Mafia II

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  • August 18, 2010
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  • Author: Elizabeth
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For the final Mafia II podcast, Jack Scalici, Denby Grace, and Dan Schmittou sit down with me to reflect on the entirity of Mafia II's development process.

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Elizabeth Tobey – Welcome to the final episode of the Mafia II podcast series.  I’m Elizabeth Tobey and I’m here with Jack, Denby, and Dan today, to record our retrospective about the game and our journey through the game.  So let’s start with a big question.  How long has the game been in production?

Denby Grace – That’s a very good question.  It’s one we get asked quite a lot.  So the game actually took, in development – we finished around June this year.  We got all said and done – the PC version a little bit later because we wanted to do a bit more spit and polish – iron out some bugs.  But in total, actually, it rounded out about 5 years in total.  Obviously some different parts and different elements of the game took longer than others or even shorter than others.  The story, for instance, was started way back after Mafia I 8 years ago but I can still say that some parts of the story were still being written in January this year, including the ending actually, of all things.  So the game’s been on a long, long road and technology’s been a big driver behind that length of time I think.  We couldn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve on PS2 and Xbox so we waited for the next generation.  And then obviously creating the technologies is not a simple thing, you know?  The game is a huge sort of open space that you play in and we didn’t want players to experience any loading.  These were the key things that we wanted and that’s not easy to achieve and there’s nothing out there in the marketplace that you can pick up off the shelf.

Jack Scalici – And especially since the first game.  It was so great on PC and not quite as good on PS2 and Xbox.  We wanted this one to be developed, from the very start, to run and look the same on all 3 platforms.  Those 3 platforms ended up being PC, PS3, and 360.

DG– Yes, and to really add to what Jack said about the 3 platforms.  Obviously we realize there are slight differences but ultimately the core game experience is the same on those 3 platforms.  I think probably those of you who played on PS2 back in Mafia I you’ll remember the long loads that you had as you went over the bridge.  We didn’t want any of these really big game play experience changes between the 3 platforms.  Yes, we understand we have to make some minor adjustments for things like the graphics, the grass, the blood – stuff like that.  But the important thing is that we deliver something that has a consistent game play experience for you to all have fun with.

ET – So, talking about you 3 personally.  How long have each of you been working on the game and what have your roles been over the course of production?

DG – Yeah, well I’ve been working on the game – so I worked on Mafia I as one of the fortunate people to work with the development team as a tester on Mafia I.  And then, actually, I kind of – I worked with Illusion software on some of their other titles like Vietcong, Vietcong 2, Hidden and Dangerous – but then Mafia II, I actually started quite late when I moved over here to the U.S.  So that was back in Fall 2007.  So now that’s – wow it’s getting on for 3 years now.  So I’ve been working on the project for 3 years.  Initially started out as a producer under a senior producer, and that senior producer actually moved on.  So, yeah, big shout out to Dan Bailey I think.  So he moved on, and then I stepped up to sort of fill his shoes and then sort of carry the project over the line as a senior producer.

ET – How about you, Dan?

Dan Schmittou – So, Dan  here – I’ve been on the project for just about a year now.  Yeah I guess it was a year when it shipped yesterday.  As a production assistant, working with Denby and the rest of the production team, I got to spend a month in Czech with the development team which was really great getting that face time with the guys over there.  Doing things like testing – you know we spent a lot of focus testing this game, balancing it.  Helping out with schedules, helping Jack here with some of the script stuff, some music things, car radio – you know, it’s a big project so there’s lots of things to do.  I’ve also learned a lot working on this project and it’s been an interesting ride, a fast ride, and fun.

ET – How about you?  We’ve heard a lot from you, Jack.

JS – I started, not full time, just with the story working with Daniel Vauvre the writer, December of 2005 I think.  So it’s been almost 5 years, or 4 and a half.  But I didn’t do the same thing the whole way through like these guys did.  I got to work on different stuff, so it wasn’t like I was working on the same thing for 4 years.  Started with a script, and then the dialogue, and then we refined the story, we wrote some more stuff - the whole way through I was working on the music but the music is one of those things that you can do forever.  There’s so much great music from back then.  And then starting about late 2008 we started with the dialogue recording and before that we were working on the casting.  So I wore a lot of different hats but it was over the course of a couple years so it kept things interesting.

ET – Tell me about the team themselves.  2K Czech grew a lot over these years and they came into the 2K family.  How did the team take shape and tell us a little bit more what they’re like.

DG – It’s a good question.  As I said a moment ago, I’ve worked with them since their first project, really, which was Hidden and Dangerous 1 – was actually my first project in the industry as a tester.  So I’ve worked with people like Lucas Cuja who’s our senior producer in development (inaudible) about getting him for 11 years now.  He’s a great guy, a really tough sort of war-horse type guy.  Smokes far too many cigarettes, drinks far too much coffee, but he’s a really good guy.  He’s a good guy to have alongside you, to fight the battles with, and really get down and get your hands dirty.  So the team – the guys that made Mafia was a group of about 20 people.  Pretty much the majority of them are still there.  The real key guys are all still in place like the lead programmers, the lead cut-scene guys, the lead artists and all that sort of stuff – all those guys are still there from the original Mafia team which is why I think when you see the game and you play the game you really get that it is a sequel even though it’s been a long time and the stories don’t (inaudible).  It feels like a sequel and it’s really these guys having their hands on the real core elements of the game as well as that the team’s grown.  20 guys back in 2002 finished Mafia I.  Same size at its peak for Mafia II so I think this was the back end of last year, was somewhere at 140.  A pretty big team.  It’s not big by some game development standards at all but it still, as far as growing a team from 20 to 140 is a pretty big deal and a lot of that growth has happened since we purchased the team back in 2007.  I think the team size since 2007 has actually doubled in size.  So that’s one of the things that we’ve been able to bring to the studio since we’ve purchased them is really – obviously they’ve got that stability of having a big publisher that’s backing them behind them.  We like to think that we can work a lot more closely – the game is showered with pop culture from America which maybe isn’t so apparent in Czech Republic.  So that’s the sort of stuff bringing people like Jack obviously to work very closely with the guys.  Allowing our marketing teams and stuff like that – everyone can have a really open relationship with one another.  And that’s one of the things that you don’t so much get when you’re working with a sort of external “2 separate company” scenario.  Yeah it’s been a really interesting journey and the development’s really changed – it really changed at that point where we kind of like – we’re working with them as a developer-publisher relationship and then they became part of the family.  It really changed and everyone got a lot closer, everyone got a lot more open.  For me, it got a lot more interesting as well to kind of work closely with these guys to go on site and campaign with them and really learn about what they do and how they do it.  And hopefully help them to mature as a developer.  And at the same time they’ve helped us mature as a publisher and the way we work with people like themselves.

ET – What were some of the toughest challenges you guys have had?  I’m sure that you probably have a lot of ideas but which ones stand out?

DG – Difficult challenges.  Technology has been probably the biggest challenge we’ve had I think throughout the development.  Getting the game up and running on all 3 platforms and regularly getting to be able to build builds and to get to the point where we've been able to play test the build.  And play test the game on a regular basis – was the biggest hurdle.  Because at that point, everything you're talking about is theory, everything you're designing is theory, everything you're painting and making is just art on an artist's machine, you know?  It's the moment that you actually get it onto the console, get it onto the PC, get it in front of a focus tester or just a QA tester and they're telling you these things – that's a really big hurdle for any development, and for Mafia II it was a lot longer than most, I think.  The technical achievement these guys have made really can't be underestimated.  So I think that from my side – and I'm much more of a production guy, and Jack will probably talk about some creative challenges that he had – that was the biggest hurdle for us, was technology.  Is getting it running and getting it running in a focus testable state.  At that point, then the fun starts.  Then you can start making it into a good game.  Until then, like I say, a lot of it is theory.

JS – For my end, I guess I'll talk about the music first.  A lot of licensers were really interested in getting their music in this game but there were certain ones that we really wanted in the game but it's called “Mafia” so they were instantly afraid of it.  They didn't want to be associated with the real Mafia or a game called “Mafia.”  A lot of them are older – they don't see video games like the way we see it, as a legitimate source of entertainment.  They think it's just, you run around and kill people and they read stuff like Columbine years ago and they go, “oh video games are evil.”  That's what they think, so a lot of them declined to be in the game but we ended up with an amazing sound track nonetheless.  And also disc space.  I wanted to put so much cool stuff, like I wanted to put three times the amount of music but we have to balance it.  Is anyone actually going to hear that music if we put that much in?  Probably not, we can use that disc space for other stuff.  The writing, of course, the script – was like freaking massive – it's just huge.  The amount of dialogue you have to write is a huge challenge because you can't just write 1 line, you have to write 10 that mean the same thing, otherwise it gets very repetitive.  Casting was a big challenge – trying to find the right voices for these characters.  Going through every actor who thinks they can pull off these voices and accents in America was interesting to say the least.

DG– I mean an interesting comment about the actors is some of the ones that we changed at the last minute.  You maybe heard early on – in an earlier trailer – we actually changed the voice of Francesca.  Quite close to the end – I think she changed February this year?  Maybe February/March this year we actually switched her voice and her model as well got changed.  Well, just a little anecdotal story – yeah, changing Francesca at the last minute.  I think we had a – one of our senior guys actually here at 2K just wasn't feeling Francesca and it was a specific trailer – actually I remember which trailer it was.  It was the E3 trailer...

JS – Yep, E3 '09.

DG – 2009, yeah.  And he watched it, and we had this specific line from Francesca and he's like, “look, I love the trailer but I'm really having a hard time with the believability of Francesca” and we switched that.

JS – Well we did a lot of that.  If you remember the first trailer we released at (inaudible) in 2007 – the debut trailer – the guy who ended up playing Vito was actually voicing Henry in that trailer.  So we did a lot of shuffling around until we found the right people, to get the right voices.  Because with this many speaking characters everyone has to be unique.  Like you can't have an overlap between the voices.  For instance when you're driving the car together you don't see who's talking, you just hear them so the voices have to have a certain amount of separation.  So the casting was probably the most challenging.

DG– I was going to say I think Joe was one that has stuck from very early on.  We always knew who Joe was and Bobby, the guy who plays Joe, just nailed it from day 1.  And we were just like, “yep, you are Joe Barbaro – done.”

JS – Yeah that's it, there was no argument with that.  That was it, and we just built everything around him.

DS – Well and to kind of go on the back of what Jack was saying, you know when you see these characters in game, you see their face and their mannerisms and their expressions and the voice just really fits.  You look at them and you say, “yep, that's it.  That's the voice.”  And it couldn't really be anybody else.  And just listening to all the different voice actors – I worked a little bit with Jack on that.  I had this massive iTunes queue of the same track over and over.  You know, different voice actors but the same line and really just trying to figure out, you know – closing your eyes and thinking, “does this fit, does this fit?”  And looking at a picture of the actor and the character in game and just trying to figure out if that is the right fit.

ET – Moving on from the toughest challenges, how about the things you're the most proud of?  I'm sure you have some moments to share.

DG – I think the obvious thing that I'm most proud of – as being the production guy in the project – is the fact that it's in gamers' hands, it's on the shelves, and the feedback's been great.  You know we're really really pleased with how the game's been received by the fans and all the feedback we're getting on the community is really really good.  So we're really glad we've hit the nail on the head with that stuff.  One of the coolest things for me was having a bus drive past my house actually – with a Mafia logo emblazoned down the side.  That was really when it kind of hit home that the game was done.  So it's one of the proudest things.  There's some moments in the game that I'm really proud of that we managed to get.  I don't want to steal Jack's thunder because I think he'll probably pick the same moment as me, but there's one moment in the game that I really really love and I'm so pleased.  It took a little bit of convincing to convince the cut-scene team and the music team to include it – but once we kind of explained our vision they were on board.  And it really, for me, it's the point where you're like, “alright I really am in Goodfellas right now.”  And it's a great moment, it's a great moment.

JS – For me, this goes back to the biggest challenge, some of my challenges were the soundtrack.  I think that’s something I’m personally proud of when I drive around the city and I hear this music that I’m still not sick of after listening to it for about almost 4 years, 5 years.  Going back to what Denby said about the technical achievement, just the fact that this game engine got done and we were able to build an amazing game around it with all this positive feedback.  I had a similar experience to Denby.  I got out of the subway in Manhattan a couple weeks ago and there was this massive Mafia poster right there.  Then a bus drove by with the Mafia thing on it, and then I walked down the street about half a block.  I looked to my left, and there was a Gamestop there with another massive piece of Mafia art right there.  So that was very gratifying.  And, yeah, that one particular moment in the game Denby was talking about was this one part where they all sing when they’re drunk in a car.  They sing this Dean Martin song and the music licensing was quite challenging around that – explaining to Dean Martin, or Dean Martin’s estate, that, “yeah we need these two drunk wise guys to sing their own version of the song on top of Dean Martin’s song after burying a body.”  So that was, you know, it took a little convincing but they were on board.  And then when we got to the Czech Republic when we were supposed to have the game done – pretty much final polish.  Just kind of going behind the producers’ backs – Denby knew about it, but no one else knew about it – that we just shoehorned it in there at the last minute and prayed that it worked.  Doing that hasn’t happened in the game before where guys sing with the music – it was a technical challenge that the team really helped us with, it was cool.

DG – Yeah I think one of the biggest technical challenges on that was localization.  Do these guys sing it in French?  Do the French actors sing it?  Scratching heads time.  I’m not actually sure what we did in the end but hopefully the guys in those countries with the localized versions are just as satisfied as we are with the American and me, British versions.  So it’s a really really fun moment of the game and you really get that mob movie feel from it.  You know, Sopranos, Godfather, that sort of stuff.

JS – And it was a spontaneous thing too.  It was just us screwing around in the studio.  One day we had like an extra hour of studio time and I was like, “I have this idea” because this one particular drive I wasn’t really happy with.  I mean, it was cool, the scenery was cool and everything but I’m like, “we gotta do something to spice this up.”  So I said, “alright, pretend you’re drunk and start singing.”  And Joe Hannah - the guy who plays Eddie in the English version – he’s really good at pretending to be drunk and singing everything.  Bobby – the guy who plays Joe – was pretty much tone deaf.  Bobby, if you’re listening to this, which I doubt you are, I love you but you’re the worst singer I’ve ever heard, ever.  They actually made them sing it separate and we just piped into their headphones and they sang it without any rehearsing so they would purposefully screw up the words.  And then we edited together like that so it actually sounds legit.

ET – So now that the game is out, how are you feeling about what people are saying?

DS – You know, seeing all the positive reviews and the different outlets – Game Informer, you know, 9’s out of 10, 10 out of 10 – and just seeing the fan reaction.  The forums are going crazy about it.  People are really getting into the story that we created, the world that we created.  The action, the driving, the parts that really draw people in – people are getting that, and they’re getting what we did.  And that’s good, they’re seeing what we like, and those “aha” moments, and the parts that really drew us in.  It’s really neat to see the fans and the critics connecting with that and connecting with the game play story.  You know, driving around the city listening to music.  It’s pretty cool to kind of see it all come out there and it’s a little bit like, “oh, is it actually out there?  Yeah it’s pretty cool!

DG – It never grows tiring launching a new game at all.  I’ve been in this industry 11 years and worked on some pretty big titles before and this is clearly the biggest but it doesn’t ever grow tiring to see your game and hear back from the fans and people who are going to listen to this podcast that they actually like what we did and they appreciate the work.  Because, you know, we worked really hard on this game – all of us did.  Everyone involved really sweated, blood…

DS – Beer…

DG – Beer as well – a lot of beer.  But we really worked really hard.  We didn’t make any decisions to cut things or take things out knowingly to annoy someone.  It was all done with the right intention in mind of creating a great experience and creating a great gaming experience that really did justice to Mafia I.  I think that was the thing in the back of his mind.  Everyone is a really big fan of Mafia I and we didn’t want to let that game down by delivering something that wasn’t good.  So it’s early (inaudible) but we’re really pleased with the reception so far.

JS – For me it’s the same thing.  I’ve been working on it probably the longest of anyone in publishing here and I wouldn’t have put over 4 years of my life into it if I didn’t believe in it.  It’s nice to see it come out and again see the very positive reviews we’ve gotten from the press, the positive fan reactions, to hear what people think.  I was in a gaming store the other day and there were 2 kids talking about it, about how cool it was.  And just to kind of be undercover in that environment and just hear people talk about something you did – it’s just like Denby said, it never gets old.

DG – Those kids were clearly over the age of 18, so that’s fine.

JS – Yes, that’s what I meant.

ET – What do you want people to remember when they finish the game and they look back on it?  Is there something you want them to take with them?

DG – The story and the characters I think is number 1 that I think we hope they’ll take with them – it’s the cinematic experience.  I know I’m sick of saying the phrase, and probably you’re sick of hearing the phrase come out of my mouth – which is the cinematic experience – it was paramount to creating Mafia II.  It was the number 1 thing we wanted to do.  So I really hope that people take that away from the game.  It’s like, “hey you know what, I felt like I was watching a Martin Scorcese movie.”  Or, sorry, “I felt like I was taking PART in a Martin Scorcese movie.”  That’s the biggest thing I think that’s the take away.  It’s the thing that I get when I play the game.

JS – For me – it’s like Denby said – it’s the memory of the atmosphere, the feel.  Just like your favorite movie.  For us, one of our favorite games, Mafia I.  We still remember parts of that game, we remember dialogue in that game, we remember scenes in that game.  So, for me, I hope that gamers will, 10 years from now, “oh remember that part where they went here and did that and said this?”  And, already it’s started – which is really cool – is that I see people quoting the game.  They’re quoting the dialogue like we do in our favorite movies so we know we nailed that.

DG – It’d be nice to come back to the forums when we’re making Mafia VIII, IX, or X or whatever it is and one of the really cool things is people saying, “in preparation for Mafia II, they’re gonna play through Mafia I again for the 25th time.”  I hope that people are saying that about Mafia II.  They’re like, “they’re playing it through for the 22nd time and it’s still great, it’s still amazing, I really love this bit still.”  I hope that sort of stuff we can be talking about in, say, 2 or 3 years time.  That’d be really cool.