There’s a right way to get people to pre-order. What Hitman’s doing, is not it.

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.

2016-02-09 16_40_07-Pre-purchase HITMAN ™ on Steam

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.

That’s it.

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.

Here’s a note on Torment’s item mechanicsMusic, and an introduction to Circus Minor. A look at some of the game’s companions.

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.’

2016-02-10 11_42_10-Pledge _ Codex _ Parts - Torment_ Tides of Numenera - inXile entertainment

2016-02-10 11_44_54-Beta Release Notes - Torment_ Tides of Numenera

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.

Trevor Coelho

Owner, writer, content janitor at Lizard Lounge
Writes things. Occasionally pokes head out a door or window. Looks around. Gets a bit scared. Then goes inside where it's nice and safe, and writes more things.
Trevor Coelho

14 thoughts on “There’s a right way to get people to pre-order. What Hitman’s doing, is not it.

  1. IO Interactive’s handling of this Hitman, since it was announced, has been a little slapdash to say the least. But they’re trying something new, cut them a little slack whilst giving them a little credit. And read the final section on their Beta FAQ (https://hitman.com/en-gb/news/hitman-beta-faq) “How will me playing the beta help the game?”.

    I’ve played the Alpha version of the Showstopper level and it felt pretty good. Aside from marketing a new episodic Hitman game, IOI know what they’re doing. They make a good Hitman game. I’m looking forward to playing the Prologue level, and from the trailer it looks like much more than a tutorial – the idea being that it can replayed numerous times, numerous ways.

    I was under the impression that this prologue would only be available to those that pre-ordered, exclusive content of sorts. Turns out that’s not the case, and I needn’t have bothered. But I’ll play it before it’s released and I’ll enjoy it I’m sure.

    1. They may very well make a good game, but they need to be letting the game speak for itself much more than they are now. The relative lack of footage bothers me.

      It’s almost as if they bit off more than they could chew, so switched to the episodic format to give themselves more time to work on the game. That’s also why I take issue with the beta even though I don’t mind preorders in general.

      People will purchase (or not) on the strength of the beta. But IO is only confident of one level in a very large game. And what people get in the final game could be nowhere close to their experience now.

      It’s the same as when people bought Arkham Knight because the first two games were good. Too much risk here.

      1. Arkham Knight was good! I bought it because the previous two games were good.

        There’s plenty of Hitman footage out there. You’ve got the prologue level, the Paris level and the Sapienza level, all showcased. I’d like to have seen more, but what can you do. They were upfront about the other levels still being under development.

        The episodic thing has been a bit of a bungle, and I think you’re probably right – they maybe found themselves with too much to do. But I don’t think the beta is cheap grab at sales. I think it’s for the dedicated fans who want to get a taste and maybe help them out with some feedback.

        Nor do I think people will buy based on the strength of the beta. Who’s buys on the strength of the beta? The beta’s gonna be fine.

        1. Whoops, sorry – I meant Arkham Knight on PC. Knight was great on consoles.

          And as far as the relative lack of footage goes, compare the amount of information that IO gave us for Absolution with the amount that we have for the new Hitman (https://www.youtube.com/user/hitman/videos). After the debacle of the nuns, I can’t say I blame them for being overly cautious about what they put out – but there really should be more information if they want people to preorder.

          I can’t help but compare the Hitman beta with the ongoing one for Homefront and the upcoming one for The Division. I’m already part of the Homefront beta from Feb 11 to 14. No preorder required. And The Division beta page only talks about how to get in on the open beta (http://tomclancy-thedivision.ubi.com/game/en-US/news/152-237962-16/announcing-the-division-open-beta). Again, no need to preorder. In fact, Ubi’s offering an in-game reward to people who participate in the beta, as opposed to asking for something.

          It really is the idea of ‘preorder to play beta’ that bothers me, because that isn’t a substantial reason to preorder. On the other hand, look at Deserts of Kharak. Anyone who preordered and didn’t have the original games got Homeworld Remastered free. Anyone who had both games already got a 20% discount. With a preorder incentive like that, when you know you’re getting something that’s worth more than the price you’re paying for it, I’m all for the idea of preordering.

          But ‘play the beta’ really isn’t much of an incentive. For me, at any rate. But, you know, you *did* preorder. Why is that? I’ve been meaning to ask. I’m very curious about what you saw in the beta trailer or whatever other information is out there.

          1. Why did I preorder? I guess I wanted to play it.

            This is what I talked about in my little ramble the other day. I wasn’t really sure how they’d convinced me it was necessary. I’m don’t normally go in for this sort of thing. I’ll volunteer for the odd beta from time to time, but wouldn’t ever pay for one. I guess here I figured I’m a fan, I’ve got the money and I’ll probably end up buying the whole thing anyway, so why not throw cash down and get all the episodes for a fraction less than if I bought them all separately ($60 vs $65?).

            The beta is just an added bonus. It’s new Hitman.

            For the most part I agree with you. The whole idea of pre-order incentives and season passes is bullshit. This is just a game I want to play. Hence my initial internal conflict.

  2. And having just played through the two training missions, I’m glad I got involved. Both missions are over pretty quickly, but there’s plenty of scope for replay and creative ‘solutions’. Looking forward to more in March.

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