Feature Article

Mafia III's Devs on Refreshing the Mafia Franchise

"We're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves."

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Mafia III isn't just an open-world adventure packed with criminal activity. During a recent hands-on session of the title and a sit-down talk with developers from studio Hangar 13, it's clear the team also treats it like a period piece. Set in 1968 the southern city of New Bordeaux--Hangar 13's fictional take on New Orleans--players see its criminal underbelly through the eyes of Lincoln, a mixed-race veteran of the Vietnam War who returns to find his people, the black mob, brought low. You, as Lincoln, are tasked with building up a ring of associates, infiltrate and destroy rival mobs' rackets and restore balance--at your discretion--to your city.

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I sat down with creative director and studio head Haden Blackman as well as lead writer Bill Harms to discuss what swayed the team towards a setting in 1968 New Orleans, their hopes for portraying authenticity of experience with their protagonist, and the research that went into building the world of Mafia III. For both men, the year itself was the tipping point: in 1968, Blackman's father returned from fighting in the Vietnam War, and a few months later Harms' father left for the frontlines. Both felt strongly about imbuing their hero with this identity--but in many ways, we can't call him a hero, as both developers asserted the importance of having a flawed protagonist.

Although the game is scheduled to launch later this year, there's still much that hasn't been revealed: for example, we've yet to see the Bayou, an environment to the south of the game's nine-district map, a swathe of swampy ground where many mobsters hide what they can't in the city. We've met but know don't know much about Lincoln's associates, although we do know that how you dole out power between them will affect your resources throughout the game. But knowing the intensity of research putting into fleshing them out and building New Bordeaux can give us a few hints.

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GameSpot: It's been a while since Mafia II. I'm interested in what happened, or where the franchise went in the years in between, and then your role in it, since you mentioned early that you came here [to Hangar 13] and brought up working on Mafia.

Blackman: It was more of a conversation in terms of the possible things we could work on, Mafia III was something that was kicking around, and some concepts had been worked on and there were ideas that were definitely floating around. I think the franchise is really near and dear to 2K, so it never was not something that people were pursuing and talking about. But it didn't really crystallize until we started talking about setting it in 1968, and Lincoln as the protagonist, and building a studio here to lead the creative effort behind it. Luckily, we are incredibly fortunate that a lot of the guys that worked on Mafia II decided to come out here and join us, and a lot of the guys that worked on Mafia II that remained in the Czech Republic agreed to continue to work on the project.

You mention that everything came together when you settled on your setting, so can you talk about how that conversation went? Who came up with the idea, how did it evolve?

So again, because they had kind of kicked around ideas for Mafia III for a bit, there were a couple different settings that were talked about that were already in the wind, or already part of the conversation. For me it was easy to just come in and say, "Well that's the one that's most interesting to me, let's explore that more." So there had already been some concept work that had been done, some concept art, some assets that had been built just to see what it would like to build those assets. [There were] Some very early prototypes of the city layout that had been done by various groups that had been kind of working on the project off and on between Mafia II and Mafia III.

For me, it was a no-brainer to pick New Orleans as our inspiration. The harder thing, I think, was narrowing down the year, because we could have set it at any time after Mafia II [Editor's note: Mafia II was set in an era drawing from the 1940s/early 1950s]. I think 1968 really came from the personal note for... [laughs] Well, I looked at what music was out at that time, and said "we can't have this track if it's not in 1968 or beyond, right?" But just the fact that that's the year my dad returned from Vietnam, that became the year that we really settled on. And then obviously it's such a tumultuous year in American history, it was again kind of a no-brainer.

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Can you talk at all about the other settings you were thinking about, and what was the definitive mark that made you go with 1968?

I don't want to talk too much about other settings in terms of places in case we revisit them. I will say we looked at a wide swath. We considered returning to Empire Bay for example, which was the setting of Mafia II. I wanted to do something different that felt new and fresh and move it in a different direction. We looked at some tropical settings. We looked at stuff that was maybe a little bit more unexpected.

But for me, the rule was I wanted it to be a city that you could look at and go, "I can believe that the mob runs a big part of this city, and that there's plenty for them to do there from an ecology standpoint." So you have to have industry, you have to have entertainment, you have to have tourism, you have to have all these things that feed into the mafia. That was really important, but then I also wanted it to be a city that you imagine, "If I was running that city, it would be a city that I would have fun in." You don't want to pick a city that maybe does have a strong criminal presence, but it isn't aspirational in any way, you know, a city you can go have fun in, right? So, again, when you think of those kind of criteria, New Orleans makes perfect sense. Then the fact that it's got this rich musical history: pirates, and bootlegging, there's so much that goes on there, and that really helped.

In terms of years, we considered everything from the end of Mafia II up until 1968. We didn't want to go past that, really, we knew the late 60's was were we wanted to stop. Anyway, we talked whether we wanted to do a 10-year span like Mafia II, but for me it was really important to make it an immediate story that felt very urgent and covered a short period of time, even though it's hours and hours and hours of gameplay. It's this very short period of time in Lincoln's life.

So Lincoln: did you have same sort of deliberations over who your protagonist would be as you did your setting?

Yeah, it was interesting because it's hard now looking back, and I can't remember what came first, the year or New Bordeaux or Lincoln. They all kind of happened at the same time, and they informed each other. We talked about it, we definitely talked about who Lincoln should be. We kicked around ideas for an Italian mobster protagonist in this era, maybe someone who has been sent down from Empire Bay to make his mark in New Bordeaux, and we kept that alive in [another character] Vito, because that's Vito's backstory, that he got sent down there.

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We explored some other things, other ideas: people that are tangentially related to the mob that aren't part of the mob, but maybe work with the mob, making them the main character. But, really, when we started talking about the time period, and everything that was going on in the country, and where we were located, because it's the South, we thought that the most interesting thing would be to make Lincoln mixed race. It doesn't really matter if he's mixed race, because he looks black, so he's treated as black. But then once we made the decision to do it, we never wavered. Throughout the whole organization, which has been awesome, nobody ever second guessed it, nobody ever said, "Ah, it's kind of risky, maybe we shouldn't do it."

You guys are doing something a little different here. To bring up every other game that's come out in the past few years: you have your main protagonist who is not a white guy. Do you feel a lot of pressure having a different protagonist? How has that added to your world-building?

I feel pressure in the sense that I don't want to let people down. We want to make a great game that feels authentic, and I think at the end of the day, we can obsess over the fact of, are we accurately portraying his specific experience, or are we accurately portraying the experience of a black man in 1968 in the South? We can can obsess over that all day. We have African American people on the team, we have done a lot of research, but none of us know what it would be like to be that guy in that setting, because he's a fictional character, right? And none of us were a black man in 1968 in the South, who is also a Vietnam vet and a criminal, I mean, he is a criminal, we don't want to shy away from that.

So at the end of the day, for me, the direction I gave the team--and the writing team in particular -- is to just be authentic. Just try and be authentic to the character, and tell a story that feels true to that character. It's not necessarily going to be the experience of every criminal who grew up in 1968 in the South, it's not going to be the experience of every Vietnam vet, it's not going to be the experience of every African American, it's not going to be the experience of every man. But it's Lincoln's experience, and we should be able to look at it and go, "That feels authentic to Lincoln, to what he's gone through and who he is."

That's where we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, is making sure that we always feel like we're just telling the truth with this in terms of, you look at it and you're like, "Well, that just feels true to life, even if it's fiction and some things are blown out and some things are more extreme than they would be in the real world." Some stuff we downplayed because it's a game. We can't have the cops hunt for you endlessly after you murder somebody in the street like what would happen in real life, because it's a video game. But the reaction in the moment should still feel authentic.

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Where did you do your research? Did you do location scouting? Where did you look?

We did location scouting. We sent people not just to New Orleans, but to other places that are relevant to us, because I think any good fictional city borrows from a bunch of different places. Although New Orleans is our main inspiration, there are other elements. The Bayou, for example, butts right up to the city, we did swamp tours and things like that.

The hard part now is obviously any place we go to, there's very few places that are stuck in 1968. We found a few, but very few places that are stuck in 1968, so a lot of it came from doing research, watching documentaries. Not just for things like architecture, you know: advertisements, movie posters... We have movie posters in the game that are fake movie posters, and if you look at them from a distance, they are very reminiscent of the time period. But we did a lot of reading, too, and a lot of reading of stuff that was non-fiction or historical fiction. Matterhorn is a book written by a Vietnam vet, and it's fiction, but clearly it's inspired by things that happened, that either he experienced, or other people that he knew experienced. Between Bill [Harms, lead writer], myself, and the rest of the writers, we probably have read 1,000 books on either the time period, the place, or the mob. Maybe 1,000 books on the mob alone.

What's the weirdest, or strangest thing you came across while doing research about the mob?

The stuff that they were involved with that I had no idea. Just the volume of money they were dealing with, even in 1968. We have a reference in the game that's related to the narrative early on, and it deals with the black lottery. In a lot of different cities, they had what they called "the black lottery," which was in the predominantly black neighborhoods. They would basically do these lotteries where people would buy numbers, some set of numbers, and it would be based on wherever the stock market ended at the end of the day, or some other number that was seen as random, but that nobody thought could be fixed or could be controlled. You would get a little slip of paper that said, this is your number, and if it happens to match the lottery number for that day, or the end of the stock market for that day, you get whatever the [payout] was, and everybody pays into it. Then the guy running the lottery would get a cut. And you hear that and you're like, that's going to be small time, he's not going to be making tons of money on that.

Well this was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in some areas of the country and some neighborhoods. And of course it was rigged, and it was fixed, and nobody ever saw a big payday, and that's where you get the term, "number runners." It was these kids, essentially, or teenagers, that would go out and go to the different people that wanted to buy tickets, and would do the money exchange and bring the money back to whoever was running it.

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I was surprised about how much money people made running slots. I still don't understand it, but the way that they manipulated gas markets, and dealt with really obscure taxation laws on gas to move it from one county to another, and then benefit from that. This book, Double Deal, that we read, which is all about a guy that became a chief of police, and he was in the mob's pocket, he started working for the mob by running a gas station that they owned, and they were skimming from it and running poker games in the back. So [in the game] we actually have a poker games in the back of the gas stations. There's little things like that, if there was a way to make money that was even borderline illegal, they found it. It's crazy, the stuff that they would do.

I'm a completionist. If I wanted to sit down and do everything, how long would that take me?

We're not talking about the exact hours yet, I'm a completionist too. It is hours and hours and hours of content. I hope that people are encouraged to replay and see things that they didn't see before, like that stash that we showed yesterday where Marcano's guys execute somebody in a pretty dramatic fashion. You don't see that every playthrough. Hopefully people go back and look for those little hidden gems.

After speaking with Blackman, we got a chance to talk to lead writer Bill Harms, who gave us more details on the work that went into Mafia III's story.

Why 1968 New Orleans?

Harms: My answer to that is the Mafia franchise itself. One of the biggest aspects of it is keeping consistent, and one of the cool things about the Mafia franchise as a whole is that each game is in a very specific time and place. Mafia was set in a very specific place. Mafia II was set in a very specific place. It enables the city itself to be a character. To me that's the primary driver of we're going for our version of New Orleans in 1968.

One of the reasons we settled on it is because 1968 was just such a crazy year. It's almost like a parallel story in some ways to Lincoln's story. Lincoln's story: he suffered a great loss and he's on this revenge path and because of that there's a lot of havoc and chaos in the city, which also totally reflects what was really going on in the country at the time. The country was on the verge of chaos. Martin Luther King was assassinated, there were riots, there were shootouts with the Black Panthers, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the democratic convention...

Lincoln is particularly interesting to me because he is a criminal, he is mixed race, he's a Vietnam vet... All of these--in the world of video game protagonists--give him underdog status. As a writer, what were the challenges in writing him, what kind of research did you do?

I love Lincoln. I know that sounds cheesy. But I love him, I do. He's a very flawed man, which in video game writing is rare. I view writing Lincoln and the story as a whole as a very rare opportunity to have characters that don't really show up very often in video games. We have this guy, there's all these various pressures being applied to him. He's a criminal, but he's also an orphan which is why he ended up being a criminal. He goes to the army, tries to get some structure in his life find a place to belong but he doesn't find it there but he goes back to the thing he knows which is being a criminal. At the same time he's mixed race in 1968 in the South in America. There's obviously pressures from that.

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Something I noticed is that a lot of the flavor text for missions and item explanations are all written in the same sort of colloquial speech as how people are talking. I think one mission was "so and so is out fucking up hipsters," it's not just sterile descriptions. Can you talk a little bit about that decision?

On a very basic level, it was just extending the tone of the game into the UI and not having very sterile text. For example, for the molotov [item], it says--I can't really remember exactly what it says-- but it's something like, "for when you really just need to burn a motherfucker."

I could just say "this is a jar with gasoline and you throw it and it ignites your enemies." That separates you from the experience. Lincoln's out and people are yelling, then you go in the UI and if it's very dry text it's going to destroy your suspension of disbelief a little bit. It's just all part of creative cohesion. The other thing we're doing with that is, mission titles are intentionally very pulpy to harken back to the golden age of pulp crime fiction, like the dime novels from the 50s. "The Crow Flies at Midnight" stuff like that. It's very intentional to keep that part of the experience.

What is the one thing you hope players notice?

What I'd like to have them take away would be that they have a fully immersive view of what it would be like--not just specifically Lincoln, he's mixed race and all these things, but when they enter it they feel like they really lived the experience of the game. It came through all the way across both in terms of the narrative and the writing but also with the gameplay, and [I hope] they exit with that. That's the mark of a good game, when you're in it and you feel it and you can't wait to get back to it. If we get away that, that would be awesome.

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Alexa Ray Corriea

Alexa Ray Corriea is never not covered in glitter at any given time.
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