Interview – Mafia III’s Executive Producer, Denby Grace

Mafia III launches today, and we had the chance to chat with Denby Grace, Executive Producer of Mafia III for 2K, about the game’s development processes, his experience working on Evolve and Spec Ops: The Line, as well as a little hint that the game may see a little visual patch for PlayStation 4 Pro owners.

You have been involved in the previous two Mafia games? What would you say were the biggest challenges or difficulties when making Mafia III compared to the first two games?

One of the big things for Mafia III is, well, it’s been a while since we made the last Mafia game and games nowadays are very high-fidelity and that’s always a challenge. We wanted, well early on we knew our cut-scenes, our storytelling, our narrative had to be up there with the best in the industry, and that’s been a massive undertaking for us to make sure our technology could do what we wanted it to do. We want to make sure our writings are great, our performance capture is accurate, and all that sort of stuff…so that was one of the biggest challenges, I think. Those as well as creating a coherent, sort of, open world is one of the biggest changes from Mafia II to III.

So that was one of the biggest undertakings from II to III, and one of the biggest improvements we felt we had to make for the game to become more than just this narrative, sort of, linear story that it was before. We still have the strength in narrative and then that narrative was hard to deliver as well, it’s not easy. We knew we wanted to do it, but doing it was tough.

And of course, having to make the game more realistic…

Absolutely. And then there was a lot of investment in R&D, to sort of make sure that our technology could do what we wanted it to do. I’m sure any other big game like the Naughty Dog games, anything like that, they’ve got the same sort of thing. They’re industry leading in that area and it’s something that we knew we had to be up there with those guys and it’s something that I think took a lot of time but the rewards speak for itself.

Why the 60’s America setting for Mafia III?

So, well, one is we’d done the 40’s and the 50’s in the last two game, so the 60’s was the next obvious thing but specifically, ‘68 as a choice of year for us was important on several different layers. So, the story backdrop and stuff like that, and just generally, it was a really turbulent era in American history. You’ve got the civil rights movement that really gaining momentum. Then there’s of course the Vietnam War, the JFK assassination, the rock and roll revolution…there’s lots and lots of different touchstones.

One of the biggest complaints we got from players about the previous Mafia games was how it’s ‘not much fun’ driving around a slow-ass car from the 40’s and 50’s. Well guess what, in the 60’s there are great, big muscle cars that are really fun to drive with. So there were a lot of different reasons for choosing the era that we chose. We knew we wanted to do something in the 60’s, that’s what we knew. And then it was just about nailing the right date. And hey, look, 1968 was something we settled on when we brought all these different things that different parts of the team wanted to do. They kind of came out in the wash.

And recently we’ve had a big hoo-haa about casting colored actors in Hollywood. Was there sort of like a strong decision to cast a black protagonist in the game to counter that?

No. No, no. It wasn’t because of the color of his skin that we cast. We wanted to tell the story of Lincoln Clay and we knew what that story was and it happened to be that he was part of the black mafia in the game. It wasn’t a conscious decision, though, like ‘hey, look, we want to do our bit for equal opportunities and stuff like that’. So just straight out, we wanted to tell the Lincoln Clay story and Lincoln Clay is an African American guy.

When you’re writing a story for a game like Mafia, which comes first? The setting or the characters?

The two go hand in hand. When we’re looking at the setting, again, there’s a bunch of different things that feed into that setting. And even at the very top level of our company like Christoph Hartmann (2K’s President) who is very sort of I would say, emotionally invested in the franchise, it’s his baby from a long time and he’s worked on it as long as I’ve worked on it. So he, Haden and me and a bunch of other guys all got together and we knew the choice of New Orleans being the inspiration for New Bordeaux was a very deliberate one. We knew we wanted to have a city that could have all this sort of seedy underbelly and also be very unique, right?

The setting came first in this one, then?

Yeah, in this specific one, but I don’t think there was any real reason for that. It just happened to be so.

What was it like for the team to have to write, and of course, to deal with the in-game racism? I mean, some of the stuff there is brutal, man.

Yeah! And I think if you ask William Harms, the lead writer, he will openly say that it was really hard. In some instances, it was really hard to write it. But to not do it right would have been a mistake. To just literally pretend like those stuff never happened? No, that would be awful, to not accurately represent what it was really like for someone of Lincoln’s ethnicity to live in the South at that time. We wanted to depict it authentically, and we wanted to represent it as it would have been and unfortunately, it’s hard to hear that sometimes. So I think Bill would tell you himself, and the writers too, it was hard. It was hard, but they also felt that they had to do it right, and they had to do it justice. So that was something they were really keen to sort of do properly.

In the course of making the game, has the team worked with any consultants to replicate the authenticity of Florida in the 60’s, especially of the underworld?

So we had dialect coaches for all the actors to make sure our dialect and the slang words used, and accents were accurate from that era. Also, while Haden and Will themselves directed a lot of the scenes, we also had a different director brought in. This is to add that extra flavor to the game, as you sometimes need someone who’s not super close to the project to kind of give us a different set of direction. But the dialect coach is arguably one of the most important consultant, to help us get the right vocal performance.

We also had someone who specifically came in and did Lincoln’s fight move stuff. Like Lincoln Clay in the game, he is also a Vietnam vet. He also advised us how Lincoln would move, because one of the nuances in the game players don’t immediately realize is that people in the military are trained to fire a gun from either hand. So Lincoln can do that, and you’ll notice that whenever he’s leaning against a cover.

Yeah, I noticed this during my hands on.

Yeah that was something that guy just told us and we’re like “Fuck we didn’t know that“. So we had to go back and design Lincoln to be able to change guns on both hands. So we leaned on that guy, we did a lot of research ourselves as well, including documentary watching, and a lot of reading. And our writers went to great lengths to sort of make sure that the crime activities in the game were realistic.

You have been involved in previous Mafia games, and also notable games like Max Payne and Spec Ops: The Line. Each of these games covered a lot of real-world moral issues, such as PTSD in Spec Ops, and racialism in Mafia III. How has this experience changed you as a person, or as a producer, over the years?

Wow. That’s an interesting question, I never really thought about that. So, the first thing to say is, as a producer I’m less creative than most people think I am. I am involved in a game’s development for sure, but at the same time it’s the writers and the Creative Directors that I work with that are the real creative brains behind the games. My job is to help them build what they envisage, right? In the case of Spec Ops: The Line, I remembered the first time I played it through it really touched me and just made me really think about stuff. It’s fucked up, man, very fucked up. Again, I think in my younger days I would have been more flippant about these things, whereas I like to think I’m more open-minded about these stuff now.

I kind of had a good understanding of the 60’s and stuff, anyway, before we worked on Mafia 3. But again, when we embark on a big project like this, the team watch a lot of movies together. We have big lists of things that people should probably read. When people are working really close on a game, we push out a lot of these stuff to our teams and say, “Hey look. Absorb yourself in this stuff that we’re reading as the leaders on this project.” Again, I like to be informed on anything. I don’t know if it changes me. But it definitely kind of like informed me. I remember working on Spec Ops, and I’d been told to read the novel Heart of Darkness way before years ago, when I was at film school, and didn’t. And I read that, and I was like, “Oh, man. That’s super dark, but super good.” An amazingly good book, right? So again, that’s the way it’s changed me, and I’ve become more well-read and more well-watched because you want to keep up with the writers and the creative guys that are in this business.

Is Mafia III the darkest Mafia game yet?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the things we did deliberately was that we wanted to tell a more hard-boiled and sort of grimy, gritty story, but also we wanted to move away from the mob, the traditional mafioso stuff like Godfather. To a lesser extent, Goodfellas is a very romanticized view of how the mafia and the mob are. They are kind of like these pillars of society and that they’re actually nice guys or good fellows to a certain extent, right? But we wanted to move that forward and show that these guys are really poisoning the neighborhoods they’re operating in. They are bringing drugs into it, they’re using violence in terrible, terrible ways to influence people. So we wanted to strip that back and tell a much grittier, grimy story as well. It was a very conscious decision.

Would you be able to share any of the features that couldn’t make it to the final build?

I’m trying to think of a good one because if they were good, they made it. I can tell you a goody story about one. It’s about the alligators. The alligators weren’t actually meant to be included in the game and then Haden went super ninja. I don’t know if he’s just super into alligators or not. I think he is into alligators a little bit (laughs). But he put them into the trailer anyway. The first announced trailer where you fed the guy to the alligators, did you noticed?

Oh yeah!

Then he went back to the team and was like, “Well now you’ve got to put it in the game.” Then they were like, “Oh, man.” So they had a guy working on alligators. Originally, alligators weren’t in the game and they weren’t going in the game and the producer was working with Haden and told him, “Look, we’re just out of time. We can’t put alligators in the game.” So Haden put alligators in the trailer and that left the team with not much choice but to include them in the game somehow (laughs). Which was kind of cool. There are a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. There always is with any game you make. I’d like to think a lot of that stuff was not the better stuff and we ended up with just the best stuff in the game. But yeah, the alligators is a funny story.

Will there be 4K and, or, HDR support for Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro players? Say, maybe as a patch?

We are definitely going to be doing some stuff. We’re not ready to announce the features that we’re going to be doing, but we’re working on some stuff for the PS4 Pro.

On the Pro, but not on Xbox One S?

I’m afraid I can’t saying anything more at this stage (chuckles).

Thanks for your time!

Thank you too!

Editor’s Note: You can also read about our Mafia III hands-on. As a review copy was made available to us only today, we will post our full impression of the game within the next few days.

Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. When not spending time on his gaming PC and consoles, he can be found in Hyrule solving ungodly puzzles and collecting gems.