Gameplanet: The original Mafia was very well received but there’s always room for growth. What lessons did you learn from the original and how have they impacted on the sequel?
Alex: The original game on PC, released eight years ago, was very well received, and to this day it still continues to be a pretty unique experience. What the team learned in the first instance was that the formula can work just as well for the next generation version. We focus the gaming experience on quality and cinematic ‘mob movie’ narrative.
Subsequently, what we learned from the later console release was that the tech used for the original game would not port especially well to consoles. Illusion Softworks (2K Czech in a former life) was historically a PC developer, not so much through choice, but because the predominant game platform, in that part of the world, was PC. These guys were PC gamers first and foremost. Console development had been an afterthought.
When we decided to make Mafia II we planned from the very beginning to do it as a multiple platform release. Not only did the studio’s technology have to be rebuilt from scratch, but also the mindset of the team needed to shift from making PC games with fewer technical constraints than consoles. I think Mafia II succeeds wonderfully in this regard. We have achieved a great parity of quality across both console formats and PC.
Gameplanet: There are two schools of thought within the industry on the future of games: Some see games as moving necessarily closer to film, creating a more cinematic and thematic experience driven by plot and character arcs. Others believe that cinema is passive and that games should occupy their own space as a unique form of active or “lean forward” entertainment – that developers’ efforts should focus more heavily on gameplay. What do you believe the case to be and how does Mafia II showcase that belief?
Alex: I think the argument is fairly redundant to be honest. Games are a hugely varied form of entertainment and they will continue to be so. I can enjoy playing Heavy Rain, Gears of War, Fable, Mass Effect, Starcraft, Alan Wake, and Portal, to name just a few, and each one of them tell an interesting story that immerses the player in game world that varies from each other in many different ways; so, no I don’t think there is a “correct” approach here.
Do I think one mode of interactive storytelling is more “valid” than another? To me, it’s like arguing about the relative worth of art house movies versus popcorn movies; ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. The hardcore gamers will argue that their ‘user story’ is more important than a directed or authored story. On the other hand, there are a lot of mainstream gamers out there who want to have their entertainment efficiently packaged. Fortunately, there are developers out there that are catering to all tastes.
Mafia II is a movie-like narrative-driven game. In this case our goal has been to make the player feel that they are the main character in a Hollywood mob movie. Now, this is a very particular style of experience that requires a certain emphasis on mature storytelling, cinematic presentation, believable characters and a plausible game world. But the player has to PLAY this of course. So, in addition to beautiful cinematics we focused on bringing a movie-like feel to the shootouts and car chases and made sure that the open world encouraged realistic, plausible behaviour from the player. By restricting the player’s freedom in certain ways, we manage to make them feel like they are “living the life of a mafia gangster”; one of our stated goals.
Gameplanet: Gangster flicks are usually a sure bet at the cinema box office but videogames have had much less success capitalising on the genre. What are the common pitfalls in Mafia-style games, and how does Mafia II intend to avoid those mistakes?
Alex: I’m not sure if I agree that gangster games haven’t been successful. In terms of high-profile mob games, such as the original Mafia, a commercially and critically well received title there was also the Godfather series, which granted took a very different approach to the subject matter it nonetheless appeared to be quite successful as well. Then there’s Mafia Wars, a game on Facebook that has been hugely popular among users since its release. So, I think there is definitely a strong interest out there for this particular genre.
In terms of pitfalls, I suppose it’s very easy to miss the point of what the ‘mafia’ is supposed to be about. The focus of drama in gangster fiction is not about the firing of weapons and the driving of fast cars. It’s about characters and the conflict between a man’s ‘gangster life’ and his ‘personal life’. In a game like Mafia II, if you focus too much on the raw game mechanics and forget about the characters, you will end up with a generic husk. Mafia gangsters don’t habitually start armed confrontations with the police or cause chaos on the streets of a city just because they feel that they can, this isn’t what we understood it to be from watching different mob movies during our research. If you try to recreate a mobster fiction solely through non-directed sandbox gameplay, the game is going to lose its attachment to the source material. In Mafia II we have made sure that our characterisation and story extends into the game world and that the story is logical, and that our themes are mature, our presentation is cinematic and the open world is a plausible backdrop for where the action to take place. Gameplay is contextualised by the story rather than contradicting it; we make sure to retain it by giving it that compelling mob movie feeling.