At Game Developers Conference 2015, Daniel Lutz, game director at Square Enix Montreal, explained how designing with constraints in mind helped lead to the success of the stealthy mobile game Hitman Go.
Lutz said his studio, founded in the winter of 2011 / 2012, was originally set to release a Hitman game on console. After a year, that game was cancelled, and Square Enix management turned the studio into a mobile game developer. People were let go, and some people left. Restraints on the next project already began forming.
With a project cancelled and a new direction for the studio, management had the experienced group of game developers enact an incubation period to come up with mobile game ideas. But there was some false optimism from the studio, said Lutz. The experienced team of console developers thought mobile game development would be a piece of cake compared to making big, expensive, triple-A games. But that wasn’t entirely true, as the team had to rethink how to approach mobile platforms.
Early in the creation process, Lutz was looking for "meaningful design constraints" to adhere to outside of the obvious (e.g., the game being mobile, and based on Hitman). "Restraints depend on the product you're making," he emphasized.
Lutz and his team clearly identified specific restraints to the game that would become Hitman Go: Price of the game, the time it takes to play, the brand, the genre, an audience with certain expectations, production restraints, and the business model.
"We could make a Hitman endless runner,” said Lutz, “but that would conflict with the brand identity, and not really resonate with the audience."
Clearly identifying restraints is good practice, but Lutz said you can't necessarily use a purely analytical top-down approach as the basis for game design. Designers also need to implement a bottom-up approach; while you must be analytical one one hand, on the other you must be free with your ideas, get creative, think about what would make a good game. Or as he put it, “be smart and be stupid” at the same time.
The Hitman Go team had to capture the essence of the Hitman franchise, which included: Agent 47, his assassination targets, the enemies standing in his way, the environment, and the tools the protagonist would use to accomplish his mission.
The developers had decided to transfer these elements into a turn-based strategy game, which seemed like a big departure from the game's original third-person format. (Lutz explained how a friend of his said there are only two types of mobile games worth making: games with short gameplay sessions and turn-based strategy games, a sentiment that Lutz doesn’t necessarily agree with, but that resonated with him at the time.)
Square Enix Montreal moved onto the prototyping phase, using board game pieces -- an aesthetic that was carried into the final product. Lutz drew a lot of inspiration from dioramas and scale models, giving Hitman Go its unique, tactile look, but which also inspired a modular system for grid-based level design that let designers experiment by plugging blocks into different configurations.
In the end, Hitman Go released on April 17 last year, changing the minds of skeptical Hitman fans and winning some awards (and commercial success) along the way.