In May 2017, IO Interactive found itself in a precarious place: For sale. After its 2016 reboot of the Hitman franchise failed to meet publisher expectations, Square Enix, IO’s then-parent company, announced it was selling the company as part of a restructuring of “resources and energies on key franchises and studios.”
These days, according to IO’s co-owner and chief creative officer Christian Elverdam, the latest three Hitman games, which comprise the World of Assassination trilogy, have been played by more than 40 million people, thanks in part to the developer bringing more than 350 weekly and monthly updates to the games. It’s an impressive number, sure. But more importantly, it’s a far cry from the trilogy’s beginnings.
When IO launched Hitman in 2016, one of the biggest talking points around the game was its release structure. Rather than release the entire game at once, the developer opted for the episodic model – not unlike titles by Telltale Games or Life Is Strange developer Dontnod. What differentiated Hitman from the works of those studios, however, was that it was ostensibly a triple-A stealth action game released for $60, should players decide to opt-in for all the future planned content at once (a $34.99 “intro pack” was also offered, with the option to upgrade for $29.99 available).
“I recall when we were announcing Hitman in 2015 or something,” Elverdam says. “And people were like, ‘What? Is this a scam? Are you trying to steal our money? Why would I pay you sixty bucks for something that’s episodic? What is this?’”
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When Hitman was released on March 11, 2016, as IO CEO and co-owner Hakan Abrak puts it, sales were “historically low.” At IO, leadership understood this new release model wasn’t the kind of strategy that would net strong upfront sales; it was supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint, as Abrak says. “This is not a game where the first month you’d see eighty percent of your lifetime sales,” he adds. “This is something else. This is a longer relationship with people, and we’re going to build it over time and it’s going to be atypical for a single-player game, but it’s going to grow over time.'”
Square Enix didn’t share that vision, though, announcing it was parting ways with IO. At the time, the developer was working on Hitman 2, and had to let go of an undisclosed number of employees to be, as said in the company’s official statement, “better equipped for our future endeavors.” On the Square Enix side, pulling its investment from IO led to “extraordinary loss in the financial results for the fiscal year,” costing the company approximately $43 million, and leading it to sell IO to a new investor.
In June 2017, IO announced it had negotiated a management buyout with its former parent company. For the first time in the studio’s history, IO was now an independent developer, retaining rights to the Hitman and Freedom Fighters series.
With that independence came two big-and-intertwined things: challenges and motivation. According to Abrak, when IO became an independent developer, it only had three months’ worth of “cash flow” before it was bankrupt; the studio’s future was contingent on it being able to make good on its promises with Hitman’s content calendar.
“We said goodbye to people that did nothing wrong,” Elverdam says, referencing the studio’s layoffs. “It just couldn’t continue like that. But out of all of that misery was a light at the end of the tunnel, really. And there was something to go for. That is energy. That is raw energy, because then things happened.”
“After independence, I think three months after when we were ready with that content and we released it, we went from 1.8 million in one month to reach over 5 million users,” Abrak says. “It completely exploded from there and just kept going in the right direction.”
By May 2018, Hitman had 13 million players. We weren’t able to find data on Hitman 2’s lifetime sales, but again, Elverdam says more than 40 million people have played the latest Hitman games. In November 2020, IO announced that more than 70 million people have played the Hitman series since its debut in 2000 with Hitman: Codename 47.
IO partnered with Warner Bros. Games to release the second Hitman, and self-published the Game of the Year editions of Hitman 1 and 2. Hitman 3, slated for a January 20 release, will be the first proper new game IO has released as an independent company. It’s also the last Hitman game the company is developing for the time being, choosing to focus on new projects like the recently-announced Project 007. After 20 years with the franchise, the end of this era of Hitman is the beginning of IO’s journey as a wholly owned studio. This parallel isn’t lost on Elverdam, who says he finds this fact fitting.
“In a way I think it’s poetic that Hitman, in its prime in a way, was the beginning for IO as an independent company,” Elverdam says. “Right now, it’s also the beginning of IO as an independent company, because the first title that we launch is the ending of this conclusion. And that feels super good, to be honest. I think the World of Assassination trilogy, because it will be a whole when you look at it, I think it’s super strong. I’m super proud of it. I’m super proud of what we achieved. That this is the first thing that we launch makes me feel really good and really comfortable about the future.”