The failure of Hitman: Absolution meant that when Square Enix chose to divest Project 007 studio IO Interactive, some offers were as low as a single dollar.
In an interview with Edge magazine, Hakan Abrak, CEO and co-owner, speaks about the difficulties that IO had faced in the years before it began work on Hitman (2016) and eventually went independent: “[Hitman] Absolution was a tough, tough production. The game took seven years. It was completely over budget.”
At the end of those seven years, Abrak says that “whatever was hot back then had changed. It was DOA. Having worked so hard, and made people work so hard” – Hakan describes “two years of brutal crunch” to get the game over the line – “and then that dissatisfaction, feeling that it was our fault…” Absolution was a failure – commercially, critically, and with the fans.
The work was thrown away, and Abrak and his team started work on the game that would eventually kickstart Hitman’s World of Assassination in 2016. That game, pitched as a more elegant version of Agent 47 than the one seen in Absolution, was originally turned down, but when a management shuffle put Abrak back in charge of the series, work could continue.
That period saw the creation of Hitman 2016’s structure, as Abrak told engineers, “We need to build this game like an MMO,” and Square Enix pushed for an episodic approach in line with Life is Strange, which was released in 2015. Abrak would eventually liken the game to a “Trojan horse” – the idea was to sell smaller pieces of a game, episode by episode, with the polish of a major game, but not necessarily the size of one. “Would that be a good way of breaking the barrier of the niche and making a bigger [selling] game?”
The answer to that question was a resounding ‘no.’ Abrak describes Hitman 2016’s early commercial efforts as “absolute shite.” Players were opting to wait for the full release, and “our Trojan horse was burned down before it even got to the castle.” Nevertheless, Abrak believed “we’d made the best Hitman game, and we knew that this was just the start.” Unfortunately, Square Enix disagreed.
Fewer than 90 days after Abrak took over as CEO in 2017, he received a call from Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda explaining that IO was being divested from the company. After the commercial disappointments of Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, and Hitman, in addition to Absolution, Abrak says that decision was “reasonable,” even if it came as a shock at the time.
It proved difficult to find a buyer. As Abrak points out, “You have millions of dollars monthly burn running a studio like this. And obviously, looking at the books, IO had not made money for almost ten years in a row. Some companies would offer $1 to take over IO, because of the responsibilities and running costs and whatnot.” Other suggestions included an 80% reduction in headcount and a free-to-play future for the series, something that Abrak said he would “not be part of.”
Eventually, IO bought its independence, paying more than that $1 fee, and leaving Square Enix with a minority share in the studio. With only three months of revenue left, Abrak was forced to make his own layoffs and negotiate with Sumo Digital for financial assistance, but eventually, those three months became six. Hitman 2 was cheap enough to continue to keep the studio afloat, and that paved the way for Hitman 3, and eventually IO’s new games, a fantasy game, and a new James Bond game, Project 007. That’s been its own adventure – elsewhere, Abrak has spoken about the James Bond license holders’ lack of desire to make a game, and how it was Hitman 2016’s return to a more elegant form of assassination that convinced them.