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Q&A: Lessons learned from five years spent on the Hitman series

Q&A: Lessons learned from five years spent on the  Hitman  series
February 2, 2021 | By Bryant Francis




Two weeks ago IO Interactive released Hitman 3, a coup de grace of a game that closes off a trilogy of titles that rewrote how the game industry thought about its most infamous assassin.

Executive producer Forest Swartout Large joined IO Interactive toward the end of Hitman's development in 2016, and has helped shepherd the IO Interactive team shape the incredible assembly of open-ended levels that are all now fully functional in the Hitman 3 client.

It's a journey that began with an episodic release model, to one that evolved to a continuous construction of open-ended systems that would be both viable for future Hitman content, and simultaneously able to fold neatly into older levels that were made before new levels were conceived.

After the game's release, Swartout Large stopped by to chat with us about the lessons she's learned as an executive producer, and what she thinks has allowed IO Interactive to successfully craft such a unique series for over the past five years.

This trilogy of Hitman games has had a fascinating release journey. It began as a series of episodic games, now it's a complete package of levels you can play entirely in the third title. What has the company learned along this journey, trying out all these different ways of releasing a game?

When I zoom out, I think, "wow, we were definitely gluttons for punishment." We are definitely trying to maximize the learning opportunities here.

But, I think it has really allowed us to learn more deeply about the game. And to learn more about player behavior, and what our players are responding to and what they're not responding to. With the episodic release, of course, that was really challenging in terms of communications and sort of winning over the hearts and minds of players.

And it took a little while, but I think eventually most of our players were won over by the release model, because it allowed them more time to appreciate the depth and breadth of each sandbox and each mission. So I think the real learning is that when you are trying to innovate and do crazy, controversial stuff, if it's the right thing for the product and the team, it might take time, but you will eventually win over the hearts and minds.

So with that episodic nature, it was definitely the long game. It took a while to get to the point where people were coming to our defense. That was crazy and controversial at first, but at the end of the day, it made us all appreciate what Hitman is and what each of these missions have to offer.

And then with with this carry-over progression thing. We're still learning. It has not gone as we wanted it to. Having our most ardent fans be the hardest hit by the issues with the carryover and progression has been gutting. We've just been working so hard. In terms of those learnings, we're still we're just trying to fix the problems right now. And then we will figure out what we've learned.

But I think if you're going to do something that is not publicly accepted, as long as it's ultimately right for the game, right for the product, you just have to have patience and the the will to persevere. You have to work through all of the criticism and continue to do the work of updating the game and releasing the game through the harsh voices.

What's it like to work on a game where the same content that was produced for a 2016 game can still be functional content for the third game in 2021?

It has been a total blessing. If you're a developer who really loves working on polish, and really, shipping something that is cohesive and tight, and knows what it wants to be. It's such a pleasure to work on.

For me, it's just been a total gift to have joined the team partway through Hitman 2016. Hitman 2 was another opportunity to polish and double down, explore some different things and go big in many ways.

Hitman 3 has been a real [process] of taking down, stripping back, going back to the basics, but also saying, "We want this to be an emotional experience. We want some soul to shine through." It's just been nothing but a total gift and a pleasure.

What would you want to share with other developers who take up the task of making their older games backwards compatible with a current version of their game?

It's been a strength that we have our own engine. It's not like we're working on a third-party engine and we have to decide, "are we going to take that update or not?"  We are entirely in control of our own code base.

The best advice we have is don't let the code rot. It's our own code base. It's a live game, we are constantly updating it. The other thing is that in IO for most of our eight-year journey, it's been mostly Hitman. So it's not like we've been having to argue with different team projects. Hitman has controlled the code base.

Now we're going multi-project. And now we have what we we call the Hmn code branch, and then there will be other code branches supporting those projects.

There have been features that we have eventually deprecated--an example was Ghost Mode. We sunset Ghost Mode, because we just felt like we couldn't keep up with multiplayer. It didn't make sense for what we wanted to do with Hitman.

It's just  like gardening, you know. We treat our engine as as if we're gardeners--we to constantly water and trim and tend to it.

The Hitman series has garnered a lot of attention for showing off what advanced, experienced players can do to achieve these complex kills. But for some players, watching that footage can be kind of off-putting, like "oh if I'm not doing that, am I playing Hitman?" What has IO Interactive learned about attracting new players over these last few entries.

So O.G. Hitman (from the 2000s) is just pure player discovery. There's no hand holding just environmental clues, some background dialogue suggestions. It was the players figuring things out, setting up their own traps, creating their own scenarios and whatnot.

Then in 2016's Hitman, we introduced the Opportunity system, which was a super like hand hold-y mode. Basically, like, you're super lazy? Here's an Opportunity. Or you only have 10 minutes to play? Here's an Opportunity. It was a nice way of making Hitman accessible to people who really couldn't be bothered with the basic tenets of Hitman.

Like me?

Yeah, yeah (laughs). Or like me, depending on whatever mood I'm in. But I would say towards the tail end of Hitman and Hitman 2, we really looked at it as like, what are our systemic kills? What's the emergent gameplay? And then also, are these Opportunities, are these Mission Stories super hand hold-y?

What we've tried to do with Hitman 3 is to actually really make sure that we're putting traps on the Opportunity loops. We call we call the Opportunities, or the guided Mission Stories, the 90 percenters. [These] are probably the playpaths--the golden paths--that players [experience] the first time would play.

So what we've tried to do is not have like snipe opportunities or traps, or generic set pieces be too far away from the guidance, so that if you follow the guidance, then maybe players might get inspired with these environmental traps.

Or when they're on this golden path that we're hand holding the player on, they might, really see because there's a shiny light or, attention to an awesome snipe point up in the corner.

We really tried to actually bring some of the the generic and systemic gameplay more in your face on the golden Opportunity paths, but also we have missions where we're not guiding players at all. The Berlin mission is one, for instance.

We always said that, you know, Hitman 3 is first and foremost for our core fans, and we always felt like our core fans don't really want or need the guidance.

How does the team approach the design complications of Hitman's legacy content? Hitman 2016 levels can be played with gear that didn't exist when those levels were first designed. And there's a ton unlocked from earlier games that can be used in Hitman 3 levels. How does the team make that holistically work?

So our gameplay features, our game systems, and our items are global and systemic. So it's a design requirement. If it has to work, it has to work for every future mission that we could imagine and it has to work for the past.

An example of where we had to do retrofitting work was our limited vision system that we introduced with Hitman 2, where you could hide in crowds, you can hide in foliage. We needed to go back and do mark up in certain areas and make sure that we were retrofitting foliage, that read to players as "you can hide in this."

If you're going to have an item [or] if you're going to have a new system introduced then it has to be game-wide. And then of course we try to do every mission, some kind of gameplay twist, as well. And then we always are thinking about re-use. What and how can we twist that further?

So Hitman 3 is a cross-generation release, but this is also IO Interactive's first crack at the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. What do you think these new consoles allow? What opportunities they create for the for system-driven developers like IO Interactive?

We always talk about how sweet the reload times are. When it's a game like Hitman, and some people are saving frequently depending on your playstyle, it means a lot to shave seconds off the reload time.

We've talked about creativity and experimentation, we really want players to experiment and not be afraid of long reload times. I just feel like the new consoles are the best way to experience it.

Two of Hitman 3's levels differ from established Hitman formula. The Dartmoor level is arranged around a murder mystery you can solve to get access to your target, the Berlin level doesn't even tell you who your targets are or where they're located when you enter the space. Can you discuss how IO Interactive evolved its design process for these two levels?

It's funny because they went big in different ways, and the planning was different. And the result is obviously very different. On the one hand, you have this crazy, elaborate murder mystery. And then, Berlin is just special. I don't want to spoil it.

So especially with Dartmoor, it was not supposed to use that much [development] time. It was just clear that it was something special, and that it deserved more time from the team.

The same thing happened with Berlin where it was just clear that--Berlin was always planned to actually be worked on for the duration of the project. But we ended up adding a few more people than we had originally planned. We added life to one of the biomes.

A little fun fact is that for Dartmoor, the codename was Bulldog. And lt just felt like everyone on the team was a bulldog, and just like, held on and just fought for it.

I don't know what the lesson is, but when something takes off to look like it's gonna be even greater than you could possibly have imagined, sometimes you just have to go with it and let it have a little bit of a life of its own.

One other question about Dartmoor--when the level was previewed, everyone we knew immediately compared it to the Rian Johnson film Knives Out. What's it like to kind of have that synchronicity with a pop culture moment?

When I joined in spring of 2016 that was all that the level designers were ever talking about. It was like "we want to do a murder mystery! When can we do a murder mystery?!" The lobbying was so hardcore! So I appreciate the Knives Out references but this had been maturing way long ago.

I think I've been collecting my own reference photos from trips that I've taken [and] other people have as well. So it's been in the making for a long time, I would say even before my time at IO.

As an executive producer, what's the difference between seeing the team get passionate like this, and realizing you can let them expand beyond the original scope of a feature or level, and recognizing those moments where maybe the passion is there but the final products isn't worth it, and you have to cut it for the sake of scope and budget?

It's there or it's not. It's onscreen demonstrable or it's not, and then you feel it or you don't. For me it's like I try not to be binary. We try not to be binary at IO, but it's there or it's not.



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