A few hours ago, I read a press release about the Hitman beta that rubbed me entirely the wrong way. Everything in it rankled. And it took me a while to figure out why. Here, I attempt – and perhaps succeed? – at explaining why the Hitman beta represents a preorder scheme done magnificently wrong. If you have a different opinion, a differing opinion, do share. I’d really love to hear what you have to say.
What is a beta?
Not the Hitman beta, but a beta in general. In essence, testing of unfinished product. It involves a version of the game that’s released for a (comparatively) small subset of the public to play. The developers can roll in feedback from a larger group than they would have otherwise been able to access through testing that they conduct internally or with their partners. They’ll get an understanding of how players will interact with the game and have information about scenarios that they could not possibly have worked out for themselves during the testing process. It’s a good thing for the developers, provided action is taken on the feedback, and a good thing for gamers who want to participate in the testing process.
For those who enjoy a peek behind the curtain of games development, the opportunity to be a part of a relatively raw version of a game and watch it transform into a finished product with time and polishing can be a fascinating experience.
But in essence, it’s meant to iron out bugs. To make sure the game releases in a playable state. And that it is not the next Assassin’s Creed: Faces Go Missing in Paris; or Batman: Did I Launch on the PC by Accident? It’s sure as hell not a privilege to play a buggy, unfinished game that, essentially ruins the first impression of a game that you might very well have been looking forward to playing.
And, it’s sure as hell not something that the larger developers should be monetizing.
Not a goddamn privilege
I cannot stress this enough. Players who enter a beta, who play the game, who provide feedback, are helping the developers out. They are, for the duration of the game’s beta, its testers. The ones who work to help the developers knock the game into shape. When that’s acknowledged, I’m happy.
Like the Torment beta, for example. inXile was upfront, consistently, about backers getting beta access and Steam users being able to get Torment via Early Access if they wanted in on the beta. Their messaging and communication was consistently about working together to make the game better. Here’s one example. This is the kind of attitude that works for me.
What doesn’t work, is glorifying the idea of beta participation and using it to push preorders of a game that a) isn’t out, and b) will be released in episodes with no confirmed dates for anything beyond the first one, making the investment an incredibly risky one.
Here’s language from the Hitman press releases.
December 5, 2015
Play the beginning. The HITMAN Beta is set twenty years in the past at a top-secret ICA recruitment and training facility. This extremely unique mission revolves around how Agent 47 was recruited into the ICA and shows the first time that 47 meets his long-time handler, Diana Burnwood.
The HITMAN Beta is available on February 12th for PlayStation 4 and PC a week later on February 19th. Pre-order the game to guarantee access.
January 14, 2016
For players wanting to get into the game early, the HITMAN beta starts on February 12th on PlayStation 4 and February 19th on PC. Players can guarantee access to the beta by pre-ordering the Full Experience or the new Intro Pack.
February 3, 2016
Pre-order now live: All pre-orders to include the ‘classic’ REQUIEM pack
Pre-orders for Io-Interactive’s much anticipated new HITMAN™ game go live again today. Players will be able to pre-order the ‘Intro Pack’ or the ‘Full Experience’, both of which will guarantee access to the upcoming beta.
Each time, the beta is being pushed as some sort of glorified, limited access experience, allowing players to get their hands on Hitman early if only they’re willing to spend money for it. But surely, the Hitman beta is offering value for money, yes? The Torment beta gave players access to roughly ten hours of gameplay. That’s a good, solid amount of time to get a feel for how the game plays, how comfortable you are with it, and so on. What is the Hitman beta offering?
Not value for money
First, here’s the trailer that talks about the launch of the beta.
What follows is straight from the press release that drove me to write this in the first place. It’s the entire second paragraph of the doc.
Labeled “The Prologue”, the Beta takes place twenty years before the Paris Showstopper mission. Set in a secret ICA training facility, the Prologue features a pivotal moment in Agent 47’s life – his introduction to the ICA and very first meeting with his future handler Diana Burnwood. The Prologue features two free-form training hits, which will introduce players to the features and mechanics of the upcoming HITMAN game. The Prologue will also be available as part of the first episode of HITMAN releasing March 11th, 2016.
So … the tutorial?
At least, that’s how it sounds. I wish there was more information to clarify what I’ll actually be able to get my hands on if I pre-order, but the only thing that came after was marketing spiel about ‘the only way to guarantee access is to pre-order’, along with information about the Requiem pack, the Sarajevo Six which is PlayStation only – another thing I take issue with, but I’ll save that rant for another time, maybe – and the beta dates.
The video provides very little information about the two hits other than offering a glimpse of the locations. And the absence of pretty much all useful information – how long the levels are supposed to be, for example – does little to raise any degree of enthusiasm. In me, at any rate.
There’s no feature discussion. There are only a handful of videos out about the game. Even the trailer that came with the press release featured very little gameplay – slow motion yanking people, slow motion people falling, slow motion Hitman staring at people. In my opinion, that’s nowhere near enough. But am I being unnecessarily harsh?
Surely, IO has given us plenty of reasons to be excited about the Hitman beta? Surely, I am a crazy person?
Er, no. (But I am a crazy person.)
Let’s look at the other Hitman trailers, shall we? On the official Hitman YouTube channel, there’s the announcement trailer, the E3 2015 gameplay trailer, the Showstopper playthrough (15 minutes), EGX with David Bateson, Welcome to Sapienza, the Beta teaser, and the Beta launch trailer. The ones I’ve listed here are those that feature in-game footage to some degree. And, from this, you’ll notice that the longest look at gameplay we’ve gotten is 15 minutes.
Now, let’s look at my favourite example, Torment. Swing by their Kickstarter page, check out the updates in the weeks leading up to the beta. Here’s what they did. A three part article series, each dealing with a different aspect of the game. I can understand their reluctance to show footage because in a game so plot-heavy, virtually anything can become a spoiler. But they handled it well.
There’s a clear understanding here of what information matters to someone who’s going to play an RPG and, despite not actually showing gameplay, they did the next best thing. And it worked. They offered me a compelling enough reason – through world building, through character building, through the interesting ideas behind the game’s items, they convinced me to check it out on Early Access. And they cemented my decision by saying, essentially, ‘Let’s build a great game together.’
Hitman has offered nothing. Literally nothing except pre-order rewards. Specifically the Requiem pack, the Sarajevo Six, and access to the beta. There isn’t much of a look at the content on offer beyond too many trailers with too much slow motion. They haven’t said, “We’re looking forward to hearing from you.” or “Participate, talk to us, we want to know what you like.” or anything to that effect.
The only thing they’ve done is consistently shove the need to pre-order in my face by pretending that access to the Hitman beta is somehow a grand thing which, in fact, it is not. It is not a finished product, it is not even the Showstopper mission. It’s an introduction to the game and, in the worst-case scenario, what sounds like barely more than a couple of tutorial levels.
IO is, in my opinion, trading on Hitman’s legacy, on the fact that there are people out there who love the franchise, and using that affection to get people to invest in a product without giving them a good reason to do so.
There’s a right way to get people to pre-order. This isn’t it.
The right way
But if you want a game that did ‘convince people to pre-order’ right, look no further than X-COM 2. That approach was brilliant.
For the bulk of December and January, it felt as though every time I looked at YouTube, there was a new X-COM 2 video up. Someone was playing the game on Legend, someone was showing off a Retaliation mission, someone was trying to survive the attack on the Avenger – there was so. much. gameplay.
I felt as though I knew enough about the game, from the incredibly detailed videos, to be able to make an informed decision. I wasn’t keen on X-COM 2 before all of that footage came out. I pre-ordered after watching a couple of dozen videos.
And I haven’t regretted it. I love X-COM 2; 19 hours later I’m thrilled that I was able to pre-load the game and fire it up as soon as it launched. But I especially love the way they convinced me to pre-order. By being confident in their product, putting all of the information I needed out there, and then letting the game speak for itself. And X-COM 2 made a pretty convincing argument.
Why can’t Hitman do the same?
Instead of pre-order bonuses and platform-specific exclusives, IO simply needs to say “This is the product, here is a good long look at it, decide.” And if enough gameplay footage is made available, I’m fairly certain that pre-orders will be through the roof. What happened to me with X-COM 2, will happen to others with Hitman.
I was watching developer playthroughs of X-COM 2 missions and Christopher Odd’s excellent series and telling myself, “Holy shit, that looks awesome. They’re having a blast. I want that.”
Only gameplay can do that. No amount of carefully assembled, marketing-department-approved trailers with unnecessary slo-mo and other assorted magic will achieve what a single, one-hour gameplay video can do.
And IO really needs to figure that out. Because there is a right way to get people to pre-order. An effective way. A good way. What they’re doing now, is not it.