Interview: Hitman: Absolution’s Roberto Marchesi, Art Director at IO Interactive

by on July 16, 2012

We recently got the chance to have a sit down chat with Roberto Marchesi the Art Director at IO Interactive about the upcoming game Hitman: Absolution. Here’s what he had to say:

It’s been a while since the last Hitman game. Were you surprised by how many people are excited for Hitman: Absolution?

We were pleasantly surprised. We know that the fan base is very vocal and very committed to the game so we do have an idea of how much love there is for the franchise and it’s just nice to see that we are on their map again now that we presented the game again.

You did something really innovative with the release of Hitman: Sniper Challenge. It’s never been seen before. Is this something you expect to see other people do in the future?

Definitely. I hope that people from other companies don’t hate us for it because it does create a huge [amount of] work. After all it is a full-on sniper experience that we’re delivering, six months prior to release so it’s no small pre-order incentive. It’s been a huge success for us and I honestly hope that it gets picked up because it is good for the game and it’s also good for the industry because it can help push some of the boundaries and make pre-orders actually worth having instead of just doing something that is tagged on later on.

Hitman: Absolution - Cityscape

Obviously you want to make the game to appeal to as wider audience as possible. How hard it is to make a game where both guns blazing and stealth approaches are fun and challenging?

Well, I think it’s important to know the fact that there is no right (or wrong) way to play Hitman: Absolution. There are not only two approaches. There’s everything in between. There’s some stealth, some social stealth, you can escalate [the] action of areas and then try to contain the situation or you can go in guns blazing. There’s all shades of grey in there. Hitman: Absolution is a very complex game to master and it can give a lot back, and a lot of rewards, if the players are willing to master them. I’m talking about the more hardcore players now who will want to explore every little detail of the gameplay, but we also want to take in people that are less focused on this pure professional experience, we have to create a game that does cater for them too, and can respond back in a way that, if they are pushing at the NPCs in a certain way. they will react in ways that are believable and also fun to play. We clearly understand that when a player makes mistakes, it doesn’t mean that the player didn’t understand what we are telling him but it’s just a matter of him/her testing new ways to play.

You replaced the overhead map with the new Instinct mode. What was the reason behind that? Do you think that people will be happy with the change that you made there?

I think that people will be very happy with the change because what we wanted to do was to keep the player in the action. The previous map actually yanked the players out of being in control and gave them a top-down view of the world. Instead of that, it gives you all the information right to your fingertips and then it’s up to the players to sort out what they need at that point of time. It’s not something that we just developed. We did a lot of user research and we do try to test this stuff out and we are very open to feedback both from the fans and from the people that we get into the studio to test the game. We do realise that it’s a very powerful tool and it does streamline the experience and it keeps you engaged and it doesn’t let you drop out of the game. This is all part of making the game more natural and easy to understand.

The presentation you have showing at E3 takes place in a small American town which is very evocative of the 1950’s. How did you go about designing that? Did you have any particular inspiration for it?

The inspiration for the town was taken from a US trip. Pretty early in the process of creating this game we needed to realise that the game must take place in Chicago and we had a trip there and took as many pictures as possible and got a lot of inspiration out of it. You’ll see though that it’s not 1:1 Chicago, it’s our interpretation of the city and the same goes for the City of Hope that we showed you in the demo. We wanted to have not a stereotypical representation but an artistic one that showcases a very run-down version of the town. When you play the game and you experience the story, you realise why that town is the way it is and how big of an influence the main villain has had to this location.

Hitman: Absolution - The Prankster

What I noticed whilst playing the demo was that the music was used not only to give a feel of the city, but also during important moments. How did you go about designing the soundtrack because, for example, you have Ave Maria playing during the cinematic where Agent 47 is killing people, so do you feel that the music plays an important part?

The music plays a huge part in every game but for Hitman: Absolution it plays an extremely crucial role because it underlines the drama that takes place on the screen. In Hitman: Absolution we have dynamic music. If you are being very sneaky and trying to get close to an enemy without being spotted, the tempo of the music changes and the instruments will be more along the lines of violence. This is all to underline the moment and make it much more tense. Should you then choose to start blowing stuff up, the engine will pick up on this and it will increase the tempo starting with guitars, giving you a different soundtrack. This is very much on a sub-conscious level for most people but it really enforces the mood of how you’re playing. So if you keep on escalating [the tension] then basically you’ll have a very strong, rhythmic orchestra.

Being set in Chicago, obviously it is a very busy, metropolitan area. How did you go about designing the various crowds and basically creating the feeling that you’re being part of that crowd?

Yeah. The crowd itself is one of the biggest challenges both from a development and design point of view. We do have up to 700 people on screen. The crowd is part of the gameplay and it has to work on several levels. It has to work on a visual level so it is actually believable and at the same time it has to work on a gameplay level where you can actually mingle among them and use them as shields to get closer to your target without the cops spotting you. Designing such a crowd also has a very interesting challenge because the eye is drawn to contrast so if you add too many details to the crowd, instead of making the crowd members unique, they are going to tire a lot. So you have to create a character that is generic enough to look unique but at the same time it can’t tire a lot throughout the entire level. Another interesting thing that we’re using is height variation. Every different character in the crowd has a different height and at the moment you turn this feature off and everyone has the same height it becomes a very jarring experience and it really pops out. You see, we’re trying to make small details in the crowd all the time that do add to the variation and believability without making it abrupt so much.

You can obviously replay the level to gain better scores and post them to online leaderboards. Is that kind of competitive edge something you hope that people will really take to, and that they will play the game again to improve their score?

Definitely. We know some people, especially the fans that have been following us for so long, they have these sort of bragging rights and many of them believe that they are the world’s best assassin, but now they’ll actually have the chance to prove it for the first time. What the leaderboard also does is tells you all the time what you’re doing in the game and it’s tracking your progress. So it is also teaching the players that some things are better than others in the world of Hitman: Absolution, so hiding a body will give you an advantage but shooting civilians is just plain un-cool.

Hitman: Absolution - Tyler Takedown

In terms of the design of Agent 47 himself, how was he evolved from early games like Blood Money and Contracts?

We wanted to explore a more personal side of him so that’s where we decided to put more story focus, because from a visual aspect we realised pretty fast that 47 himself is very iconic in his appearance, so we don’t want to change that. What we can change is to make improvements to the character and the 3D model by following the technology development, but himself in his standard black suit attire that’s not something we want to touch. What we can actually go to town on is when he takes on disguises, because that’s when we can really go nuts and make as many creations as possible and give him almost a different personality when he’s wearing different clothes. The biggest development he has had yet probably is the story. We’re very much aware that 47 is an empty vessel and that is his biggest strength because players project themselves into 47 and they’re not controlling 47, they are 47 when they are playing the game, and we don’t want to ruin that but at the same time we still want to develop him a bit and that is why the story in Absolution plays such a big role. It’s very much focused around 47 and his development.

You mentioned that the disguises almost give 47 a new personality. Is that reflected in the way you move? So for example if he was a police officer, he would move kind of more rigidly than if he would just dress as a kind of gang member?

What the disguises actually do, when he is wearing the right disguise, is he can actually perform hiding and blend in manoeuvres, and they are unique to the different disguises. They are a way for 47 to fool his enemies into thinking that he is one of them, for instance when you are wearing a cop disguise you can actually use a doughnut box to ‘act’ like you are choosing one, and if there are any cops nearby they will be fooled into thinking you must be one of their colleagues from another precinct who is just looking for a doughnut.

Hitman: Absolution is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC and OnLive on the 20th November, 2012.