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Hitman Go devs on the craftsmanship that goes into making 'nice mobile games'

Square Enix Montreal brings Hitman into its lobby

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Square Enix Montreal was founded in 2012 to develop the next entry in the Hitman franchise. The game that the company eventually released was a very different kind of Hitman title: a turn-based puzzle game called Hitman Go, which debuted on Android and iOS in the spring of 2014.

Hitman Go was the first game released at Square Enix Montreal following a shift in focus at the studio — undertaken by parent company Square Enix in June 2013 — to making mobile games. Although Hitman Go's announcement was greeted with overwhelming skepticism from die-hard Hitman fans, who scratched their heads at the game's out-of-left-field premise, the project proved to be a tremendous success both critically and commercially.

In fact, Hitman Go received such acclaim that core gamers clamored for Square Enix Montreal to bring it to more traditional gaming platforms, and now the company has done so: Hitman Go: Definitive Edition is launching tomorrow, Feb. 23, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and on Steam for Windows PC.

Square Enix Montreal also wanted to do something special to celebrate Hitman Go, which is the studio's first game and which led to a "Go" brand for the studio with the similarly well-received Lara Croft Go. An idea for this came out of Hitman Go's unique visual style, where each level looks like a board game set in a diorama that you could touch.

"it was kind of crazy"

"We took inspiration from the real world to do Hitman Go — you know, diorama, board game, architectural models — what if we were to go full-circle and to re-create [a] board-game-slash-diorama based on one of the Hitman levels?" said Antoine Routon, technical director at Square Enix Montreal, in a phone interview with Polygon. "And it was kind of crazy, but there's such a sense of physicality in the game that we thought it would be a really fun thing to do: to create, like, a real, physical object."

After a weekslong search for a partner that understood the project, Square Enix Montreal teamed up with Atelier-S, a Montreal-based architecture and design firm that also builds maquettes. You can see the production process in the video above, which also includes interviews with Routon and Hitman Go creative director Daniel Lutz.

Square Enix Montreal chose Hitman Go's swimming pool level for the physical model, because it's an iconic stage from the game that "symbolizes the Hitman Go aesthetic a lot," according to Routon. He said that perhaps the most interesting part of the project was discovering and discussing with A-S how the challenges differed between developing the video game and making a model of one of its levels.

Hitman Go: Definitive Edition - mansion / swimming pool 1280

"That's something we saw when we went from the real world to the virtual world — like, the challenges are not at the same place," said Routon. "Different mediums have different constraints, basically, and then when we went back to the real world again, we could feel the constraints were specific to making a real-life diorama."

In the video, Routon pointed out the palm trees near the swimming pool. For the game, the developers simply repurposed the tree model from an existing game. But of course, the modelers at A-S had to build every tree from scratch, painstakingly making dozens of cuts into the trunk and leaves with an X-Acto knife. And for Routon, the process is what he will take to heart about this model, even more so than its presence in the Square Enix Montreal lobby.

"For me it's really about the making of this product, and all the parallels you can draw between the craftsmanship that goes into crafting this diorama," said Routon, noting that everyone can understand the skill required to make a piece of art with your hands, "and the craftsmanship we put in making video games."

"the goal is to make nice mobile games"

Square Enix Montreal believes in a particular kind of craftsmanship, Routon and Daniel Lutz told Polygon during a meeting earlier this month. The studio has a mandate to make mobile games, and specifically, said Routon, "The goal is to make, like, nice mobile games." That encompasses not only striking art direction and a mechanical hook, such as condensing the Hitman experience into a puzzle game; it's also about bringing Square Enix's expertise to bear in the mobile market, in a way that brings the field forward.

"We are Square Enix, so we definitely have a heritage of triple-A games with console gamers or PC gamers, yet we [at Square Enix Montreal] do mobile games," said Routon. "Those are different worlds, and they're converging — I think there is some kind of convergence. And I think we're working right there, at this intersection."

Consider the terminology associated with AAA games versus mobile games. Routon mentioned phrases such as "monthly active users" and "average revenue per user," and said they're "still not really triple-A lingo." But at the same time, publishers of big-budget online games — like Activision with Destiny and Call of Duty, and Electronic Arts with the Battlefield series — have begun discussing those titles in terms of metrics like monthly average players.

Hitman Go: Definitive Edition - Morocco 1280

Routon noted that for core gamers, there's still a stigma around mobile games as lesser experiences worthy of scorn. But he pointed to a recent flurry of mobile games that are "kosher" for core gamers: titles such as Moppin's Downwell, Sam Barlow's Her Story, which launched on iOS and Steam simultaneously; and Blizzard's Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, which hit PC first and then came to iOS and Android.

These games are bridging the gap between traditional AAA games and the mobile market, and although Routon is aware he may be "overthinking [Square Enix Montreal's importance," he believes the studio is "one of the pieces of, like, the transition."

For instance, you don't often hear developers of mobile games mention how much they're focusing on "narrative" or "deep characters," according to Routon. Helping to effect that change is a long-term goal for Square Enix Montreal. Asked about the level of interest in tackling the challenge of, say, telling a story in a mobile game, Lutz said that the studio doesn't think about it in quite that way.

"I think what we're interested in is finding the — I don't want to say counterpart — we want to see the version of all these big concepts [like story] and how they work within the experience that we build," said Lutz. That's the key: figuring out how to accomplish particular goals within the constraints of the medium, just like A-S had to do in making the Hitman Go diorama.

"Nobody wants to watch, I'd say, cutscenes or more kind of established storytelling vehicles [in] console games, on mobile," said Lutz. "But can we come up with or develop ways of giving people the same experience, or a similar experience, or something that reminds them of [that], without actually doing it the same way? I think that would be the holy grail for me."

The next level of puzzles.

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