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Mafia III is a great example of the glory and the pain of game development. The ambitious title took years to make, with the initial effort focused on crafting the right character, place, and historical context for the tale about the newest “gifted anti-hero” in the Mafia series.
When the game came out in October, players complained about bugs and problems with gameplay. But they loved the story about Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race Vietnam veteran who goes after the Italian mob in a fictional version of New Orleans in 1968, during the height of racial and war tensions in the United States. I played the game all the way through, and had mixed emotions about the execution. The story was powerful and unflinching in its depiction of racism in the Deep South, but it was hard to like many aspects of the gameplay. I caught up with the team’s leaders for a postmortem.
In some ways, it’s a miracle the game was published at all. Triple-A games are hard to make and are usually made by established teams. Publisher 2K Games (a Take-Two Interactive division) commissioned Hangar 13, a brand new game studio in Novato, Calif., to make the game from the ground up. Headed by Haden Blackman, who created games such as Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Hangar 13 had to hire the staff, build a game engine, figure out Clay’s story, and identify the gameplay that would entertain players for as much as 35 hours on a single playthrough.
Mafia III’s creators are proud of what they accomplished, which some have described as a cultural milestone for games. But they acknowledge they hit both limits and trade-offs as they brought their game to the finish line. I caught up with Blackman, studio head and creative director at Hangar 13, and Bill Harms, lead writer on Mafia III, for a conversation about working on such an epic project. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: This feels a bit like interviewing a novelist after you’ve read a novel. How do you feel about how the game turned out, as far as the reception and feedback that’s come your way?
Haden Blackman: On the one hand, we’re a little disappointed by some of the reactions to the gameplay loops and the weight that was applied to some of the bugs in the game. But the flip side is that we made a lot of decisions in development to double down on the experience of being Lincoln and exploring his story. Sometimes that came at the expense of other things. The fact that the story and that experience we created, Lincoln in the south in 1968, that has resonated. We’ve seen a lot of good write-ups around that, and that’s made us happy with the choices we made along the way.
The thing I keep reminding myself is that the game’s been called a cultural milestone, which is really humbling for us. How often do you get to work on a game that touches people on that level? Obviously we want to do better in the future on some of the core gameplay, but I’m proud of what the team was able to achieve, especially given the size of the team and some of the other challenges we faced.
Bill Harms: I’m a Midwestern guy, so I don’t take praise very well. [laughs] But it’s been very gratifying. The thing I keep telling everybody about the quality of the cinematics and everything, it’s not just the writing. Huge sections of the studio at large had a hand in those. Everything from animation to — one thing I joke about is whiskey technology. Everybody in our game is at least a part-time alcoholic, if not full-blown. But you don’t think about that when you watch them, the effort it takes to show a liquid in a glass and a character drinking it all the time. It’s an important moment. Like Haden said, we doubled down on that stuff. I joke about it, but it’s a hard problem to solve. It’s gratifying that so much effort went into that — not just the writing and the scripting, but the support from the rest of the studio, to that degree. It was a great experience.
Blackman: The other example we call out — at a certain point in time we had to make a decision, like all games do, about where you put people. We don’t have an unlimited amount of time or money or personnel. You have to make hard choices. Do we keep working on this feature? Do we work on that instead?
Because the interaction between Lincoln and the world was so important to us, at a certain point we decided we were going to double down on things like the shopkeepers, making sure they reacted to you when you came into their stores. Some of them were going to react based on your race. Same with the police, the police being able to watch you as you move around the world and give you that sense that they’ve got their eye on you. We thought that was very important to the experience.
Those things came at the expense of some of our AI in combat, for example. My argument there was, if you want to play a great cover shooter there are 50 or 60 of those out on the market to go play. We’re a competent cover shooter, but we weren’t trying to be best in class. We were trying to make sure it was entertaining and fun. But we were taking the people who would have been working to make that better and putting them on these other features to immerse you in the time and place and remind you of who Lincoln is.
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s hard to know what could have happened if we invested more in the cover AI, if that would have made a difference in the review scores, but I feel like—had we not invested in shopkeepers and police behaviors and some of the other stuff Bill mentioned, we wouldn’t have captured this very unique experience that you can’t get anywhere else.
GamesBeat: A lot of people don’t necessarily know about the development history of the game. Can you fill in that for us a little? What was involved in bringing it to market, building the new studio and the new engine and everything else?
Blackman: You and I talked in the past when I was working on Force Unleashed at LucasArts. It wasn’t unlike that in some ways. We knew we wanted to build a big, ambitious game. When I started I was employee number one at Hangar 13. I didn’t know what franchise I would be working on yet. I just knew I wanted to work on story-driven experiences and open worlds. I wanted to work with proprietary tech, because that gives you the most freedom.
Pretty early after I started, the idea of working on a Mafia game was floated and I grabbed hold of it. I looked at it as a gift, because there was such a strong fan following. It lends itself to some great stories. It was already established as an open-world game. But it was a long road from there. We had to build the studio from one person to a complete team. We’re a moderate size, especially as open-world games go, or maybe even on the small side, but we still had to hire everyone and make sure we were building a competent studio. We brought over a number of people from the Czech Republic who had worked on Mafia II. That was a process – getting them over here, getting them set up, making sure they feel comfortable working in California.
As you say, we built all of our own tech. It’s a proprietary engine and tool set. We built that as we were building the game. The cliché is that you’re building the track while the freight train is racing down it. You can derail the whole team if a tool or a piece of technology is behind.
GamesBeat: One question on the engine. It seems like you might have had access to technology from other 2K games like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto. Were those considerations?
Blackman: From the outset we knew we wanted to evolve the technology that had been used in Mafia II. That was our foundation. We didn’t really discuss using anything else. For me personally, I feel more comfortable using proprietary tech that we own and control. We’re not trying to shoehorn our vision into existing tech. We knew we had a foundation to build from, at least, in Mafia II.