After parent publishers Square Enix divorced themselves from studio IO Interactive in May, the future of the Hitman series suddenly seemed in peril, seemingly placed on hold by publisher “focusing (it’s) resources and energies on key franchises and studios.”
But then, just last week, IO announced it was going indie, and crucially, reported that it had reached a deal to keep hold of the Hitman franchise it created.
While it is undoubtedly a huge boon for the studio to have held onto the series with which it made its name, there’s no reason to get carried away. The long-running franchise, which IO has been developing for more than 17 years now, has plenty of fans but has recently struggled to maintain its AAA status in a continually evolving industry.
IO’s experiment with releasing the latest iteration of Hitman as a number of standalone single part episodes was deemed the perfect format for the series by many critics but failed to find huge commercial success.
But, now that IO can (at least in theory) develop new content for the series without the pressure that comes from a publisher holding the purse-strings, there’s the potential for an even more radical rethink. So with limitless possibilities stretched out in front of them, where will IO take Agent 47 next?
Let’s take a look at the possibilities…
A second season of Hitman
The critical consensus was very positive for IO’s first crack at an episodic take on their series. But according to most accounts, the financials didn’t set the world alight (and Square Enix’s decision to drop IO seems to bear that out).
But now the developers aren’t beholden to a corporate master; they may be able to figure out a way to make more episodic content work for them financially.
Realistically though, I think it’s more likely that IO will, now more than ever, have to make the most financially viable choice for the future of their business, and that does look like a return to full release games.
The reality may simply be that even though episodes may, on paper at least, be the best mode of delivery for Hitman, it’s just not the way gamers would prefer to receive it, and accommodating the whims of those potential buyers should be foremost in the developers’ minds.
A full price release
A return to the big AAA release format could be a huge gamble for studio newly minted in the indie world. The money that would need to be spent on extra development resources and marketing could conceivably make the creation of a AAA title an all or nothing venture for IO. Failure to turn a substantial enough profit at the first time of asking could easily result in the small studio hitting big troubles.
Conversely, if the gamble pays off, and fans engage with the series in a way they haven’t for the recent episodes, Hitman could find itself instantly restored as a top-tier AAA franchise. IO might think the risk is worth the potential reward.
A new direction
IO could view their new freedom as an opportunity to stop playing it so safe, and make bold departures from the series’ core formula. How about bringing co-op gameplay to Hitman? (the studio have touched on 2 player gameplay before in their Kane & Lynch games, after all). Or perhaps a game more focused on the story, developing the world and its characters like never before? Or what about a more action-oriented game? Or competitive PvE multiplayer—going head-to-head with a friend to see who can be first to take down a target sounds pretty damn fun to me.
IO doesn’t even need to limit itself to the series’ tried and tested gameplay. What about a complete genre switch-up. Hitman Go proved turn-based puzzle-strategy could work within the Hitman universe. So why not lean even further into the strategy for a full release?
Whichever format it gets released in, going in this direction would again fall squarely under the gamble column. But perhaps the same old Hitman gameplay is what’s been keeping gamers away. Maybe a fresh new take would be just the shot in the arm the series needs.
A new home?
If the price is right, there are always suitors to acquire a studio with the obvious talent and wealth of experience of IO Interactive. In fact, I’d be surprised if the news that the developers and Square-Enix had parted ways hadn’t caused some serious discussions amongst some of the industry’s biggest name publishers.
Real talk: Microsoft are absolutely the most obvious candidate. Firstly, they are still severely lacking in quality releases from first-party development studios. The guys at IO Interactive seem to fit that bill perfectly, not just because they would bring along an established franchise, but because of their obvious potential to make something even more fantastic in the future.
Secondly, there’s Game Pass.
Still in its infancy, Microsoft’s subscription service currently offers around 100 games and seems to be targeting a fairly niche audience. But Xbox boss Phil Spencer has been vocal about his aspirations for the future of this service. He feels there is a potential to bring a Netflix-type model to his console, where new and compelling content is released regularly to keep subscribers happily paying their monthly fees. Also increasingly key to Netflix’s approach is their preference for producing their own exclusive media which they have complete control over.
If Microsoft were to either acquire or strike a deal with IO, they could instantly make exclusive use of a studio whose talents are specifically geared towards exactly the sort of high-quality, episodic content that would be perfect for the service.
And in that department, they’re a rarity. Apart from Telltale Games (who are successful enough to remain autonomous at least for now), I can’t think of another top-tier studio that could fill that role so well.
It seems like the perfect fit, then. But whether IO jump into bed with Microsoft, or indeed another of the big names that are have surely been sniffing around, may come down to how much they value their newfound independence.
What direction do you think Hitman should take next? Let us know in the comments.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.