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Building The Big Easy: How Hangar 13 Reconstructed New Orleans For Mafia III

by Ben Reeves on Oct 09, 2015 at 09:00 AM

Louisiana’s party city is famous for Mardi Gras, voodoo, Jazz music, and Cajun food. New Orleans one of American’s most eclectic hubs, and it's surprisingly underused in the world of video games. Developer Hangar 13 felt like the city would be the perfect setting for the next entry in 2K’s open world organized crime series, but the team knew it couldn’t just digitize the city in its current state. Recreating a 1968 version of New Orleans for Mafia III took months of research, and many of the city’s famous landmarks had to be reshaped to ensure that the game was fun as well as believable.

“We actually settled on the city before we picked the time period,” says studio head and creative director Haden Blackman. “We had a short list of cities that we wanted to go to, and we did a lot of concept development for a number of different cities. For us, New Orleans was the one that we gravitated toward because it is such a collision of different musical styles and cultures – you got jazz, and you got voodoo, and you got the French quarter. And all of that mixes together into an interesting culture.”

Discovering a missing past
Since Mafia III takes place in a 1968 version of New Orleans, Hangar 13 had to find old stock footage of the city and comb through black-and-white archives of the period.

“The thing about 1968 is that when people step into that world they’re not stepping into a world that was built right there and then,” says art director Dave Smith. “Any given year is actually a collection of the last several decades that came before it.”

This meant that in order to recreate 1968, the team had to research fashion, automobiles, music, and even architecture from the decades leading up to that year. This research allowed the team to resurrect areas of the city that have been lost over time. For example, New Orleans had an old opera house on Bourbon Street that no longer exists; Hangar 13 re-created the building for its game.

Cheating expectations
Historical accuracy is nice, but sometimes player expectations don’t line up with the past. After looking at numerous images of the city, Hangar 13 took New Orleans and compressed it. The studio picked landmarks that people remember and placed them in relatively similar geographic locations while embellishing other areas of the city. This freedom allowed Hangar 13 to put a bayou right up against the city. In other areas of the city, it removed things. New Orleans' famous Superdome football stadium was actually being constructed in 1968, but Hangar 13 opted to exclude it from the game, as it would have taken up too much real estate. In other areas Hangar 13 felt that it needed to change the city so it felt historically accurate.

“When our version of Canal Street started to go into the game, we looked at the palm trees and thought they looked really small and undeveloped,” Blackman says. “We actually wondered if we were looking at the wrong assets, so we went to the artists and they said, ‘No, the palm trees in 1968 had actually just been planted in that area, so they were really small.’ But the expectation of a modern audience is that New Orleans has full-sized palm trees, so that’s what we put into the game.”

What’s in a name?
Hangar 13’s version of New Orleans isn’t actually called New Orleans (unfortunately, the studio won’t reveal the city’s actual name at this point). Part of the reason behind the name change is that the team didn’t want to be beholden to the actual arrangement of New Orleans’ city blocks. Layouts that work well for a city planner don’t always work for a game designer. 

“New Orleans is a beautiful city in many, many respects, but it’s not necessarily the best city for a 90-mph car chase,” Blackman says. “It was important for us to be able to go in and widen streets, create fewer 90 degree angles, and generally change the layout to suit our needs without being slavishly devoted to the layout of the real city. We’re also adding things like underground waterways, which would not be possible in the city of New Orleans itself. We want to take all the trappings of New Orleans and all things that are great about New Orleans and make a really exciting city.”

A sky full of Weenies
While constructing this digital city, Hangar 13 was inspired by the design principles of Walt Disney. When he designed Disney World, Walt Disney wanted people to be able to look up wherever they were in the park and see all of the park’s major landmarks, such as Cinderella’s famous castle. These highlights would draw guests further into the park and help them remain oriented without a map. Disney called these landmarks the “Weenies,” since he had gotten the idea from the hot dog stands at circuses and carnivals that always had big inflatable hot dogs floating above the crowds. Following suit, Hangar 13’s skyline is filled with Weenies such as above-ground cemeteries, old cathedrals, waterside cafés, and French-inspired town homes.

When players step into the world of Mafia III, they’ll get a rare chance to go back in time to see a city that no longer exists. For more on Mafia III, and how Hangar 13 is working to bring 1968 to life or to watch video interviews with the team, check out our month-worth of cover coverage by clicking the banner below.