At this point in the studio’s history, the Hitman series has been with IO Interactive longer than anyone working in their office; no one in the company worked on every entry into the franchise. For 20 years, the name IO has been synonymous with Hitman and its protagonist Agent 47. While the developer has created other games, such as Kane & Lynch, Freedom Fighters and Mini Ninjas, the vast majority of its releases have summer Hitman Games. But Hitman 3 is the end of an era. To cap off the World of Assassination trilogy that began in 2016 with its episodic reboot of Hitman, IO is stepping away from its most iconic franchise – at least for now. And there are a lot of emotions associated with this fact.
In many ways, the story of Hitman is the story of IO Interactive – especially given the later years of the company. Still a cult niche series, while 2016’s Hitman didn’t make the comeback that Square Enix, then IO’s publisher and parent company, wanted, as CEO and co-owner Hakan Abrik puts it, the company has “lost confidence. In the franchise – although, admittedly, he seems to understand Square’s decision.
“It was called a Trojan horse strategy, you just have to get people involved and if they like it, they’ll level up,” Abrik says. “Maybe we’ll get a lot bigger volumes at the start and hopefully we can convert these people if they like the game. That was the strategy. The skepticism and ‘What is this ? ‘ and “Is this an early access from a major publisher?” and so on, it ended up being historically low sales – a historically low start. “
“And over time, even our publisher – and owner – lost faith back then,” he says.
In May 2017, Square Enix announced he was selling IO Interactive as part of a restructuring of “resources and energies on key franchises and studios”. Rather than wait to be acquired by a new company, IO negotiated a management buyout with Square, announcing in June 2017 that he was, for the first time in its history, a fully independent developer and that he would retain the Hitman intellectual property (IP) rights. We’ll have a more detailed story about IO as an independent studio on the website in the coming weeks.
It was IO’s faith in the Hitman series and himself as a developer that drove them both to success after the takeover. According to IO co-owner and creative director Christian Elverdam, between Hitman 1 and 2, thanks to over 350 weekly and monthly updates, the games have reached over 40 million players.
Hitman 3 is the company’s first release as an independent studio, but it’s also IO’s last Hitman game in quite some time. It marks the end of this chapter in Agent 47’s story and the end of this chapter in IO’s story.
“I think I’ll cry when I do,” says Hitman 3 game director Mattias Engström. “It has been a race and a joy to work on this for so long.”
“I think for me the nostalgia isn’t so much about the current game, because it will live and it will be live and people will play it,” adds executive producer Forest Swartout Large. “It’s more about the privilege of being able to do the third iteration with this bunch of extremely talented and really great people who care so much about their jobs. I don’t know if it’s going to get any better than that.”
In November 2020, IO ad he worked with the James Bond license on a 007 game, specifically focused on Bond’s origin story. Project 007, as it’s currently known, is the first non-Hitman game IO has been working on since launching Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days in 2010, and its first new IP as an independent studio. Even though this has been done on other IP in the past, both Abrik and Elverdam recognize that their company is considered the Hitman studio. A game like Project 007 is one way to go beyond that, they say.
“Hitman and IO Interactive are obviously very, very closely related,” says Abrik. “But I think, going forward, IO shouldn’t necessarily be referred to as ‘The Hitman Studio IO Interactive’, but first and foremost, people should think of IO Interactive as IO Interactive first, creators of different IP and place of creativity where Hitman is certainly one of our children, but there will be more in the future. And one of them is 007. “
“If you also think about the future of Hitman, if you think about the future of the Bond franchise, we’re in a place where we feel curious and hungry, creatively,” Elverdam adds. “If you think about what Bond would be, what Hitman would be like in the future, hopefully you’re like, ‘hey, these guys certainly seem … interested in trying to take new places in games.’ “
Elverdam rejects the idea that IO is leaving Hitman behind. In fact, he says it’s not the end of Hitman’s intellectual property at all. As he points out, the recent Hitman game series, which began in 2016 with the Hitman reboot, has always been touted as a trilogy; Hitman 3, as the name suggests, is the conclusion to this part of Agent 47’s story. There is no real reason to believe that IO will not return to Hitman in the future; it’s perfectly reasonable to think the studio will, given how iconic the series is to IO. But given what the developer has been through in recent years, moving away from Hitman for now, closing this chapter of Agent 47’s story with Hitman 3, seems fitting, Elverdam says.
“In a way, I think it’s poetic that Hitman, in his heyday in a way, was the start for IO as an independent company,” Elverdam says. “Right now it’s also the start of IO as an independent company, because the first title we’re launching is the end of that conclusion. And it feels good, to be honest. I think the world of the Assassination trilogy, because that will be a whole when you watch it; I think it’s super strong. I’m super proud of it. I am super proud of what we have accomplished. That this is the first thing we launch makes me feel really good and really comfortable with the future. “