Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Like the rest of you, I expect, I was shocked by the news that Square Enix was looking to offload IO Interactive. After all, the Danish studio has spent the past few years making, releasing and then continuing to make perhaps the best Hitman game of them all. It got an Edge cover in 2015 and an Edge 9 in 2016, but in 2017 the studio that makes it is being cast aside while Square Enix focuses in on what it calls “key franchises and studios” – a phrase that roughly translates as “things connected to Final
Fantasy” and will have subsidiary and partner studios twitching nervously every time the phone rings in the weeks to come.
Square Enix is certainly keen to offload the studio. Reports claim it’s letting IO keep the rights to Hitman, and it was prepared to slap a loss of almost £34m on its accounts to get the studio off its books. As I write, it is doing the things publishers must in these circumstances – wishing the studio all the best while trying to find it fresh investment – but IO has already had to lay off a chunk of its staff and, if no buyer is found, things may reach their natural, unpleasant conclusion.
The instinctive reaction in situations such as this is to blame the publisher. We did it when Activision shut down Bizarre Creations, when Sony dropped the shutters on Evolution and when Microsoft killed off Lionhead. It’s always easier to blame the bigger boy, especially when he just put the makers of some of your favourite games out of work. And the publisher must bear a share of the blame for the creative and financial missteps that ultimately condemned the studio to failure. Square Enix will have signed off on Hitman’s bold episodic structure: indeed, after the unexpected success of Life
Is Strange, it may have positively encouraged it. So it must share the blame for Hitman’s evidently poor sales. On PC, according to the reasonably reliable tracking site Steamspy, it sold around 620,000 copies. According to the same website, Absolution sold a shade under three million.
For it was surely the structure, rather than its indisputable quality, that did for
Hitman. There are a few strands to this, I think. First is that the episodic approach to releasing games, that felt so novel when Telltale told its heartbreaking tale of surrogate parenthood in The Walking Dead’s first season, is no longer so appealing. The main culprit in that has to be Telltale itself. The studio’s business model is an immaculate, but wearying confluence of being able to crack out an episode in a matter of weeks while also being unable to say no to any offers. And so it is positioning itself as a sort of HBO of games, if Band Of Brothers had animation glitches, The Wire was prone to hard crashes, and Game Of Thrones would occasionally forget your progress and punt you all the way back to the first episode. Telltale popularised the episodic videogame and, by being at once increasingly prolific in its output and dismally stagnant in its technique, may well also have killed it.
Yet we’re probably to blame too – and by that I don’t mean the royal Edge we, but you and me, and mostly probably you, because I get everything for free anyway. I am just being polite. Despite Telltale’s best efforts, as a game-playing public we remain largely unaccustomed to games being parcelled up in this manner. When the first episode of a TV show appears, we happily take a punt on it, because doing so costs nothing but time. But a game costs money, and when only part of a whole is on offer, we cannot see the entirety of the expected-value equation. So we hesitate. And if we’re not in on the ground floor, we’ll probably skip the next couple of episodes too, and see how things shake out. Unlike Telltale’s work, however, IO’s
Hitman improved greatly over the course of its season. It had its peaks and troughs, sure, but the final result is a game that benefited hugely from its developer’s ability to implement the lessons it learned from the reception to earlier episodes into the making of the later ones. Sadly, once the finished article is available in one package, we feel as if we’ve missed out; we who play games are in constant pursuit of the new, so when
Hitman’s complete season dropped onto shelves in January, it was already old, and too easily ignored. This story should give us all pause for thought: about our attitude to episodic games, about our relentless pursuit of the new, plus – and this applies to Square Enix too – about the extent to which we really value quality as a measure of a game’s worth. I wish everyone at IO all the best.
It’s always easier to blame the bigger boy, especially when he just put the makers of your favourite games out of work
Nathan Brown is Edge’s editor. Next issue’s column will be released one paragraph at a time over a 12-month period