GAME FACE: Paying for Promises

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It is a universally acknowledged fact, that a AAA publisher in possession of a lot of cash, is in want of more cash.

It’s become an amusing pastime of mine to observe all the different ways these various companies decide to go about this. It’s a bit like the story of Fantastic Mr Fox, but instead of trying to hoodwink greedy farmers out of their poultry, they’re trying to subtly coerce customers out of their hard-earned paychecks.

This time on ‘publisher purse squeezers’, Square Enix and their developer IO Interactive have decided to jump onto the episodic bandwagon. During their appearance at last year’s E3, Squ-enix announced that the new Hitman title (appropriately named ‘Hitman’) would be released as an episodic series. What that essentially means is that instead of just releasing a new Hitman game as one complete boxed (or downloaded) copy, it will be released in parts across a period of time.

The first of these ‘parts’ was released earlier this month to fairly positive reviews. Most sites are praising the episode as being a return to form for the series. For example, Polygon reviewer Arthur Gies notes how the game’s world and mechanics allow the player to make their own decisions when navigating the level with an aura logical realism. However, Gies, along with several other reviewers, has criticised the episode for featuring numerous technical issues; such as glitches, slow clunky menus and rushed voice acting.

It’s just frustrating that Square and IO have decided to release the game in such a fashion. To have something so promising, be but a glimpse into a possible future, must be so aggravating for Hitman fans old and new alike. There’s no guarantee that the rest of the ‘season’ is going to be anything like this first part: Square and IO could quite easily decide to take the game in a completely different direction further down the line.

So why on earth did they decide to make Hitman into an episodic series?

Square and IO made a statement made back in January; wherein they cited reasons such as a desire to “to hit the quality level” that players have come to expect with Hitman and enable the company to “respond much faster to feedback”. However, as we’ve already seen with the release of the first episode, Hitman‘s level of quality has already come under criticism. It seems as if the future of the game appears to be relying on whether Square and IO actually listen to player feedback, and who those lucky voices are.

With things the way they are in the games industry right now, publishers like Square are terrified of not meeting profit margins and underselling their games. Having to produce an entire, very expensive, game all at once may appear like too much of a risk right now. So to be able to split that into smaller ‘parts’, sell those first, and then make the rest of the game might seem like a much better alternative. To be able to start making a profit straight away, without having even released a full game yet, seems like a win-win situation for Square.

But ultimately, it’s the players that suffer from this awkward arrangement. On the Hitman website, for example, Square are encouraging customers to fork out £45 for the entire ‘season’ in advance, which feels like a particularly daring move in light Capcom’s recent Street Fighter V disaster. Soon each episode could feel like a piece of meat sparingly cut from a much larger joint; a joint that’s slowly getting colder and more congealed with each slice. How relevant is Hitman going to remain? The release dates for the next episodes haven’t even been announced; customers are not being provided with any clear idea of where their season pass money is going, and how long they’re going to have to wait until they actually get everything they’ve already paid for.

Are Square Enix possibly trying to ride off the success of Telltale Games? Telltale have built a stellar reputation by producing episodic games based on well-known licenses, such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. The difference here is that Telltale’s titles inherently suit such a format. Rather than just being split into pieces, they fit because of their cinematic/television show style and choice-led gameplay.

Concerns are also being voiced for Square’s much anticipated Final Fantasy VII remake, which is also being split into ‘parts’ for its release in the near future. This is a baffling decision, more so than the one made for Hitman. In a blog update posted by producer Yoshinori Kitase, he explains that the main reason the game will be split into parts is because they want to make sure that no content is cut. But with games as large as CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 managing to provide hundreds of hours of content on one disc, this feels like a flimsy excuse.

Also, the game’s reveal back at last year’s E3 should have been indication enough that Square are sure to make a significant profit; a Final Fantasy VII remake is not exactly much of a financial gamble. Additionally, the decision to split the game into parts has already upset a number of hardcore fans who are desperate for a true remake of such a beloved title.

Who knows what the future holds for Hitman and the Final Fantasy VII remake? Let’s just say, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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