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My life in the Mafia: The open-world action series’ art director looks back at 15 years of crime

Longtime Mafia veteran Roman Hladik looks back on the series' 15-year history

My name is Roman Hladik and early on, I was caught up in “the life.” I cut my teeth with Tommy Angelo in Lost Heaven (I worked on the art direction for the characters in the first Mafia game). I went along with Vito’s moves in Empire Bay (I was the art director for Mafia II) …and stuck by him down in New Bordeaux (art director on Mafia III). I’ve been working on the Mafia franchise since the very beginning.

If you told me that I’d be looking back at a game I worked on over 15 years ago, I wouldn’t believe you. And if you said that I’d work on the same franchise for that long? I’d say you’re nuts. But that’s exactly what happened. And right now, I’m going tell you a little bit about how we got here.

The beginnings of Mafia

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It was just after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and I had convinced my parents to buy a Commodore 64. I discovered the magical world of computer games and drawing software. Just trust me, trying to draw by using a joystick is a fairly demanding discipline. After working on – and playing – games in high school, I eventually joined Illusion Softworks to work on a new project.

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At the very beginning, there were just five of us – game development teams were not much bigger back then. We started to develop a fantasy RPG game, but after a gaming trade show, we decided to change direction. We put our heads together again. We’d been thinking about the games we play ourselves and how to combine all these different game mechanics. If we’re being honest, our mission became designing the game that we wanted to play.

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Our inspirations were classic gangster movies and we tried to capture that atmosphere in a video game. If I recall correctly, the player was originally supposed to be a policeman, but when Daniel Vávra got in charge of script, he flipped the roles and it clicked with everyone. There was no looking back. We had our plan.

That was the beginning of Mafia.

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The original’s success and the challenges of a new console generation

None of us realised how big that challenge would be back then. The development for the first game took almost five years while the team grew to nearly 40 people. Since we were so close to the game, we didn’t know what to expect when it shipped – but we obviously hoped people would like what we made. The reaction of players and critics who loved the original Mafia game made it all worthwhile. It was a game with a strong story and film-like atmosphere, which was a bit unusual in 2002.

After the success of the first game, we knew we wanted to work on a sequel. So Daniel was already working on the script of the second Mafia game. We thought: “We just launched this great game, the sequel should be a piece of cake, right?”

Well, a console generation jump was coming, so we made a decision to develop the game further on an internal engine that we had created for another Illusion Softworks game and prepare for a new generation of hardware. The only things we had to go on: the script, several concept images and a new gaming engine we were still building. At the time, we were learning how to work with shaders and what to do with the new hardware coming.

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Of course, new technologies mean an increased demand on the quality. At the peak of development, the Mafia II team had nearly 200 people at two studios in Prague and Brno.

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The work on Mafia II was more intense for me, because on the original Mafia, I was responsible for the characters. In the sequel, I was in charge of art direction for the whole game. The team’s goal: give players an intense and authentic experience, and I’d like to think we did just that. Again, we created a story – and a game – that we were all proud of at launch.

How history repeated itself for Mafia III

We took a small break then threw ourselves into the third Mafia game. We had the same conviction as at the beginning of the second Mafia game to increase the quality. Our need to improve quality coincided with another console cycle change (funny how history repeats itself!). So we decided to switch to newer hardware again (planning for Mafia III to appear on the PS4).

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Nested in the authentic New Bordeaux environment, we had a new vision – to provide a raw, less romantic view of the American underworld. Just like the two previous installments, the third is based on a very strong story and, moreover, offers a larger, more open world than the previous titles.

If you’ve never had the chance to play Mafia II, it’s available to stream via PS Now. And, of course, Mafia III just completed its season pass DLC so you can get the full New Bordeaux experience on the PS4. I’d love to hear about your experiences in Empire Bay and New Bordeaux!

Mafia 15 Year Anniversary

And for those of you who have been with us and played our games, I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you. I am grateful to everyone who has allowed me to take part in an amazing series and, above all, to my parents for not having hesitated and investing in a Commodore 64 28 years ago.

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Brilliant read, loved the series since Mafia 1 on PC, 1 of my favourite games ever. Please remake Mafia 1 on PS4 :D

I loved Mafia II, shame I can’t say the same for III. It didn’t have the same flair or character likeability, got bored way too quickly.

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I would love to see Mafia II remaster please make it happen

I’ll never forgive you for that racing mission in the first Mafia, but otherwise it was a really amazing game. Never did play Mafia 2 beyond the demo and only got back on board with Mafia 3…which had some great storytelling moments and few swell missions, but was otherwise crammed with too much repeating side-missions/activities.

Personally Mafia 1 is still my favorite, with Mafia III coming second. I loved the nostalgia of the 1920s ol cars and music in Mafia 1 and it’s was a genuine first time Mafia experience I’ll never forget. Mafia 2 on the other hand just didn’t have that finesse the other two has and hence why it was least favorable.

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