It might be strange to recall after Hitman 3's stonking success, but series developer IO Interactive was in a very precarious situation not so long ago. When 2016's Hitman failed to please IOI's owners at Square Enix, the corporation began scrabbling around looking for someone to take the studio of its hands.
We know how that turned out—thankfully, IOI eventually managed to buy itself out from under Square—but a recent feature in Edge magazine has cast a little light on just how much worse things could have been for Hitman and IOI in general. We're talking free-to-play Hitman, companies-offering-$1-for-the-whole-studio levels of grim.
"I didn't even have 90 days into taking over [as CEO]," IOI CEO Hakan Abrak told Edge, "and then I got the call from [Square Enix president] Matusda-san: 'We have to divest IO'." It came as a shock, but the nasty arithmetic of it all shook out. "Looking at the books, IO had not made money for almost ten years in a row" by the time Square Enix started looking to divest it, said Abrak, and that fact made acquiring it an unappealing prospect for other potential owners.
"Some companies would offer $1 to take over IO, because of the responsibilities and running costs," said Abrak, while others discussed the possibility of reducing the studio to a fifth of its size and "just [doing] free-to-play with Hitman." Abrak wasn't enthused, telling Square Enix that if that's what the company wanted, "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."
In some parallel universe, Square Enix washed its hands of the whole thing by selling IOI to one of its myriad underwhelming suitors, and the recent Hitman renaissance died far too early. Luckily, in this reality, the inability of any particular offer to satisfy every party involved created a logjam, which gave IOI time to come up with a cunning plan: the developer would buy itself.
"We couldn't pay anywhere near what, potentially, a big company could," said Abrak, though noting that it could have matched the $1 offers, but the studio "Paid what we could, and we came up with a deal where [Square Enix] kept a minority part, kind of a lottery ticket for them." Apparently, that was enough to satisfy IOI's former bosses, who even consented to let the studio keep the various properties it had trademarked prior to its 2009 acquisition.
It's not all sunshine and roses from there. Independence was a rocky road for IOI, and one of the studio's first moves post-divestment was to hand out redundancies to almost half its staff. Still pretty awful, but also probably the best way things could have gone from all the available options. Since then, Hitman and IO have gone from strength to strength, and the studio now has the Bond licence under its belt as well as some kind of mysterious fantasy RPG on the way. I'd buy that for a dollar.