The open-world genre has evolved in a magnificent way over the past decade or so. Publishers and developers have not only pushed what’s possible from a size and depth standpoint, but also from a narrative and systems standpoint. Hangar 13 and 2K are aiming high with their 2016 open-world beast Mafia 3, and it is an iteration that has been five years coming.
Hangar 13 is the newest development studio for 2K and they were tasked with bringing the popular Mafia series into the next-generation of open-world gaming. atombash.com was fortunate enough to have the time to sit down with Haden Blackman, who is the studio head and creative director, to do an information blow-out interview regarding many things Mafia 3. So without further adieu, here’s our interview with Haden.
Examiner: New Orleans is a very unique place to set Mafia 3 in, but what went into the decision to set this game in New Orleans and why the 1960’s?
Blackman: A couple pillars of the franchise are obviously that sense of time and place with a strong story, that’s what Mafia 2 was really known for. For me, I really wanted to recapture the term Mafia to mean more than just the Italian mob. To me it means organized crime. We can apply it to all types of organized crime, so that was the first conversation we had internally was how can we apply it to more than just the Italian mob and start to expand what we can do in the game. Once we all agreed internally that we wanted to go in that direction, we started thinking about what is a really exciting time period and city and what type of protagonist or character would work really well. I can’t remember which happened first because it all kind of happened at once. We thought, ‘let’s do the 60’s, let’s do the south,’ it made sense to have a mixed-race protagonist who is a Vietnam [veteran] and working with the black mob. All of those things kind of play off of each other really, really well from a story standpoint.
Examiner: The fact that Lincoln is an orphan, how important is to the story itself?
Blackman: That whole notion of being an orphan and looking for a place to belong was something we had really early on. We explored a couple of things with this. One is it’s not just that he was raised as an orphan, he was raised in a Catholic Orphanage and that has its own weight to it. But once the orphanage is closed, what was he going to do? Well he’s probably going to have to hit the streets and start trying to figure out how to survive. For me, what’s really interesting about him is this notion that no matter what he does, he is always looking for this place to belong, though he can never really find it. It instills in him this overblown sense of loyalty and that becomes his fatal flaw. It’s a really admirable quality, but he is so loyal that it gets him into a lot of trouble. Once the Italian mob betrays the black mob, that loyalty still drives him to seek revenge.
Examiner: Given the fact that he was raised in a Catholic Orphanage, will religion be a theme in the game?
Blackman: It actually is. We are not going into too much details right now because [religion] ties into some of the characters we’re introducing later. We certainly deal with that and especially the fact that [Lincoln] was raised Catholic, [we explore] what that means to him and other people around him. Again, with the race and religion stuff, we are not trying to be too heavy handed about it. We’re trying to be authentic. It’s definitely something [Lincoln] thinks about and scripture gets quoted at him. He has conversations about religion with a couple of different characters, including Cassandra, who is the Haitian crime lord that you saw in the trailer. Again, we’re not trying to get up on a soapbox or anything, but we would love for people to think about it a bit.
Examiner: Was the rarity with which New Orleans has been used for open-world games a factor in choosing the setting?
Blackman: One of the things that came into play was can we find a city that has been rarely done and do we feel like we can really do it well? We wanted something that could be an interesting backdrop, especially given the time period. It’s in the South during 1968 [and that] adds to the racial tension of the game. We’re also game designers too, so we needed a city that we felt offered a lot of diverse environments, and New Orleans definitely does that. You have the French Quarter, the Bayou, the really wealthy upper-class area like the Garden District and then a poverty-stricken area like the Warf. There are all of these different areas we put together, but as you can see we’ve also taken a lot of creative license as well. We wanted to create a city that was fun to drive around, so we added a lot of hills. We wanted to add this whole network of tunnels underneath the city. In our fiction, the tunnels were used during prohibition to smuggle moonshine around. As far as I know, there are no hidden tunnels underneath [the real New Orleans], but we took some licenses. The other thing that was really important was the music too. Music in 1960 was really important, but we didn’t just want to go with a whole host of recognizable rock songs. New Orleans is obviously known for jazz, but there is also blues, R&B, oldies, big band and all of that kind of crushed together in the soundtrack.
Examiner: How will gameplay vary between each district?
Blackman: Obviously, there are a lot of commonalities across all of them, you’ll be doing a lot of driving and gunplay in these areas because those are two of our cores mechanics, but every district has its own criminal ecology. That area we took over in the demo is unique to the French Ward, all of the rackets associated with it are found through exploring the French Ward. You’ll spend a lot of time in each individual district dismantling and then rebuilding it. You’ll go back out and kind of reclaim it for yourself when you rebuild it. We also have open-world activities that span the entirety of the city. If you go down to the Bayou, you might go down there to do weed runs and pick up pot that has been dropped into the Bayou by smugglers, that you can then bring back by boat to warehouses run by Cassandra. We also have races all over the game. We actually have a road network that goes throughout the swamps too. Some are with Burke, who is an Irish guy, and you do stuff for him and that can take you all over the city. The other thing that is interesting is that each district has there own view of Lincoln. We touched on it in the demo, if Lincoln goes into that jazz club, because it’s a public front, he can’t go in waving a gun around, but he doesn’t really stand out either since it’s a mixed race jazz club. There are other areas of the city where that is not true. If he goes into a public facing hideout or is even just walking down the street, he might attract a lot of undue attention because of who he is and he looks black. He is mixed race, but there is a character who says a line, ‘if you look black, you’re basically black’ as far as the city is concerned. There are other areas where he’s at home and is where he grew up, it’s a predominantly black population so he doesn’t stand out as much. The cops aren’t as willing to harass him there in that kind of area.
Examiner: Tell us about how the world is alive?
Blackman: We’ve invested a lot into a system we call our World Interaction System. Cops who were harassing an interracial couple, that could have happened anywhere in the world with a few exceptions. We can decide which districts that’ll happen in, the time of day and weather, and then it can randomly happen. The same thing can happen with a woman who is flirting with Lincoln or playing guitar. A lot of those things are for ambiance but they can also impact gameplay. Another world interaction is a Vietnam War protest. It’s a much larger group and can spill out into the streets, so if you’re running from cops or are involved with a retaliation event, and all of a sudden there’s this protest around the corner, that can be problematic for you. One of the New Orleans funeral processions, which can walk literally right down the middle of the street, can also be problematic. We’re trying to put those things in the game to give you that sense of one, you’re in New Orleans, and two, you never know what you’re going to see when you turn each corner.
Examiner: Will shooting out tires be among the skills Lincoln has to learn?
Blackman: We always want to be providing you with skill checks in the game. I think that’s a fun element in a game and for me, it’s that combination of challenge and choice. It’s hard to have fun with a game if you’re not being challenged. You want to have something to overcome, but then you want to have choice with how you do that. In the case of vehicles, we said ‘okay we’ve got the cover-shooting and are providing you with gun challenges constantly through the game and through that.’ In the driving, we don’t want the shooting to necessarily be the challenge. We want the driving to be the challenge, so a lot of that is done through smart targeting. At that point, [the challenge] becomes about managing your ammo, deciding what weapon you’re going to use and then driving and keeping your car within range. It’s a lot of auto-targeting, but over time, the player will be upgrading the skills of Lincoln as well. You’ll be getting better at the game, but then you’ll also have certain things you can upgrade over time such as better health, better reload time, less recoil and things like that.
Examiner: How will player choice impact the world?
Blackman: We wanted to create a reactive world, so we want the world to feel like it’s hitting you back periodically, which is what that Retaliation event was. That was based on a system in the game that says when Lincoln does X amount of damage to the mob, make sure the mob retaliates within a window. You might have taken that cistern, be 10 minutes later on some weed run for Cassandra and all of a sudden this Retaliation happens. You might also just be walking around or looking for a car and a Retaliation can happen. It’s really dynamic that way, which is how the world can be reactive. In terms of the player choice, we try and focus on the micro and macro level. The micro level is things like what weapon am I using? What approach am I going to take when I go in? What services am I going to use? Am I calling in Muscle? All of that hopefully makes the game feel like a unique experience, but what I’m more interested in is how people manage the macro level of choice. There are a few areas of that, but one way is managing a relationship between three lieutenants. All three are still criminals even though they’re like ‘yeah, we’re joining forces to go to war with the mob,’ but at the end of the day, they’re all criminals and they’re all greedy. They want money and power, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’re going to be upset. Those hideout rewards are unique and are kind of a living skill tree. Every time you go to give a hideout out, you think ‘oh, Vito has a really cool reward, do I want to give it to him? But Cassandra’s [reward] is really cool too and I can only get it if I give the cistern to Cassandra.’ Hopefully players are constantly torn between giving those things out. Some players will go with Vito, but that’ll impact you because Cassandra and Burke are going to be unhappy. Others will make broad [choices] and try to keep them all happy, but that means there are some Services and rewards that they’ll never get access to. That does impact the narrative and there are moments in the game that will take players by surprise. [Those moments] will make sense after they happen, but there are ways you can mismanage that so the story then twists on you.
Examiner: How will money play into the game’s economy?
Blackman: Money is a big deal for us, but it’s hard because it’s 1968, and we went back to look at what things cost. We are trying to be true to that, but then people always want to add a few extra zeroes to make them feel like they’re making more and more money. Money comes into play a couple of different ways. When you take a hideout, you get a monetary reward. When you assign the hideouts out, those guys will earn money for you and all have different abilities to earn. It also depends on the business too, so that’s another thing you have to weigh. There are certain businesses that Vito really kicks ass at running and you might be tempted into giving them to him, but again, it’s at the expense of other rewards that you might get from other people. Cassandra and Burke also have the businesses that they are really good at running. They kick up [cash] to you so you’re always getting money as well. Every time you use a Service, you’re spending money. One of my favorite features is we have this Mobile Store in the game, so you can call in from a payphone and later in the game you get the ability to expand that range. You call the Mobile Store and this guy will show up and sell you weapons, ammo and stuff like that out of the back of his car. You’re constantly spending money to keep your war going, but then you’re also constantly earning it.
Examiner: Will Lincoln experience love?
Blackman: I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but some of that will depend on the choices you make. Love is maybe too strong of a word. There are characters he identifies and connects with. I would say Burke, Vito and Cassandra, again depending on how you are playing the game, those relationships absolutely evolve and there are some secondary characters involved as well. There is no dating sim part of the game. It’s more about you building your empire and recruiting these guys and working with them, but that’s not to say Lincoln doesn’t develop some really strong relationships with key people that are both familial and of mutual respect.
My thanks once again to Haden Blackman and 2K for taking the time to speak with us about Mafia 3. The game is scheduled to release sometime in 2016 for PS4, Xbox One and PC.