Prince of Persia - UbiSoft Montréal
We chat it up with Ubisoft's Yannis Mallat (Producer) & John Stafford (Associate Producer). They are the current team working on the E3 jaw dropper, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time".
Q: Before we begin this interview would you mind introducing yourself to all our readers out there?
A: Sure. My name is Yannis Mallat and I’m the Producer of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - I have been on the project since the beginning 2 years ago.
Q: I'm sure that many of our younger gamers aren't familiar with the Prince of Persia series. Could you give us a little background information on the plot to get our readers up to speed?
A: It all started in 1989 when Jordan Mechner created the ground-breaking Prince of Persia game. This original game is one of the most well-known and influential video games of all time and basically created a new gaming genre – the Action/Adventure game. In 1993, the Prince was back in Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame. It was a wonderful gaming experience, filled with pure action, in a marvellous Oriental world. Those two games created a legend.
Following the success of the original games, another new game was made in 1996 and this time it was in 3D. However, while created with only the great intentions, expectations were really high and success was unattainable. That is when, in 2001, Ubi Soft acquired the license and began working on the next installment of this legendary franchise.
For Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, players will assume the role of the prince, who, after his father invades the palace of the maharajah, is tricked into using a magic dagger to release the dangerous "sands of time" from an ornate hourglass. With the aid of a mysterious and not-altogether trustworthy ally, players will be charged with recapturing the sands of time and restoring peace to the land.
Q: Though the Prince of Persia game series has always been fun to play, it has never seemed to enjoy the mainstream success of other games of the same caliber. Why did Ubi Soft decide to take on the next POP incarnation?
A: Well there are several good reasons for bringing the license back to the video game market. First of all, the license owns its place on the Next Generation Console market, as any good “old” license that is being revived. We are seeing tons of old games coming back on the scene (Metroïd, Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi, Rygar, and so on…). I’m not saying that we should do it because others do, but I think the market has grown and people who were playing those games 15 years ago, now own a Next-Gen Console at home and they wish to re-experience these classic games they started on.
Of course, in the particular case of Prince of Persia, the challenge of making a totally new and successful game from this universe was something Ubi Soft felt it could and was willing to accomplish.
Finally, Prince of Persia 1 & 2 are awesome games; we believe we captured the original magic and we can’t wait to unleash it on Next Gen Consoles.
Q: The last console to have a Prince of Persia game was the Dreamcast, which enjoyed some success, in respects to the console it was made for. Has your development team taken any cues or avoided anything based on the response this generated?
A: We really focused on elements from the original POP 1&2, making sure that bringing the license on the Next Gen consoles meant taking it from the initial creations. So everything had to be reworked, rebuilt, redesigned and rethought from scratch.
Ultimately, you’ll have a much different game than what was seen before. Gamers will find that everything from game design to environments to story to character design is new, better and much stronger.
Q: Many classical games such as Ninja Gaiden and now Prince of Persia are suddenly making returns. Some people are worried about these new incarnations blemishing their namesakes and spoiling the series. What are you doing with Prince of Persia to hold true to the original game?
A: One thing the team did, aside from studying the previous games and the 1001 Nights tales, was to approach Jordan Mechner- the original creator of the series- to work as a creative consultant and screenwriter. He was very involved in the game development process because achieving what we wanted required him to work very closely with everyone and is now a full-fledged member of the team! So expect the game to be true to the original . The cool thing was that working on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time “reawakened the joy of computer games” for Jordan. This definitely shows us how good the game is going to be – especially in the eyes of its own creator. In fact, the real “start” of the project was when I invited Jordan to come to Montreal: we then showed him what we have as a very early prototype and he was flabbergasted… then the team and I were “uh-huh… we have something great here…”. From that point forward, the whole development adventure was rolling. Of course, this is in part because we, in our minds, forget the license - the pressure to have it living again or dead forever, questions like: “how should the Prince look like?”… etc… . We focused on the real success factors of the first two games: the animations and fluid move-set, the intense fight sequences and the strong and clever level design. Then we began to build the game around those things, always thinking game play first, keeping the magic of the license was thus done already.
Q: Ubi Soft - Montreal is quickly becoming the premier Xbox game publisher, as you seem to roll out game after game that harnesses the true power of the Xbox. Is this dedication to Xbox graphics and sound going to give us Xbox owners a little more eye candy when we play Sands of Time?
A: Our goal and challenge (and the fun part of working) with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is to make the best looking action/adventure on Xbox this year. I can swear people will have incredible graphic experiences with extremely detailed textures, hi-rez characters and so on… We are employing some pretty neat Xbox powers to the lighting system that help us achieve our very demanding visual design requests. As far as the sound is concerned, Dolby Digital 5.1 is a must.
Q: Now that Ubi Soft has had a lot of experience making games for the Xbox, are there any features in the Xbox hardware that assists in the game-making process? How hard is it to finish a game like Sands of Time on the Xbox as compared to the other next-gen systems?
A: Of course, having developed and released a game like Splinter Cell is of great help for the making of upcoming Xbox titles for the Montreal Ubi Soft studio. Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time is making the most of this experience and expertise.
John Stafford Associate Producer, Xbox: Now, to answer the first part of your question: Microsoft has provided our programmers with the Cadillac of development tools. Because of the tight integration of all the tools and development kits together, our work is accelerated when it comes to judging system performance, troubleshooting bugs etc. The Xbox architecture is familiar to any programmer. Using DirectX library and Nvidia graphics cards means the learning curve is kept to a minimum and the programmers love this development environment.
Finishing a game like “The Sands of Time” is easier on the Xbox. The Xbox is much more flexible because of its architecture, speed and graphics capability therefore giving the programmers more options to resolve the issues of the day.
Q: I'm sure all our video-philes out there are begging me to ask this question. So here it is: What resolutions will Sands of Time be supporting on the Xbox console?
A: We’ll support the progressive scan for HDTV at 480i.
Q: And the other obligatory question that seems to always be on everyone's mind: Is this title going to sport any Xbox Live features?
A: This is something I can not talk about yet ;-)
Q: As far as the development of this title is concerned, what sort of team is currently working on Sands of Time?
A: I have to say that the POP team is the most dedicated team I have ever worked with. These guys are not only talented; they are passionate clever people and are always working towards the same goal: the best game possible. You know, it’s cool to work on such a license, it’s cool to get awards at E3, it’s cool to produce good stuff… but that comes more than often after extreme hard work, after long hour days, after deep involvement when no one tells you nice things about what you’re doing. During those hard-times, this team was still having fun, was still positive E-V-E-R-Y-D-A-Y.
The team has been growing according to the projects phase. At the beginning, we needed the very core: the most creation-oriented people, able to deliver great stuff in no-time to convince everyone that is was going to be the best to it make sure we had a strong foundation for the game. So did it went for Animation & AI, level design & engineering. On the Prince character, Alex Drouin and Richard Dumas (Lead Art Animator and Prince’s AI) quickly discovered and designed the fundamentals of the Prince, they managed to have the animation and the AI so melted together that playing the Prince is like butter. In Level Design, David Châteauneuf (Lead Level Designer) brought the best people to build his team, very “game design” oriented people, so that the levels are nothing but fun & challenging. Claude Langlais (Lead Engineer) is just incredible, he can do anything and when he can’t, he knows who does. I love this core group and everyone who has joined the team since. Once we got the basics of the game play, we sought the best art-oriented people, with the most technical of them to work very closely with the 3D programmers. And those guys are doing an A-M-A-Z-I-N-G job, trust me. Dominic Couture with Benoit Miller (3D engineer) and Raphaël Lacoste (Art Director) with Alexandre Rodrigue are combining efforts to deliver to the artists all they need to produce the best and most groundbreaking visuals. I would be able to talk about them for hours and hours on the terrific job they do but I guess you have to post the interview right? ;-) We are the POP team and we have fun, that’s all.
Q: Aside from the previous Prince of Persia games, have you looked to any other sources for creating a more vivid atmosphere for the Sands of Time game?
A: A good source was the 1001 Nights Tales, which gave us a good feel for this “Arabian fantasy” style that requires a lot of imagination and creativity. It contains tons of game design inspirations that helped us during conception of the game.
For the moves and animations, the team was inspired by a lot of Honk-Kong action movies and actions stars. And of course, we’ve watched every Hollywood movie on the 1001 Nights tales, just to get an idea of how Hollywood was treating the subject – to understand the “cliché”.
In terms of artistic design, many books were studied. Also, Orientalist painters, mainly French from the XIX century, Islamic architecture (old and modern), Medieval Persian art (for some parts of the palace), picture of real places like the Taj Mahal, etc. We really have a good mix of a lot of different inspirations.
Q: With a game that has continually redefined the action/adventure genre with every new game released, it is safe to say that expectations involving the game play are most likely going to be very high. What will Sands of Time feature to blow gamers away this time?
A: One of our main features is, of course, the Prince. The character itself will be very appealing and the abilities he will be given are quite spectacular. The Prince’s moves, and therefore his actions and the results of will often depend on the context or situation the player gets into. It wouldn’t be a true Prince of Persia game without great animations so expect the Prince to have over 700 different animations for him alone!
The fighting system is also very innovative. Actually, the players will rarely get to fight against just one enemy. Since we are looking at attacks from multiple fronts, the fighting system offers great variety and challenges to the players.
And of course, the Sands of Time play a major role in the setting as it is the central game play feature of the game. It’s the keystone that binds things together. Through the Sands of Time, the player gets to see the main asset of the game: THE TECHNOLOGY. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a technological masterpiece using tons of technical breakthroughs: the animation, the graphics, all the time manipulations (Sands of Time), the dynamic lighting, the dynamic loading, the physics (curtains, ropes, hair, etc…), the inverse kinematics, etc… The ability to control and play with time is may be one of the most brilliant achievements especially in terms of realization. You know, in this industry, developers often share ideas, based on the same trends or latest technologies, so you may have several games that actually share the same kind of features. What makes the difference is the implementation. I can swear people will be amazed by the high quality level of realization of the game. For those who had a chance to play the E3 build, I’m sure they know what I’m talking about!
Q: Some of our staff was privileged with the chance to go to E3 and experience Prince of Persia hands on. One of the things that really shined was the fluidity of the fighting system, especially for an incomplete game. Could you tell our readers a bit about how it works?
A: Like specified above, the Prince will be put up against multiple enemies. For such fights, we needed to implement a very fluid system that will ensure high-quality movements and quick reactions during combats. Controls are simple and intuitive so players won’t be forced to use unbearable combinations of buttons to execute actions. Challenges will come, not on what combination the player will need to do, but on how he will try to kill his enemies… And for many of them, players will need different approaches. As far as the fluidity is concerned, the same goes for ALL the moves of the Prince.
Q: Has there been anything that you were looking to include when the project first started that have been for some reason left out of the game?
A: Of course!! It would be a lie to say the contrary. In any good project, things are thrown away that’s part of the creation process, especially ours. You know, we wanted first to focus on the game play, like the core of what a video game is. Not on the story, the look of characters, the art or whatever… And we put, at a very early stage, some very high standards: idea = nothing whereas a playable idea = value. We wanted to be able, before anything else, to “play and feel” before going into production of any interactive aspect. What counts if you need to throw away things (and trust me you need to…if you don’t throw away things, there is a problem somewhere) is to make sure those things have not already been produced. There is a time to edit ideas - it’s called the pre-production phase. At the end of that phase – you are ready to produce all your best material. But I guess you want to know a specific… : unfortunately, you won’t see the Prince rubbing a magic lamp to free a djinn ;-)
Q: Is there any chance we might see some cool unlockables *cough* Original Prince of Persia *cough* in Sands of Time?
A: You should take your cough syrup man, I can’t hear what you’re saying ;-)
Q: The very first Prince of Persia game was beaten in an astonishing 17 minutes and 36 seconds (http://www.phys.uu.nl/~dijkema/prince). How fast can gamers expect to cruise through Sands of Time?
A: Thanks to our dynamic loading, the world seems pretty big. We can’t really make a breakdown into maps but rather areas. From experience, we always had to double the length of actual game play that’s guessed by the designers when they’re making their levels. That’s normal, because it’s only when everything is implemented and you actually play test the game that you know for sure. I would say the normal complete walkthrough couldn’t be made in less than 18-20 hours. But of course it depends on the difficulty level, on how good the player is and so on… But whatever the length, I can promise people will have a hard time quitting the game to go to sleep, they’re going to be much too engrossed in being the Prince.
Q: Will this Prince of Persia title be a one-time effort from Ubi Soft or can we expect to see some more Prince of Persia games down the road?
A: Considering that the Prince of Persia franchise has been around for quite some time… it is definitely a game that has a lot of meaning to gamers. So when the project was given to our studio in MTL, our goal was specific: we needed to put this game back to where it belongs - at the top! And we truly believe this game has the necessary features and elements that young gamers and nostalgic fans of the series will embrace. So this might just be a new beginning for the series . (-:
Q: Lastly, when can Xbox gamers expect to see this latest Ubi Soft creation grace the shelves of our local gaming stores?
A: The Xbox gamers can expect to see Prince of Persia – Sands of time on the shelves for the end of this year.
Thanks guys for taking to "time" (no pun intended) to give us Addicts the full skinny on this killer title.