There was much to worry about regarding the future of the Hitman franchise after the reception to Absolution, the first installment released after Square Enix’s acquisition of Eidos Interactive. Previous games in the franchise prided themselves on being sandbox stealth games, where players could use clever strategies to stealthily sneak around and assassinate enemies. While Absolution retained familiar fundamentals, specifically a reliance on stealth and protagonist Agent 47, the sandbox-style aspects were dropped in favor of more linear game design. It presented less options to the player regarding how they wanted to sneak through, and its longtime fanbase concluded that it was watered down to reach a larger audience. But it appeared to work out for Square Enix, as it sold extremely well despite missing its lofty sales target.
That’s why it was partly surprising to see Square Enix go back in the opposite direction for the newest title, simply called “Hitman” despite it not being a reboot. “Partly” because they realized they have to impress their main fanbase first, with changes they figured the expanded audience would also enjoy. The more dedicated audience was overjoyed with the return of the sandbox stealth missions, with large locations that allowed for multiple areas of entry to explore and take out one or more main targets. That it was released episodically gave the developers at IO Interactive plenty of time to craft large environments. The improved quality resulted in a higher critical reception from both professional reviews and fans.
Since Square Enix is a business, its sales also matter. We received some recent news regarding how much revenue it generated, and signs are not encouraging. While Square Enix reported how their software releases achieved record-high sales in the last fiscal year (going from April 2016 to March 2017), they also confirmed how they’re parting ways with IO Interactive. They’re currently in discussions to sell the developer to another company, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the Hitman series.
It’s difficult to tell how well Hitman sold on consoles, since it was a far more digital-focused release compared to previous installments, but its PC sales show how it faltered compared to Absolution. While the prior game sold 2.9 million copies on Steam alone, the new one has only sold an estimated 616,000. It doesn’t appear the physical copies released for the console versions back in January made up for this. Going episodic with this installment was a risk, and it’s sadly one that didn’t pay off.
It’s always a pity when this happens to great games that are improved over their predecessors. Its sales numbers show that though the franchise’s dedicated fans responded to it well, it didn’t hook a significant audience outside them. This could have happened for multiple reasons, including inadequate advertising (though it intensified for a bit with the retail release), intimidation regarding the game’s more “hardcore” structure, or those who didn’t like Absolution not wanting to give another IO-developed Hitman title the time of day. The early press about the game requiring that players be online to progress through each level also didn’t help, especially when it launched with server issues that sent players back to the game’s menu when they were disconnected. Those seem like small qualms on the surface, but they add up to explain the sales deficit.
This news is yet another example showing how cutthroat the AAA industry has become, where one sales underperformance can lead to the end of a franchise and, worse, the potential decimation of a studio. This isn’t even the first example of this occurring with Square Enix in recent memory, as reports suggest Deus Ex doesn’t have much of a future after Mankind Divided’s underwhelming sales last year. Developer Eidos Montreal is still intact, but they won’t have the resources or opportunity to handle another game between Shadow of the Tomb Raider and a Guardians of the Galaxy adaptation. Speaking of the former: This was in danger of happening to the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise after Rise of the Tomb Raider sold considerably less than its predecessor, but it still sold enough for a sequel to be green lit. Square Enix will also want a new game to launch close to the upcoming movie adaptation starring Alicia Vikander.
However, this may not be the end of Hitman. There’s a rumor going around saying the rights to the franchise will remain with IO if a buyer is found. A second season for the episodic series was planned before this, which could still happen if they become attached to a company with lower sales expectations. But keep in mind this is only a rumor, and it also depends on whether they find a buyer.
The AAA market is going through a rough time, with many companies cutting development teams and franchises that underperform loose. With how game budgets continue to increase, it’s tough to see this situation improving without a lot of franchises either having their budgets reduced, or being placed into the grave.