In all of the examples we've just discussed there's a risk vs. reward tradeoff. The developer takes on some of the risk, and the public takes on the rest, and developer rewards the public for taking a chance on them.
Which brings us to the quasi-episodic mess that is the new Hitman game. The plan at Square Enix is to release some portion of the content in December for full retail price, and then gradually complete the game by releasing more content at some later date.
Square Enix isn't some scrappy little company. They are a major publisher with a market cap in the billions. Publishers rose to power because they were supposed to be a solution to this problem of development risk in the first place. So the idea that a publisher would turn to one of these other funding methods is deeply suspicious to begin with. Remember that managing risk is the publishers job. This is like hiring a private security firm and then you discover that their "security" system is to call the cops if there's any trouble. Why should we give you all this power and money if you don't have anything to offer in return?
But it's actually worse than this, because Square Enix isn't just copying what the indies and mid-tier games are doing. Square's plan isn't to share risk with us. Their plan is to dump all of the risk onto the consumer. In the case of Hitman, you'll be buying the full game for full price up front. IO Interactive will then produce and release the game in stages over time. If the game tanks and Square doesn't like the sales numbers, they would be free to shrug their shoulders and cancel any future content. You'll have paid full price for half a game.
We're probably only a couple of months from the game going gold. (The first portion of the game is slated for December release.) And yet we still don't know how much content there will be at launch, how much will be released in the future, or how long the total process will take.
Not only is Square dumping all the risk onto the consumer, they haven't even given us any indication what the parameters of that risk will be, or what they're offering. It doesn't help that the last major entry in the franchise (Hitman Absolution) was an idiotic, overproduced disaster that betrayed the core concepts of the series to turn the game into a shitty Uwe Boll movie that nobody wanted or needed. It wasted a lot of money on voice actors and cutscenes that were at the same time expensive and embarrassingly amateurish. The other two recent Hitman titles were both mobile cash-ins. This deal would be less preposterous if we had some indication that Square still knew how to make these games and could manage their resources responsibly.
Don't forget that episodic gaming has a way of confounding the review process. What if Square releases a polished first "episode" (it's not really episodic, but since they haven't told us how it will work I'm going to just call the content dumps episodes) to get some good reviews and then does a halfway job on the later content? They will get to ride high on the favorable review scores without any way for critics or the public to hold them accountable. The fact that Square is releasing the game in December sort of highlights this danger. They can reap the rewards of having a completed AAA game ready for Christmas, without having to actually complete a game in time for Christmas. And once those initial sales figures are in, what incentive do they have to complete the game?
I'm not saying Square is perpetrating or planning a massive fraud. I'm saying this deal is abominable even if their intentions are noble. The incentives are all pushing them in the wrong direction, they're dumping their risk (and thus their financial responsibilities) onto the fanbase, and in return they aren't even willing to make promises about what they're offering or planning. I'm hoping the public rejects Square's offensive idea. I hate to see bad the things happen to a series as unique as Hitman, but I'd rather see that than a world where AAA publishers move to a "if enough of you buy the game for full price, we'll have a reason to finish it" funding model.