While visiting Brno in the Czech Republic for the Game Access ’17 conference, Tomas from Score magazine approached Petr Záveský and I about creating Mafia 3’s world. Score is one of two major game and entertainment focused, printed magazines in the region.
By Tomas Miklica
August 23, 2017
How much time have you spent in New Bordeaux, playing Mafia 3?
Nathan Cheever − It was a lot of time. Every time you develop something you always go into the game to make sure it’s in the right spot, right place, the way we want it. To make sure things other people are adding are also in the right spot and done the right way. But you always find yourself getting distracted, looking at other things in the world and saying: “Oh, something else was added here!”
Petr Záveský − To count the hours during development would be hard and probably some crazy number. Many times after hours I was just driving through the city. Not playing the game at all but just driving for fun. And it was the same after we shipped the game. The full gameplay is like 30 hours and I’d say I spent another 30 hours easily just driving, enjoying the final product. I was always nice to find something new, some nice corner where someone put extra effort in and it was cool and surprising. Obviously we are super familiar with the big picture, with most of the areas. If someone would make a screenshot randomly, I would probably be able to tell him: “Yeah, that’s the shipyard at the east section next to this hideout.”
Nathan Cheever − We could win a trivia game! It’s all the extra knowledge you gain in game development of just understanding the world – which was useful when making DLCs because we knew where we can put them. It was fun making DLCs because I wasn’t involved in all of it and it was more exciting to see stuff appear without me knowing where it was. A good way to say a game keeps the player’s attention going is when they lose track of time. Or you keep wanting to go back to that location – like I keep wanting to go back to that island in DLC 2 because it offers a lot of good variety to what people are seeing in New Bordeaux already.
Can you expand on the DLC 2?
NC − It’s a John Donovan-focused thing. It involves an island location and it follows a similar framework as DLC 1.
PZ − It’s a little more story-focused experience, little less open world and more missions, kind of in the style of Mafia 2. Of course we got a lot of feedback after Mafia 3 was released and we tried to address as much as we could. I personally really like the DLC 2. Every DLC is slightly different and trying to explore new areas.
NC − The original game is a nice big meal and the DLCs are like little tasty desserts with different flavors and textures.
Do the DLCs allow you to try something you weren’t able to do in the main game?
PZ − Definitely. Other than lot of new areas, locations, environments, and narrative, we are introducing several new gameplay features – in DLC 1 you get the dropping mines…
NC − You could drive slow [slow down time]… Each DLC has a little something which you can then use in the main game which changes the whole experience.
PZ − And the same approach and maybe little bit more will be in DLC 3 as well.
NC − Each DLC has new locations that have been placed within the city. In DLC 1, Laveau’s compound was a new location inside the city. When you get the DLCs, you’ll be experiencing new content within some familiar surroundings.
When designing the world, do you think about how to make players come back?
NC − I always want to push for that. If the environment and the experience and the world’s exciting you want to go back. When I play an open-world game I enjoy I find myself saying: “I wish there was more story. I want to do more things and experience more of that fantasy-fulfillment that’s within the player character.” I am glad that we put Races out because that something you can keep doing over and over again. In the future games I want to make sure there are opportunities like that to satisfy different types of players – action, stealth, exploration…
PZ − From visual or artistic point of view, we try to design and build areas you would expect in the real city. Me personally, I really like to just go and drive to the vista point at Frisco Fields, just climb to the vista tower and see the sunset on the city in different conditions. It’s an environment we created for the purpose of a mission but now it is a part of the environment, it’s a vista, a landmark. Or you can just take a boat and go to the bayou and see the environment in different conditions since we have the full day cycle and you can experience different time and weather conditions. And there are several spots in the city which really work like tourist spots.
Do you have a favorite place?
NC − There’s a lot of little favorite places. In the center of the bayou there’s a… I don’t want to say town, a crossroad section with some businesses. There’s a canal that runs underneath that bridge and there’s all these old houses and cabins and shacks along there. I really like that section because it feels like something that’s existed for decades of time. If we ever had done anything big in the bayou that would have been a very interesting place to see the characters move around, have story of some kind.
PZ − That’s the hard one. It is kind of like to tell which kid so you love more. What I like is that you can just park your car in the city at one of many nice spots, and watch the traffic move, time pass, and see the pedestrians walk around. And then there are places like Vito’s office, from where you can see the city downtown and the skyline from a different point of view. Specifically that spot was designed to be at Wharf district, with all those fishing companies and docks, from which Vito can look across the Mississippi river and see all the glance and shiny buildings of Downtown and French ward. You can see them but you are stuck in a nasty spot.
NC − An example of city design from early on was saying: “Let’s put Vito right there in this old smelly fishy wharf area with his desire to be on that other side, like it’s Empire Bay.” He’s always out of touch, he’s always out of reach, and he wants to get there. I also love the bayou shoreline with the oceanside and a wrecked ship and old cabin. And Tony’s tall penthouse tower is nice. The mission that takes place there was originally supposed to be in some small building off to the side and we were like: “You’ve gotta put it in this awesome tower, on top.” It’s a really nice penthouse area and it gets the player up there so he can see the whole city. And that was the reason we had a lot of elevation too. Lot of open world games are open fields and have the advantage they can stand in one spot and look in any direction and see some point of interest and go to it. But in a city though you’re surrounded by buildings, which is like being inside of a canyon. So you can’t simply see things in all directions which is the other reason to have Points-of-Interests and Landmarks to pull you through the threads of the streets. Which can pull you through something you were unaware of earlier in the game – there are detours, distractions…
Is it better to design a location upon a real place or is it easier to have fictional basis?
NC − It’s always good to have it based of some stuff. It just depends on how tight of a box you want to put it in. I like having some sort of basis that helps to give everyone on the team some sort of common vision, as long as it doesn’t restrict the vision and allows it to grow where it needs to.
PZ − It helps to have something real you can work with. It takes way more time to design something starting with the blank paper. Let me give you some simple example. Let’s say that you have to make a building – if you a pick a right reference, it’s way easier because there was some architect who spent months on the building and used all his skills to make it look and function as good as possible. He used all the knowledge he gained at schools, studying for several years. That’s why for fantasy or a sci-fi game you need more architects and designers and concept artist, in general you have to build you team in slightly different way. Other thing is that every single city is basically set of layers which stuck upon each other in the evolution and to build a believable city you have to sort of simulate that process. But New Orleans was just a reference. For gameplay reasons, technical limitations reasons or because we wanted to, we had to change a lot of things.
What was the hardest part of making New Orleans into New Bordeaux?
NC − That’s always about technical things. When you build a city you have to start real early because it’s such a foundational thing others stand on. And the challenge is always trying to make sure as technology needs change and some of the designer stuff changes you can still keep the production of the city rolling forward. If a mission doesn’t work out in a [linear] game you can just cut it. But with a city… Let’s say you want to remove whole bunch of stuff used in a district. Well, you can’t remove that neighborhood because we’ve already spent time stitching it into the city. It was always a little bit of a challenge making sure as much of the world we were building was going to get used. About turning New Orleans into New Bordeaux… At the early stage it was just about trying to get sense of what size and height it needed to be. And just in general it was also about trying to capture what that 1968 feeling was, for authenticity. Because some people weren’t born then, some people have never lived in the South, we had to figure out what makes sense for that area and time period. It isn’t just something copied from what people are familiar with today.
What are the ways to capture the 1968 feeling?
NC − With signage and a lot of reference stuff – which is the other reason why it’s nice to use a real world city as a basis. You can go back and look at certain things in certain time periods. You’ll find that things worked differently. In the Downtown section on the shoreline in the earlier stages there was a very nice park. But back then people didn’t really take care of cities, left them dirty, and focused on where they lived and where they worked. And it wasn’t until the 80s or 90s they started to spend more time making sure the rest of the city is in a presentable state too. So in 1968 that shoreline should be filled with tugboats, piers and crates, and shipping lanes.
PZ − It was nothing like what we visualized originally, which was kind of like Prague river shoreline with a promenade for pedestrians. But many things are needed to create the time and place feeling. The architecture, the signage, the graphic design, the fashion, even the dialogues…
NC − And radio with period-appropriate songs and ads. The other thing about making the in-game city feel authentic is to keep in mind that – even though people usually look at things created and popular at that time – in a real world situation the new things are already layered in things that existed for several decades. True representation of what 1968 experience would be like is having old cars mixed with the new ones, old shacks in the bayou contrasting with the new buildings in the city. Layers on layers on layers…
Do Lead Architect and Lead World Designer cooperate a lot?
PZ − Every single day. Regarding the city I got most of the information through Nathan. We pretty much had desks next to each other which was an improvement over Mafia 2 development – the immediate feedback and close collaboration between art and design was really important. And we also fortunately overlap a little bit – Nathan has a great artistic eye and so does mission designer which is really valuable for such cooperation. I believe that cooperation from early stages through all the project stages is the most important thing in game development. Especially for such a big project like Mafia 3.
What are the responsibilities of Lead Architect and Lead World Designer?
PZ − I was responsible for managing and overseeing whole game world environment. Everything from the large overall city layout creation, closely working with Nathan, to every single detail within the game, from early drafts stages until the polishing phase. Obviously working with many talented artist from my team at Novato and also with great help from our partner studio at Brno. It’s not just about delivering the art assets but working with the designers creating the environment and all needed objects to achieve best possible visuals and gameplay experience. I also worked closely in the early stages with the media team on the cut-scenes, with engineers and technical artist on the tools, etc.
NC − Spatial flow promoting exploration, diversity, and player opportunity. My function is also about global awareness of how things are being put together in this large world. Because lot of people would focus on one section and they might not necessarily understand someone else over there is doing a similar thing or something that causes issues with this other thing, performance-wise or narratively. You have to always keep an eye on how a space might want to be used in the future. All the animations and activities came on later in the project. Races for example came later but influenced my early city layouts. Ideally you know exactly what the whole game is gonna be, what DLCs are… but things always change.
What about the symbiosis between world and narrative during development?
NC − It was pretty close early on when we only started focusing on Mafia 3 in Novato. Bill Harms and I locked ourselves in a room for two months just to come up with what the story narrative would be for each neighborhood. What would the ecology be for the crime that’s happening in that location? To understand how it was balanced out in the rest of the larger world to make sure that you weren’t doing four different gun-running activities or three different car theft activities… We wanted to make sure that was paced out. Early on it was a hand-in-hand thing, working together. Mission stuff I didn’t do much with, I just provided locations. Missions had more narrative changes because they’re more critical to the story. There weren’t any radical changes to the city later on in the project.
Are there any locations you miss in games? A city or a planet?
PZ − Another tough and interesting question. There are many interesting places and of course it depends on when. Present day, 30s, 50s, 80s… And the other question would be for what kind of gameplay. There are beautiful place in our world, but not all of them necessarily good for great gameplay experience. I really like Prague and other European cities.
NC − I always wanted to work on a San Francisco game but then Watch Dogs did it so it can’t be used for a while. It’s also important to realize in Mafia 3 it’s our version of New Orleans: it’s New Bordeaux. When I picked up other open-world games set in real cities, I’m excited to play them. Some are too literal, though. You drive around the real streets and find nothing to do for miles. They were authentic − the real thing − but it’s an example of when a real world copy isn’t necessarily a good game experience.