the game.

I recently returned to the game to check it out and see what had become of it, upon logging into the game I was immediately disgusted with it. The game had been turned into something that only the players that wanted to put no effort into the game could enjoy.

This is something I think that the gaming industry needs to slowly return to or start bringing into their games even if it is slowly and subtly, the freedom to play the game the way you want to.

Adam Bishop
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If players don't know how to improvise, what explains the success of Minecraft and all of its various rip-offs? Why do we keep having to pretend that there's some kind of uniform "gamer" who all games must appeal to? There are hundreds of millions of "gamers" in the world. They all like different things. It's OK for your game not to appeal to many of them.

Christopher Thigpen
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I am very excited about this game. IO Interactive is a great company.