Square-Enix recently announced that Hitman will be releasing in instalments over 2016, and the general reaction seems to be outrage that the iconic franchise is now being delivered in a format usually reserved for lower budget, story-based titles. Some have decreed that Square-Enix is just hopping on the bandwagon of episodic releases after their successful first attempt with Life Is Strange. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this release method, or any reason why an episodic Hitman title can’t work… if done right. But it doesn’t seem like that’s the case here, and I can absolutely see why people are upset. It just doesn’t seem like Square-Enix are considering what an episodic release entails.
Most people seem to think that the main reason Square-Enix is doing this is money. One of the big benefits to Square-Enix is that, with an episodic title, you can manage your budget accordingly. You minimise risk; if your audience doesn’t take to it, you can pull the plug on the whole game. Afro Samurai developer Versus Evil did this when they realised their game was awful (not exaggerating there), and we can’t forget that publishers are still a business and are out to make money. But this is Hitman. I get the distinct feeling this game would’ve caught on unless it was absolutely horrible. Then again, this is the company that claimed that Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution and Sleeping Dogs failed to hit sales projections, despite selling 3.4, 3.7 and 1.75 million copies, respectively by the end of March of 2013. But I doubt the episodic structure will help Hitman. If anything, I think it’ll hurt its sales, since the retention-rate for episodic games isn’t exactly great. Admittedly, I have no evidence to support that beyond personal experience and, you know, common sense. But I see many people holding off on buying Hitman until the ‘season’ finishes, and I hope Square-Enix knows that will happen.
But my main problem with Hitman adopting an episodic release format is that this wasn’t what it was planned to be. And no, not in the sense that they changed it, now it sucks. But in the sense that this game was designed, and more importantly written and paced, as if it were a full release from the start. Games like Life Is Strange and The Walking Dead are written and paced like actual episodes from a TV show. There’s just the right amount of story, pacing and dangling plot threads balanced with a specific play time that it all just works. But Hitman wasn’t planned to be episodic until relatively recently. Up until then, it was developed and written as if it were a full game release, which in terms of writing and pacing, bare more similarities with movies and books. Now think if a movie was basically cut up into chunks and delivered to you unaltered. When it comes to writing, there are different challenges in making something episodic compared to making a full game.
And finally, there’s the problem of gameplay. Episodic titles need to really grab their audience. You need something that really makes players want to come back to your title. And what usually does this is story, because in games like Life Is Strange and The Walking Dead gameplay is definitely not the focus. But Hitman doesn’t seem to be renowned for its story, so unlike the aforementioned titles, Hitman will need to actually pace its gameplay to suit its format. So the drip-feed of gear, increasing difficulty and level design will need to be perfect in order to bring players back. Because what’s to stop someone from playing Hitman: Episode One until they’ve had their fill of the game as a whole? But at the same time, you need to give enough so that the initial experience is good enough to keep players coming back. But at the same time, you can’t increase the difficulty and amount of gear too much, since with gaps between episodes, you can’t rely on your players remembering how to play your game well. But you also can’t baby them too much, because you have only so much game per episode.
All of this just seems like more trouble than its worth when Square-Enix could’ve just released a full game. Now, I may be wrong. Maybe Hitman‘s writing, pacing and design have been altered enough that we won’t be able to tell that it was intiially a full game. Maybe it becomes my new Life Is Strange and grips me with its amazing narrative. Or maybe it falls flat on its face. Whatever the case, I’ll be watching this closely, because this game may be the most important game that Square-Enix publishes this year. If this format works for Hitman, we’ll be seeing more of it — for better or for worse — from the industry. And the pitfalls of this movement are far more harmful to gaming than season passes and micro-transactions.