There might be just a handful of studios out there in the gaming industry as focused and determined as IO Interactive. Perhaps a trait taken from cold-blooded Agent 47 himself, they had given proof of just that in the past by becoming independent and turning Hitman into an ongoing success, but also with how they chose to stick to their own tech and to evolve it through the years in order to deliver the most convenient results within their genre of expertise. And this now also applies to their controlled expansion as an organisation, one with a pretty unique approach to teams and locations.
Earlier this summer we got the chance to pay IOI Barcelona a visit as they were kickstarting a new sort of gathering event for the local development community. However, before the doors opened for external devs and industry members, we were privy to a world's first BCD Ambrose Island gameplay demonstration and also had the chance to catch up with some of the Nordic and Spanish IOIers, including Barcelona studio head Eduard "Ed" López.
"We chose Barcelona mainly for three reasons", says López in the interview above as to why IOI established its third
branch leg in the city. "First, the people and the culture; how people are open-minded and proactive and overall good people, passionate about their work. We chose it because of the game dev community, the education system on video games, the video game companies and also the talented developers in here that we thought could help us out (and we could come here and share and help improve and strengthen the community). And of course because of Barcelona, right? The city is an attraction pole for everyone around the world, so it's easy to get developers to come here and enjoy the city life". In fact, the office, in contrast with what is usually the norm with studios big and small, is actually located in the city centre, so one can really feel the vibes from the L'Eixample district surrounding the place.
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IOI Barcelona started recruiting gameplay programmers mostly and "we saw that there was traction, people were very interested in the project, in the way we work", the studio head recalls. However, contrary to what many may have thought when the new office was opened last year, this isn't a support studio, nor a satellite team responding to the headquarters in Denmark.
"So this is one of the traits that define us at IOI, and it is that we work as one team across three locations", López explains about the company's structure and the role of this branch within the IOI organisation. "So this means that there's no lead studio or support studios. If somebody is [say] the lead designer of a project, they can be working in any location, they can be working in Barcelona, and they can have developers all over the different locations".
And this also means, as we learned and witnessed that day, that some Nordic talent decided to work in Barcelona and vice-versa, with some Spanish devs working or having worked in Denmark or Sweden. Take executive producer Cristina Vega as an example - she's from Benicàssim but has been working in Copenhagen for years now. In the end, it's a matter of the projects themselves: "So the teams are structured around themes and games, not around locations, and this is very special, and is working very well for us", stresses Eduard.
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Later in the video, speaking about the warmer weather in Barcelona and the setting for Ambrose Island, the studio head points out that it's more about that "the culture we have fits very well together. The open mind of the people both in Denmark, in Malmö, and in Barcelona, it works very well together. Always at IO we've been working with people from all over the world. We have like forty-something nationalities".
With the themes/games approach in mind, let's recall that IOI has publicly announced that they're working on three different projects. Hitman, of course, the Project 007 game and a yet to-be-announced secret IP that they described as "as exciting as Bond" in Barcelona. They couldn't spill the beans on any of the two games that they keep under wraps for now, nor could they talk 47 beyond Ambrose Island (with the Freelancer mode as the delayed but highly-anticipated next step into the World of Assassination), but we asked the studio head about his experience with the already-known IPs and what can the newer talent add to them.
"When I was a gamer I remember playing the first Hitman game that came out like 22 years ago. It was pretty cool, I remember the game had ragdolls and a different approach to how you solve a mission, and I was really inspired by the game at the time. Then I played a lot of Hitman: Blood Money, loved how many things you could do in a level, how you could approach it. And then when I became a gameplay programmer myself I worked a bit in BCN, I travelled a bit and then I actually found a place at IO in Copenhagen. So I joined the first game of the last trilogy as a gameplay programmer in Denmark. I worked with the whole trilogy, I also helped with VR and then we moved here... I actually worked a little bit on 007 as well. I've always loved James Bond, watched all the movies".
"I think all projects are very special. We always try to make games that will reach the hearts of our players. Games that mean something. And this is very related to the talent and how we work as well, with creative freedom and freedom of speech, and we want everyone to have an impact on their daily lives, and I think that's how we make better games. Every developer counts, no matter where they're working".
From that point on Ed touches upon what it means for IOI to move from working on standalone, finite releases, to an ongoing game as a service with constant new content, as it allows them "to keep improving and listening to the fans", that feedback being "very valuable for us", same as the ability to "work over many years" on the same evolving project. Then the conversation turns a bit techie:
"We're always working on Glacier", López underlines when asked about the studio's engine and the crowds they've traditionally produced as one of Hitman's staples. "We make all the shared tech, all the projects we work on are based on Glacier. This means that the projects help Glacier become better, and Glacier gets better and helps the other projects also improve. So yeah the crowd system is something we're very proud of, but also the characters and the NPCs, like how many real NPCs we have at the same time, I think we have like over 200 active NPCs in a level at all times (laughs) besides, I don't know, hundreds of crowd elements. So I can't give details but we're always improving the tech (different aspects of the engine, NPCs, AI, behaviour, rendering, etc)".
However, details they gave during the tech-heavy presentation to which other devs attended later that day, where Cristina Vega and Owen Angell comprehensively detailed how their engine actually works behind the scenes, before Sidsel Marie Hermansen and Eskil Møhl gave their own master class on Hitman's emerging gameplay within sandboxes and luring the player with scripted stories.
After that, the open doors event got another Danish/Spanish touch to it, with the Catalonian dev community networking and sharing food and drinks at the studio's terrace, something that IOI wants to hold on a regular basis.
As a final takeaway past studio structure and tech talk, it'll be interesting to see how Project 007 turns out, with James Bond being an obvious inspiration for Agent 47 in the past and both suited-up secret agents and assassins having made the transition between games and movies but just in opposite directions. The tech lecture the IOI devs gave points, again, at a very efficient optimisation for a very specific subgenre, one where you control a character (from the third person, but they've fiddled with VR and first person as well) and infiltrate a big but contained open world full of crowds and behind-the-scenes routines facilitating emerging gameplay. We left looking forward to playing more Hitman and learning more about 007 and the other secret IP...