Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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They’re releasing the new Hitman game bit by bit: one mission a month, set in a new and sprawling location. Good Hitman missions have always been replayable, but this time the whole game is built around it: a Challenges list tells you of the dozens of different ways to take out the target, an Opportunities system highlights little tricks they’ve designed to let you get the target alone, and a Contracts system lets players challenge each other to take out other targets in particular ways.
And it’s great. It takes a bit of getting used to: the levels are much higher security than Blood Money’s, so you pretty much have to use the Opportunities provided to get your targets alone, but there’s still lots of scope to mix that in to your own evil plans, and the levels are so much bigger, richer, and more complex.
But each of the big systems I mentioned does have some shortcomings, and their strengths suggest an even better way to embrace what makes replaying Hitman missions so enduringly fun. So first off, here’s where I think they fall a little short:
These are like achievements, and completing them is how you earn XP to unlock new kit – the main form of progression. But they’re an odd mix: some are single actions for which you’re rewarded immediately (eg drop a chandelier on the target), and others are more like play styles you stick to for a whole mission (eg leave no bodies or evidence). Because they’re so vital for progression, it encourages you to do the single-action ones, then reload your save and do another. On one mission I drowned, poisoned and strangled each of two targets, in that order, reloading my save after each kill so I could finish on the stranglings, since that Challenge requires you to do both in the same run. Because it’s how you unlock stuff, it encourages a weird kind of save-scumming murder tourism.
The other curious thing about it is that because Challenges are only unlocked once, the playstyle ones are only acknowledged once. I don’t know if I got Silent Assassin on my last run, because I’ve already unlocked it. Now that rating is just gone from the roster, as are most of the rest at this point. Now all I get is…
At the end of the mission, you’re given points for No Noticed Kills, No Bodies Found, Never Spotted, No Recordings, and for not killing anyone but the targets. This is all geared around one particular way to play the game, one that many of the Challenges require you to betray. But no matter what goals you set for yourself, or what playstyle you were going for, you’re always judged by how close it was to this One True Way of playing. Previous Hitman games also penalised you for not being subtle, but you’d at least get a phrase describing your playstyle: “Psychopath”, “Bagman”, “Thug”, “Silent Assassin”. In this one, you just get a score: 3 Hitman logos out of 5, for how Hitman you are. It seems completely at odds with a game that’s otherwise all about encouraging a variety of play styles.
Recommending is all I can do, because the Contracts system doesn’t recognise falls as a valid cause of death.
Contracts mode lets you pick anyone in the whole level and mark them as a target. Then however you kill them, and whatever you were wearing, you can choose to make that the requirements for this Contract, and challenge other players to pull it off. It’s a very promising idea that is rendered completely useless by a few things:
I’d break all of this down into two things: Stunts and Styles.
These are the single-action Challenges – kill the target with a chandelier, dress as the target’s lover, etc. Having these as a big list is great for making the player aware of all the crazy possibilities, and the only change I’d make is that these are no longer the way you unlock new equipment. Completing them checks them off the list, so you have a tally of how many you’ve done and can try to complete that list if you like. But nothing practical is withheld from you if you don’t, so there’s not an extrinsic motive to save-scum these unless you enjoy doing so.
A Style is just a set of rules, and if you finish a mission having abided by all those rules, you successfully executed that Style. There’d be a bunch of Styles set by the developers, including stuff like Silent Assassin:
And on your end of mission report, you get a list of all the Styles you executed. These become your Rating – rather than a single term like previous Hitsman, or a numerical score in this one, it becomes a full description of every noteworthy aspect of your performance. On this run, you were a Silent Assassin and a Master Poisoner and a Ghost. And for every one of those you’d never earned before, you get an XP reward toward unlocking new gear. On future playthroughs, you’ll still be awarded these styles if you met the criteria, but you only get the XP the first time, to encourage people to explore the possibilities before they settle on one style.
Then, every rule that’s used in these is also available to the player, to concoct their own Styles. You can see a huge list of all of them, and just click a checkbox next to each one to say it’s part of your Style, then give it a name. You can do this just to challenge yourself – ‘tracking’ a style would tell the game to let you know if you break any of its rules as you play. But if you manage to fulfil it, you can then challenge your friends to do it too, and upload it publicly. Any time you meet all the conditions of a Style a friend has created, it appears on your report screen – even if you didn’t know about it before.
Playstyles are the soul of replaying Hitman, they’re why I’ve done every Blood Money mission at least 8 times. Hitman Episodes is a step towards a game built around replaying, but in a few big ways it fights against its own idea of you replaying in different ways – always judging you as if you were trying for Silent Assassin, forgetting about playstyles as soon as you’ve done them, and not letting you define your own with any of the interesting restrictions the developers built their own Challenges from.
To finish, here are some Styles I’d love to be able to make and challenge people to, that can’t be done with the Contracts system:
– No weapons other than the fiber wire
– No unarmed attacks
– Never spotted
– No bodies found
So you can kill as many people as you like, as long as you always use the fiber wire to do it. This gives you no nonlethal options, so it’s avoid or murder.
– Poison Silvio with a tin of expired spaghetti sauce
– No weapons except the tin of expired spaghetti sauce
– No unarmed attacks
Poisoning with sauce is understandably not lethal, nor is hitting people with the tin, so you’ve got to figure out a way to actually finish off your unconscious targets without using weapons.
Something in the Water
– Kill both targets
– Poison only
– No unarmed attacks
– Never spotted
– No recordings
Kill as many as you like, as long as there’s no trace that you were ever there to do so.
Loud And Gone
– Kill both targets with the shotgun (only found on certain guards)
– Never spotted
– No other kills
I set this as a challenge for myself and did it tonight, it was great fun figuring out how to a) get hold of a shotgun, b) get to the target with it, c) get the target alone in a position that you can get away when everyone comes running to investigate the shot.
– Kill both targets
– Accidents only
– Never spotted
– No recordings
Again, no restrictions on killing, and doesn’t matter if the bodies are found, but everything has to look like an accident – and to sell it, no-one can know you were ever there.
More Game Design Ideas
Alex: Fantastic post! I wish IOI would hire you to work on this stuff. The only thing I will defend is the lack of saves while creating a contract. I think the idea is the creator has to be able to pull off their own contract perfectly before putting others to the test (since players don't get to save, either), and I like this idea. It worked in Absolution (I'd say contracts mode was the most well-executed aspect of that game).
Jabberwok: I definitely enjoyed the newspaper articles in earlier Hitman much more than the usual level scoring methods.
Personally, I find tying equipment unlocks to anything like achievement hunting to be a huge turnoff. Mark of the Ninja might be an exception to this, perhaps because I could unlock skills and equipment in any order I wanted. Except for the different outfits, but none of those really gate you from a particular play style. It can be upsetting to be forced to play the game certain ways before being later allowed to play it the way I want, even though the tools that would allow me to are already part of the game's design from the beginning...
JustSomeGuy: To echo the point Jabberwok made, it seems strange to change the gated unlock process from Challenges to Styles and assuming that fixes the problem. I can already see a Pentadact post disappointed with a setup that forces Tom to play missions non-stealthily to unlock certain items. The only way I can see it working is with a very complex unlock system where Styles can only unlock equipment related to the style, but that leads to a whole separate set of issues.
Easier just to gate equipment unlocks by time spent playing. As you progress, you get more tools to play with. Ideally, your base loudout allows for a wide variety of playstyles and nothing essential/beloved is gated behind x hours of gameplay. It's not as exciting to timelock things but it seems more practical than obligating players to fight their way through a level using a method they don't like - especially if said Style is tedious.
It now occurs that perhaps you meant items were unlocked after X Styles were achieved on a given level? That's a lot more interesting an unlock method, providing there are enough Styles that every player will enjoy the ones they choose. Of course, then you run into the problem of diluted Styles that don't feel distinct ('What is the difference between Viper and Rattlesnake?')
Gee... I guess games design really is tricky...
Full disclosure, I've never played a Hitman game, but I do read this blog a lot so I feel more than qualified to offer an unsolicited opinion.
(Answer: Viper is Poison and Unnoticed. Rattlesnake is Poison and Made a racket)
Tom Francis: Alex: Thanks! Could maybe support the thing you liked by having "No saves loaded" being an optional restriction you can add to your styles?
Jabberwok: I agree that'd be a risk with the game's current unlock order, which seems geared towards withholding the playstyle-enabling equipment for as long as possible. I'd change it so the first three things you unlock are poison, remote bombs and the sniper rifle, which I think are the three main things that enable new styles. There'd also be a lot of Styles, so even if you're only interested in non-killing styles or pure stealth styles, there'd be enough to unlock all the game-changing tools without straying outside of that.
Merus: Honestly I'm not entirely sure you need to have a linear unlock system. It seems to prioritise the experience of the player who has never played a Hitman game at the expense of players who have, which is a fair call, but it doesn't have to stay that way forever.
Perhaps, if you demonstrate mastery over the level in some fashion (e.g. complete Silent Assassin) you have the unlock system replaced with a store. The only real advantage is that you allow the 'expert' player the opportunity to buy certain equipment before they come up in the unlock sequence, but if they try to unlock everything, it all works out even. Newer players probably won't have the experience with the Hitman games to know which equipment is fun, so they need new equipment dripfed to them to encourage them to try each new unlock out.
iucounu: Totally agree with all this. The dull, naggy scoring system in Absolution seemed like a huge backward step from Blood Money, when the idea of having the newspaper give the mission one of a range of flavours was really clever - I much preferred "PSYCHOPATH SLAUGHTERS SIXTEEN" at the end of a messy but nonetheless fun Hitman mission to "1*".
They need to build in that direction rather than try fix the issues with Absolution. I feel like the game already tracks enough of the data you'd need to add support for styles, stunts etc and to turn that into procedurally generated newspaper stories.