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Hitman is getting better — but we won’t notice until its season wraps

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It takes time for episodic games to win over fans and critics

Io Interactive took a chance by going the episodic route with Hitman, the sixth major release in the 16-year-old action franchise. It’s an innovation that, according to executive producer Hannes Seifert, is already starting to pay off — it’s just that critics of the release model may not pick up on the pros until the game’s first season is complete.

In a talk at GDC Europe 2016, Seifert explained how that’s typical of other, similar games — and television shows — whose complete seasons unfurl over several installments. Review scores for games like Hitman and Life is Strange continue to get better over the course of their releases, he said, with the first entry typically receiving the most tepid reception.

"When Life is Strange was launched, the Metacritic was okay," he said, "and then it went up." He showed the audience the average scores over each of its five episodes, showing a steady increase until the final release of the complete season, which boasted the best average of the bunch.

"People start understanding the whole thing and then it connects," he said. As another comparison, he referenced the cult hit Twin Peaks, a series that continues to find popularity more than 25 years after it began. "People appreciated Twin Peaks afterward, and that’s fine, but that’s something you need to take into account."

The team at Io Interactive has already begun to see Hitman’s critical reception improve following pre-release confusion and post-launch frustration. Unlike previous Hitman games, this year’s PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One title follows what Seifert refers to as a live, episodic release structure. A $60 season pass is available for purchase now, but players can also experience each level individually as they launch; the premiere episode costs $15, and subsequent, monthly or bi-monthly releases retail for $10.

Although it’s not totally uncommon for games to launch in several discrete parts in this day and age — especially as digital distribution continues to occupy a larger margin of the market — after publisher Square Enix revealed Hitman at E3 2015 as an episodic game, players and press were confused. Seifert took the audience through headlines and forum posts that highlighted how both communities were puzzled by the game’s price and when to expect more content.

"There was lots of negativity from people who haven’t played the [Hitman] games," Seifert said. "That’s because people have strong opinions of how things should be. That’s okay to a certain extent, but things change ... some people think they shouldn’t change."

That’s reflected in the game’s Metacritic average, with critics feeling much more positively about it than users. The overall user consensus was, and remains, resoundingly negative as players criticize the piecemeal launch. But even early reviews commented on the game feeling "unfinished."

"Hitman is a strange, difficult to qualify value proposition right now," according to our review of the first episode. "You can get just the prologue and first episode for $15, with a $50 fee to upgrade to the full ‘season,’ and, like other episodic games, you can go episode to episode if you want to. But with a game that very much feels like a AAA game cut into pieces, this all seems a little surreal."

"We continuously have to prove something, [and] that’s a good thing"

This live release model, with additional content coming in the form of priced content and free, weekly events like Contracts and Elusive Targets, made sense to the developer; thousands of players of 2012’s Hitman: Absolution continue checking in to its evolving multiplayer modes, inspiring the new game’s updates. Yet Io Interactive felt it still had to prove itself to the user base, Seifert said.

To alleviate players’ pre-launch concerns about the game’s pricing and that Hitman would only continue seeing new content if it were a commercial success, Io Interactive posted Q&As and other information, becoming more transparent about its development process. The developer continues to talk back to its community through release notes, and the feedback it receives from players has begun to impact subsequent installments of the game.

"We continuously have to prove something," Seifert said. "That’s a good thing — we need to prove we’re a service worth being in."

New players continue to pick up Hitman every day, and the game sees spikes in growth around each new episode. The weekly events also help to bring players into the game, many of whom still play the older content along with the newer additions. Reviews are getting better as well; Hitman has even been named to one publication’s games of the year list, Seifert said, much to the team’s excitement.

"Hitman may be showing the growing pains of a game learning to tailor its feedback to a much bigger playspace than the series has seen before," we said of the second episode. "As it stands, that growth is leading to a game that feels just a little more at home with each episode."

This can be attributed to the team listening to its players, but it’s also what Io Interactive learned is typical for a game that launches in chunks. Seifert and the rest of the team hopes — and expects — that those who dropped off at the beginning may come back several months from now, when the whole season is out, to find Hitman a more well-rounded, better game than the one it started out as.