Another excellent podcast interview with Hitman III's executive producer, Forest Swartout Large

#18 - Hitman, Work-Life Balance, and Game Production with IO’s Forest Swartout Large

GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) Podcast interview with executive producer of Hitman III Forest Swartout Large

Notables:

Forest Swartout Large felt that the pinnacle of her long career was in putting together the Berlin map in Hitman III (10:20)

Forest discusses how Hitman VR was conceived within the team from the beginning of Hitman III and how challenging it was to create (15:39)

Forest talks about reaching total burnout in completion of Hitman II and also reveals other personal challenges (30:54).

Forest explains challenges of the Hitman III development team working on Hitman III through the COVID-19 pandemic (37:30).

Forest was initially prepared to ship Hitman III originally with “robot voices” for NPCs because of lack of being able to bring in sound designers and voice actors in the sound studio (38:35)

Forest discusses how IOI had been acting independently from Square Enix way before they were sold in 2017 (40:29).

The “aim logic” in Hitman II was changed just before release, and this was a big deal (46:43).

Some working at IOI were not crazy about the focus on story narrative for Hitman III but this was pushed by Mattias Engström the game director (51:59).

There was ONLY ONE gameplay programmer working on Hitman III, nicknamed “CLANG” and he was assigned to the Hitman VR team, not to regular Hitman III.

(In a previous interview, Forest revealed that there was only ONE lighting artist on the Hitman III team).

IOI knew that they would receive flack for not introducing new features and new mechanics in Hitman IIII because of the constraints of not having a gameplay programmer available on Hitman III (52:47).

Forest says that she would be happy to be involved in a weekly podcast discussing Hitman (59:34).

Forest gives a great interview. Warm and charming personality. Comes across of a lover of working on video games. Video game development is “her jam” as she calls it.

Forest raves constantly in interviews at how incredible her colleagues are who are working at IOI.

Forest says that she and others on the team are comfortable juggling multiple IPs at once.

Forest says that she is currently on holiday, but is confident in the rest of the team working on the Seven Sins DLC while she is away.

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extremely eye opening!! i wish people would seriously understand how hard it is to produce games and make everything come together without everything falling apart

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According to credits, Hitman 2 had 10 gameplay programmers. Hitman 3, 5 gameplay programmers. Two at IOI, one at Mi’pu’mi Games and two at Big Bangs Per Second. Hitman 2’s Lead Gameplay Programmer (Eduard López Plans) is the Founder of this new Spanish studio and now work on both HITMAN and Project 007 as external partner.

The podcast is interesting, thanks @David_Spafford

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Yes!

  1. When the executive producer of Hitman III who has more than twenty years of video game development experience, had complete burnout working on Hitman 2, you know that standard video game development required so many hours of effort and stress that it deeply affects your health.

  2. Denmark has a 37.5 hr work week, and Forest tried to coax others to work within this number of maximum hours, although Forest often have trouble working below the maximum number of hours.

  3. Forest loves making video games, and really puts in the hours knowing that their efforts really please the fans, and loves working with such an excellent team at IOI.

  4. You have to think of the team being a big family rather than as a corporate entity. Not everyone working at IOI liked the choices of game director Mattias Engstrom in pushing the story narrative for Hitman III. The choice of having the sixth mission, as a linear, narrative driven, metaphor as an “assassin constrained to follow a life’s path set by his handler like a linear train” was controversial within the team at IOI, but everyone got behind the vision.

  5. Hitman III was created under budget and personnel constraints which limited what could be created in Hitman III. Forest’s job as executive producer was mostly to say “No – we don’t have the time and budget for this”. Hitman III did not have budget overruns and was completed on time because they kept to a strict game plan without allowing for bloat and feature creep.

  6. Forest made it clear that Hitman III was built on the faith that the gaming community would appreciate “just more Hitman”, a most polished version that this expert team could bring in a third iteration of the same game. IOI didn’t have the budget of time and personnel to do much else but make the best version of Hitman for their fans, knowing that they would be criticized for not changing the formula enough.

  7. Hitman III was also constrained because they ended up having to put more of the Hitman III team on Hitman VR. IOI were compelled to make Hitman VR, but had no idea how to make a VR game and had no clue how much effort it would take to make.

  8. COVID-19 put a wrench in the cogwheels in making Hitman III. Absolutely “crazy” was how Forest describes making Hitman III under COVID restrictions. IOI couldn’t have voice actors in the sound studio with their sound engineers. They couldn’t do mo-cap with the standard team together on the mo-cap stage.

  9. IOI had paid for mock reviews of Hitman III before release of Hitman III to get a sense of how well Hitman III would be received.

  10. Square Enix paid for most of the cost of developing the engine and prototypes for what became the formula of the Hitman Trilogy in the many years before the release of Hitman2016.

  11. Before coming to IOI, Forest was working on the Tomb Raider series with Crystal Dynamics under the umbrella of Square Enix Europe, who also supported IOI.
    Crystal Dyamics and IOI were running their own show under Square Enix Europe long before IOI’s WoA Trilogy was conceived in 2012-2016.

  12. Square Enix Europe really let the different development teams drive their own destiny. IOI was always fiercely independent, and separated from Square Enix long before they were cut lose by Square Enix. I have a sense that Square Enix Europe found IOI’s independence too annoying.

  13. Forest, Executive Producer of Hitman III put it out there that she not only enjoyed giving the GDC podcast interview, but would be game to participate in a weekly podcast on “Hitman”.

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I guess this settles the “VR will not negatively impact development resources” argument finally.
Also one lighting artist and one gameplay programmer in total. Now it is clear why there is such horrible lighting and no improvements to e.g. contracts mode.

Quite the eye opeming, honest, podcast. Thanks for that Forest :+1:

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i wouldnt mind if Travis/Clemens brought her on some IOI Monthlys to talk, but i think those are on hold because of COVID atm

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I think that if everyone knew of the reality of “how the sausage is made”, that is the millions of dollars of cost and labor, the complicated coordination of multiple, specialized teams working on different aspects of game development, the constant requirement to adapt to a rapidly changing environment of new technologies required for triple AAA game development, you would more wonder how any modern game is made at all, and these forums would be less of a dump-fest on the video game developer for what they haven’t done for the consumer.

Not saying that consumers don’t have a right to complain and have high expectations in the 21st Century, but it is almost a “miracle” that any AAA video game get finished and released at all with any sort of polish.

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Yeah, for what it’s worth, it’s pretty miraculous the game came out in the shape it did.

Well, that explains a lot. I suppose that means we should temper our expectations of the DLC too.

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I really hope this podcast changes some attitudes I’ve seen on the forums. One of the reasons that prevents me from being more active in the community is the amount of venom that a lot of people throw at IO. They are one of the few AAA companies that actually cares about their community, and yet people do nothing but talk shit about them. Just look at the DLC threat, at least wait for the damn thing to come out before calling them scammers.

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I think that cake941 is onto something in having the executive producer and other specialists at IOI (which applies to all video game companies) to educate the public via podcast or twitch or Youtube about “how the sausage is made”, and be more frank in relating how challenging video game development is.

I don’t think that it always helps IOI’s cause to raise expectations in marketing flashy videos of upcoming paid DLC content without detailing what they are marketing for their profit.

Better in my humble opinion, for long term marketing sake, for AAA video game companies to spend more time humanizing the industry and explaining the limits of what they can do, in order to manage expectations.

Video game consumers have every right to have high expectations, because video game companies create ultra-high expectations for themselves (which they can’t always meet), and over-market what they are delivering to the consumer.

Part of the blame for the backlash and lack of trust from the video game consumer are created by the video game companies themselves who set too high expectations for themselves.

The consequences of high expectations is a substantial human cost in the rampant mental burnout of employees at video game companies, and consumers who are lead to believe that they are entitled to expectations for video game companies that is beyond what can be delivered.

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At this point I don’t expect anything in terms of new gameplay mechanics from the Hitman series - I didn’t before 3 came out either. But what bugs me is letting something you’ve already developed go to waste, which is how I would characterize the continuing neglect of the Contracts feature. There are so many different features that have been common in escalations since 2016 that could generate dozens of amazing challenges if players were allowed to use them. It would require programming and resources, yes, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the content it would generate for them, at no additional cost, via the community. I’ll never question why there are X number of maps instead of Y, because I know it involves tremendous resources beyond my comprehension. But seeing something that’s already made just rotting on the shelf is what gets me.

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With the unexpected profit they made they started hiring people so i’m sure it’ll only get better from there.
They mentioned new ‘features’ like bringing over all the items you had on one level of the escalation so i think they do have a programmer for that now. Might not be ‘at home’ in the code or engine so they would still be minor additions but escalations will definitely get more playful.

See? This just proves that my instinct to shower them with money is correct. They all worked so hard to put this game together and it succeeded on every level I care about. Take my money and enjoy a cocktail on me.

(I don’t actually know what my purchase is as a percentage of what they get but I hope it’s at least the equivalent of $10)

Stuff like this really helps put it in perspective. I say that knowing full well that said perspective gets away from me as well, even if I dont post it here.

Between the burnout, coming in under budget, the limited staff for specific roles, and even at one point considering robot voices for NPCs because of constraints, and still managing to pull everything off in the end it makes me appreciate the game more, even if it’s not perfect.

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Definitely eye-opening and shocking to see that – wow, last year really sucked.

It’s nice to see, however, confirmation that the reason this entry doesn’t feel as different as Hitman 2 did to 2016, is because of such a small number of gameplay programmers, staff, and the ability to have everyone close together in communication. (Not that I mind too much, as H3 is my favourite entry in the trilogy – it’s just so concise and hits all the right notes for me.)
But wow. We could have had robot voices. Thank god they pulled through.

They did a really good job given the circumstances. I’m stunned, since we (or just I) could barely tell they had any development issues at all in the lead up to launch and release of the base game.

This kinda makes the reveal of the 7 Sins DLC a bit more palatable, since this understaffed team in charge of H3 now has a huge wave of support and success with how well the latest entry has been selling, that they can add on some more post-launch DLC, probably wasn’t in the cards when development on H3 was starting. Hopefully they can make something good out of it.

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I understand the dedication and hardworking involved, and I sincerely thank the entire IO for Hitman 3. But, some pointers make little to no sense. Why focus on VR and majority of your dev resources in creating something you barely understand, on an inferior platform that doesn’t justify your quality and performance of your game, rather than focus on the core gameplay, adding new things and overall improvements.

Yes, hitman 3 is the most polished in the new trilogy, but, it’s the same game released thrice with slight improvements, additions like briefcase and maps.

Since the reveal, IO has been shady about showing improvements and I’ve been very vocal about it.

I hope in the future, IO gets its priorities straight, have enough time and resource to make a proper game, which expands upon industry standards rather than something that’s just there.

Hitman 3 is an enjoyable game, but it’s the least played in my case because of ‘the same things’ releasing over and over again.

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I do think this more comes with the problem of having the Trilogy of games with support for what was previously released. As it gets harder adding new features and gameplay with then and adding them to previous maps which were not designed for them. The amount of testing what would be required would really take away from the testing of new maps.

Plus it looked like they really set a strong gameplay loop with targets and really locked it in for the maps which makes it harder to add new features in general. (Berlin map felt like even the Devs got a bit frustrated given how heavily scripted and restrained the Sniper in that map had to be).

I figured the trilogy would stick to the core gameplay loop so was not overly fussed with new gameplay features or changes but am ready to see new things with a new Hitman set of games and 007 with new core gameplay setups and features.

With VR, my guess is it was more a get that experience under their belt on a more budgeted game so can have options later. PSVR might be with a deal for Sony for some extra funding. Though whether the deal with Sony is time limited, will have to wait and see.

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You are correct that putting resources into Hitman VR was not a move that didn’t altogether doesn’t make business sense if making piles of cash was the end goal.

However, if you consider IOI less as a corporation and more as a close knit family of artists, then you can understand how Hitman VR came about.

Two highly vocal and passionate senior members of the team were big fans of VR. And it is in the DNA of IOI to take risks, innovate and be creative. Hitman VR was an outlet of passion for them, and they appeared to have loved the challenge, and they thought it was incredible cool thing to do.

Financially it was possible to make Hitman VR because of Sony’s backing, which cushioned the costs, and probably IOI wouldn’t have done it had it not been for Sony’s financial backing.

If IOI were still a company run by a bunch of financial executives in a board room, they would have nixed the VR idea, but the company from the CEO down, are not financial executives, but a family of artists, both needing a challenge and a creative outlet.

Multiplayer Hitman probably evolved as a passion from inside the team too. IOI had not made a multiplayer game before, and multiplayer was not necessarily a great fit for Hitman, but they went ahead with it anyways, with the end goal just as much about taking up a challenge and being innovative and creative as something that was to be profitable.

A small company has to innovate or die.

Hitman III was the most polished iteration of Hitman that IOI had made of the trilogy, but it is coming on nine years (since 2012-2013) that IOI has been putting together the World of Assassination Trilogy.

The company wants to move on from Hitman, because they want to be known as a company that does more than Hitman, and Hitman becomes less and less satisfying for the team to work on because it is not as innovative or risky to work on anymore.

Hitman has become a safe bet and now their biggest money maker ever for them. But because their drive is to be innovate and be creative, they are leaving Hitman, ironically just as most of the public has now figured out what their social stealth game is all about. IOI has created a monster for themselves that somewhat constrains what they can do if they continue making Hitman.

I think of the Seven Sins premium DLC as a safe, but more creative outlet for the team to work with within the Hitman universe. They can be a bit more creative and innovative, and not be constrained by the overall story arc of the Hitman Trilogy.

IOI are likely to go hog wild into each of the Seven Sins. It is likely to be incredibly playful and fun, but will not be something that costs them much in time and money to produce. It is coming out too soon on the heels of Hitman III’s release to be something really big.

I do think that they purposely pushed ahead with announcing the premium DLC earlier than expected out of homage to their core fans and generally in response to the overwhelming positive reception to Hitman III. I think that IOI was expecting Hitman III to do OK, but it is clear that the level of success of Hitman III was way beyond what they had expected.

You can go back and watch the videos of the team in 2014-2016 talking about their new vision of Hitman after Absolution, and IOI completely did what they set out to do. And while the public was not responding well to their idea of an episodic release of Hitman in 2016, they continued pushing on in making Hitman episodes, even with poor sales of Hitman 2016. The team was depressed, mentally stressed and demoralized from the poor sales, and nearly went bankrupt in the process. There were two major sets of layoffs where more than half of the company was let go. Now IOI are done with Hitman, had their final farewell to the Trilogy, but the gaming community isn’t necessarily ready for IOI to move on from it.

Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in the world, left basketball to play minor league baseball. He was terrible at baseball. He looked stupid. He didn’t get paid well to do it, but Michael Jordan had done all he could do in basketball, and was willing to fall on his face and look stupid, because he needed a personal challenge. His handlers told him, “Your crazy man. Your going to ruin your reputation”, but he didn’t care. He needed to do it for himself.

I think that IOI will always keep a little team working on a series of premium DLC packages for Hitman over the next many years as a bridge while they develop a series of other new, creative, innovative IPs, which are not Hitman.

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Also note that VR experience is a skill to have or not to have. Hitman VR did not turn out the big thing, yes, but now IO has the capabilities to do VR stuff for the future. There might not even have been the intention to make money with it in Hitman.

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I suppose this is off topic with what everyone else here is discussing, but I enjoyed hearing a woman speak about the inner workings of IO. I know we have seen Mette and maybe one other woman speak about working with IO, but it’s still nice to hear. :slightly_smiling_face:

Also, it really is amazing how Hitman 3 is getting all these raving reviews when it ran into so many development issues. Never realized how much mocap and voice acting went together in this particular game.

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