Hitman: Codename 47 arrived in November 2000 to mixed reviews, but IO Interactive knew that its story was just beginning. Let’s open the dossier on Hitman and see how Agent 47 came to be.
Video games let you take on the personas of a wide variety of interesting people. Two decades ago, an ambitious team from Denmark composed of demoscene veterans and film industry talent jumped into the PC gaming space with both feet, creating a stealth action game that would kick off a massively successful multimedia franchise. Let’s open the dossier on Hitman and see how Agent 47 came to be.
Meeting of the Minds
European computer culture evolved in a very different way than it did stateside, with machines like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore Amiga remaining commercially viable there in the face of DOS’s dominance. A coterie of enthusiast programmers worked to squeeze every last drop of performance out of these home computers, creating “demos” that combined graphics and sound in innovative and daring ways.
One of those groups was Zyrinx, a Copenhagen-based collective. An American company, Scavenger Inc, realized the untapped talent in the demoscene and flew several teams, including Zyrinx, to Los Angeles to develop games. Even though Scavenger folded after a few years, the experience convinced the Zyrinx crew that they had what it took. They returned to Denmark, teamed with another studio, and began work on an ambitious fantasy MMO called Rex Dominus.
Denmark’s lack of traditional game publishers presented an obstacle, but an unlikely partner stepped in: Nordisk, a film producer and distributor looking to get into the software market. The companies merged to create IO Interactive. They felt Rex Dominus was a little too hefty for a first product, so refocused the team on something a little more doable: a third-person shooter inspired by Hong Kong action films, as was the custom at the time.
Shave Your Head
Coming up with a lead character is one of the most important elements for an action game, and the team iterated on a pretty cool one—a genetically engineered super-assassin with a barcode tattooed on the back of his neck to identify him. The creation of Agent 47 then inspired the team to craft an introductory mission where he steals a guard’s clothes and escapes from the lab he was made in, and everything changed.
Although the shooting in the still-untitled game was perfectly fine, it wasn’t that much different from any other game on the market. But with that first level, which prioritized stealth and cunning as opposed to all-out gunplay, they realized that they had something much more fun. Throw in an innovative ragdoll physics system that let players drag corpses out of sight, and suddenly it was a whole new game. Publisher Eidos agreed to distribute the game and assigned producer Jonas Eneroth, who had just helmed the similarly sneaky Thief: The Dark Project, to guide the game to completion.
IO refactored every aspect of its shooter around Agent 47’s new abilities. Each level required players to scheme out a way to access and eliminate a target. Direct confrontation with enemies was possible, but would often end badly for the player. Instead, subterfuge and imagination were key. Hitman: Codename 47 released in November 2000 to mixed reviews, but IO knew that its story was just beginning.
Bringing It Back Home
The core crew from Zyrinx had primarily worked on console games, so the many challenges of developing for Windows PCs presented a struggle. But by the time IO started thinking about a Hitman sequel, the PlayStation 2 was already showing that modern consoles could handle ambitious, challenging projects. The next game, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, would be a console-first experience.
The company increased staffing and set out to not only make a new game but also fix the numerous complaints players had about the original. They knew that it might be their last chance to make this studio work, so they polished the game’s risk and reward systems to a fine edge. Players were now incentivized to complete assassinations with absolutely no collateral damage, and the tactics that Agent 47 could bring into play were even more varied.
It was a massive, studio-saving hit and Eidos rapidly pushed for a sequel. Unfortunately, IO wasn’t staffed up to make one in time, so they compromised with Hitman: Contracts, which repurposed content from the first game with quality-of-life improvements. It was also a massive hit, which led to Eidos buying the entire studio in 2004. Hitman: Blood Money followed, to even better reviews.
IO’s origins in the film industry made it a logical step to spin the character off into movies. In 2003, shortly after the release of Silent Assassin, the company entered negotiations with production companies; 20th Century Fox eventually bit and picked up the rights. Vin Diesel was attached to star, but after a few years in development, he pulled out and was replaced by Timothy Olyphant.
The production, however, was troubled. French director Xavier Gens clashed with the studio over the level of violence in the movie, and was removed from reshoots and denied final edit. In an even more humiliating move, the film’s opening sequence was pieced together out of footage from the Fox sci-fi show Dark Angel. It was critically savaged but made a decent amount of cash. Olyphant declined to come back for the sequel, telling the press that he’d only done the first movie to pay for his house.
A decade later, Fox tried again with Rupert Friend in the lead role for Hitman: Agent 47. This one fared even worse than the original—9% on Rotten Tomatoes as opposed to 15%—but still made a profit. Talk of an “Eidos Cinematic Universe” featuring Agent 47, Lara Croft, and characters from Deus Ex, Thief, and Just Cause thankfully never came to fruition.
Changing the Plan
2012’s Hitman: Absolution represented a low point in the franchise, as much of what made the games so memorable—gripping difficulty and open-ended missions—was tossed to make for a more casual-friendly experience. Eidos’s new corporate owners, Square Enix, recognized that everybody involved would be better off stepping away and rethinking what they were doing.
That rethink created a second act for Agent 47 that was both critically acclaimed and innovative. Hitman (no subtitle) was released in 2016 with a bold new episodic structure. IO realized that the core of the experience was the puzzle-like nature of each level, and invested heavily in AI and crowd simulation dynamics to make those puzzles even richer and more complex.
Hitman also embraced the “game as a service” trend, doling episodic content out to players throughout the year. One of the biggest complaints about prior titles had been the lack of replayability once levels were mastered, so using the tech to constantly dole out new missions was a huge step forward. The new “Elusive Target” system was a test for truly expert players, giving them a single chance to take out a tricky mark.
Changes were afoot at IO as well. Square Enix, which had absorbed Eidos a few years ago, didn’t think they were an appropriate partner for the franchise anymore. In a bold move, IO’s leadership performed a management buyout, returning the company to independence once more.
Hitman 2 did what you expect a sequel to do: iterative improvements without any big changes. The upcoming Hitman 3 will mark the close of what was planned as a trilogy of games, with the future of Agent 47 unknown. It’s the rare franchise that can span two decades with the same protagonist, and we’re curious to see what IO plans to do when it returns to his adventures. The Hitman games definitely benefit from the technological advances over the last 20 years—the bits where you have to blend into a crowd would have been impossible a few console generations ago—and we can’t wait to see where they go next.