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Survival of the Family: The Saga of Creating and Shipping The Godfather: The Game

At GDC 2007, The Godfather: The Game EA creative directors Michael Perry, Phil Campbell and Mike Olsen discussed the process of making a compelling game based on the difficult franchise - we have full details.

March 27, 2007

8 Min Read

Author: by Christopher Woodard

Though not exactly the most likely candidate for a video game adaptation (1991's MS-DOS and unpublished Sega Master System games by U.S. Gold notwithstanding), EA released The Godfather: The Game last year as the first in a prospective franchise. At the 2007 Game Developers Conference, the game's three creative directors, Michael Perry, Phil Campbell and Mike Olsen, held a talk to discuss how the game came together as well as why the project actually needed three creative directors.

Phil Campbell, the director in charge of story, dialogue and building maps, began the talk by pointing out that even though The Godfather is one of the most well-known and loved films of any generation, EA wasn’t sure wether or not it was a franchise worth doing, that it was a “baby-boomer” product. To put into perspective just how old it was, photos of game directors Phil Campbell and Mike Olsen in from 1972 as young children were shown. “It was back when we had hair,” Phil Campbell joked. Michael Perry himself wasn’t even born yet.

Speaking about pre-production, Phil Campbell said “It was a big challenge,” and that Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto was an important influence.

“Paramount needed it to be close to the movie, the first movie really,” said Campbell. The game adaptation needed a mission structure that followed the film, but the team also wanted to create a living world. “It was also thought of as a franchise, so we [had] to think of games down the road,” continued Campbell, saying that the main goal of production "was not to make a mess of it, basically.”

The main problem mission-wise was fitting the player character – dubbed Mobface by the design team – into the story. “We felt it was important that the player character appeared in cinematics... no matter how goofy you made your character, he was there.”

The first step was deciding what key scenes from the movie should be transitioned into game missions. The team created a chart indicating which characters would be in what missions, and where they would be in the living world. An example they gave of fitting the character in was the scene where Michael Corleone goes to the dinner to murder Sollozzo and McCluskey, the idea being “who was the guy who put the gun in the bathroom?” Then, “Where does the character go during the scene we all know?”

The answer apparently is that Mobface would be the one to put the gun in the bathroom, and during the murder scene he’s in the background eating pasta, just off-camera in the film.

They would also go to the book for inspiration, the example given being the mission to rough up the college kids who savagely beat the undertaker’s daughter. Of course original missions also had to be created and in that case Campbell thought that “the player relationship with Sonny would be a great bonding experience,” though he noted that it was a lot easier to cut original missions than ones based on the film.

As a side note to the story side of the game, he pointed out that Marlon Brando’s work on the game was the last he worked on. “We weren’t able to use as much of his work as we wanted, but it’s in there.”

Concerning the living world, Campbell said that “we didn’t want to create an uber-realistic world, we wanted the world of the Corleones.” One of the more ambitious ideas that unfortunately didn’t make the cut was to show the game world change over the decade that the story takes place.

Some of the bigger logistical problems involved figuring out where story characters would physically be located on the map during the story, and dealing with New York’s grid system. Originally they had planned about 200 landmarks to help orient people one the map, but they found that in general most people could only recognize about five New York landmarks. One EA executive even asked “Does anyone really care if the Brooklyn bridge goes to Brooklyn?

“So we get to the point in pre-production where we try to get everything together. This real world just wasn’t happening yet, we didn’t have the experience.” So another director, Mike Olsen, was brought onto the project. One of the tools he brought to pre-production was to create a faux strategy guide.

“It lets us look at [the game] from the inside out," said Olsen. "We also wrote mock-reviews of what we wanted the critics to say." Ultimately Olsen was in charge of the combat system that was dubbed Black Hand. “If you don’t have a great control scheme, almost everything else doesn’t matter,” said Olsen.

The team had two goals in mind for The Godfather's combat system: first, to avoid directly imitating the control scheme of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and second, to ensure that it fit into the world of the franchise. They also wanted to make a system that relied on analogue finesse as opposed to button mashing.

The first step was to create a ripomatic, which is where they took the scene from the film where Sonny beats the tar out of Carlo and super-imposed the image of a PlayStation 2 controller at the bottom of the screen, showing the proposed control scheme of how Sonny’s attacks from the film could be translated to the game.

At this point in the production, there was no game engine so they couldn’t prototype the system. Olsen pointed out that “Working at EA we have a lot of engines at our disposal, so we just grabbed a Lord of the Rings engine.” After a few weeks they had a working prototype of the Sonny-Carlo fight from the film transposed to a game engine.

After six months of iterations in the Lord of the Rings engine, the team built a whitebox in the Godfather engine, a whitebox being a low polygon arena meant for the testing of controls. Mike Olsen explained that “you can only design so much on paper,” and by playing around in the whitebox they found that grabs were more satisfying than punching, and from that they added throws and leans, and from that came the execution styles.

In addition, they added the strangle move after Olsen attempted to strangle the controller in frustration at one point. “Now we just had to add it to the game... oh wait, it was designed outside of the game and didn’t work," said Olsen. "Time for another director!”

Michael Perry was brought in from Maxis as the third director, his main focus being on the living world and NPC behavior. When he came aboard he immediately saw that the original spec calling for a scripted world was not suitable with the current tech available. The situation as Perry saw it was that “the world looked cool, but it needed life.” His three goals were to populate the world, give NPCs things to do, and then give them the ability to do them.

To this end he referred to complex adaptive systems, which he first read about in a book given to him by Will Wright entitled Hidden Order by John Holland. Essentially the idea is “complexity comes from simple rules that when put together makes complex behavior.”

Having worked on games such as SimCity and The Sims, he had a good idea of where to start in adding motive-driven reaction NPCs to the game. Essentially it was a weighted sum motive system, the motives being safety, social, bravado, boredom and terror. It was all designed in what Holland called his “favorite design tool,” Microsoft’s Excel, the main benefit being the ability to model in a low-risk environment.

The point where Holland saw the system was working was when they antagonized an old lady NPC to the point where she would start beating on any mobster she encountered. Excited, he took the results to the executives, who weren’t as excited. Apparently “old ladies beating up mobsters is not Godfather,” and in what Holland described as one of those vague catchphrases executives love to say, they asked for “predictable unpredictability.”

To respect the fictional context then, they added different classes for the NPCs; innocents, cops, mobsters etc. In addition the NPCs in venues acted differently, more like sims. For example, see cash register, open. See flowers, arrange.

Speaking more broadly on how to handle three directors on a project that required a single vision, they built what they called a megacube in the office kitchen. “It put us in the center of the team, so we’d all hear the same question at the same time,” making sure all three would be on the same page, said Holland. In addition they created physical maps so they could plot out where characters would be in the game world.

Wrapping up the talk, the team summed up how the game was received. They saw it as having good critical reaction, good player reaction and a great EA internal reaction. The talk concluded with a slide with what they considered their strongest design philosophies that read:

  • Survive with solid pre-production. Just treat it like production.

  • Survive with solid control iterations.

  • Survive with systems instead of scripts.

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