Hitman Sniper: The Shadows interview: Dominic Allaire and Simon Doongoor discuss creative killing and introducing new characters to the series
During E3, the newly named Hitman Sniper: The Shadows received a stylish trailer alongside the reveal of the characters players will control throughout the various missions. We recently had a chance to sit down and chat with Dominic Allaire and Simon Doongoor about what we can expect from the latest entry into their Hitman Sniper series. We discussed the decision to avoid positioning Hitman Sniper: The Shadows as a sequel to its predecessor, alongside the difficulty of inventing new creative kills and the replay value the game will offer, among other things.
Dominic Allaire (DA):My name is Dominic. I'm the executive producer. I like to define my role as the business architect of the project, which means that I supervise every aspect from product development to its marketing positioning, operation strategy, etcetera.
Of course, I'm not alone in this. I have a group of very talented people with me, and everyone has a key role to play to reach the objective of the project. That's me in a nutshell. I've been working on Hitman Sniper since my arrival at Square Enix, and it's been almost 10 years that I've been there now and for the last year, I've been working on the Shadows, which we're going to talk about today.
Simon Doongoor (SD):My name is Simon, I'm the senior producer of the project, and obviously, I work with Dominic over there. So my side is handling the production of the project, but also greatly influencing the vision with Dominic and many other stakeholders there too. We have a great team that are obviously big fans of the franchise and excited to contribute to the ongoing saga with Hitman and having our own take on it. So, it's a big opportunity for us.
Why did you decide to make the game set in its own universe rather than acting as a sequel to the previous game?
SD:The distinction is quite important for us, and there are actually quite a few factors that led to that. First and foremost, we wanted to craft a new experience with more depth, and secondly, the focus was on these new characters that we're introducing to the Hitman universe. In addition to that, from the learnings from the original Hitman Sniper, we've improved the creating killing aspect to the game, introduced the competitive play and more sandbox levels. And most importantly, there's an entirely new storyline to the Hitman universe. All of these various led to the distinction of it not being a sequel to the original.
DA:I think we wanted to create something different, something unique. Square Enix Montreal is about crafting high-quality games, and we felt that doing a sequel just to do a sequel is not really the way we wanted to do things. As Simon said, it's a completely original story, still set in the Hitman universe but introduce a new threat, new playable protagonists. This twist allows us to expand the universe and create a brand new experience for the player, which, as I said earlier, is important for Square Enix Montreal's motive.
What would you say you learned from the original game that you've applied to Shadows?
DA:Hitman Sniper One was released a while, I think 2015. It was a premium mobile game that follows the story of Agent 47, and he executes tonnes of contracts for the ICA from his sniping spot. The metagame was highly focused on sniper rifle collection. Of course, we leverage a lot of this when we went through and created Hitman Sniper: The Shadows, so it's definitely built on the foundation of Hitman Sniper.
It also takes some elements from the core franchise, the whole hidden and secretive world of assassination and the immersive competitive sniper gameplay. But the iconic thing that we leveraged from Hitman Sniper One is what we call creative killing.
SD:For the creative killing experience, we wanted to expand on it, and we took a lot of feedback from our audience, and one of the things we wanted to do was make it more accessible. There's a lot of pivots that we've made in testing with our audience for how we not only make it accessible but without compromising the deep strategies involved with creating killing.
The assumption in the sniper genre is just that you just find a target and shoot it. But this is very much more strategic, and the main pillar is remaining in stealth, so by using the environment to make things look like accidents, to hide the bodies in the environment, so it doesn't set off the alarms. That's the key. That's what makes creativity very unique for us in standing out from the competition.
DA:And I think it's fair to say that we pushed it for the second game. We have an awesome user research department doing research with the players of other games, asking them how they feel about that because we didn't want it to become a chess game. It still needs to be fun to play. It was cool to see players coming from other games and giving comments like 'How did I manage to do this? This is amazing'. That really helps us push forward.
How difficult is it to continuously come up with creative ways to hide a body from a sniping position?
DA:I'm going to let you jump on that Simon because that's more on your turf, but I must admit that it's fricking hard to do. That's probably one of the reasons that if you look at all of the competitor titles in the sniper genre on mobile, it's mostly geared towards killing people with your rifle by shooting them in the head.
There's a reason for that. Creating those sandbox maps takes a lot of time. But again, that's something that we want to do at Square Enix, to take the time to craft the right experience. But it is definitely a complex achievement to be able to pull off those maps.
SD:Absolutely, it's definitely a challenge. Once you get started on changing your mindset on that, you definitely start looking at the world differently when you walk down the street. But Hitman, as a franchise, that's what they started with, making sure that the environment is part of your strategy, and in Sniper 1, obviously, we had that. So, building on top of it was just more looking at what's available in a world set up where you can feel like it's actually realistic to do these type of things from a sniper vantage point.
We also have a great design team that collaborate very well. They'll come up with a design of how they want a world to work, but once it goes into the artist's hands and they start to realise it, they'll come back with 'It'd be pretty cool if we add this stuff too' or 'We added a fire extinguisher into the world because that's needed, why don't you add that as an opportunity to make an explosive kill?' And so the team goes back and forth, and the merging of those minds gives us what we have today, quite a few sandbox levels, and we're excited to share it with the audience once it goes live.
DA:And it's not like those sandbox levels have one creative killing opportunity like there's a bush and three guards sitting next to it. They have like, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, forty opportunities. When you play, and you've been playing the same level because you want to raise your score and you switch maps, sniping spot at some point you realise, that's the first time you've seen that. Or you watch your friend playing the game, and you still discover things after six months or a year. This shows the depth of the creative killing that takes place in The Shadows.
I guess that's an important thing to keep in the game since it's something people associate with the main franchise?
SD:Absolutely, yeah. In your first play, you won't have taken advantage of all of the opportunities so there's a replay factor on this. I'm sure you'll have questions about it but add into the mix the different characters. They force you to play a different way too. So that further adds to the mastery of the contracts.
Sure, so can you tell us a little bit about the different playstyles of the characters?
SD:Taking a step back with the creative killing, which will segway to the characters. In creative killing, you can hide bodies, make it look like an accident, explosion and things like that. What happens is that each of these characters has their strengths in the type of approach for each contract and they also have their own set of abilities.
If you take one character for example, like Soji or Knight or Stone, their strengths will dictate your playstyle. So you'll get used to one method of creative killing, all of a sudden, you have to change playstyle completely. For example, going full out using accidentals, you probably have to hide all the bodies with another character.
DA:Which is cool. That's one of the reasons we're all super excited because the depth of the creative killing and opportunities on the map is tripled or quadrupled by the playstyle of the agent from initiative 426. I'm a huge fan of the Hitman franchise as a whole, and I've been playing Agent 47, but these guys bring forward their own skills, their own abilities, their perks and stats, which is super cool because every time you choose another agent and go to a map you need to adapt this playstyle.
Everyone on the team cheers for a different agent. They're all fun to play, they're all great, but I must admit that personally, my favourite one is Kozak. Unfortunately, we can't go into the details yet but wait until you play him. He's so cool. It's just fun when you play with different ages, and it just changes the way you play things.
Is the game designed to be played in short bursts, or are you hoping that players will sit down and play it for longer sessions?
DA:Honestly, anything goes at this time. I play a lot of mobile games, and sometimes I'm stuck in a game for like three hours and sometimes just for a quick 15-minute commute ride. So, I think the game allows for both. You can play rounds for a short burst, or you can sit down and play the whole evening to try and upgrade characters and unlock these chapters. So it allows both. You can play short bursts or, you can play forever if you want to.
How do you plan to explore each character's backstory if each Agent can complete every contract or mission?
SD:Alongside their own playstyles, they all have unique looks, bios and background. We're hoping that's going to resonate with our audience. The backstories will come into the spotlight in the future, depending on the contracts or the narrative that's going to be put in place, but you'll definitely learn more about that as the game evolves.
DA:Agent 47 is the poster boy of the franchise. His whereabouts are unknown at this point, so Diana decides to activate initiative 426 because there is a new global threat going on, and in the absence of 47, someone else needs to step up. So there is a link between all of these agents that form the Shadows which has to be discovered by playing the game. There is a storyline that tells you why these guys are coming together. It's a thing that's going to be developed by the game while you play it.