Danish developer IO Interactive has been quietly crafting an engaging, interactive and extremely entertaining franchise over the last 21 years. Putting players in the shoes of Agent 47, a genetically altered super-assassin tasked with eliminating targets for the International Contract Agency, ICA, Hitman is, at its core, a stealth action series with an emphasis on planning and creativity.
The Hit-story of Agent 47
Hitman first came onto the scene as Hitman: Codename 47 back in 2000, a PC exclusive about a mysterious assassin named Agent 47. Codename 47 released to mild critical reception, which was focused on the controls ruining much of the experience. A great game was hidden beneath the surface, but poor controls and too many forced action moments caused it to fall flat with most players. However, little did we know that Codename 47 laid a foundation that would be iterated upon for years to come. Despite Codename 47’s mild reception, IO Interactive opted to follow up with a sequel, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. Released just two years later, it cemented Agent 47’s place in history.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was released almost exactly two years later, in 2002. IO Interactive took this PC-exclusive title and released it for the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and later on GameCube consoles. Against the odds, this series broke through into the mainstream, gaining mostly positive critical reception and selling 2 million copies by 2006. The second title releasing under Eidos Interactive, IO was able to expand and perfect the foundations they laid in Codename 47, creating a series with true franchise potential. The success of Silent Assassin led Eidos Interactive to acquire the publisher in the spring of 2004.
IO Interactive now felt investor pressure to release another game within the same two-year window. Their next venture was far too grand in scope to facilitate a release within just two years of Silent Assassin. As a result, Hitman: Contracts was created to appease shareholders while also providing fans with a game to play during the wait. Hitman: Contracts was a glorified greatest hits of the franchise up to that point and, as such, was critically panned for being unnecessary. Building off of the Glacial engine used for Silent Assassin, Contracts boasted various reimagined levels from the first game (as well as a few new levels) set against the backdrop of Agent 47 bleeding out in a hotel room reminiscing while law enforcement closes in. While this pleased longtime fans of the series, it still wasn’t a true sequel, and looking back on it now, it’s clear that Contracts was developed to buy time with shareholders and nothing else.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2006. Hitman: Blood Money is finally released after a long four-year development cycle. Blood Money released to critical and financial success, selling more than 1.6 million copies by July 17, 2006. The long development cycle paid off with fans and critics alike, with some touting Blood Money as one of the greatest video games of all time. Hitman: Blood Money was a culmination of everything the series had built to and felt like a masterclass in stealth puzzle gameplay. The levels were complex puzzles, requiring players to surveil the area before finding the perfect opportunity to take out their target. There were dozens of ways to tackle each mission, and it felt like a complex puzzle that rewarded creativity and preparation over run-and-gun gameplay. Of course, players always had the option to run through with guns blazing. That choice was the real secret to Hitman’s success. Little did we realize this was a glorious send-off for Agent 47. Players had to wait another six years before stepping back into Agent 47’s shoes.
During the six-year hiatus from the Hitman franchise, IO Interactive was anything but quiet. They had been priming the release of an all-new IP, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which released to negative reviews due to its overuse of foul language and lackluster gameplay. By 2009 it was announced that Japanese mega-giant Square Enix had acquired Eidos Interactive. Over the year, Square Enix restructured Eidos Interactive, renaming them under the Square Enix Europe brand. IO Interactive states that there was little pressure from Square Enix, and the transition did not affect their day-to-day much at all. IO Interactive stuck with Kane & Lynch for one more journey, with the sequel lending itself to low review scores across the board. Unfortunately, when a company like IO is part of a larger brand like Eidos or Square Enix, poor game reception or, in this case, a cancelled project under Microsoft’s umbrella can lead to layoffs, and in 2010, that’s what happened. IO Interactive made the tough call to lay off 35 of its 200 employees.
Following the success of Blood Money, IO Interactive did make mention of returning to the franchise. Still, it wasn’t until 2011 when players officially got to see a trailer with the now infamous Agent 47. Hitman: Absolution was a game cursed by following trending curves far too closely, with Agent 47 completely missing the mark with Absolution’srelease in 2012. Hitman: Absolution was a far more linear experience, focusing on Hollywood blockbuster storytelling and taking much of the game’s agency out of player control. The majority of contracts weren’t even taken out by the players themselves but rather through a series of cut-scenes. Even the disguise system was all but thrown out the window as any NPC with a similar disguise could spot Agent 47. With a narratively driven story, linear level design and an overly punishing disguise system, Hitman: Absolution was not the sequel to Blood Money players expected. From a gameplay perspective, Absolution was a letdown, but the grim story helped players connect to 47 in a way that we hadn’t previously. IO Interactive did gain a bit of information from Absolution’s multiplayer contracts mode. Contracts were the game’s saving grace, letting players set up their own contracts and freely explore the world in similar ways to Blood Money. This feature was expanded upon in IO Interactive’s 2016 follow-up, Hitman.
A Return To Its Roots
Titled simply Hitman, the 2016 iteration of Agent 47 was a soft reboot bringing players back to a familiar, less action-focused adventure. Seeing the World of Assassination trilogy’s fully realized vision, it’s easy to look at the trilogy as a success. IO Interactive did something no other game developer had done: combining all three games in their trilogy into one tremendous experience that you could lose yourself in for hours. However, the game’s choice to go episodic with season one caused more confusion than was expected. Going episodic was a decision made from necessity rather than innovation. Hitman was given the time and resources it needed to become fully realized with an episodic release schedule. The reboot proved a daunting task for the developer as they shifted to large-scale playgrounds rather than the linear focus maps of Absolution. The team had much less experience with large-scale environments but were set to make Hitman the best game it could be.
Agent 47 Rebranded
With the series rebooting, this allowed the studio to rebrand Agent 47, developing him into more of a James Bond character rather than a cold-blooded murderer. Agent 47 uses Diana as his moral compass to determine the right or wrong actions throughout the game, even if those are questionable. This leads to a far more sympathetic and relatable character. Early on in development, IO decided to focus on gameplay before the story, stating that the story should be a reaction to gameplay first and foremost. This shift from the story-driven gameplay of Absolution was welcomed, but the overarching narrative struggled due to its episodic nature.
Each episode housed dozens of hours of gameplay, filled with intricate routines from NPCs, dozens of costumes, paths of infiltration and a robust scoring system that gave players enough to hold them over between episodes. However, this release structure failed to connect with players, and Hitman failed their long-term promise to Square Enix, failing to succeed commercially. Additionally, calling the first game in the series “Season One” confused players, leaving many to think this wasn’t a full experience. Hitman received rave reviews and several game awards, leading consumers to believe the episodic release schedule hurt sales.
Unfortunately, this failure to meet sales goals led to layoffs at IO Interactive once again. Following the initial commercial failure, Square Enix made the tough call to end its partnership with IO Interactive. As proven throughout the last twenty years, IO Interactive will fight for its employees and push through the hard times. Following the end of their partnership with Square Enix, IO Interactive struck a deal that allowed them to remain independent and retain the Hitman franchise’s intellectual property. With full control of the Hitman license, IO released the first two levels of Hitman (2016) for free. This proved successful as the game’s player base more than doubled, while the majority of those players ended up buying into the game’s full release. The studio releases a GOTY edition in the following months, which brought Hitman sales up substantially.
With Hitman finally being accepted by the public, IO was set to move back into the production of Hitman 2. Learning from their mistakes, Hitman 2 was released as a full game and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Hitman 2 had a similar scope and features to Hitman. This safe play was likely due to the pivot required after the studio ownership changed hands. Hitman 2 reviewed well and enjoyed moderate financial success, breaking into the top 10 for new releases. The next task they faced was developing the trilogy’s final game as a completely independent studio. Development of Hitman 3 began almost immediately after the launch of Hitman 2.
The Third Installment
Fast-forward to 2021, and IO Interactive has released Hitman 3 to critical acclaim while also reaching number 1 on the UK sales charts within its first week. It was a long journey to the top, and it was by no means an easy one, but IO Interactive has proven time and time again that Hitman is here to stay. Only time will tell what’s next for the developer, but I, for one, am glad to see their hard work paying off.