Square-Enix and Io Interactive make bold move with planned episodic release of upcoming ‘Hitman’ reboot.
Over the past five years, episodic games have become the gaming industry’s new content release development playground. However, episodic releases are hardly a new concept. Half-Life 2 (2004), developed by Valve, handled continuing episodic narrative in the form of Episode 1 and Episode 2, with Half-Life 3 (Episode 3) to be released sometime in the future when Valve is confident in the product’s quality. The first episode was released two years after Half-Life 2 while the second episode took three years to complete. The latency of the releases begs the question as to why an episodic release was warranted, given the very nature of “episodes” connotes a more regular narrative update.
Telltale Games, on the other hand, has become quite successful with a number of episodic games based on established franchises such as Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, Minecraft and Borderlands. Telltale has even confirmed a coming Batman episodic game. The allure of Telltale’s episodic games is that they allow the player to make choices with both previously established and new characters. Telltale’s episodic business model is also bolstered by the release of their games on multiple platforms such as phones, tablets, PCs, Macs and home consoles. Supporting so many platforms, however, has led to many complaints from customers regarding a multitude of glitches and bugs that halt player progression.
With Telltale Games dominating the episodic games market, focusing primarily on characters and writing rather than gameplay, it speaks volumes when a AAA developer makes a previously $60 standalone game episodic. But that is exactly what happened on January 14th when Square-Enix announced their upcoming release of Hitman would be a fully episodic experience. It is fairly unprecedented that only three months from its scheduled March 11th release, the business model of a game like Hitman would be changed so radically. But Io Interactive seeks to do the impossible.
From the official Square-Enix Press Release:
“Starting with a Prologue Mission and a Paris location on March 11th, followed by the next location, set in Italy releasing in April and then Morocco releasing in May. From there HITMAN will deliver regular monthly content updates, including three additional locations; Thailand, the US and Japan until the season concludes in Japan later in 2016. With weekly live events and additional planned content in between the monthly updates.”
“A new Intro Pack now contains the Prologue and Paris levels and will release at the new price of $15 (or local equivalent). Each subsequent location will be priced at $10 as an add-on item to the Intro Pack. Alternatively, players can buy the Full experience up front for $60. This includes all of this year’s content as it’s released, and guarantees them not to miss any live or bonus content. The disc version of HITMAN will ship at the end of 2016.”
This kind of episodic structure is unorthodox in an industry that is terrified of veering away from the standard $60 price tag, with varying prices charged for additional content. Article, after article, after article proposes that the $60 price is not sustainable, or is at the very least archaic. But most AAA publishers don’t think their game needs to be sold at a lower price. It’s obvious that the litany of game studio closures in the 2000s attests to the risks and high costs of making games. For the better part of a decade, the $60 price tag has stuck to games that may or may not be worth that price. But Io Interactive is bucking the trend, hoping to find a happy medium and entice more users to choose their game over games priced at $60.
This new episodic structure also ensures that the game’s release will avoid delays, in the same way the publisher’s own remake of Final Fantasy VII is being distributed and will be rolled out for the foreseeable future. Io Interactive can ensure a consistent release schedule to keep players satisfied after their initial starter purchase or complete $60 Season Pass. In essence, the episodic model takes the downloadable content schedule and applies it to the game itself.
While the episodic model is ingenious there are some chinks in the armor. The press release explains that during the initial three months, Io will release large experimental maps that give players many avenues and degrees of choice on how they want to assassinate their targets. But the next three maps won’t release until later in the year. Are players expected to continually replay the three maps and missions that will be already available to them? That could potentially lead to undermining the importance of each assassination mission by making it about the “score” and the “points” rather than the method in which you kill your desired target. It all depends on the “regular monthly content updates,” a vague promise, to carry Hitman (2016) through the summer months.
Hitman games are known more for their experimental gameplay than they are for compelling narratives and in this respect, Hitman (2016) will have to deliver a narrative that remains striking and momentous in the player’s mind. Telltale and Valve accomplished this with each episode having a substantial impact on the narrative of the whole experience. The potential is there to deliver a compelling narrative experience but if 2012’s Hitman Absolution’s gun-toting nuns and cookie-cutter plot to sabotage the agency you previously worked for is any indication, it will most likely be a forgettable story-driven experience.
The gaming market is desperate for innovation in its pricing model. $60 games are an investment in a player’s time and effort and if the game isn’t worth the money, it’ll most likely get overlooked by gamers searching for a more extended experience. When games all cost the same, consumers become more vigilant regarding where they spend their money. Hitman (2016) is the latest guinea pig in this enticing new business model experiment and hopes to gain a new user base with the updated pricing structure. Time will tell whether or not this their experiment is a success.
Spencer Fawcett is a screenwriter who also does production work for NBC/Universal. He has written for Parade Magazine and ASUs The State Press. Twitter: Whizbang813