We’re getting a new Hitman game on December 8th. Usually, this would be cause for celebration. But instead, we’re very concerned about what is could mean for gamers and the way video games are released. If you hadn’t heard, Hitman will only release digitally this year, at the full price of $60/£40. However, it won’t be a finished product, not even close.
IO Interactive said: “What we release on December 8th is not the full game. It’s a sizable chunk of it. Throughout 2016 we’ll release more locations and missions until the story arc is done and finished. All of that content is included in the $60 price.”
We’ve had successful episodic releases before with The Walking Dead, Resident Evil Revelations 2 and Life is Strange, but they’ve been a fraction of the price (about £15 for a Season Pass) and we’ve had a good idea of what we’re getting into. Better yet, there’s usually a demo, or the first episode generally only costs a few notes. If you don’t like it, you’re not out of pocket that much.
Square-Enix want you to buy a part (sorry, “sizable chunk”) of the game for full price, with an IOU promise that the rest of it will turn up eventually. It’s not quite the same as an Early Access title as IO is keen to iterate: “Early Access can often mean something unfinished or unpolished. That’s simply not the approach we’re taking,” and “All of the content we release live to our players will be complete and polished, whether that’s the locations and missions we release on December 8th, the live events or the locations and missions that we will release in 2016. It will always be a polished Hitman experience.”
Granted, by the time the full Hitman game is out there, we’ll probably have something akin to a regular sized full-price game, but the only real winners of this release model and the December launch are the publishers, Square Enix.
Square have ensured that their game will remain full-priced for an extensive period of time as digital titles don’t depreciate in value at a similar rate to disc-based releases. This is also similar to laying a preorder down for a game a year in advance. You’re committing money upfront to an idea, to something that -in part- hasn’t even entered development yet.
Reviews are going to be a daunting task for us if we cover the base-game in December. It’s unlikely we’ll assign a numbered score to it, as we generally don’t on episodic releases until they’re whole. And if you invest (gamble) in Hitman’s initial release, you’re stuck with it thanks to the lack of any trade-in value or refund potential on digital stores.
Do we really want developers to start releasing games so far in advance of them being finished? Wouldn’t we rather get a full game for our £40/$60? Instead, we could see a disturbing change in the industry that involves playing a game for a few hours, and then having to wait months for the next chapter.
Square have given no indication of how long we’ll have to wait between story DLC drops and we all know games are prone to delays as development progresses. Paying upfront for the eventual whole ‘experience’ is a risky proposition in this industry too as there are no guarantees about how much content will be released. For all we know, Square’s idea of completing the story could be a few short hours tacked onto the end of December’s launch. Exactly how much game are we going to get here?
If you think big-name games/studios aren’t likely to avoid completing titles, may I point your attention to Lego The Hobbit, which released months ahead of the third film, with the promise that the final part would be released as DLC after the movie. That is until Traveller’s Tales/Warner changed their minds and said they weren’t bothering, leaving the game a third short of completion. They’ve had plenty of time to work on new (glitch-ridden) Lego titles though. ‘We have your money already, so fuck you’ is effectively what we’re staring down the barrel of.
I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement in the existing episodic model for other games. With most of Telltale’s output and Life is Strange, we’re waiting at least six weeks between episodes as the developers frantically try to finish making the game in the interim periods. If TV episodes were six weeks apart, it would be a disaster. I’ve no idea why publishers/devs think this is an acceptable model.
Capcom seem to have a much better take on things. With the episodic Resident Evil Revelations 2, they essentially finished developing all of the episodes, and then released them in successive weeks (like a TV show). This made it much easier to follow the story and kept the game’s momentum flowing nicely. Compare that with slumbering through the opening scenes of a new Life is Strange episode trying to put names to faces and it’s clear which works better.
Going back to Hitman though, gamers will have alternative options if they are willing to wait. At some point in 2016, the complete game will get a retail release. Pricing hasn’t been mentioned there, but I’d assume it’ll be full price. And the digital version will presumably stick to its price until completion, with potential temporary discounts in the sales perhaps.
There will be ‘events’ to keep Hitman players entertained between story drops, but details aren’t forthcoming at this time. I’d bet an appendage they involve leaderboard-based challenge modes, which aren’t exactly massive draws or a genuine source of longevity.
All in all, let’s nip this in the bud early. Developers and publishers, if you want gamers to hand over £40/$60 for a game, it damn well better be finished. We want to reliably know what we’re buying into because it’s a product that fully exists, evidenced by reviews and active discussion between friends or forum posters. Here, you’re asking for a blind purchase and in all honesty, Hitman wasn’t the best candidate for this sort of release given Hitman: Absolution’s rather lukewarm reception.
It’s important to remember, readers, the most powerful influence on the future of any release model is you, the consumer as you can vote for this with your wallet. Be a gamer, not a guinea pig.