The Making Of...
How a hand-picked band of developers created a unique open-world thriller
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