Mafia 3 and the value of putting game developers in a box

Sometimes, maybe the best thing you can do as a developer is box yourself in. That's one takeawy from this chat with Hangar 13's Haden Blackman about lessons learned in making a new Mafia game.

Sometimes, maybe the best thing you can do as a developer is box yourself in.

That was a recurring theme of my conversation with Hangar 13's Haden Blackman this week at E3 in Los Angeles, where Blackman and other members of the Mafia III team were showcasing their game to the public.

While it's the third game in a long-running series, Mafia III will be Hangar 13's debut project. That's a boon, says Blackman, because it means Hangar 13 has been able to find its footing as a studio without having to worry about also come up with something new from scratch. There's a value in constraints, he says, because it can help developers better focus their efforts.

"The brand helps us. It puts parameters around what we can and can't do," says Blackman. "Like the tone can't be cartoonish and it can't be hyper-military, right. The Mafia franchise has an established tone, and that helps set us apart."

This is notable because many developers are under pressure to create something fresh, something that will stand out in an ever-more-crowded marketplace of games. The game industry has an unslakable thirst for the new, and rarely is it thirstier than at E3, which is often rife with chatter about how so many games are sequels and reboots of established hits. 

"Boxes are good. It's good to put developers into a box, myself included. It starts to focus you."

But to hear Blackman tell it, the constraints of a known quantity can also be embraced as guiding principles that help developers do their best work. As an example, he points to a misstep early in the development of Mafia III, when he decided to shift focus from developing the game's narrative (the studio perceives a core strength of Mafia games is a strong story) in favor of trying to build a better open-world experience.

"If I could go back and tell a younger version of myself one thing about the project, it'd be make sure to embrace the narrative backbone of the game and not assume it will sort itself out in a quest to make sure the world is 'open' enough," says Blackman. "The big takeaway, I think, was to not go too far away, to embrace the strength of the franchise and not go too far from that. Because early on, we did. We knew having a strong narrative was important, and I think we kind of ignored, for a little while, the importance of that in order to try and do more with the open world."

This whole conversation got started because at one point Blackman noted that the protagonist of Mafia III, Lincoln Clay, can't go fishing. It doesn't fit with his character, argues Blackman, and so building a fishing minigame would both use up development resources that could go to more critical portions of the game and allow players enough freedom to take themselves out of the game's core narrative. Those are both bad things to do as a developer, says Blackman, because they can simultaneously dilute both your game's development and its final form.

"We tried to build a structure focused around propelling the main character, Lincoln, forward in the narrative. Gave the player some sense of autonomy, so they could pick and choose how to tackle the mob, but didn't feel like it was just filled with things that Lincoln wouldn't do given the context of the game that we're making," says Blackman. "So, Lincoln doesn't go fishing -- he's focused on tearing down the Mob."

But what if Lincoln wants to go fishing? How do you know where to draw the line between giving your players the freedom to tell their own story in your game and focusing them in on the story you want to tell? Blackman doesn't have an answer, only the acknowledgement that the Mafia III dev team has tried to find a middle path between the two. 

"We're trying to find that nice middle ground between the big, open free-for-all and the other extreme, something like Mafia 2, which had a really strong narrative but maybe not enough to do in the open world," he says. "We're trying to find that middle ground, where you can still have a really strong narrative and everything the player does feels like it contributes to the big narrative beats. Time will tell if we struck that right balance, but that was our goal from the outset."

And this is where we get back to that box again. The one you might consider putting yourself in, if you want to better focus your development efforts. Early on in Mafia III's development, Blackman says it became critical to set the team inside a "box" defined by what they perceived to be the unique strengths of the Mafia brand if they were going to have any hope of walking that middle path between an open world and a narrative railway.

"Like, when you're doing a game like this, you could put everything on the table. And quite frankly we just don't have an endless amount of time, money or people to build everything," says Blackman. "So my approach is, let's be smart about the box we put around the content so we can recognize what fits and what doesn't. That makes some of those decisions about what we keep on the table much easier. "

So in the case of Mafia III, an atmospheric setting like New Orleans (sorry, New Bordeaux) in the late '60s is worth investing in because it fosters both limited player freedom and interesting stories. But making New Bordeaux a perfect recreation of New Orleans isn't worth doing, because actual New Orleans is flat and crammed with narrow one-way streets that, according to Blackman, "that's not the best for a game where you're driving a lot."

So the studio (which is co-developing the game with 2K Czech) sent people out to Louisiana to collect reams of reference materials, but shied away from recreating those assets in-game if doing so would push them beyond the limitations of the Mafia brand. In this way, says Blackman, they hope to have made something that feels "authentic", if not realistic, that can both support and be supported by the Mafia brand that binds them.

"I see Mafia as a gift. Even if I wasn't a fan of crime fiction, which I am, I look at it as a gift because it's clearly a franchise that a lot of people were passionate about. And being able to found a new studio with an established fan base already -- I couldn't ask for a better opportunity," says Blackman. "Boxes are good. It's good to put developers into a box, myself included. It starts to focus you. Building games is hard enough, without us trying to do everything. And as soon as you put yourself in a box, you can clearly see what things are important and worth focusing on."

From that standpoint, he says, developers can look at potentially negative constraints (a brand, a platform restriction, a budget cap) and appreciate them for their capacity to help focus and direct your efforts -- even if you aren't working on a Mafia game.

"I'd say a big drawback is that we can't put helmets on all our characters, though," adds Blackman. "Helmets and masks! I used to work on Star Wars, and being able to have 95 percent of your characters wearing helmets and masks was awesome. I miss that."

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