Hitman: Absolution Interview with Tore Blystad

By Richard Pilot

Back in August, during Gamescom 2012, we got a chance to sit down with Tore Blystad, Game Director for Hitman: Absolution. We got to chatting about the new game, in particular the design considerations that go into creating a hit in the game, the playtesting sessions of the game and why they decided to create Contracts mode instead of a multiplayer experience.

AAG: So to kick off, can you describe Hitman: Absolution and what makes it different from the previous Hitman games.

TB: Yes, well this is the fifth game, its built on brand new technology, which is kind of tailor made for Absolution. We have basically taken the old games and looked at every single area and tried to improve it into; something that is as good as we think it can get. It’s a bigger, more ambitious game, in every single way. It’s far more focused on this kind of cinematic, dramatic storyline following Agent 47 while still retaining the game play of the classic games where the player has full freedom of choice however he may go about the game. This has been a big challenge for us obviously, to marry these two things that sound like they are polar opposites. And on top of that we have added a new mode that is called Contracts that you may have heard of, where we allow the players to select any character from any level in the game as a hit; they can create this hit and they can share it with their friends or online.

AAG: What can you tell us about Agent 47's journey? In the last game [Agent 47] sort of died and came back to life, how can you top that?!

TB: Hah! Yeah, that has also been a challenge for us. We knew we couldn't top that, so what we said was that we want to create this very personal story for him and that is tough when you have a character that basically has no personality. He has no emotions, he is only driven by logic so the only thing we could do was take something that was at least remotely close to him, more or less his only friend in the world, Diana Wormwood. [Tore went into some detail regarding Diana’s role in the early portion of Hitman: Absolution. To avoid spoiling players, we have decided to remove this section of the interview] It allows us to create a story that is far more close to the character as opposed to the player because now the player understands why there are targets in the first place, why they deserve or have to die. They may know their back story from earlier in the game so when they finally meet them they will have a stronger reason for that. It might not be a good reason and the player might disagree with that but that is all part of the tension between Agent 47's story and the player going through the game.

The hat suits Agent 47

The hat suits Agent 47

AAG: Moving away from the story, can you take me through the design process for a level? There seem to be so many different moving parts!

TB: Yes, its not easy. Usually it starts from a very simple concept. It could be sparked by an idea from a movie or a certain outfit we want to have him in or just a feeling that we want to create in a level. We basically say how can we make all these areas interesting and different because we want the pacing to be changing as the player goes along because we feel diversity is very important in a game like this. So we make a basic template first, then we start designing every element of it and as we do that we are constantly playtesting it and seeing if it works. And usually it doesn't! The things we thought would work are like “Ok, this just sucks you know, this is way too linear, we are just funnelling the player through a corridor.” So we then pump some holes in this corridor and create new rooms here and suddenly the area changes, then we add some new characters here as well and mix it up. It is constantly evolving and what we showed at E3 last year, has evolved quite a bit, because we got the feedback that we got but also because we can see in the design that it simply didn't work well enough; for instance disguises for whatever reason or if you try to go in all guns blazing it was terrible with the gunplay because the covers didn't work. So we are constantly revisiting the levels and adding complexity, not for the sake of it but because we know people want to play Hitman in so many different ways and we want people to have fun with it however they approach it.

AAG: Does that mean the design is a very collaborative process? Did someone have an idea and then just ran with it?

TB: You could call it a mess! All the different groups are working together. You have level designers who are sitting in the middle. Then you have the level artists that are building the graphics, you have lighting artists who are wanting to so something more dramatic. You have the audio guys will want to score it in a certain way. You have the character artist and the cutscrene guys and everybody is kind of charging for content out of the writers. They are looking around thinking “Ok ,we should create some cool dramatic scenes here, here and here” and the level design is then like “if you want to do that how am I supposed to create gameplay because now you are blocking my path here.” Then I have to punch a hole in this wall to go through because I don't want to sit here and wait for this stupid conversation and the level guys, the artists are shouting “you can't punch a hole here because then you are ending up nowhere, what should I do! “ So they are constantly fighting it out and the animators are coming in and saying I want to make this scene cool and dramatic, I just need them to walk out downstairs but it doesn't fit because you change the graphics! So they fight it out and we get to look at it.

AAG: Who wins?

TB: Well I hope I am wining a lot of the time but it really depends. We are trying to see what is the most important for every area. So here this animation is really cool, we really want to show it off and then the light artist comes in and says “Fine I'll make this look really cool” and it'll come up so you want to see it and the conversations are interesting so you also want to listen in and say this is actually quite funny this little moment here. If the game play is already quite charged at this point it also means that you have to run it by someone. It is, as you say, there are so many moving parts so it can be quite difficult to direct a team in a project like this. And on top of that of course there is the playability, meaning the subtle directions we want to give the player. The little hints and suggestions, especially if you are playing in normal mode. Then you might be one of those players that doesn’t want to decide everything for yourself, you want to be told or these things might actually be interesting and you can use them for something.

AAG: How did that system come about, was it feedback from previous games or was that something you wanted to put in?

TB: Yes, we knew that the [previous] games were quite punishing to the player. We also wanted to make a game that can be enjoyed by players and they didn't have to play it for a lot of hours to enjoy it so the thing is that the game is far more flexible. You go in and you can push the game, of course if you go in and start just killing, the game and the NPCs will be quite upset and you might have SWAT teams because then they think “You want a fight, we will give you a proper fight.” But if you then pull back they will start looking for you in the levels in whatever way they can and eventually they will go back to a more kind of hunt mode but still being more static in the world so you can start to strategise again to get through the level. You never have to restart the level and try again, which was quite a common way of playing the old games. We saw when we did earlier testing for this game, we would have the classic Hitman players coming in and that was exactly what they did. They played the game, they met a little bit of resistance and then automatically they start restarting and the others were saying that they don't have to do that anymore. You can do all these other things and they'd try it and be like, “oh you can do all these other things!” Then they started playing around and they went through the game and maybe they were not very satisfied with their performance so they would go back and revisit it and improve their play.

AAG: So was that part of your playtesting, bringing in fans who have been used to playing it for a while?

TB: Yeah, both those people and new people too. We found out through tough lessons that people that are new to the game, they don't understand necessarily that this is a game where you have a lot of choice. They are so used to, I mean, in the gaming market now there is so much direction in games. You are so used to being told exactly what to do and if you don't do this you will be killed and if you do it again it will happen exactly the same way. But it is not like that in Hitman, anything slight will change the outcome. You might have an ultimate goal that you have to end up here or your have to kill that guy over there, but however you choose to do it.

The dead body probably gave away his position

The dead body probably gave away his presence

AAG: So, a few months ago you announced sniper challenge.. How has the reaction to that been?

TB: The reaction has been great. We were very happy to see that fans enjoy it. We were worried that taking only one mechanics from the game and condensing that down and shortening it would be problem. But even with only a sniper rifle there all these different choices for you and there is such a big variety when you play through it. It was basically, you could say, an ambassador for the gameplay in Absolution. And also in terms of style and content all the concepts you see in sniper challenge is taken from areas in Absolution so when you go back and play it through you will see, ah here is this guy, this is how his story fits within the game.

AAG: It seems to be very different from classic Hitman, in that you are on a fixed vantage point, you have got the entire level in front of you. What were the design implications of that

TB: We really had to think a lot about the movement of the NPCs. And also, one thing, its surprisingly never been brought up is that instead of having only one target which is the classic thing, there are actually 15 targets because all the bodyguards are actually second targets. And of course the reason for this is that you need so much movement and you need so much challenge and diversity. So you also need a lot of different targets to take out, if not, the challenge will be lost.

AAG: Is there a temptation to release more content like that?

TB: I would love to do it, at least from a design point of view this is a very different way of thinking about our features but there’s no official word on that.

AAG: You have just announced contracts mode. Do you think that sort of challenge based approach is more suited to Hitman rather than the traditional multiplayer?

TB: Absolutely, we have been working side by side with the Kane and Lynch Team in IO which have been making a multiplayer mode that is very tailored to their game and I think it works really well for them. We also have the expertise in-house to do multiplayer but we were looking at it and we couldn't really find a way for it to fit, especially with Absolution, with Agent 47 and with this very personal storyline. It felt tacked on.

AAG: From a storyline point of view or from a game point of view.

TB: Well in a way both. With gameplay it is so based around you; against the AI, you are finding a way to deal with the situation as you see fit. If you suddenly have two of you, you'll have to find out together how to deal with it and of course it can be fun but for us it felt like then we have to build so much a separate game out of the this and it felt like we couldn't create both this and the game at hand. Contracts mode came about and it seemed like a much better fit with the game.

AAG: How far through development were you when you decided to do that? Did you have to go back to levels you had already created and start to tweak them a little bit to get that system in?

TB: Well it came about quite early in the process as an idea and it kind of bounced around and we tried to find different ways that it would fit. We were discussing what if it was a level editor, it sounded like a natural thing but usually these editors, they tend to be very hardcore so that you would only have a very few people in the community that would be doing it and a lot of it would be rubbish because they didn't test it properly. Usually if you make a level in a game of this magnitude, just testing one level might take months to weed out all the problems with the AI and all the bugs basically. So we said we had to scrap the editor idea so well basically lets try to just say if you play the game you are actually creating at the same time, although that sounds really strange. It will never work, so we said “well lets try it out” and someone built a prototype and we found actually its really fun. The first time you do it you find out it is a challenge to yourself because, most people at least, instantly want things like, I am going to make something really difficult because I don't want anyone to figure out how I did this. I want to show how good I am. So it means that the first thing you do it trying to select the target that seems like he is impossible using a weapon that is seemingly impossible to obtain and then escaping in some kind of an unexpected way. Then you can create a free text about it if you want to say this target deserves to die for some inventive reason that you find out. Usually we see that players, they go in and then they play through a section like the library. If you play through it in story mode it might take you say 10-30 minutes based on how you play. But if you make a contract in there you might be in there for three hours just figuring out the perfect hit inside there. Then you come out and 10 minutes later someone has got the whole thing done and its like “How the Hell have they done that?” He's an asshole and he is on top of the list and he beat your score and now you have to beat him back. Then it becomes a competitive hit because now we know someone actually one up’ed you, so you have to beat him back.

Wouldn't it be terrible if someone were to slip over? Actually, that would make things easier.

Wouldn't it be terrible if someone were to slip over? Actually, that would make things easier.

AAG: You mentioned at the very beginning that Hitman uses the new Glacier 2 engine. So tell me about that, why did you decide to make a new engine rather than using something off the self?

TB: We were looking of course, at off the shelf solutions but there is both a creative decision and a tactical one. On the creative side if you create your own technology from scratch you can tailor make it to the game that you are doing. That is exactly what we did with Hitman: Absolution, especially with the AI which is the most complex part of the engine. Making that work in a way that every single NPC in the level and in the whole game has the same amount of depth to them is something that enables us to make contracts work because it means any NPC in the game can react to you, anything that do basically and this is something, its been the biggest project that we did within the production of the game. And we are still finding mistakes here and there, we are kind of weeding out these and its getting robust now to a point where it should work.

AAG: If there was one feature in Hitman that you don't think has been talked about enough, what would it be?

TB: I do think disguises have been kind of underplayed, its been kind of buried a little bit due to instinct and point shooting and the rage from the community: “Where are the hits? There is too much action“ and all this stuff. Actually we have spent a lot of time to reboot the disguises, there’s are far more of them this time and there is also the strategy of how you move around when you are in a disguise to make use things like hiding in plain sight with these objects placed around the room. So if you are a scientist in a lab you can find the science tables and pretend to do some experiments. If you are police officer you can pretend to eat some doughnuts in a corner, just kind of survey the scene. Everyone can imagine you are just part of the scene and just talk to you as if you are one of the them and you can also use an instinct we call blending in, where you can use your instinct powers to blend past officers that are close to you. This is something that changes the gameplay quite a lot, it also changes the appearance of the character in every single level and in so many different ways. Its something that changes your perception of yourself when you play the game and its also some way that many people want to express themselves by dressing up, its something cool, and that something they can also use in contracts. You find the scarecrow outfit and take it into a level like the library where of course it is completely out of place but it also really changes the context and it makes it look probably more like a horror film then a Hitman game.

AAG: Thank You.

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