12 min read

Designing the Elusive Targets system in 2016's Hitman

"Playing an Elusive Target in a level you have fully mastered gives you the experience of being the apex predator. No matter what might be in store, you have the tools and experience to handle it."

Torben Ellert is the lead online designer  of the episodic title Hitman (2016) at Io-Interactive. He provided Gamasutra with this in-depth look at Elusive Targets in the game. While most targets can be taken out in myriad ways and at a time of the player's choosing, these Elusive Targets only appear in the game for a short period of time for a 48 hour window, and players only have one chance to complete the mission.

One of our mandates for the first season was to present Agent 47 as the apex predator, traveling the world, meeting interesting people, and killing them. Part of this mandate was a challenge to the design team: create a moment in time, “a snipe where your one shot matters” – the purest possible experience of being the assassin. Another objective was to create an ongoing pulse of experiences throughout the first season of Hitman, with tense assassination missions at the heart of those experiences. 

This is where the idea of Elusive Targets came from: high-level direction to create an ongoing series of time-limited, intense assassination missions. They would be tough because players would have one chance to get them right, and the whole dynamic around how you play the game should change. 

A departure from the standard sandbox assassination scenarios

This was a challenge because previous Hitman games have always allowed the player to replay and rehearse, gradually gaining expertise and aspiring to the perfect hit. This new game mode would run counter to everything we know about Hitman. But before we knew exactly what this new game mode would end up being, we set out to explore what we could do with our game. 

"The biggest narrative challenge was how these Elusive Targets fit into the game’s storyline. Short answer: they don’t."

We tried a number of things, which lead to the development of Escalation Mode, for example, but everything kept looping back to the core assassin fantasy - of what it meant to be Agent 47. At the heart of that, for me, is getting the call: ”Hello 47, the ICA has a new Contract for your consideration.” But it needed more than that – we wanted the player front and center, to make it feel like each second counted, and that everything hung in the balance. 

So the first thing we decided on was a time limit. A target who was only present for a very short period of time (it was 6 hours to begin with!). And that the target could only die once, and by extension the way you managed to complete the mission would be permanent.

Then we took away the tools that normally guide the player to their target: the red target glow, the mini-map and the icons on the main map. Basically, going back to the core of the first Hitman games (and going against a lot of what we know as modern game designers).

One shot only

The very first time we played and reviewed the game mode was with Io’s Senior Game Designer Jesper Hylling and Studio Creative Director Christian Elverdam. We printed out a picture of the target, and put it on the table next to Jesper and said: “This is what he looks like – that’s all you know. Go kill him!”

The eyes of a hunted placeholder man

"As we developed the Elusive Targets, we assigned each of them a code name. In this case, we used cocktails. "

Jesper tracked him down, and trailed him to the first set of trespass zones, and then had to go and find a disguise, by which time he’d lost the target. It was rough, but the core of the experience was there. 
After that, we explored save rules and restarts, and time limits. In the first versions, it was one-and-done. So no restarts, no retries, just industrial-grade pressure.

I remember standing in front of one our Friday studio meetings, and playing it live for the entire team. This was the first time most people outside of the Online team had seen it, so I was trying to be suave and smart and snipe the target through a tiny window. Needless to say, I failed, and then had to improvise. Said improvisation involved a saber in the middle of the cocktail party in Paris. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done! I’d made a plan, it had failed. I had improvised, and gotten away with murder. I fled the level, with bullets whizzing around my ears, and felt like a boss. 

Now that we had the basic concept, we needed to turn it into a fully-fledged design. 

Fleshing out the concept

We began with cocktails (as one does). The final name of anything in a game like Hitman is always up for grabs. So to allow us to refer to specific Elusive Targets as we developed them, we assigned each of them a code name. In this case, we used cocktails. 

The first Elusive Target (White Russian) had no narrative at all. But as we developed the idea, we realized that each Elusive Target needed to be memorable – not just from the tense game mode itself, but also the iconic nature of the targets themselves.  The idea was to make everyone in our community able to say “I remember when I flew to Sapienza to assassinate the Prince”. 

The Cardinal, in the Church Tower, with the Giant Bell

Perhaps the biggest narrative challenge was how these Elusive Targets fit into the game’s storyline. The short answer is that they don’t. We decided we’d have much more freedom if they were “what if” stories that simply happened in the same place. “What if Agent 47 went to Paris to assassinate a media sensation at a private party, during the fashion event of the year?” 

This guy has thrown his last party

This gave us the freedom to create new characters that fit with the spaces and themes that we had already established, without having to explain exactly how they fit with the mission’s normal storyline. 

For example, in “The Sensation”, the target is Jonathan Smythe, a controversial media star who fled underground years ago. The ICA has just learned that he will be attending a private party in Paris (with the blessings of Dalia Magolis) for several hours. There is no time to prepare, and 47 must go in without the usual time to plan. We underline this in the briefings for Elusive Targets which end with Diana saying “The clock is ticking, 47. Good luck!” as opposed to the usual “I’ll leave you to prepare.”

Breaking from the standard mission structure

With the narrative framework established, we turned to the larger question: how we would structure the game experience as a whole? How much information should we give players, when should restarts be allowed, would there be a save-game or an auto-save and how would we handle player failure? 

"Playing an Elusive Target in a level you have fully mastered gives you the experience of being the apex predator. No matter what might be in store, you have the tools and experience to handle it."

One thing that has been constant from our first prototypes was the idea that failure (and success) would be permanent. The result of this simple design decision is striking.

When players begin an Elusive Target, they play the game very differently. Gone is blasé experimentation with fire-alarms or barging into trespass zones in the face of armed guards, confident that there’s a save-game to fall back on. Suddenly they are much more focused, and serious. Every move carefully considered, and every improvisation full of risk. Every guard is a deadly threat, and every civilian a potential witness on the road to that coveted Silent Assassin rating.

In our larger-scale play-tests some players sat stone-faced, attempting to crack the Target by themselves, others conferred in small groups, and still others watched as mistakes were made and painful lessons were learned. 

Obviously, this works because players know the game well.  When a player tries a new location for the first time, they are in at the deep end (this is one of the reasons why we’ve not released an Elusive Target straight into a new level – players should have the opportunity to master it first). And when, a new target arrives, they may not know where he is, but they have all the tools they need to pull it off.

Even so, it became obvious that players needed to be able to restart, at least up until the point where they committed to the elimination. Since each Elusive Target changes the levels (sometimes quite substantially) they needed to have some way to scout and plan, or go back to choose new equipment, if they needed to. This lead to the one substantial change to the original design, which was to explicitly allow players to restart the mission at any time up until they began to eliminate their targets, or complete their objectives. This is the Rubicon moment, where each player must put his cunning plan into motion, knowing that from here on in, there are no restarts. 

Elusive Targets are designed to complement our level mastery progression system, simply because players who reach the highest levels have learned the levels, and their mechanics. They’ve gained an enormous amount of strategic agency, and can start in the right place, preplace equipment and approach their targets with consummate skill.

Much like Agent 47, they can adapt immediately to changing circumstances, regardless of whatever precautions his current target might have taken.  Put shortly, playing an Elusive Target in a fully mastered level gives you that experience of being the apex predator. No matter what might be in store, you have the tools and experience to handle it.

With the narrative frameworks and gameplay structures in place, we needed to actually be able to inject new missions into existing levels. Fortunately, a basic design decision for Hitman, NPCs, geometry and rules – basically everything we need to assemble and deliver an Elusive Target.

Taking “The Sensation” as an example, we disabled all of the bricks that make use of this back area of the game – specifically everything relating to Novikov’s meeting with Max Decker. This meant that several of the most obvious approaches to the rear area were also removed, keeping players on their toes. Then we took assets from the rest of the level and built up a private party, complete with music, bubbles, nibbles and guests. We also advanced the in-game lighting by about an hour to make it seem like a little later in the evening – obviously long after Victor has already met with Decker.

It’s an ongoing thing – as we build and release Elusive Targets and see them being played, we tweak (and redesign) future ones. Players see us responding to how they played, and we learn a great deal about what constitutes a challenging experience. We’ve experimented with different types of security details, we’ve had targets with big loops, and small ones, targets in the middle of parties, and targets out in the middle of a city. And even identical twins, where you must not harm the wrong person.

Sibling rivalry! One is the target, the other is the client. Aim carefully!

Hitman is a party game. No, seriously. The game’s serious tone with its lethal undertow of grim humor makes for immensely shareable experiences. From the beginning, we knew we would see highly skilled players working together to take out the targets. But it still surprises me how quickly they crack a Silent Assassin play-through, and begin to refine it. But, obviously someone has to go first, and make the mistakes so everyone else can learn from them.

"Some players approach the Elusive Target missions blind, playing them one-and-done, and living with the consequences if things get messy, while others spend hours scouting the levels before the mission is even live."

What we’ve seen in the community are internal differences amongst players about exactly how Elusive Targets should be played. Some approach them blind, playing them one-and-done, and living with the consequences if things get messy, while others spend hours scouting the levels before the mission is even live, based on what information they’ve gleaned from the briefing videos and the pictures we’ve published. These players often restart as much as they can, only committing to the elimination when they are completely sure they have a plan. 

And as they work together, it creates a sense of united purpose. While everyone is their own version of Agent 47, everyone is united by a common objective, and a common experience.

Our service model really shines here, as we can respond to developing play patterns and feedback on the game experiences we create. The tight scope and our ongoing releases within the season format allow us to adapt the experiences and change the common playing field.

People who took on the first couple of Elusive Targets saw this very clearly. Sergei Larin (the Forger) was almost unprotected, with only a single bodyguard to cover his back. Congressman Anthony L. Troutt had a security detail of two, and a personal assistant. Cardinal Adalrico Candelaria had an entire region of Sapienza locked down for his personal benefit, with security on every possible approach (as you’d expect). 

At the time of writing, we’ve had ten Elusive Targets, and they’ve become part of our history, alongside the Meat King and the other classics of the Hitman franchise. Each player has their own story of how they approached the Cardinal, or the Sensation, or the Wildcard. Of how they waited for the mission to go live, of how they prepared, and how they rejoiced (or railed) at the way it went down. But while every player faced the challenge alone, we all did it together. And for me that’s been the biggest success of the game mode – the way it has created moments in time when we all came together, to take on memorable targets, knowing that it counted. And knowing that we would never see them again 

We’re at the mid-point of the season right now, with several new locations ahead of us, and a lot of Elusive Targets to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these go over into Hitman history. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a Bushwhacker.

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