Hitman, a popular video game franchise from Io-Interactive, has been challenging gamers since 2000. For its next release, Io-Interactive decided to deliver Hitman as an episodic series on the Microsoft Azure platform. By taking advantage of elastic cloud service with a global reach, the company is free to create an ongoing and increasingly immersive experience for millions of enthusiasts worldwide.
Major video game releases, or AAA games, are eagerly anticipated in much the same way film fans await the next blockbuster movie. And in a traditional cycle, several years go by between each release. So when Io-Interactive (IOI) decided to shake up the industry and launch its flagship game as an episodic series, the news was met with reactions ranging from skepticism to alarm. How could IOI deliver content rapidly enough to keep fans engaged, and still deliver a high quality experience?
Time for a new strategy
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Io-Interactive is a leading game-development studio. Its Hitman franchise debuted in 2000 and now includes six games, two films, and two novels. The elaborate storyline revolves around Agent 47, the world’s premier assassin, who takes out targets in exotic locations worldwide. Each release introduces new plotlines, characters, and twists in gameplay.
After its latest release, Hitman: Absolution, IOI wanted to provide a new experience by creating a game that continuously adapted while people played. The industry had changed with the rise of online-gaming services and new delivery models. So instead of offering a single product and providing post-release support, IOI opted for a more fluid approach to development. Christian Corsano, Lead Online Programmer at Io-Interactive, says, “We wanted the new version of Hitman to engage players with a game that constantly evolved over time.”
The company’s vision for Hitman differed from the traditional episodic format, which includes a series of installments preceded by cliffhangers. Instead, the company created a game-as-a-service model in which IOI constantly adds fresh material in real time to keep users engaged with each episode.
Although the project would be disruptive to the gaming industry, IOI wasn’t abandoning its original Hitman fan base. In fact, quite the opposite. The company wanted to bring together all the best features of earlier releases in a “culmination of everything we’ve learned from all our other Hitman games,” says Chris Glover, Communications Director at Io-Interactive.
Those features include exotic, highly detailed locales, the ability for players to create their own assassination contracts, and, not least of all, an assassination sandbox where players choose strategy and weapons. And to transform the gaming experience, IOI developers needed a new sandbox of their own.
Finding a new sandbox
The game server infrastructure the company had relied on wasn’t a good fit for the new venture. “We couldn’t really adapt our back-end technology to our needs,” explains Corsano. “We needed something that was flexible enough to adapt to the changing game design and development process.”
IOI required a highly scalable back end that would be easy to manage and support the rapid and ongoing release of new features. A platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model made the most sense, so after building a prototype on existing servers, IOI got in touch with the Microsoft Azure team.
Azure had the on-demand scalability and building blocks IOI needed for innovative game delivery. The new platform would be easy to adopt as well. For example, the development team could use familiar skills and tools, including the C# programming language and Microsoft Visual Studio. “We use Visual Studio for pretty much all our workloads; it’s our go-to development environment,” says Corsano. “And it’s helpful that it works well with Azure.”
IOI’s game service architecture includes infrastructure for both gameplay and analytics. To provide Hitman as a service, IOI takes advantage of the Microsoft Orleans framework on Azure. Using an actor model of concurrent computation, the framework dynamically spawns unique content for each user. Orleans also enables stateful user sessions, in which data persists in an activated app service instead of residing in storage. In addition to improving performance, the solution reduces storage needs. To simplify management further, IOI is considering moving from Orleans to Azure Service Fabric, the Microsoft PaaS implementation of a distributed systems platform.
Introducing new features
The Hitman infrastructure includes numerous other Azure services to support game logic and user sessions, including Azure App Service, Azure Cloud Services, Azure SQL Database, and Azure Storage. In addition, IOI collects and analyzes telemetry data from live gameplay with Azure Event Hubs, Azure Stream Analytics, and Azure HDInsight. Azure Data Factory automatically routes the flow of data across the infrastructure.
IOI uses the insight to create new features for current and upcoming episodes. “We want to continue to develop our game,” says Corsano. “With Azure game services, we can introduce new features, see how well they’re received, and immediately start working on enhancements.”
Released over a nine-month period starting in March 2016, the first Hitman series includes six episodes, each with its own location and challenges. Each episode builds the players’ skills, and to keep them on their toes, developers periodically drop features such as elusive targets and escalation contracts into the game. With elusive targets, players have just a few days to make the kill before the target is gone forever. Escalation contracts add extra levels of difficulty to a primary task, such as requiring a player to wear a specific disguise while attempting an assassination.
Keeping the focus on innovation
The rapid innovation differentiates Hitman from other episodic games by encouraging players to return to earlier episodes. “There is so much depth and so many layers in the characters and locations, that the more you play, the more you find,” says Glover. “Releasing episodically allows players to spend more time in a location, and each location is so detailed that there is always something else for players to find. Plus, it means we can release new gaming content such as escalation contracts and elusive targets so that players can truly master that location.”
Now, IOI can focus on what it does best—creating great games. “With Azure, we’ve gone from being limited by our technology to being completely free,” says Corsano. “With Azure, we don’t have to fit our game design to our architecture.”
The new Hitman has received enthusiastic reviews. As Digital Spy says, “They’ve managed to prove to the rest of the industry that AAA games done episodically can work, and can work exceptionally well…. We can’t wait until we see what Io-Interactive does with Season Two.”
Hitman’s Agent 47 isn’t slowing down. “Before, we would have scaled down our ambitions to match our infrastructure,” says Corsano. “But by building on Azure, we have the confidence to create the Hitman platform the way we want to.”