Four years on: Square Enix Montreal on the evolution of Hitman Sniper

Senior producer Dominic Allaire discusses how the studio learned to use live ops to sustain a premium game

Four years on: Square Enix Montreal on the evolution of Hitman Sniper

Long gone are the days of developing and publishing a game without the need to tweak, adjust and patch it after launch.

As the games industry has pivoted into free-to-play titles, open betas and early access games the art of creating a game can often feel like one done in the public eye.

It is often said that nothing is truly finished and it’s a saying the industry has taken to heart in recent years, with new titles requiring constant operation and updating. It is usually done over a period of several years post-launch to keep the title at the forefront of consumer thought. has long been investigating the Making Of notable games soon after their launch, but what happens long after a game is released?

In an attempt to find out, this regular feature will talk to the developers behind maturing live games about their experience so far. You can read all previous entries here.

In this entry, we speak to Hitman Sniper product lead and senior producer Dominic Allaire. Square Enix Montreal's premium mobile app Hitman Sniper recently hit the 10 million player mark after four years on the iOS app store.

PocketGamer.Biz: With Hitman Sniper now more than four years old, how do you reflect on its performance - from launch to the mature title it is now?

Dominic Allaire: Hitman Sniper is a premium title. As opposed to F2P titles, this means a finite experience with limited monetisation and retention systems. Hence, its initial performances were easily predictable: a strong debut rapidly stabilising into a tale that would last for years. We were ready to work on another project.

But could it be different? Everyone was saying that if a game has room to grow, the launch was only the beginning. How could we run live ops when we had no experience and no in-house experts to lean on?

I discovered that live ops is just a way to dynamically operate a live product based on the analysis of players' behaviour. Simply put you need three things:

  • A bunch of experts - Not necessarily live ops experts, but creative/analytical people that know your product “inside out”.
  • Business Intelligence hooks integrated into the game so that you can analyse everything.
  • A backend that allows you to update the game dynamically. This is what differentiates live ops with regular DLC. You want to be able to quickly iterate without requiring new builds.

By understanding player behaviour and by quickly adapting our strategy, we managed to constantly improve our acquisition and monetisation year after year.

How big is the team currently handling live ops on Hitman Sniper?

We currently have a team of 12 developers working on Hitman Sniper live ops. A nice blend of experts that understand the purpose of live ops and that can think outside the box.

How important do you consider customer support and updates to be? What has been your approach to this?

To be honest, when we launched Hitman Sniper consumer support was not part of our DNA. Only with time did we realise that nurturing our consumer relationship meant more than just transforming bad reviews into 5 out of 5 stars. It means engagement and fidelity.

To be honest, when we launched Hitman Sniper consumer support was not part of our DNA.
Dominic Allaire

That being said, there is still room for improvement. For example, we’re currently looking at providing localised 24/7 support including an in-game FAQ.

What steps have you taken to ensure that Hitman Sniper maintains a sizeable and active player base all this time after its launch?

Bringing new consumers into a premium game is a bit trickier than doing it for F2P games. The price is a huge barrier to entry and you can’t rely on a standard user acquisition strategy.

Obviously dropping the price meant a better conversion rate, but could the number of downloads compensate for the drop in revenue? The answer was different per platform and per territory.

For example, dropping the price in China helped convert 50-times more players and catapulted Hitman Sniper into iOS China’s top five ranking since then. For the USA, we had to adopt a completely different strategy to boost awareness.

Another way to increase our conversion rate was to celebrate the culture of our key territories. We transformed the whole game (skin, scoring opportunities, unique rifles and abilities, etcetera) with a series of cyclical cultural celebrations including Chinese New Year, 4th of July, Christmas, Halloween and much more.

These live events helped attract new players and re-engaging churned users.

To what do you attribute Hitman Sniper’s consistently impressive grossing performance, and how do you sustain it?

It was done through many iterations of what I call the “live ops loop”. This loop has three phases:

  • Acquisition: Get more players into the game.
  • Analysis: Understand the player’s behaviour and validate your assumptions. How much is a player ready to pay for an item? Where and why are they churning? When is the best time to communicate with them? Don’t take anything for granted; do you have a question? Then A/B testing and the player’s data are your solution.
  • Monetisation: It’s not just about adding new in-app purchases. Be creative. For example, our “weapon suggestion” campaign analyses the reason why a player keeps failing at specific missions and will propose a deal tailored to help them out.

Someone might ask: “wait, what about improving retention?” I’ll be honest; significantly improving your retention is super hard. After many tries, we decided to work around this problem by accelerating our monetisation instead.

After all, the day 30 retention of a Hitman Sniper spender (10 per cent) is significantly higher than the one of a non-spender (four per cent).

Any KPIs such as downloads, DAU or retention you’re willing to share?

Sure, why not. Improving our acquisition allowed us to bump our average monthly downloads from 60,000 to 240,000 and our DAU from 30,000 to a steady 95,000.

Working on our monetisation raised our maximum spending opportunity from $17 to $1280 and boosted our ARPU from $0.02 to $0.12.

What lessons have you learned/are you still learning from Hitman Sniper? Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you'd now handle differently?

We learned so much during the whole process and I have a feeling we are not even halfway there. If I were developing Hitman Sniper from the start, I would definitely design it with live ops in mind from day one.

We learned so much during the whole process and I have a feeling we are not even halfway there.
Dominic Allaire

Implement business intelligence hooks as soon as possible and make sure everything can be dynamically updated via the backend.

Focus on designing engaging events, a granular economy, community management tools and unlimited spending opportunities.

How do things work now with the Hitman IP now that IO Interactive owns it?

The relationship with IO was not affected by their independence. They’ve been great partners so far and we treated their brand with all the respect it deserves.

Finally, how has your experience with Hitman Sniper informed where you are/what you're working on now?

Each game is different and offers unique opportunities. That being said, the mentality of live ops remains the same: offer an exceptional experience dynamically tailored to the players and focus on the live ops loop - aquire, analyse and monetise. After a few years, we are still far from being live ops pros.

That being said, the team humbly accepted the challenge and I’m really proud of our progression. While live ops represents a 'never-ending' challenge, the future looks bright.

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Staff Writer

Iain is a freelance writer based in Scotland with a penchant for indies and all things Nintendo. Alongside PocketGamer.Biz, he has also appeared in Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, PCGamesN and VG24/7.