Mafia II: an interview with 2K Czech

It's a game of guns, cars and well-gelled hair. We caught up with 2K Czech to talk about its forthcoming open-world gangster epic, Mafia 2...

The sequel to 2002’s Mafia, 2K Czech’s Mafia II is an open-world sandbox adventure filled with driving, chaotic shoot-outs and plenty of gelled-back hair. Its ambitious storyline inspired by classic gangster movies like The Godfather, Mafia II takes place over a decade-long period, introducing the player to an ever-changing 1940s world of double-dealing and icy gangland violence.

We met with Mafia II‘s producer Alex Cox, and senior gameplay producer Jarek Kolář, to discuss the construction of the game’s virtual city, and the elusive art of writing a credible videogame story…

What similarities and differences can we expect between the PC and console versions of Mafia II?

Alex Cox: The differences are largely going to be the stuff you’d expect to come for free on your decent PC hardware – so you’re going to get high-resolution textures, slightly better performance and some of the other extra things you’d expect from the extra processing power on a PC.

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But otherwise, the experiences are very similar. I think what we’re quite pleased about is that we’re shipping for consoles and PC which actually has quality parity across all three platforms. You wouldn’t identify one platform as delivering a weak or somehow diluted experience.

The frame rate on the Xbox 360 version is impressive considering the draw distances when driving around – was this difficult to achieve?

AC: It’s a great technical achievement, and I can speak on behalf of the team here when I say that these guys have done an amazing job on all the stuff I don’t understand – and pushing the polygons around at this framerate is impressive whichever way you look at it.

Jarek Kolář: We spent a lot of time developing our technology. Luckily for us, we have a group of geniuses on our team on various sides. We have geniuses for art and geniuses for rendering, and these guys have been working together to create something wonderful.It looks as though you have two fronts to consider –  you’ve got the mechanical and architectural side of the game, and you have to keep the characters looking alive and human…

JK: We were trying to create a realistic world, so even when you’re in a flat and there’s nice furniture, we wanted to place a little humanity in there, so you see in Vito’s apartment there’s little bits of food mess and trash, so you get the impression that somebody actually lives there – it’s not just some kind of show home, but an environment that someone inhabits. And it’s also supporting the narration of the character.

And what sort of technical lessons did you learn from making the original Mafia?

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JK: Well, I think the most important lesson is that we shouldn’t underestimate consoles, and that we should consider them from the beginning, which we have on Mafia II. Now we have some good looking console versions.

Another thing we managed to achieve is a streaming system which basically is an extended version of what we had before, but nowadays it’s a really technically flexible system. As you’ve seen, you can be in an interior and move outside, and travel through the environments with a fluency that is very natural but if you could see what’s happening in the background, the’re a lot of streaming going on. We’re streaming textures and resolving collisions, and also streaming the voices of the characters in the backgrounds.

AC: This technology’s almost invisible to the gamer, right? It’s like, of course there isn’t any loading time for going outside to inside. But this is something we wanted to achieve to support the story, which is that the whole thing feels as seamless as possible, that you’d be able to go from driving through the city to a mission environment very seamlessly, without noticing any load times or anything technical interfering with your experience.

So that was a challenge, and then with the set constraints of consoles, again, that becomes more of a challenge. It’s easy to achieve on PC, of course, because you can just open the floodgates and just say, ‘well, it’s a super-high spec game’, but we didn’t want to do that – we wanted to make sure the spec was achievable for people on PC, and that we could also work within the constraints of consoles. The tech guys had to pull one out there, to make that happen.

So how long has the game been in development?

AC: I think we could put a number on it and say active development was around five years, but then there were a couple of years of pre-production even before that. The timeline was that we finished the first Mafia, which shipped in 2002, then the studio went to work on porting to the consoles of the time, which took another year or so after the shipping of the first Mafia, which was PC-only on launch.

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JK: Applying simple mathematics, Mafia II’s taken us around eight years.

AC: Yeah, approximately. And then there was some story writing in the early days, which isn’t active development as such, but is an important part of pre-production.When it comes to the story, it must be quite tricky to create a videogame plot which displays a narrative arc for the characters, but has the points in there to tie in the missions. Is that a challenge?

AC: It is a challenge. It’s a challenge for any developer that’s trying to create a plausible story, that the demands of action gameplay are often highly implausible. But for us, plausibility is key for several reasons.

We’re creating an entire game that is based around a story, this is our key goal, to make the player feel like the main character in a mob movie – this is the vision. Look at the good mob movies, and what are they? They’re believable, they’re plausible, they’ve got deep and engaging characters.

They’re logical, more important than anything else. It’s a trap that so many developers fall into, where they feel they have to add an arbitrary story because they think they need to have a story, or they poorly execute a story, or whatever it may be, but they fall foul of one of these things.

If you’re watching a movie that required you to endure some of these illogical, bizarre behaviours, and expect you to come out at the end and say, ‘I really loved that story’, you’d laugh, and rightly so. These are the kinds of movies that get binned every week.

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So in games it’s even harder, because you’ve got to balance with a guy saying, quite reasonably ‘yeah, but I just want to shoot loads of people in this game’, because Mafia II is a shooting game for the majority of the action. So, how do we get around that?

It’s always about plausibility and context. So making the motivation of the characters seem believable is important. It’s also about escalation – how you build from the core motivation, and what might trigger this particular mini story within a larger story, why characters go to a shoot-out, why they kill a hundred guys or fifty guys, or whatever it may be.

It’s sort of subtly leading the player down that route, and allowing the player to suspend their disbelief. So you’re not going to think what’s happening is weird, or that it destroys the realism of the mod movie you’re meant to be in.

I think we’ve largely achieved that, and I could take you through some examples in the preview, where the story builds up slowly and gradually in a way that doesn��t drop the player into something that’s highly implausible.

And then you have the passage of time also, where the environment changes as the years pass…

AC: Exactly. And this also allows us to escalate Vito’s life and career in the Mafia in a realistic way. So we’re not saying Vito comes back from the war, and then a month later he’s, like, killed a million guys and he’s risen through the ranks to become the kingpin mob boss of Empire Bay.

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We wanted it to feel that certain things might happen after a week, other events might happen after a month, and other things take place after a few years.So can you see there being any downloadable content for Mafia II which might continue the story, or is it quite self-contained?

JK: If we consider Mafia II to be a success, which we hope it will be, we can probably expect some DLC. Nothing’s announced yet, but at 2K we do have a policy of supporting our players with downloadable content, so it’s certainly a possibility.

Alex and Jarek, thank you very much!

Mafia II is due for release on 27 August for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.