As a studio, Hangar 13 only has one game to its name so far, 2016’s Mafia 3. Lean in a little closer to uncover the diversity of people working across its global network of offices, though, and the picture suddenly becomes a lot more exciting. Hayden Blackman, its founder, is a LucasArts alumnus, a key force in the creation of titles like The Force Unleashed and Knights of the Old Republic. Andy Wilson, Hangar 13’s VP and Executive Producer, has previously worked on games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Split/Second.
And having just opened its fourth office in Brighton, UK, with General Manager Andy Baynes at the helm, that wellpool of experience is about to get even richer and more diverse, with the 2K published company now working on a brand new IP set to build upon its already sterling reputation for strong narrative design.
A few months ago, a report titled "How the makers of Mafia 3 lost their way" was published on Kotaku, claiming that Hangar 13 was in a collective state of ennui, having suffered layoffs and morale loss in the wake of its first game’s muted critical reaction. Regardless of how accurate that report’s image is, it’s not the impression you get from talking to Wilson, Baynes, and Narrative Director Bill Harms, who were at this year’s Develop conference to celebrate the launch of the studio’s Brighton office. That said, Wilson was more than willing to admit that the response to Mafia 3, at least at first, wasn’t as positive as the team had been hoping for.
“With the initial reviews, it was a shame, because the praise for the narrative was drowned out,” he tells me, matter of factly. “But what we've seen since then is people remembering the game more fondly. We were at the Baftas with two nominations, for instance, and bad games don’t go to the Baftas. We know that there is a more tightly edited version of Mafia 3 that would have scored a bit better, with regards to open world design, but at the end of the day, what we care about is the reaction to it over time, which is really strong. I can’t look at that and feel bad... if I make a more significant game in my career I’ll be surprised.”
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Time has indeed been kind to Mafia 3, not just because real world developments have unfortunately made its themes of race relations and post-war America all the more relevant but, at a time where developers are often stepping in hot water for prevaricating on the subject of political storytelling, Hangar 13’s frank willingness to engage with loaded subject matter is all the more admirable. Harms explains that the studio wasn’t intentionally setting out to make a political game but, at the time, never shied away from maintaining the authenticity of the 1960s time period, warts and all.
“We made the point that this is not a game about racism, but it just so happens to be a huge part of it, because that’s the world Lincoln inhabits.” says Harms. “More than that, you have to be willing to say there’s racism prevalent in Mafia 3, and that it’s still there, Lincoln Clay didn’t change it. And that’s hard to face, especially in games, because games are about victory. So there’s always that fear about delving into that subject matter, because it’s bigger than your game and you’re not qualified to resolve it.”
With Mafia 3 firmly behind it, Hangar 13 has now started work on an unannounced IP, which Blackman recently revealed is “more upbeat” than Lincoln Clay’s blood soaked saga, but will still deal with mature themes through sophisticated storytelling, as is the studio’s forte. Neither Wilson, Harms, nor Baynes were able to share concrete details about the title in our conversation, but the latter did offer a more general idea of what can be expected from the studio’s follow up.
“Our current idea for the game went through an evolution over several months, but it has a very strong through line, and has some very interesting innovations at the heart of it. We know we can do good narrative, and that’s something that excites us and we want to apply it to whatever we make. It might not be the same style or genre as Mafia 3, but we will focus on a central narrative because that’s the key pillar of what Hangar 13 does.”
With all four studios now working collectively on the same project, despite being located in three different countries, everyone expresses genuine excitement for this liberating new chapter in Hangar 13’s evolution as a studio. Wilson, in particular, has been busy setting up the new Brighton branch, with “aggressive growth plans” to reflect Hangar 13’s AAA status, and the full support of 2K behind him.
“We’re trying to make sure each studio has its own mandate”, he explains, “as it’s important to make sure they have a certain sense of ownership around one thing to help you build a team around it. So every office has a little bit of their own identity, but generally we do treat everything as one big studio. Already, from day one, there was a level of trust and friendship among all of us that normally might take some time to foster.”
So Hangar 13 is working on something completely fresh for now, but what about the world of Mafia? Did the development struggles of Mafia 3 leave the team too burnt out on the prospect of another title set in the underbelly of organised crime rings? Not in the slightest, according to Wilson, who says that the Mafia series is now synonymous with the Hangar 13 identity.
“That franchise is ours.” he says with steely resolve, before backtracking just a little. “Well, it belongs to 2K, but they would probably have to pry it off our cold dead hands if they wanted it back! We own it, we love it, and we’ve got a few ideas that we’re kicking around. We’ll announce what we announce in due course, but it’s still very much part of our DNA as a studio. It’s where we come from, after all!”
But Hangar 13 isn’t interested in where it’s come from at the moment, it’s too busy focusing on where it’s going. Stripped of the creative barriers that come with working on an established IP, the road ahead is now carte blanche for Wilson, Baynes, Harms, and the rest of the growing Hangar 13 family, and while none are in doubt that more challenges and difficulties lie ahead, they’re finally in a position that they’ve been working towards since the studio was founded in 2014. If you’re someone who loved Mafia 3’s industry-leading story, but wondered whether its rigid open world design suggested Hangar 13 doesn’t have what it takes to outshine its competitors, the studio has a response for you: watch this space.