Visiting IO Interactive's Copenhagen headquarters, Agent 47 is a constant presence. At reception we're greeted by a life-size model, helium balloons bobbing against its glass case, celebrating the same anniversary that has brought Edge here. Across the room, looping clips from Animal Crossing: New Horizons follow a villager whose bald head, suit and red tie make us fear for the life of Tom Nook. Even in the bathroom you can't escape him, those cold blue eyes peering out of picture frames on every wall. It can feel, at times, like walking around a shrine. Not that we'd blame anyone. Since the release of its debut game in 2000, IO has been synonymous with Hitman. And without Agent 47, the studio might well never have seen its 25th birthday – nor, indeed, its 20th. This is the story that CEO and co-owner Hakan Abrak is telling when he pauses for a moment, to pick up yet another effigy from the conference table – a big-headed chibi rendering of the studio's mascot – and attempt to rub a smudge from its shiny plastic pate.
Abrak is telling us about 2006, the year he joined IO, just a few months after the release of Hitman: Blood Money. "A transformative time," is how he remembers it. "IO was fully embracing being multi-project, making multiple games at the same time – and growing very, very fast." While it was working on a Hitman game the entire time, Agent 47 disappeared from public view for six years, and IO gave other things a go, including the Kane & Lynch games on which Abrak got his start. Not that he has any rose-tinted glasses there. "We've done other IPs but, let's be honest, they haven't stuck around like Hitman."
Looking back on those days now, something dawns on Abrak. "I had thought about this before, but now it's crystal clear," he says. "We've kind of come back to the same place." IO is once again preparing to put Agent 47 on the shelf, instead focusing its energies on two new games, Project 007 and Project Fantasy, being made across five countries. "We have a dream that we can be not only 'the Hitman studio'."
But getting back to that same place, where it can once again attempt to realise that dream, has been a long and painful journey for the studio. Within the space of a decade, it gained and lost an owner, had to shrink and grow back on three separate occasions, and found itself just weeks from bankruptcy. How it survived all that is a truly unlikely story – and one that, for Abrak at least, begins with the disastrous development of 2012's Hitman: Absolution.
This feature originally appeared in Edge magazine. For more in-depth interviews, reviews, features, and more delivered to your door or digital device, subscribe to Edge magazine.
Absolution arrived right at the tail end of IO's prior attempt to vary the kind of games it makes. With Mini Ninjas, it had attempted a family-friendly approach; with Kane & Lynch, it had gone in quite the opposite direction. Neither set the world on fire, and after another Microsoft-funded project collapsed, in 2010 the studio suffered two waves of layoffs. It was at this point that Abrak and Christian Elverdam, who would eventually buy this entire company together, stepped onto their first Hitman game.
"Absolution was a tough, tough production," Abrak says. "The game took seven years. It was completely over budget. I was put on in the last two years, when the executive producer was let go. It was like, 'Either we make this work or Hitman is not in Copenhagen any more'." Those troubles can be traced back to two things, he reckons: an underestimation of the technological leap required to make an HD-era game, and a misguided attempt to break the series out of its niche. The latter was born "on one hand, of external pressure to make a more mainstream version of Hitman," Elverdam says. (It might be worth noting at this point that IO gained a new parent company, in Square Enix, during development.) "But also maybe an internal desire to do more story-driven games."
Either way, the project's reference points were "Max Payne and Gears Of War," Abrak says – and the result, as he and Elverdam joined: "It didn't feel like Hitman. We did everything we could, literally breaking down walls in the levels to make it more open, while at the same time trying to deliver a game that, when we came on two years before launch, was nowhere. Mechanically, the core systems, they were nowhere." What followed, he says simply, "was two years of brutal crunch." And at the end of it all, those efforts were greeted with hostility from the series' longtime fans, and a lukewarm reception from the new players it was chasing. "Over those years, whatever was hot back then had changed. People wanted open-world games," Abrak recalls. "It was DOA." He recalls how the release felt: "Having worked so hard, and having made people work so hard – and then that dissatisfaction, feeling that it was our fault. All that production work, all those assets… just to be thrown away."
This moment clearly stuck with Abrak, even as he and Elverdam were moved onto an R&D incubation project. The next year they got their chance at, well, absolution with a pitch for a new Hitman game. "I called it 'the original assassin', because it was all about getting back to the series' roots," he says. Both in genre, walking back the attempts to force Agent 47 into a story-driven action game, and in the character himself.
"47 is rather elegant – or at least he used to be, before Absolution," Elverdam says. Later, elsewhere in the studio, we spot a heavy concept bible for 'Hitman 5' on a coffee table. It shows the original direction for Absolution's story, with concept art showing 47 as a "down and out" drunk, living on the streets, with a three-legged dog for a companion. It couldn't stand farther apart from the man who, in 2016, would stalk into Paris Fashion Week.
They wanted to "elevate" Agent 47, which meant taking him from the streets to more luxurious environs, Elverdam explains. "He's kind of a blank slate. The circles that Agent 47 moves in, and the targets that he is hunting, they very much define who he is." We're shown a pitch video from around this time, a kind of sizzle reel of cut-together movie footage. It's all cityscapes and glass-fronted offices, stock footage of police protecting the rich from the masses, and Wall Street graphs plummeting, firmly establishing an elite who consider themselves above common law, and 47 as the great leveller. Representing the man himself, we recognise – in a perfect, accidental moment of foreshadowing – a close-up of Daniel Craig's Bond straightening his suit. It's easy to see flashes of the game that would eventually become 2016's Hitman reboot. "We sent that to the studio management," Abrak says. "And, unfortunately, it was turned down."
"Then, some things happened at Square Enix." Six months after Absolution's launch, the publisher announced the game hadn't met sales targets (some things, it seems, never change). "There was, yet again, a change in game management, and a bit of downsizing," Abrak says. Layoffs cut the studio in half, and all other projects were cancelled to focus on the studio's defining property. "And Chris and I were put on Hitman again."
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This time, the pitch was given the green light – and the pair started thinking about other mistakes that had been made on the previous game. "How can we make something that is more sustainable? That is just more sane?" Abrak says, returning to the feeling that so much work on Absolution was just "thrown away". Elverdam compares this way of developing to "a nuclear submarine – you stay below the surface for many, many years, then you come up, launch the game." He makes a missile sound effect with his mouth. "And you disappear."
"Coming out of Absolution, we knew we didn't want to do that any more," Elverdam concludes. The idea was instead to make an "ever-expanding game". Destiny had recently been revealed, while just half an hour from IO's office, across the water in Malmö, Ubisoft Massive was attempting something similar. More than any other, though, IO's target was the game to which the trilogy's World Of Assassination cheekily winks. Even past its peak, Blizzard's MMORPG monster hit was still bringing in millions of players every month. Abrak remembers telling IO's engineers, who were understandably sceptical: "We need to build this game like an MMO."
While the series has never quite managed to sustain a true multiplayer component, there are more parallels than you might expect. "At the end of the day, Hitman is a session-based game," Elverdam says. "You jump into this sandbox level and you're supposed to play it many, many times. So that's actually, in its architecture, much closer to a multiplayer game – where you jump into, like, a Counter-Strike match and play it over and over again – than a more linear, story-based game."
The approach was further shaped by decisions beyond IO's control. "Square Enix had released Life Is Strange, and that was episodic, so they asked if we could apply some of that to a triple-A game," Abrak says. "It wasn't a creative or technical production vision – but it could work together [with the design], so we embraced it." Indeed, the episodic format proved a surprisingly good fit for what IO was trying to achieve, putting the spotlight on one location at a time.
Abrak, for his part, saw a business opportunity here: "The idea was, we could do a Trojan horse strategy, right?" The first episodes would be sold relatively cheap, but with all the production values you'd expect from a full-price game. "Would that be a good way of breaking the barrier of the niche and making a bigger [selling] game?" Not quite, as it turned out.
"Commercially, it was absolutely shite." Abrak puts this down to player suspicion regarding the episodic model, and whether IO could be trusted with the series after Absolution. "I really hated hearing over and over again that IO had lost the ability to do a Hitman game after Blood Money," he says, the frustration still evident in his voice. Even as IO managed to build that trust again, especially after the arrival of Sapienza and the game's first Elusive Target missions, many players opted to wait for the full release, and inevitable discount. "So our Trojan horse was burned down before it even got into the castle."
Nevertheless, the team were confident that they had succeeded in their aim of finally topping Blood Money – an assessment confirmed by the 100 Greatest Games Of Edge's Lifetime, where it sat as the series' sole representative at #57. "Making the right Hitman, a true Hitman game, was our redemption," Abrak says. "We believed that we'd made the best Hitman game, and we knew that this was just the start." He pauses. "Square Enix didn't think so."
Stirred but unshakable
Abrak stepped into the role of CEO in early 2017, after the departure of former studio head Hannes Seifert. "I didn't even have 90 days after taking over, and then I got the call from Matsuda-san: 'We have to divest IO'." It was, to say the least, "a shock". Today, Abrak accepts that the decision was totally "reasonable" from Square Enix's point of view. "They'd had some setbacks. Deus Ex and Tomb Raider and Hitman did not sell as they expected – and Absolution did not sell before that," he says. "You have millions of dollars' monthly burn running a studio like this. And obviously, looking at the books, IO had not made money for almost ten years in a row." That brutal maths set the tone for the discussions that were to follow, as Square Enix tried to find someone to take IO off its hands. "Some companies would offer $1 to take over IO, because of the responsibilities and running costs and whatnot."
Other offers were just as unappealing: "Can IO be a fifth of the size and just do free-to-play with Hitman?" Abrak remembers responding that "if that's what Square Enix wants, I will do everything I can to make the transition as smooth as I can – but I don't believe in this and I will not be part of it." Finding a deal that satisfied all three parties seemed impossible, but shutting down the studio would cost Square Enix dearly in redundancies. That bought IO a little time, as an idea started to form between Abrak and Elverdam: "What if we could get just enough runway for us to pave our own way? Could we forge our own destiny?"
They made Square Enix an offer: a management buyout of the company. "We couldn't pay anywhere near what, potentially, a big company could." Abrak hesitates, laughing. "Not the $1 – that we could pay! But we paid more than that. We paid what we could, and we came up with a deal where they kept a minority part, kind of a lottery ticket for them, and we got everything that was registered by IO before 2009 [when Square Enix bought Eidos]. Freedom Fighters – and Hitman, which is the important one." It's one of those deals that has always seemed improbably in IO's favour, but it didn't instantly solve the studio's problems. "When we went independent, we had three months," Abrak says. "We would be bankrupt after three months."
IO needed to buy itself some time, in the most brutal way. Abrak gestures out beyond the glass wall of the conference room, to the office's central 'pixel stairs', designed by Elverdam himself, which double as a kind of mini auditorium for meetings. "I remember standing in a town hall just here, and having to let go of almost 50 per cent of the studio." Bjarne Kristiansen was among those laid off that day. Unsurprisingly, his memory is clear: "An email went out calling an emergency meeting, which is never good news. And then the news broke on Kotaku, I think, an hour before the meeting – so word kind of spread through the studio." Gathered on those steps for the official announcement, they were told: "Go back to your seats. If you get an email, you're out. If you don't, you're in." How did it feel when he finally got the email? "For me, it was a little bit of déjà vu. Before IO, I worked for five years at a company called Press Play that was owned by Microsoft, and we got shut down. And then a year later, almost to the day, Squexit happened."
Abrak's next move was to call Carl Cavers and Paul Porter at Sumo Digital. "Because we had about 50 people from Sumo working on Hitman 2, and I couldn't pay them, obviously." He asked them to travel to Copenhagen to hear his proposal: "Your people are going to work for us for free, for a couple of years, until we finish Hitman 2. But if we release the game, the money you would get, you'll get a sizable amount on top of that. It's a bet to take on us, on our ability to turn things around. So you will potentially lose all that effort, but if you make it, then you can get more back." It's difficult to imagine anyone taking that bet. "They said yes."
Meanwhile, IO returned to that Trojan horse idea, repackaging Hitman's tutorial prologue into a free-to-play 'Starter Pack'. "We expected maybe half a million, a million people," Abrak says of that initiative. "We got more than four million – and a good percentage of those upgraded and bought the game. So all those things gave us another day to survive. Those three months turned into six months."
Around this time, Kristiansen joined the company again – "I think I was the only one that was rehired," he acknowledges – and found things much as they were before. "When Squexit happened, I was working on Miami." In the intervening months, the reduced team had been busy with the Patient Zero expansion, which remixed four of Hitman's levels into a new campaign. "So I was basically coming back to the last thing I touched, and nothing had changed. And then we were just, like, back in production. It felt like I hadn't gone anywhere else. It was a little weird."
One thing had changed: "We were delivering Hitman 2 on a fairly reduced budget, to put it mildly." IO was yet to sign a new publisher for the game, and had to find ways to save money while committing to its biggest maps yet. "Sometimes we'd need to talk about what is actually possible to do. Like, what can we pull off?" However, COO Martin Buhl points out, IO was building on a solid foundation. "For the second game, with a lot of the pipelines and processes, the craftsmanship had been refined. So it was a different process. It was simpler in some ways." Which is how Hitman 2 was made for 60% of the first game's cost, Abrak tells us.
That perhaps helped him turn down some of the more tempting deals being waved under his nose. "We had, at that time, some offers from companies that would come in and show us all these millions of dollars. But they would be handcuffs, pretty much. We'd be locked into some really heavy publishing deals." It eventually struck a "light distribution deal" with Warner Bros, expiring after three years, "so we could retain our independence long-term".
When it came to the final game in the trilogy, IO took things further still, deciding to self-publish. "Hitman 3 is the first game where we didn't have to go, as all publishers want, 'Could it be a little bit more mainstream?'" Elverdam says. "And I think you actually find an audience by doing the opposite. Other games, like FromSoftware's, prove that if you stick to your guns, you can find an audience. It won't be Fortnite – it never will be. But you can really resonate with the people who like what you're doing."
It was another gamble that paid off for IO. "Hitman 3 was 33% of the [already reduced] budget of Hitman 2, and done in just under two years," Abrak says. "And it's the one that scored the highest on Metacritic." Kristiansen remembers sitting on those pixel stairs once again, this time for a happier occasion, watching Hitman 3's review scores come in: "Hmm, pretty good!" The game outperformed its predecessors commercially, too, something that we variously hear attributed to the Trojan horse effect eventually paying off and the moment at which it released: mid-pandemic, at a time when most big releases had been delayed and people couldn't travel, making a virtual trip to an Amalfi coastal town or Berlin nightclub all the more appealing. IO won't be pinned down on numbers but, vitally, it didn't need to give away any proportion of sales to an external publisher. No wonder, then, the studio is feeling confident about rolling the dice on that dream once more.
"There'll be more chapters written in the Hitman story, that's for sure," Elverdam says. But for now, 47 is preparing to put down his weapons for a little while. Support for Hitman has started "ramping down", we're told, and is now the smallest team in the company. "After the launch of Hitman 2, we decided the strategy is to not be a one-trick pony," Buhl says – hence the two games IO now has cooking. The biggest production in the works, and the most advanced in terms of its schedule, is Project 007. It's a natural fit for IO's experiences and expertise, Abrak admits: "We've kind of been in training for the agent fantasy for 20-plus years." Project Fantasy, meanwhile, described as an "online fantasy RPG", is a very different pony indeed.
Exactly what "online" means there remains unconfirmed, but an IO job listing last year mentioned "emergent multiplayer" – something that would seem to fit with the single piece of art that's been released so far, showing three adventurers setting out on an adventure together. We might note, too, that IO's very first game – before it began work on Hitman, and long before any of its current staff were here – was set to be a fantasy MMORPG. Whatever the case, the game's online aspect definitely encompasses Hitman's 'living world' approach. "The story of [World Of Assassination] is a story of doing it in spite of – or at least having to reinvent – the franchise," Elverdam says. "So one of the conversations we had is that it would be lovely to have a world that, from the get-go, was conceived to be a living universe." Other than that, the game is being kept even more closely under wraps than 007. While we manage to catch the odd, brief glimpse of IO's Bond in action on developers' monitors, and pick out the occasional familiar name over the hubbub of the cafeteria, there are parts of the office we're not permitted to see, where Project Fantasy is under construction.
So what do we know about 007? Well, it's no secret that IO is casting its own Bond and rewinding to the character's youth to tell an origin story. The few other breadcrumbs we're able to pick up during our time in the office suggest a tone closer to Daniel Craig than Roger Moore, and perhaps a more scripted experience than Hitman's freeform jaunts. It's been pitched as "the ultimate spycraft fantasy", which suggests gadgets – and perhaps a step away from the murderous objectives of Agent 47.
This final point seems to be supported by the way IO convinced James Bond owner Eon Productions to hand it the licence. "Our impression was clearly that they were not looking for a game," Abrak says. "And I think it's fair to say that they might not have been super-happy with some of the later games." Moving away from "action-oriented shooters", in Elverdam's words, seems to have been part of his pitch, presenting Hitman as a game in which violence is actually discouraged – with the exception of one or two very specific murders per level, of course. "That helped us convince the Eon Group that there's a sophistication in how we treat the agent fantasy."
There's one final connection to Hitman we need to investigate. Given that Abrak and Elverdam's big idea for World Of Assassination – and the thing that, ultimately, rescued the whole operation – was to deliver it gradually, over multiple years, do they have a similar vision for 007? "Yeah, absolutely," Abrak says. "I mean, that's the dream. That's the ambition. And it's also how we always talked about it." IO isn't interested in making a licensed game just "to score some money", he says, adding that it's turned down offers from "several other IP holders". It all depends on how the first game performs, of course, but Elverdam is clear about his hopes. "I would love players to look back on multiple Bond games by IO and go, 'Wow, that was quite a journey!'" Standing up from the conference table – its chibi Agent 47 still bearing marks of wear and tear that won't quite rub off – it occurs to us it's a sentiment that could just as easily apply to the first 25 years of IO Interactive as a whole.