Sometimes in order to maintain success in the game industry, you have to make major changes to the way you do things.
That was the case for IO Interactive, which revamped the business model for this year’s episodic Hitman game, studio head Hannes Seifert explained at GDC Europe in Cologne.
It was a massive undertaking for the studio, which had little experience in the realm of live game development. Hitman games previously were disc-based, traditional releases, but the latest would be released as an episodic digital game.
Going purely digital had some clear advantages, said Seifert. For example, going digital allowed IO Interactive to cater more to their existing fans rather than trying to cater to the “lowest common denominator.” That’s because margins for digital games are more than two times that of physical disc-based releases, Seifert said, so IO didn’t need to sell as many units to make just as much money.
But it wasn’t as simple as just choosing to go episodic. Seifert said a lot of effort was spent convincing internal and external partners that making Hitman into a digital episodic game was the right decision. He said shareholders, the development team, publishing teams, sales, marketing, and other parties all needed to be convinced.
“If you’re trying something new, you need to think about [getting everyone on board],” he said.
A lot of research also went into the decision. IO worked with partners like The Big Solutions Group and EEDAR to make sure that it made sense to go all digital, and the studio did continuous user research. The studio, which is owned by Square Enix, collected “hard facts” – hard data – and “soft facts” – commentary from the audience – in order to shape the direction of the game.
“What people do and what people say are not always the same,” he said, adding that you don’t want to alienate 99 percent of your audience by catering to the vocal 1 percent.
But even with all this preparation, it was difficult to predict what kind of reaction the public would have to the game. Following initial excitement from press and from players, confusion ensued regarding the business model. Players, for example, were worried that if the first couple episodes bombed sales-wise, that IO would abandon development of the game.
Seifert explained that as a publicly-held company, IO couldn’t simply abandon development on episodes, but players didn’t understand that, and he doesn’t believe that players need to understand that. Rather, it is up to IO, as an operator of a live game, to do what it can to instill confidence in its audience.
“We did not find the perfect answer for these concerns,” he admitted. IO tried to address concerns by being very transparent with development. While it’s important to keep an open line of communication with the audience, Seifert said repeatedly that he feels the studio was too transparent with development, so much so that it began to compromise the vision of Hitman.
“Being transparent can hurt you a lot,” Seifert said, adding that “people don’t trust a publisher.” He also said that it’s important to tightly integrate the community team with the development team.
Seifert said to be careful what you say too, as anything might be construed by players as a promise. “Don’t promise deliverables,” he said. “Promise ambition and work with partners that are able to think the same way.”
One of the key takeaways for Seifert and his team at IO is that when working on a live game, you claim direct ownership of both your successes and your failures. “Everything that happens is your fault,” he said. “And that’s ok.”