With previous titles in the franchise getting a luke-warm reception amongst certain critics, the pressure is certainly on for Mafia 3 to perform well this year. But with a new studio in charge of the franchise title’s development (Hangar 13), together with Haden Blackman (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) at the helm, it looks like Mafia 3 might just be one of this year’s biggest surprise hits. However, with games like Grand Theft Auto 5 already setting such a high standard for the open-world genre, the competition couldn’t be any fiercer. And with this in mind, I spoke to Andy Wilson (Executive Producer, Hangar 13) and got to ask him as to how he intends for Mafia 3 to stand out in such an incredibly congested Triple A marketplace. Enjoy!
Mr Wilson… as the Executive Producer of Hangar 13 and the studio that’s ultimately responsible for Mafia 3, in what way do you think Mafia 3 is going to build upon the legacy of its previous two games?
I think there’s a number of ways. Narrative is always a very strong focus for the series, so the sense of capturing a real feel for the era and the city and then telling this kind of almost curated character story… we aim to continue that tradition and tell a whole new story in a new area with a new protagonist which is Lincoln Clay. Specifically in terms of our relations to previous games, we’re bringing back one of the key characters, the hero from Mafia 2, Vito Scaletta who becomes one of Lincoln’s main lieutenants in the game so there’s definitely going to be some story connection there. And then we’re trying to build on the series from a gameplay perspective as well. So we’ve introduced this character… he’s a very, very powerful character. He’s capable of very brutal combat as a Vietnam veteran with all of the training that he has. We’ve tried to introduce really refined combat mechanics, both from a more shooting perspective, and also in terms of the hand to hand combat. And then we’re taking some other aspects of the series… like from Mafia 2, we inherited an engine that we’ve rebuilt for current gen which has incredibly capable driving physics underpinning all of it and we’re really building on that. We’ve got these weighty, throaty kind of powerful muscle cars in the game as well. So driving also feels great.
You mentioned as to how one of the ways Mafia 3 builds upon Mafia 2 and Mafia 1 is the sense of narrative. What sort of research went into ensuring that the narrative is as true as possible for anyone looking to have a reasonable amount of immersion whilst playing a game that is set in 1968? How were you able to recreate New Orleans as the setting for Mafia 3?
I mean, it’s our version of New Orleans. So it’s sort of inspired by, rather than a rebuilt version of the city. We’ve kind of played with it to make it our own and suit our purposes. From the environmental perspective, we’ve obviously done a lot of reference gathering of the look and feel of the city. Many people from the team have been there before as well which also helps. On the narrative side, we do a huge amount of research. We’re obviously in an era where there was a lot of political and racial tension and a lot of turbulence during that year. So there’s a rich history of subjects to pick from and to research. We have a large narrative and writing team that predominantly looks into that and tries to make sure that we’re getting the reality and the authenticity of that time period correct. Haden Blackman, our creative director, is a narrative guy. He’s from a narrative background. He’s a writer by trade. So he’s exactly the right kind of person to be leading this sort of game well. So we feel pretty good about where we’ve got to with that. It’s kind of an ongoing project.
Now you just explained as to how you’ve gone about trying to ensure that the narrative would be plausible. But with a game of this size, you have to take into account many twists because it’s essentially an open world game. You have to ultimately take into account the myriad ways to how people would complete objectives. How do you ensure that the story that you’re telling is both plausible and interesting without necessarily resorting to tired tropes and cliches? For example… I understand that there’s racism, but sometimes people use that almost as a crutch and as a band-aid. During the demo, I heard the phrase “get lost nigger”! And I’ll come back to these shock tactics later, but it’s almost a case of… are you confident enough in your own storytelling ability to not have to resort to profanities of that nature in order to gloss over whatever cracks there are in the story?
Yeah, I mean “authenticity” is the word, right? And in that era, and in that part of the world, those are the kind of things that as a mixed race guy walking down the street in a predominantly white area, you’d have that kind of stuff thrown at you. And I think if we were to shy away from it, and if we did not have the world react to you in an authentic way… if we treated it with kid-gloves and it felt fluffy and nice, then I think we would be copping out and we’d be trying to dodge a bullet in a sense. I don’t think that that would be credible. So it’s very important that the world reacts to Lincoln in a way that it would have done, and it’s going to change district by district as well. And again, I’ll say in terms of the narrative team that we’ve got… we’ve got Haden and he’s extremely capable when it comes to this kind of thing. If you look at his background as a writer and some of the properties that he’s worked on… he’s actually taken on some characters with a tricky subject matter before and he’s dealt with it really well. To an award winning standard actually. So I feel like we’re doing our research, we’re keenly aware that we have to get this right, and we’re putting a lot of time and attention into it. And what you’re seeing is just the first taste of how huge the ecosystem is and how it will hang together.
You mentioned as to how you want things to be authentic. Now I understand that Lincoln Clay went to Vietnam. As somebody who has been watching 18 rated movies for a while now, I thought that the violence was pretty shocking. From a commercial standpoint, and even though you want to be authentic, do you not think that the level of violence that’s being portrayed in Mafia 3, for example with its shotguns and what not… I thought it was pretty visceral and graphic. Do you not think that given the expectations of Mafia 3 as being the continuation of the franchise, the fact that it’s on current-gen consoles which as a consequence means that it’s costing a lot for 2K to develop as the publisher… with all these commercial expectations placed around it, do you not think that maybe the level of violence, and part of that is obviously to do with the dialogue which I’ve previously spoken about, will hamper its commercial viability and appeal?
I don’t think so. There’s a difference between context-less violence and what we’re showing here. Again, Lincoln as a character… he’s a Vietnam vet, he’s a gangster himself, and he’s going up against some really nasty people in terms of the Italian mob. Again, we’re trying to do it in a credible way. There are going to be non-lethal options in the world as well. Players can choose the way that they actually want to play the game. But again, shying away from it, or trying to make it sort of a comic book, for us it’s not the right thing to do. We’re happy to put this together from a narrative point of view, from a gameplay point of view, stand by it and say “This is what we consider authentic to be”, because I think as creatives we feel better doing that we don’t want to be forced into toning something down because we feel it’s going to harm something somewhere else. 2K’s a great company and they’re thoroughly behind us in all of this. And they’ve obviously seen everything and the direction we’re going in. We’re all in it together. They are a company where if you look at their portfolio generally, they curate stuff. They make great games and they take the time to get it right and we’ve being given that treatment as well. So I feel confident that we’re going to get it right, definitely.
I thought that you went to great extremes with regards to obtaining licensed tracks. I know that you want to maintain authenticity for a certain era, and even though New Orleans isn’t recreated entirely faithfully, do you not think that maybe it would have been more cost effective to make tracks that would have sounded almost like the kind of tracks that were being played, or the hits that were in vogue during that period in time?
I’d come back to that word again… “authentic”. Haden in particular is a huge fan of the music of that era and there were certain tracks that we really wanted to get in there. We put our list together of everything we wanted and we’re trying to get as much as we can. We’re also trying to unearth a few things that maybe have got lost in the mist of time from that period as well. And similarly, the ‘Pulp Fiction’ movie did it where they had this great soundtrack, but a lot of the music from it actually haven’t been heard in a long time. It wasn’t necessarily all the big stuff, it was of a certain period and they did a really good job of bringing those songs back to life. So we definitely want to find some of that stuff as well.
I heard ‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals and that’s classic.
I know that the game is still some time away. Is there a specific time-frame for its release in 2016?
Not yet. No, we’ve not named our final run-in date.
Obviously, there’s still a lot of polishing to do. Like, one of the things I noticed was weak AI and some of the on-screen characters weren’t reacting as well as they could have done contextually. What steps will you be taking to ensure that between now and 2016, when it does come out, that the game is as polished as it possibly can be?
Yeah, we’re not going to release a buggy game. That’s for sure. We’re very, very aware of what that would do. Obviously, we are still part way through development, so the challenge of producing demo builds is always… you’re essentially trying to put something together that says it’s finished and is as representative as possible. And we all have bugs. The demo that we showed is actually one of the cleanest demos that I’ve ever had, particularly because of the length, because it’s quite a long gameplay demo in terms of the amount of that district that we’re exploring and actually the number of different systems that are interacting with each other. And the other challenge is, it’s a fully systemic open world. So sometimes the game will do things that we can’t always predict. And particularly when demonstrating open-world games, sometimes they misbehave and they’ll do their own thing. So yeah, there’s going to be a lot of that stuff coming up. There’s actually a huge phase at the end of development where we’re essentially finished and we spend a few months just closing the game down and fixing all the bugs. And again, 2K is fortunately the kind of publisher where they’ll say “We’ll work out exactly when we can release this finished, polished, bug free game and it’s great”, and that’s when we’ll end up announcing a release date.
In a market where we are seeing Triple A titles come out on a weekly basis, what steps is 2K and Hangar 13 taking to ensure that Mafia 3, when it is released, is able to stand out in an incredibly congested Triple A marketplace?
We’ve actually been looking at it since the launch of the new consoles and it seems that there is a bit more room than there used to be. Things are consolidating around bigger titles [and there are] fewer of them overall then we were seeing towards the end of the last generation. I think we’ve built a game that’s just going to stand up there with the best. So I’m not concerned about it in that respect. I think by the time we come out in 2016, these new consoles would be very established and you’ve seen how fast both of them are selling as well. So the opportunity for us there is probably actually much better than it was at the same time in the previous generation. So again, I’m a firm believer that if you put a really good game together and you get the right kind of support from the publisher, then you’ll find your player base. And we’re very much hoping to do that with this as well.