Today marks the release of an all-new Hitman game that brings the cool and profession contract killer, Agent 47, to an episodically styled game that will unfold with new missions and locations over months. Players will get to travel the world, starting with Paris, to complete contracts using a variety of means that include disguises, improvised weapons, and engineered “accidents.”
Marketing at Square Enix has been working to showcase Agent 47’s particular set of skills through a number of equally creative means. Recently, we’ve seen a 360 gameplay trailer and a spectacular live-action Real Life Hitman video, where players direct the movements of an actor from a booth. That was followed by a lengthy Twitch livestream leading up today’s release, and this morning we saw the launch of a new campaign called “Kill this ad.” In it, viewers watch a pre-roll for a fake reality TV show called Wolfshark, and have the option to “kill” it by clicking and using Agent 47 to violently end the advertisement.
Square Enix senior director of marketing, Mike Silbowitz, and Adrian Chen, product manager for Hitman talk to [a]listdaily about promoting Hitman‘s new episodic style and arranging a killer ad campaign.
How does the new Hitman stand out from previous games?
Adrian: The thing about Hitman is that this is really a game about the fans. IO Interactive listened to what fans like about Absolution, and are aware that Blood Money is a favorite. So, a good way to describe Hitman is kind of as a mix of the two. You have the contract aspect Blood Money combined with the high fidelity and good story of Absolution.
What made you decide on an episodic format?
Mike: Well, we had a lot of success with Life is Strange, for one. It really shows us that there are many ways and facets that our consumers can digest our products. One of my favorite parts about this Hitman is not too much about it being episodic. It’s about the consistent flow of content for our consumers. The added value that we will continue to provide. Other than the episodes, every week will have elusive content and contracts to keep people engaged throughout the whole season. That’s just so unique and different from what all consumers are used to—not just from the standpoint of a “AAA boxed product,” but also from what episodic has been until now.
How has promoting an episodic game been different from promoting a traditional game?
Mike: Actually, it’s how do we promote Hitman differently from anything we’ve ever promoted? Even the way we went to market on Life is Strange as an episodic product was very different from how we went with Just Cause 3.
With Just Cause 3, it was all about that big AAA blitz. We did a lot of cool campaigns prior to release, and one of my personal favorites is the Win an Island campaign to help drive awareness and pre-order. Then we approached Life is Strange in a very strategic and analytical way. The dollars weren’t necessarily there for a big AAA push, but we were able to utilize digital in a way that was truly meaningful to get in front of our consumers, and hopefully get the game into their hands.
Hitman is a hybrid of that. It’s having the same AAA presence, but then still having the power, the dollars, and the ability to retarget our audience throughout the season. You’ll see that there are going to be a lot of big blitzes around our first episode drop, but the campaign will pretty much always have an always on approach so that we can continue to target our audience. If people have joined us for the full experience upfront, that’s great. We want them to enjoy the experience, and they’ll have access to everything that we have to offer for this first season of Hitman. If they’re consumers who have opted to first try with the Starter Pack, then—as we progress through our campaign—we’re going to hopefully be able to target those customers and show them why they should expand on their journey.
How do your campaigns convey the size, scope and dynamics of Hitman?
Mike: As we progress, it’s really about showing, first and foremost, the size and scope of each of our episodes. The journey for episode one doesn’t end when episode two comes. There’s always going to be content that’s going to be ever expanding through elusive targets and contracts. It won’t always be about the newest hub that opens.
It’s all about the replayability, and the way our marketing will specifically expand on that is through some fantastic video content, which includes trailers that truly details our levels. But it’s also about streamers, and having our games played by them. Each hub is an open world in and of itself, and it’s all about getting as much of that content in front of our consumers, so they can see how great, expansive, and replayable the game is.
How did Real Life Hitman come together?
Mike: That is one of the best campaigns I’ve ever seen our brand team put together. That was managed from global brand team out of IO. For them, it was really something unique that shows off the size and scope of the product. It’s almost uncanny. The first time I saw some of the footage, I thought it was the game.
With how crowded the marketplace is these days, you can’t just show gameplay. You have to find unique ways to show off your experience. One of the things I absolutely loved this is how it detailed choice in the game, and not just scope. It also shows how much fun it can be. I actually hope I get the opportunity to do that, because it was awesome.
What was everyone at Square Enix’s reaction to the finished Real Life Hitman video?
Mike: [Laughs] “Holy crap, why aren’t we making a TV series?” That’s one of the most amazing reality TV shows to ever hit. It’s one of the those things that’s so ambitious in scope for a marketing asset. It’s impressive and admirable, and I have to give a lot of credit to IO for it.
How did the idea for the “Kill this ad” campaign come together?
Adrian: We used our agency, Omelet, who put this together. We’re very cognizant of all the different competitors we have to face, so we have to find means to stand out from the clutter. So, we tasked Omelet to come up with a creative idea that leverages all the elements of Hitman, in that he’s the ultimate assassin, that his targets are from the high echelons of society, stealth elements, and all the improvised weapons.
They proposed this idea of using skippable pre-roll. Using the whole angle of the reality TV show, Wolfshark, we wanted to encourage the viewer to be annoyed at how over-the-top it is and click skip the ad. But we added our own Hitman element to it, so instead of “Skip this ad” it says “Kill this ad.” We wanted it to be fun and interactive.
Mike: With the rollout that we have for Hitman and its episodic nature, our hardcore enthusiast fans are going for the full experience. But having a Starter Pack at a $14.99 price point is a unique opportunity to get new consumers into the franchise. This sort of advertisement has the opportunity to expand us well beyond our core Hitman fans, because they’ll see what they’re used to: pre-roll. They’ll see an ad for a reality TV show that they’ll probably be annoyed with, and by clicking, they will learn about the Hitman product in a unique way, which might actually make them want to see the ad more because of how much fun it is.
Adrian: We went through different rounds of what we wanted to do, and it was us at Square that wanted to go the cheesy reality show route, but the whole concept of skipping the pre-roll was Omelet.
Will there be more “Kill this ad” videos?
Mike: We’re starting off with one, but who knows what the future brings for the rest of this campaign?
Adrian: There are three different times where you can kill the video, depending on when you click, so it’s not just one experience.
What’s your favorite way to kill the ad?
Mike: My personal favorite is when he shoots him. I just love it.
Adrian: For me, I think it’s the last one, because I got to see the filming of it. One funny thing that happened is that, it’s not the actual actor that you see being lifted off the ground with the shoes dangling. The actor had a bad back, so we got a random stand-in to put on shoes and get lifted.
What would you say it is about Agent 47 and the Hitman franchise that resonates with so many fans?
Mike: There is a bit of a fantasy to the experience of being an international assassin. Not that people want to go out into the world and do this, per se, but it’s a safe experience within the game to be this sophisticated, classy, agent who travels the world and infiltrates with a complete James Bond-esque experience. That resonates with our consumers.
Adrian: I think our target audience just loves the creative aspect of being able to fulfill your contract in so many different ways. It’s not a game on rails by any means. You have total freedom, which can mean putting on one of the hundreds of disguises, using whatever weapons you want, making the kill look like an accident, or doing it “silent assassin” style, where nobody knows you were ever there. There aren’t any limits, and I think our consumers really like that aspect.
How have fans responded to the episodic format?
Mike: Well, there have been questions. People have wondered about it. This is not how people are used to digesting Hitman. Though I feel, as we’ve progressed through our campaign, that there has been more understanding. As we launch, I think there is a unique opportunity here where a lot of our hardcore consumers will be jumping into this experience, and we saw that with the numbers around our beta. That was very successful beta drop.
And, as I’ve said earlier, I love the idea of new fans having the opportunity to enter into the Hitman world. They can try it out and spend $14.99 to see what the fuss is all about. If it’s not for them, then that’s ok. But the flip side is when they love being Agent 47 and traveling the world. They have a unique experience, and we have new fans into the franchise.
Did you learn anything else did you learn from the beta?
Mike: That Hitman is awesome! [Laughs] But, to be honest, we at Square Enix fully back Hitman and are full steam ahead on the episodic nature, but there is always a little bit of nervousness about what our consumers will think as we proceed down a new and untested path for this franchise. The beta showed us that maybe we’re doing it right, and it just might work.
Does the episodic format signal an end to the big single-game campaign experience Hitman is traditionally known for?
Mike: When it comes to Hitman, it’s too soon to tell. Overall, when it comes the big AAA games, they are here to stay. I think there was a lot of confusion many publishers had, leading into the new-gen consoles, about what that “next thing” would be. It’s very clear that AAA is what our consumers want. But what’s nice about this episodic content is that it’s another route for gamers to enter into these experiences. Time will tell for Hitman, but AAA is here to stay.