The Rule for Designing Mafia 3's Open-World Activities: No Fishing
Creative director Haden Blackman jokes about the approach Hangar 13 took to filling up the world of Mafia III.
Open-world games have evolved a great deal since the Mafia series first began. Mafia III offers a more modern take on that concept than its predecessors, but there's meant to be an urgency to its story that doesn't necessarily lend itself to the sort of open-world activities you might find in other games. That resulted in developer Hangar 13 coming up with a joke that explained its approach to designing side activities: no fishing.
Mafia III creative director Haden Blackman recently spoke with GameSpot about looking at what Mafia II had done well and what it could improve upon. He called out the city of Empire Bay as a strong point, saying it's "incredible and it's incredibly detailed. It feels like a main character as you play the game."
"One of the things we knew we could improve upon was the open-world nature of the game, and make sure that there was plenty of gameplay in the open world, but we didn't want to go so far as to create this free-for-all where it was just a bunch of random, unconnected open-world activities," he explained. "We still wanted to retain that very strong narrative, which is another hallmark of the Mafia franchise. The solution we came up with was this, or the directive, was let's make sure that there's plenty to do in the open world, but that everything the player is doing in the open world either drives forward Lincoln's quest to tear down the Italian mob, or his quest to build up his own family."
Mafia III's story revolves around Lincoln Clay, a young man who joins the black mob and ends up left for dead by a rival crime faction. He then sets out to rebuild the mob and seek revenge on his enemies--a premise that doesn't leave a lot of room for him to mess around.
"The joke we make is that, Lincoln doesn't go fishing," Blackman said. "Again, not to disparage that--I've made games where fishing was a gameplay mechanic, and it was fun--but there's an urgency to Lincoln's quest and his mission, and we want to make sure that it didn't feel weird and discordant that there were all these other activities that you could do in the game where you're like, 'Why would Lincoln be doing that when he's trying to do these other things, and he knows he's got a timeline to do it in before the world hits him back.' That was our approach."
Mafia III presents you with a total of 10 districts, nine of which you'll spend your time trying to take over.
"There's a lot of exploration opportunities in there, but each of the nine main districts, you go out and there's various criminal rackets that you can take down and take over. All of those are destroyed by hurting their ability to earn or kick up, so everything revolves around this idea that the mob is built on the flow upwards of money. It's almost like a pyramid scheme, where the guy down here has to earn enough to kick up to his boss, because he's trying to earn enough to kick up to his boss again and again.
"If you start taking out those rackets, it makes it very difficult for those guys to kick up, which then opens them up to usually some mistake or some opportunity that Lincoln can use to go in and either recruit or execute somebody, and start to take down the mob at the base and work his way up to the top. Whether it's tailing a bag man and stealing his cash, going in and destroying contraband, or taking over a club or a moonshine distillery, these are all things the player can decide to do and how they want to do them in order to take down the mob. But that all takes place in the open world, and then it usually culminates in some big tent-pole, very narrative-driven mission, so you still feel like you have this narrative through-line that's pulling you through."
Blackman also discussed the danger of the development team second-guessing itself too much, constantly wondering if it's doing the right things for both fans of the Mafia series and open-world games overall. He referenced the number of open-world games that came out while Mafia III was in development and said Hangar 13 looked at them all to see what they did or didn't do well. However, what happens is "you can get so caught up in that, that you're constantly chasing something else, rather than building the thing that you want to build."
"At the beginning of development, we sat down and we said, 'What do we think open world fans are going to expect? What do we think that Mafia fans are going to expect?'" he said. "We put that into our franchise pillars in order to use that as our guiding lights and the things that would guide us throughout all of development, but then we just put that in the back of our minds and we said, 'Okay, now we've just got to make the game that we want to make, and let's move ahead.'"
Blackman believes both types of players will be happy with the end result.
"I think narratively, thematically, a lot of the activities that you're doing in the game all do feel like a true Mafia experience, but hopefully they also look at it and go, 'But it's also an evolution of the Mafia franchise, and here's all this other new stuff.' The story is a little bit different, it has a different tone, you're a different type of protagonist than Vito is. There's more gameplay opportunities, there's more systemic gameplay. While we still have the simulation-based driving, we've made a lot of changes under the hood to some of the driving models, so that it feels a little bit more physics-based, and you can do more with the car. The car is a weapon in the game.
"Then I think open-world fans hopefully will love the game because it does offer that really rich sense of time and place, that setting that's really fun to explore, and just that constant sense of distraction. You might be driving to a mission, but you're driving through a district that you haven't really tackled yet, and all of a sudden you see all these things pop up like, 'Oh, I can go do that or that or that.' But you know in the back of your mind it's all driving you forward towards another mission and ultimately Lincoln's end goal, rather than just, 'Oh I'm doing this thing just to while away a half hour.' Which can also be fun, right, but again it's a very different type of game than that."
Mafia III arrives tomorrow, October 7, for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. We learned today that the PC version will initially be capped at 30 FPS, though an update is on way to offer support for higher frame rates. For more on the development of the game, check out GameSpot's Reviving Mafia series through the links below.
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