Franchise Assassination: Irony Edition

(Disclaimer: Please find the full Hitman Q&A [here] )

The Good, The Bad & The Greedy

As a gamer you are either an optimist or a pessimist. Especially in a industry which has gone from garage weekend programming, to multi-billion dollar industry as fast as it has. We’ve seen many companies playing Russian Roulette at times banking hard on a new intellectual property (IP) or a cash-in clone of a better more popular title, hoping the momentum of the holiday season and the similarity will see them over the hill. Some survive, learning vital lessons, others crash and burn leaving many out of work, and entire libraries of classic games in the dust, with IP’s being sold off to pay creditors and that developer is out of business. Some like to utilise a new market idea and play fast and loose with established franchises.

I’ve seen time and again, the good ideas in the industry start off great, only to end up a horrible plague that can be mis-used or simply over priced. Everything you likely hate about the state of the games industry started with a good intention, before being used by a bigger or more money orientated company to squeeze cash out of consumers. There was a time when a game getting an expansion pack was a cause for celebration. Likely because consumers knew they were getting a genuine deal. New areas, new weapons, new classes or characters, more lore and more enemies to fight in epic struggles between good and evil. Or how the consolidation of all a games dlc would be released under the season pass L.A. Noire introduced. Even micro-transactions began as an optional unobtrusive addition.

Now you can expect only sighs of exasperation. The bigger the company, the louder the sighs. When products are announced they will inevitably garner hype. The more impressive the title, and in some cases the older the title franchise the more hype it will garner. If it’s loved, and been absent for three or four years. Hype from consumers will likely bubble over.

Big Dog; Big Nuts

trevor-gta-v-pc-1980

No greater example of this is shown than in Grand Theft Auto V. Five years of absence since GTA IV released in 2008, though it’s expansions over the years lessened a need for a wait. Along with other Rockstar Games titles like Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire & Max Payne 3 in-between. Since GTA III, Grand Theft Auto has not fundamentally changed over multiple platforms be it console, handheld even mobile. Every game is complete and if any game could use DLC to its advantage, it’d be GTA V right now, but it doesn’t. With the biggest sales numbers in gaming history of a game that wasn’t attached to every console purchase. GTA V not only has an appeal to the gaming masses. It has a legacy consumers can believe and hold their trust in toward the future of the next console & PC GTA experience.

Some might argue that, ‘Well it’s Rockstar Games & Take-Two Interactive, they can afford to do that.’ They didn’t when they started – Rockstar was DMA Design. Sure there may have been deals and contracts for the business. But from a consumer stand point all their games have one consistent, unwavering consumer appeal: They are complete, whole & finished experiences.

No game is flawless, we know. But the amount of Quality Control is there (looking at you Warner Bros Batman: Arkham Knight PC port). My point is consumers feel a sense of security when they purchase a Rockstar Games product, and in essence we demand it from every game that comes out not just Rockstar. Consumers are frustrated with a trend of titles rushed out the door just because the main content is working and complete with minimal patching or is rushed in the time from a game going ‘gold’ until it hits stores with a ‘day one patch’.

walking-dead-gameNow the other success story as of late is Telltale Games. In 2009 they released the episodic Tales of Monkey Island, which was a first for the franchise, and a new approach for the company. Build a game to a point of completion, polishing out bugs & errors to  a standard of quality, while the team are given a grace period of a month or two to work more on the remaining content and ready the next episode for release. It was a fresh concept back then, and had some hits and misses, but the regular turnover of content proved a perfect formula for a monthly episodic comic from Skybound in The Walking Dead. Telltale know story and character construction just as well as Skybound and created a masterpiece of work in The Walking Dead episodic games. The TV series is gaining momentum each season, the comic gets more and more readers. To which a game in an episodic nature was a perfect fit, released in the perfect time frame. From a consumer perspective you first of all know it’s episodic, and when you get your hands on each episode the waiting with baited breath for the next episode could be sometimes agonizing.

So what happens when take a solid franchise with a previous consumer trust in game completion and turn it episodic? You get Hitman.

Nice to be working with you again 47

Anyone who knows me well enough, know I’ve adored the Hitman Franchise since I was in school. Playing the demo of Codename 47 off  of the disc of a PC Gaming magazine long, long ago. (Even spawning my passion for writing as I wrote guides & FAQ’s.) Anyone who has ever played the games, knows Hitman has always released as a solid complete game. With only Absolution dipping it’s hand into the DLC marketplace with weapons and a few skins, under its new publisher Square Enix. But the campaigns are solid, complete experiences, with so many different routes and methodology’s to explore no two game experiences are the same.

Previously Absolution offered Hitman: Sniper Challenge to all its pre-orders while loyal Hitman fans waited for the game to release and make a few days or weeks go by a bit easier. Even as free content, Sniper Challenge was great from how it was turned from a internal testing ground, to a community wide challenge. So much so Hitman: Sniper was developed using the unity engine for mobile devices which launched not too long ago, but ultimately belongs on a PC.

It seems IO-Interactive are taking a page out of Metal Gear Solid V’s book of tricks however. While Metal Gear isn’t episodic, each game seems to take an age for it to be released and Konami likely talked Ground Zeroes into becoming a thing at some point and to garner some money from fans fat with cash as Konami likely saw it and to give Kojima the further time he wanted to make Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain the best product he could, without too much harassment.

So this bring me to today’s (July 9th 2015 as of writing) Q&A on Hitman from IO-Interactive/Square Enix PR marketing team. It released with what amounts to a damage control. This Q&A comes  essentially a month after its Hitman reveal trailer at the Sony Press Conference at E3 in Los Angeles the previous June, with the release date of December 8th (2015).

At E3 all went well, a younger more Wentworth Miller looking 47 is shown in his prime, showcasing the Paris stage of the game, a more advanced AI system, and naturally teasing the story and letting consumers know they plan to release content for the game throughout 2016. Sounds great, sign me up for a boxed copy so I can proudly display it along with the rest of my Hitman collection – It’s not getting a boxed copy on December 8th. Sorry what?(said in a Ricky Gervais disbelief type manner) It’s a digital only release on December 8th.

See the physical copy of Hitman won’t be released until a undisclosed time in the future of 2016. Why is this you might ask? Well it’s simple, because you can’t release a unfinished product on a disc. While even episodic games gets physical copies when they are finished. What this amounts to is that Hitman will release as a full price title on December 8th digitally. Where it will continue to release content for the game like its doing you a favour with ‘free DLC’ when in fact its the base content of the game you are paying for in the first place; and essentially asked to thank them for it. The disaster of a Q&A below lifts a lid on the content delivery system Hitman is going to use, presented to you in the perfumed language of Eau du Bovine, where a door into a broom closet is ‘an entryway into all your cleaning needs’.

You can’t hussle, a hussler

How exactly are you releasing HITMAN?

We’re doing things a bit differently, as you may have read in our ‘Announcing HITMAN‘ blog post. HITMAN will launch on PS4, Xbox One and PC on December 8th this year as a digital download. That’s when the experience will begin. And it’s really important to us that this is understood as a ‘beginning’.

What we release on December 8th is not the full game. It’s a sizeable chunk of it.”

Is HITMAN an ‘early access’ game?

No. Early access can often mean something unfinished or unpolished. That’s simply not the approach we’re taking.”
This comes from the horror story of Steam Early Access in which ‘indie devs’ would release the promise of a product to allow players to pre purchase the game at full or a significantly reduced price of what the complete product might release at. Even by today’s standard Steam Early Access has a less than 10% success rate of Early Access titles. With the vast majority to never see completion, taking your money and running with it at times. But here Hitman is an early access game. In fact it’s the very definition of early access to a product which will launch incomplete as a whole. Hitman games have an average of around 10-12 sandbox environments, the lower the number this title releases with the longer they can continue to drip feed consumers content, delaying a physical product. Hitman will simply become a showcase to other developers on how you do early access correctly.

Is HITMAN episodic now?

We think the word ‘episodic’ sets up the expectation that we will sell individual content drops for individual prices but that’s not something we’re planning to do. That said, there are some episodic elements to the story in the sense that it’s delivered in chunks over time, so experiencing the story will probably feel episodic. But there is also a ton of other content including live events, which have nothing to do with the story. We’ll also be improving and changing the game constantly whilst you’re playing it. Our ambition is to have a stream of content available from December 8th until the story arc is finished.”
Read: Yes, yes it is. In fact they’d rather you think of it this way than ‘early access’. The question they are fearing internally is can we do it right without infuriating the userbase? No, not all of them.

What does it all cost? How much do I have to pay to experience everything?

The entire game will cost you $60 or the regional equivalent.

 That $60 includes everything we create in this story arc; from what we release on December 8th through to the end of the story arc in 2016 and all the live events too. There’s no micro-transactions or hidden costs in there. No extra paid DLC on top either. It’s one package, all-in for $60. We want that to be simple and clear and it was important for us to be up-front about that.”
This is the right step backwards the game industry needs to be taking. Bleeding consumers wallets dry of cash has been hurting the industry to the point consumers are nearing a point of hypovolemic shock. You can begrudgingly get the money now and not guarantee a sale later, or be consistent and offer a quality product and guarantee a future sale and likely a word of mouth sale in the future.

The issue is similar to going to a decent restaurant for a meal. You see the menu, and order something simple like say, steak and chips. But the chips are delivered separately, and one by one. While your steak is cooking it seems fine at the time. But when your steak comes one of two things have happened. Either you’re all out of chips or they’ve gone cold by the time your steak has arrived. Oh, and by the way any sauce is DLC. It takes a really well run kitchen to get that steak to you before either of those things have happened.

Exclusives and beta

If you saw HITMAN revealed at the Sony E3 Press Conference, you heard the word “exclusive” a couple of times. We’d just quickly like to run through what that means. PlayStation 4 will be the only console where you can experience the beta and where you can play it first. A PC beta is planned to arrive a week later. The beta is available for pre-orders now. As for the PlayStation 4 exclusive contracts, they are only available to those people who own a PS4 copy of the game.”
Then there is this. While this isn’t a Square-Enix or IO-Interative thing. Public betas are the biggest fallacy in the gaming industry today. For you they are simply a timed demo, while to the developer they are a server load test, to gauge consumer interest. However here is part of the package a pay to play early access to the early access (Hi, Xhibit). While it’s hard to mess with an ever in flux beast like the PC market. Publishers quite literally have you by the metaphorical balls when it comes to console marketplaces. Unlike retail prices which will ever decline, the initial advent of an all digital marketplace proves it will never happen when the idea of going digital forgoes the additional costs of creating discs, printing discs and leaflets (formerly instruction manuals) and in general the price of a boxed product and the retailers profit and vat & taxes mark up a product somewhere close to £10. So when a digital copy is £10 more expensive over a boxed products default price tag, and in six months time is double the price of a reduced price physical copy. It’s no wonder consumers are running away in the opposite direction.

“Time won’t wait for you. No, time won’t wait for you my friend”

The biggest problem in all of this is reviews. By December 10th someone somewhere will have ‘reviewed’ Hitman as its digital offering. Because the way the games journalism works on the internet, is people will look to you when you’re first. Does it make them accurate and correct, not likely. But it feeds them, yet with IOI offering tiny morsel, after tiny morsel of a game which is going to release episodically. And is giving digital only purchasers early access to an incomplete product ‘day 1’, this is their cross to bare. It’s not like they can turn around and say they haven’t been warned. Just because you are trying something new and daring to change the industry, doesn’t mean the rest of it will follow suit overnight. it’s a long arduous process where publishers will request only one thing from the developers under its wing:

I am forever an optimist as a gamer. I like to find the good in gaming, and promote the artistic or niche games few would get to play because they dismiss them. Hitman was such a game, once upon a time. But I will forever be a pessimist to the corporate damage control breaking out the fire extinguishers because they know a fire is coming, before its so much as lit. Which is not good or nice when a beloved franchise starts to reek of Eau du Bovine.

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