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Hitman's Elusive Targets are about to become more difficult

Couldn't assassinate The Forger, the first of Hitman's Elusive Targets, when it was released recently? Don't expect things to get any easier.

Hitman's first Elusive Target -- a time-limited, one-chance only assassination -- was released just recently, and barely half of the players who attempted the mission found any success. You can expect that percentage to drop for future targets, as it seems like Hitman developer IO Interactive is set to bump up the difficulty of these one-off contracts even more.

We spoke with lead online designer Torben Ellert recently to find out what the team at IO learned after their first Elusive Target, and how they're planning to improve the Hitman experience for players.

Does listening to and then implementing audience feedback make development a lot more difficult? My assumption would be that because you're listening to all this feedback from the episodes you've already released, that your goal posts are always shifting.

Yes, is the short answer, but we only have a certain amount of resources so we need to focus. I think that the holster animation is a good example. That's the kind of thing that when you're making cold, hard production decisions, you say, "Holster animation, cut." But we could see that this was really important to people. They felt that it added something that was maybe out of proportion to its cost and the time it'd take us to do it, but we had some time in the studio and we had some available animators, so... holster animation.

Square Enix

So, yes, the goal posts move but sometimes they move closer. People say that they have expectations of how the game should be and what the content should be and sometimes that's doable and sometimes it's not, but it means that we can actually be realistic as the game is being played.

It goes back to Hitman: Absolution. Scoring was busted, and the economy in Contracts mode was just ruined, and the disguise system was really punishing. Of those three, the one that we could fix was the disguise system, so we made some changes and we patched them. The others, we simply couldn't, for many reasons: technical, economic, and resources.

Coming out of Absolution, I sat with our team and we asked: if we wanted a game where we could add in a new mission, just kind of slot it in like a Lego piece. If we wanted to re-balance scoring, add a new challenge, tweak menu flow, improve menu performance, and we didn't want to patch, or patch as little as possible; how could we change the code base from Absolution to another? Those decisions brought us to the technological platform that we have today.

You've recently released some Elusive Targets in Hitman. How did that go?

What I can tell you is that of the people who took him out, 10% managed to be silent assassins. Which is lower than the story mission, but it's also a much higher intensity experience.

Elusive Targets are an idea that we had knocking around for a while. We built the first one just a year and a half ago, but it became clear that we needed to have something that felt more like a fully fledged experience. So when we started working on The Forger -- which is the first of the Elusive Targets that we built -- I sat down and I did a complete rewrite of the script and took the decision that we were going to give him an accent and he was going to be a little bit extreme, because you have to remember him, right? You have to notice him. So when you hear the guy speaking in the French accent, it's like "Wait nobody talks like that, what's going on here?"

What have you learned so far from the Elusive Targets you've released?

We probably want the first couple at least to be quite approachable experiences, because it's really important that we make it clear that these are not impossible missions. Yes, they're tense, because if you screw up, you're finished. But they're totally doable. I think we need to keep that for the next couple, but as we go down the line, we will improve on their perceptiveness, where it makes narrative sense. For example, if you were going after a high-ranking politician, he would know by face everyone in his security detail, so we would eliminate that dominant strategy of just putting on the bodyguards uniform.

Square Enix

We would harden up some of the approachables for him, but as my creative director [Christian Elverdam] said when we were designing the first couple, "Torben, don't forget you're up against the hive mind." So, I don't think we can make one that's impossible to complete, I really don't.

You think 48 hours is the right amount of time?

"I don't know" is the short answer to that. Is 48 hours starting at 6 a.m. ET, is that the right place? Does it need to start at 6 a.m. Central Time? Does it need to be eight hours on a Thursday afternoon? We don't know is the short answer. We will discover this as we go forwards.

How often are you thinking of having an Elusive Target?

I would like to say often, but I don't have a clear answer for you. I feel like it's an important part of the tripod of our live content, which consists of Contracts mode, which is not great, we'll improve that, and Escalations which are these purely game mechanical challenges, and Elusive Targets which are much closer to the pure fiction. That's the tripod that we need to stand this proposition on.

So, speaking directly about Marrakesh and the upcoming Episode 3, there is this situation brewing with the consulate where protests are occurring. Does that situation continue to escalate while you're playing the game, or is that fixed? Is there a way to impact that situation?

Yes, there are ways to impact it, and there are, as always, moving parts that you can discover. I won't spoil it, but what I'll say is that, the banker and the general (the two main targets), their relationship is a lot closer than the news would put it, if you were living in that world. They would be unrelated but in truth, they're probably quite closely related, and playing the level and completing opportunities will reveal that to the player.

Since you launched the game, what would you say is the most significant improvement?

Server performance. It blindsided us that it would happen. I feel we were diligent in trying to hunt these things down, but it underlines the strength and perhaps the challenge of being a game like this. You go, and then your game has been played for tens of millions of hours within the first couple of days. And you can't test it to that scale. So for all the cases that you think you simply don't see in your tests, suddenly become major clusters of events. So, I'm really happy that we've reduced it, we've put in place countermeasures that have improved performance across the board. Do I wish that that hadn't happened? Absolutely, but I feel we've done everything in our power to improve and are continuing to improve it, but it's a consequence of the creative decision that we've made.

I mean, there's been some hysterical shouting. "Oh this is DRM." It's not. The client and the server have a symbiosis -- there are rules and game experiences that are being executed server side and the game is shipping off the telemetry to the server and the server is resolving it and putting it back. Do I wish it was smoother? Absolutely, but I stand by it. Because I honestly feel that the flexibility I get as a dev to improve the experience that my players are having, to see what they're doing, to reach out to speed runners and challenge creators, to make new experiences, is worth it. But I completely acknowledge that we need to improve that.

How much better of a game is Hitman now than when you released the first episode and how much more is there to improve?

I feel like it was a finished game when we shipped it. If there had been seven levels, it would have been hailed as Blood Money 2. We wouldn't be having this discussion, but it is a better game now because of what we've seen people do. The fact that it's live and adapting over time makes it a better game and a better common experience.