The Mak­ing Of...

How a hand-picked band of de­vel­op­ers cre­ated a unique open-world thriller

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY EDWARD SMITH De­vel­oper Hangar 13, 2K Czech Pub­lisher 2K For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Ori­gin US Re­lease 2016

How a hand-picked band of de­vel­op­ers cre­ated a unique open-world thriller in Mafia III

On April 3, 2013, when Lu­casArts of­fi­cially ceased op­er­a­tions, it seemed like the end of an era. Games such as Mon­key Is­land, Grim Fan­dango and Star Wars: Knights Of

The Old Repub­lic had rep­re­sented an in­dus­try stan­dard for sto­ry­telling and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, and with their creator now closed – and 150 writ­ers, designers and pro­gram­mers sud­denly out of work – it felt as though qual­ity nar­ra­tive in videogames had suf­fered a huge blow. But

Haden Black­man, who had left Lu­casArts some three years prior, had an idea. As the head of Hangar 13, a new stu­dio cre­ated by pub­lish­ing gi­ant 2K, he saw in the clo­sure of Lu­casArts the op­por­tu­nity to build a new type of open-world game. Apart from Christoph Hart­mann, 2K’s pres­i­dent and the man who hired him, Black­man was the only per­son who knew what Hangar 13 was cre­ated to do. But with some of the best game-mak­ers in the busi­ness now look­ing for jobs, it was the per­fect time to share the se­cret. Black­man quickly started hir­ing the team that would de­velop Mafia III.

A qual­ity third­per­son shooter. An ex­cit­ing driv­ing game. A story about eth­nic­ity, vi­o­lence and the Amer­i­can ’60s. Mafia III had to be many things, so Black­man didn’t re­strict his re­cruit­ment to for­mer Lu­casArts tal­ent, with his team even­tu­ally com­pris­ing designers and writ­ers from some of the big­gest ti­tles in the busi­ness. “When Lu­casArts wound down, it was lo­cal and I’d worked there for a long time, so that gave us a lot of peo­ple,” Black­man says. “But we also started talk­ing to some of the guys at 2K Czech, which had de­vel­oped Mafia II, about ideas they’d al­ready had for Mafia III. Some of them be­came part of Hangar 13’s foun­da­tion. And we hired like crazy. I think we got peo­ple from ev­ery ma­jor fran­chise of the past decade.” One of the first ar­rivals at Hangar 13 was

Matthias Worch, who’d pre­vi­ously worked on Lu­casArts’ Star Wars games. As design di­rec­tor, he was re­spon­si­ble for lay­ing out and de­sign­ing the over­all vi­sion. But be­fore any­thing could be built, the game’s set­ting, time pe­riod and cen­tral char­ac­ter had to be de­cided. Dozens of ques­tions – about Hangar 13’s as­pi­ra­tions, the his­tory of the Mafia fran­chise, and the state of con­tem­po­rary open-world games – framed his early dis­cus­sions. “We put a lot of work into work­ing out what Mafia meant to us, and what mak­ing games meant to us,” Worch ex­plains. “When you make a new team, you have to spend time de­cid­ing what kind of cul­ture you want to cre­ate, so we had this big board de­tail­ing what ar­eas of the game we wanted to at­tack. We cre­ated this motto: ‘Ev­ery player story is unique’. But the in­dus­try didn’t have a blue­print for how that could be achieved.

“So we posed this dif­fer­ent set of ques­tions, this holy trin­ity: what is the char­ac­ter, what is the time pe­riod, and what is the place? We started by say­ing it had to be in the ’60s, be­cause the se­cond Mafia game was set in the ’40s and ’50s, so it ought to be a con­tin­u­a­tion. With that in mind, we looked at which Amer­i­can city was the ma­jor cen­tre for crime in the pe­riod, which led us to New Or­leans. And then we wanted a char­ac­ter who could say some­thing about liv­ing in that place and in that time. That’s where we got Lin­coln Clay.”

But even with an es­tab­lished fran­chise to draw upon, an in­trigu­ing con­cept and an en­vi­able team of designers, Hangar 13 quickly dis­cov­ered that mak­ing an open-world game pre­sented a long list of chal­lenges. Each fea­ture, from the ex­plo­ration to the shoot­ing to the in-game econ­omy, had to in­ter­con­nect and com­mu­ni­cate with all the oth­ers. An early test level, for ex­am­ple, which de­tailed a sin­gle gun­fight at a ma­rina, proved that shoot­ing and cover me­chan­ics worked in iso­la­tion. But when

Mafia III’s ac­tion spilled into the sand­box world proper, with cars, pedes­tri­ans and other ran­domised el­e­ments, it started to come apart. Driv­ing also re­quired a lot of tweak­ing and it­er­a­tion. Re­search trips to New Or­leans yielded pho­to­graphs and in­ter­views, all of them in­valu­able for cre­at­ing Mafia III’s story, but the city’s streets were nar­row and crowded, a prob­lem for the fast-paced, ac­tion-packed driv­ing Hangar 13 wanted to cre­ate. To get its vi­sion up to speed, the stu­dio had to take cer­tain lib­er­ties with re­al­ity.

“We wanted to cre­ate a con­fi­dent cover shooter in a fully sys­temic lo­cal world, which we didn’t think had been done be­fore,” Black­man tells us. “It was a good chal­lenge to set for our­selves in re­gards to com­bat – an un­abashed cover shooter. But try­ing to make it all work in an open, chaotic set­ting was hard. The com­plex­ity of open-world games is dra­mat­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mated by ev­ery­one. The fact that ev­ery­thing touches ev­ery­thing else on some level is the greatest chal­lenge, and we ran into that con­stantly. So we had to es­tab­lish, early on, that the city would be fun to tra­verse. New Or­leans is beau­ti­ful but it’s hard to have a high-speed chase in a city with nar­row streets and a lot of dou­ble-parked cars. We made dozens of grey­box test beds. We built one that was just hun­dreds of streets, so we could work out how fun it would be to drive down a street that was this nar­row, or turned that way. That helped us set some of our met­rics.”

Hangar 13 it­self also had to find ways of work­ing har­mo­niously to­gether. Hir­ing from across the game in­dus­try and de­vel­op­ing along­side 2K Czech had in­tro­duced to the stu­dio a lot of game-mak­ing abil­ity, but dif­fer­ent designers from dif­fer­ent stu­dios have dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing, and uni­fy­ing all of their ef­forts proved a man­age­rial chal­lenge.

“We tried to or­gan­ise around pieces of con­tent and cre­ate cross-func­tional pods ded­i­cated to mak­ing just that spe­cific con­tent,” Black­man ex­plains. “One pod would take on a par­tic­u­lar mis­sion, an­other would do one dis­trict of the city, and so on. But any time you’re deal­ing with mul­ti­ple world cul­tures and mul­ti­ple devel­op­ment cul­tures, it’s a chal­lenge. We re­ally stressed hav­ing those pods, which was a

mind-shift for 2K Czech. And we’d hired peo­ple who were used to fly­ing by the seat of their pants – we had to get them com­fort­able with the idea of pro­duc­tion plan­ning, and make it clear we weren’t try­ing to limit cre­ativ­ity but en­able it.”

As well as an ori­ented and re­struc­tured dev team, co­op­er­a­tion on Mafia III was en­abled by sev­eral edit­ing tools, built in-house, along­side the game’s en­gine. The pods con­tin­ued to work in­di­vid­u­ally, but were now ca­pa­ble of ob­serv­ing changes made by the other pods, as well as test­ing and pre­dict­ing how their own in­put would al­ter Mafia III down the line. In par­tic­u­lar, a tool that could de­ter­mine how player de­ci­sions, at key stages in the nar­ra­tive, would af­fect the game whole­sale proved in­dis­pens­able. It was now pos­si­ble for each dis­trict of New Bordeaux – the stylised recre­ation of ’60s New Or­leans – to be con­structed in tan­dem with ev­ery other. Hangar 13’s ideal of a co­he­sive, nar­ra­tively led open­world game was tak­ing shape.

“Since we were build­ing a whole new en­gine, we could quickly in­te­grate it with the tools we were mak­ing,” Worch ex­plains. “Very clearly in the edi­tor you could look at all the un­der­ly­ing data. Now we could model just how the story, be­tween the three com­pet­ing lieu­tenants – who could fall out with each other de­pend­ing on how play­ers di­vided the city – would work out. These were lit­tle things that no one play­ing the game would ever no­tice, but they were so im­por­tant.

“It was al­most like a wa­ter drop that started to fall, and then the waves crashed over the rest of the game. We started build­ing the en­tire city, firstly just in terms of raw size and di­men­sions, just these big grey blocks. But at the same time there was this one dis­trict that was a lit­tle ahead of ev­ery­thing else. That area had art from the very be­gin­ning, and looked like New Bordeaux pretty much all the way through devel­op­ment. We could use it to test all our new me­chan­ics and ideas.” The most com­plex part of Mafia III, how­ever, was still wait­ing to be ad­dressed. From the be­gin­ning of devel­op­ment, Black­man and Hangar 13 had en­deav­oured to make a dif­fer­ent kind of open-world game. In the no­to­ri­ously ho­mo­ge­neous world of videogames and videogame sto­ry­telling, a black lead char­ac­ter, whose re­venge quest would see him vi­o­lently dis­man­tle a moneyed, white Amer­i­can cul­ture, was some­what atyp­i­cal. But as work on Mafia III con­tin­ued into 2016, and real-world po­lit­i­cal move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter brought race and prej­u­dice into the head­lines on an al­most daily ba­sis, Black­man, Worch and the rest of the game’s designers had to scru­ti­nise their work closely. If Mafia III was overly fo­cused on racial pol­i­tics, it would seem like a cyn­i­cal ex­ploita­tion of cur­rent events. If the re­al­i­ties of its time and place were glossed over, that would be an even big­ger af­front.

Black­man: “We did huge amounts of re­search – thou­sands of hours of read­ing and watch­ing and go­ing on trips. And we did a lot of user test­ing. Peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds played the game and told us when we went too far or when we didn’t go far enough. Things like Black Lives Mat­ter hap­pened while we were in devel­op­ment, and while we were fo­cused on mak­ing a great game and not get­ting up on a soap­box, I told ev­ery­one that if we could make peo­ple think about those things then we would have done some­thing that no­body else has.”

“Some­one who was work­ing with us, their grand­par­ents were black,” Worch ex­plains. “But his grand­mother was fair-skinned and his grand­fa­ther was dark-skinned, and they got con­stantly ha­rassed be­cause peo­ple thought they were a mixed-race cou­ple. We could have put this stuff into cutscenes, but putting it into the world – in one of our early demos, you see this cou­ple get­ting ha­rassed in the street – made it come to life. It was im­por­tant to me that we ac­tu­ally model how racism feels in game­play. That’s what makes games so pow­er­ful: you can feel what some­thing is like. It’s some­thing ev­ery­one ral­lied around, peo­ple on the team from all dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines.”

When it fi­nally re­leased, in Oc­to­ber, 2016, Mafia III di­vided re­view­ers. At the same time as prais­ing its story, and Hangar 13’s will­ing­ness to ap­proach dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter, crit­ics ar­gued the game was too di­rect – with such sin­gu­lar fo­cus given to Lin­coln Clay’s quest for re­venge, Mafia III’s open world, to some, felt far too closed. But Black­man and Worch main­tain it was in­ten­tional. For many years, a fa­mil­iar stan­dard for sand­box games has pre­dom­i­nated, and Hangar 13 al­ways in­tended to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, even if it meant tak­ing risks that would not pay off.

“I’m not try­ing to be dis­mis­sive, but it’s eas­ier to make a world that’s full of in­di­vid­ual things to do,” Worch says. “You can set teams off to make things and then just put them to­gether. On Mafia III, though, ev­ery el­e­ment had to work with ev­ery other one. Each team had to re­act with each other, and un­der­stand what each other was do­ing. I’m not just proud of this game, I’m glad we made it.”

“There’s an open-world model where a bunch of stuff is thrown at you, and some of it is to­tally ex­tra­ne­ous,” Black­man con­cludes. “We wanted to fo­cus on the things Lin­coln would do. He’s out for re­venge. He’s not go­ing to waste time go­ing fish­ing. Some crit­ics re­warded us for that, some didn’t. I could drive my­self in­sane try­ing to se­cond-guess ev­ery re­view and fig­ure out what the writ­ers wanted. But it’s been called a ‘cul­tural land­mark’. How of­ten in your ca­reer do you get to work on some­thing like that? So that’s what I keep telling the team: hold up your head.”

Hangar 13’s pri­or­ity was to cre­ate a third­per­son shooter that would work smoothly even in a chaotic en­vi­ron­ment

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