Interview: Prince of Persia producer Ben Mattes

In 2003, Ubisoft reinvented Jordan Mechner’s classic Prince of Persia title with their multi-platform title, The Sands of Time. Ubisoft reinvigorated the franchise, bringing it new life to a fresh generation of gamers.

After completing the “Sands of Time” trilogy, Ubisoft is ready to move on and in a way, once again reinvent the franchise. This December, an all-new Prince of Persia game comes to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The title features a fresh, illustrative style, along with a new prince who will fight alongside a magical ally, Elika. 

We had a chance to sit down with the game’s producer, Ben Mattes, to talk about everything from keeping computer-controlled support characters out of your hair to why Prince of Persia couldn’t work Mirror’s Edge-style.

DESTRUCTOID:
When did you guys start work on this new Prince of Persia?

Ben Mattes
November [of] 2005, like after the Prince of Persia: Two Thrones went gold.

Was it being developed concurrently with Assassin’s Creed? I know they both share the same engine.

Yeah, Assassin’s Creed was in development [at the same time]. They were still very early in development, but we knew exactly what the game was going to be when we started development. They already had their artistic direction, their theme, their main character; they had a lot of the vision of the game already locked down. So we knew right away what game we weren’t going to make. Not because what they were making was bad, but because there’s already an Assassin’s Creed — we don’t need to do that.

We knew right away, OK, we’re not going to be mature. We’re not going to try do do realistic. We’re not gonna do hyper-violent. We’re not going to be “historically accurate.” Because that’s their territory; we wanna complement that, not compete with it.

Was there any communication between those teams while you were developing? Obviously, Assassin’s Creed shipped over a year ago, so did you learn anything from the successes or failures of that title?

Yeah, I mean, not the least of which is that every time we had a major challenge with the engine or whatever, they were there available to us if we needed to go and ask them for help. Or ask them “How do you solve this problem?”, whatever the case might be.

I think, you know, there [were] certainly design elements we saw in Assassin’s Creed that we knew we wanted in Prince of Persia. Wide open spaces, you know. Really long draw distances. Vista points where you stand up on a platform, looking out over your world, and it’s like [you’re] King Kong beating your chest. Like, “I am the lord of this city and I will make it my bitch.” We wanted that kind of feeling of mastery from high vantage points that we saw in early Assassin’s protoypes. And I think there were certain things that we saw also in Assassin’s that — I won’t necessarily say we recognized as weaknesses — but we saw that there were areas that we wanted to do differently.

Some of the mechanics in Prince of Persia are decidedly old-school — we’ve got the lava level, we’ve got the city level, we’ve got the magical level. Assassin’s didn’t do that; they went for their variety of cities, you know. One of the sort of downsides of what happened with Assassin’s Creed is that it led to a certain amount of repetitiveness sometimes, because you were doing a lot of different missions, but often in the same city, so you’re sort of seeing the same thing many, many times. We really wanted to make sure that we had a huge amount of aesthetics, but also, gameplay diversity, in Prince of Persia.

To not have that same potential issue that they had with Assassin’s Creed, that was something that we kind of decided very early on. Not because of Assassin’s Creed, but just as an ambition that we had for our [own] project.

The prince in the new Prince of Persia game is not the same prince from the Sands of Time series. In fact, it’s my understanding that he’s not even a prince at all. What’s up with that?

Well, we liked to say that, “He’s princely in his deeds.”

Again, this idea that, to be a Prince of Persia game, that [the lead] has to come from noble blood, we found it really limiting. In the same way that we found it really limiting if we said it all has to take place in a typically Arabic [or] Persian environment, with the domed towers and the marketplaces with the carpets, and all that kind of stuff. That was really restricting us. We really wanted to kind of push beyond that. And if you look back at the history of the Prince of Persia universe, the very first prince was not a prince. He was this kid from the streets, thrown into a dungeon, who made his way up to the top of the tower and rescued a princess. But he wasn’t necessarily of noble heritage, and that was what kind of set the stage for this entire franchise.

So we didn’t feel the need for him to be of noble blood, and in fact, I actually think it’s cooler that he doesn’t start as nobility. Because there’s that possibility — there’s that potential — for him to evolve towards nobility. Would Lord of the Rings been as cool if Aragorn was king from the very beginning? No. Part of the thing that made that journey so cool was that he started as a nobody with tons of untapped potential, and grew to understand and accept his true noble potential and heritage, which made his coronation that much more powerful. That’s a cool evolution that I think we’d like to do with this character in the game as well.

In terms of why he’s not the same prince, we’ve always considered the Prince of Persia franchise to be very much like the book from which it was originally inspired, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. You have a bunch of chapters, each of which are chronologically independent from each other, all of which tell of different adventures in this fantastic, fabulous world of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. And it’s only in reading and appreciating all of these chapters that you get that full understanding of this universe. So that’s the attitude we’ve always taken towards the Prince of Persia.

It’s not the Prince of Persia, it’s a Prince of Persia. So they all take place in alternate time lines or something like that. They all tell a story of a young, agile, heroic warrior who runs and jumps and flips and fights his way through a fantastic Persian environment in order to save the world … who may or may not be nobility.

When I think of the series, the way you’re approaching the character like that, it’s a lot like Legend of Zelda with Link. You look at each game and it almost doesn’t make sense looking at its timeline — they almost all have to be different Links. But there’s something — the universe, the mythology — that ties them together.

What ties together the Prince of Persia games?

It’s that little tagline I used, “The young, agile warrior.” That’s the brand DNA. That’s the tie that binds all of the Prince of Persia games together. It’s not the Sands of Time — it’s not a rewind power. It’s not a certain visual aesthetic or a certain combat system. All of that stuff is paint on the walls, but the foundation of the building is that young, agile warrior.

And because we have that in spades, we felt comfortable saying “You know what? New art style. You know what? New combat system. New characters. New story. New Elika. New support character. New world structure. New everything else.” Because at its core, you’re still running and jumping through the world, having that balanced mix of combat, acrobatics, and puzzle-solving that is very unique to the Prince of Persia gameplay experience.

When you look at the trilogy, Sands of Time was really platform- and puzzle-based. Warrior Within had a focus on expanded combat, with a darker tone. And Two Thrones, which you produced as well, seemed like a nice mix between the two.

Simplifying it like that, where does this new Prince of Persia fall?

I would say that this one is the spritual successor to Sands of Time. Beacuse the thing that Sands of Time did better than the other games, including Two Thrones, is it really elicited a sense of wonder and magic and majesty on the part of the player.

Really, it was a world that just enveloped you in its mystery and its magic. Yes, Warrior Within had better combat and Two Thrones had better boss battles and all that stuff. But that sense of wonder and magic in Sands of Time was so special and so unique that it really was our intention — it really was our ambition — to do justice to that, to be the spiritual successor to it. To follow in those footsteps and create something that tries to recapture some of that magic.

Do you think you nailed it?

I think so. I mean, you know, standing on the shoulders of giants … it’s big shoes to fill.

But I still see things in our world that I’ve never seen before. And this isn’t Grand Theft Auto; this isn’t a sandbox game. Every rock in our world was hand-crafted by an artist, uniquely modeled for that one specific location. There is zero instanced content in our game; there is almost nothing else that you will see that you will see anywhere else in the world. And that’s done explicitly because we want every second of it be unique and wonderful, and new and fresh.

So the fact that after three years I can still stumble across a part of the game and see something and go, “Wow, I never noticed that there was writing on that wall before.” Or I’ve never noticed that one of the areas in the Veil, the area that we showed [recently], there’s all of these mechanisms and machinery that’s really sort of a feature, a part of the level and region. But I never noticed that it’s also underneath some of the arenas that you’re fighing in. So while you’re fighting, you hear these cranks turning, you hear these machines pumping; and when you’re finished, you see this machinery moving. I’m the producer of the game and I’d never saw that before.

And that to me is part of that magic and wonder of Sands of Time, where you really just felt enveloped and lost by this really spectacularly magical world, and I really think we pulled that off with this new Prince of Persia.

So Elika is a magical sidekick that the player doesn’t directly control, outside of some combat and “help” actions. She follows you around, she works with you. I think a lot of gamers, when they first heard of her, they were like, “Oh, f**k, here it comes again.

Another Ashley [from Resident Evil 4].

Exactly. There are so many games where you’re just babysitting someone, wishing they would go away. So how did you deal with Elika in terms of making sure she doesn’t get in your way? When I played the game, it doesn’t seem like she does, but that was only an hour or so into the game.

I promise you, she never gets in your way. I mean, I literally stood up on stage in front of a thousand people at Ubidays in France in May, and I bet my job on the fact. I said, “I won’t have a job next year if Elika gets in the way.” Like, I promise you — you can quote me on it — Elika will never be a negative.

It was our challenge that we set for ourselves from day one, and it wasn’t a magic formula. It was, “How much is it going to cost to make sure Elika doesn’t get in the way? All of the money [in our budget]? OK, here’s all the money. How many programmers do we need to put on it? Eight? Fine. How much design iteration do we have to do?” It just didn’t matter. It was one of those things that once we set our mind to it, we were going to invest whatever we had to do to make it happen. And it was a combination of a lot of man-power and a lot of smart design decisions to just make sure that she never fell behind, she would never get lost, she was only always a positive.

Our intention with her, you know … our biggest inspiration for Elika didn’t come from Final Fantasy VII or Resident Evil 4, or even the previous Prince of Persia games. Because Farah was maybe inspirational maybe as a narrative device, but certainly not as a gameplay device; there’s no gameplay there. What we wanted with Elika was for people to talk about [her] they way they talk about their favorite gun in Counter-Strike.

I had a guy earlier today who was interviewing me and I asked him, what’s his favorite shooter. He said, “Right now it’s Gears of War 2.” And I said, “Okay, what’s your favorite gun in Gears of War 2?” He said, “Well, it’s the Lancer.” I said “Why?” “Well,” he said, “because I love it. It makes me feel fucking cool.”

That’s Elika — that is exactly what we want to use when describing Elika. You don’t like her beacuse she’s hot, or sexy, or beacuse there’s a story behind her, or [she and the Prince] may or may not fall in love. You like Elika because she has infinite ammo, she’s stuck to your waist, she never rusts, she never breaks down, she only ever makes you feel like a super fucking badass. That’s why you like Elika.

The perfect woman?

Right, the perfect woman.

So I used the power of the Internet to find your blog.

The Internets!

Right. So you had a blog that you were keeping semi-regularly a while back, and at one point you wrote this post … maybe in early 2007. Before Prince of Persia was revealed. The title was called “Big Brother Co-op.” You were talking about Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, with its second character. Obviously, you were hinting at the new Prince of Persia, and how it works with Elika.

Yeah. Yeah.

One of the things you suggested was having a second player using another controller, and pressing a single button to perform certain functions. You asked if that’s something gamers would accept or want. That didn’t make it into the final game, obviously. Is that something you guys were thinking about?

We implemented it. We literally developed it, and we tested it. And you know what? It doesn’t work very well.

So the answer to your question is “no”?

Well, in this particular case, the answer was no. Because it required too much talking, it required too much “Press Y now! Press Y now! You’re not fuckin’ pressin’ Y enough! Press Y now!” We literally tested the mode with myself and the creative designer, the two people who know the game better than anyone, and we didn’t flow … we didn’t have “it.” I had to tell him when to press Y in combat; he didn’t just naturally pick it up, you know. Because he wasn’t in control.

So in the end, we decided it was not a cool enough feature to warrant its inclusion. And in particular, we were worried that if we did put it in, that everyone would say “This isn’t co-op. This is some watered-down version of co-op. Why didn’t you do real co-op?” We were worried that marketing would have sunk their teeth into it and would try to pitch it as one of the main features of the game, which it never was. It was just a total social experiment. We actually cut it because it was not cool enough.

Was full-on co-op ever something you thought about?

For about four seconds we considered it. The thing is, our ambition for this game was that it feels like there’s almost a symbiotic realtionship between the Prince and Elika, that they have a mind-meld. The Prince never has to wonder where Elika is. You never have to look back to see if she’s where she needs to be, and the experience that we were going for with this game is sort of a choreography of movement in acrobatics, and in combat of the Prince and Elika, really just playing off and flowing off of each other through the gameplay of this world.

And less face it, we could take two Siamese twins and put them in the same room, and if one of them controlled the Prince and the other controlled Elika, they’d be fighting over the camera, they’d be fighting over the direction [they’d be going]. “I wanna fight. I wanna do puzzle. I wanna platform.” You’d never have that flow that is so crucial to our core experience.

So maybe sometime in the future we’ll introduce some more characters to the mix, and come up with some sort of multiplayer mode in that respect. But co-op Prince and Elika would not have worked in an interesting way. It would not have been a positive element of the game.

Prince of Persia as a series went from 2D to 3D, with a few misteps along the way — none the fault of Ubisoft’s titles, fortunately. Going to third-person seemed like an obvious choice. Have you had a chance to play Mirror’s Edge?

Yes.

A lot of that is parkour — the running, the jumping, the platforming, all in first-person. Could you see the Prince of Persia series going in that direction?

Again, we actually prototyped it. It’s not hard to do. Instead of having the camera “here” you put the camera “here,” and then you’re in first-person. How to put this delicately … I think Mirror’s Edge deserves a lot of points for doing a lot of really cool stuff. I think they deserve a lot of kudos for taking risks, and for creating a game that has a lot of potential and a lot of fun moments in it. For me, the first-person perspective in Mirror’s Edge breaks down a little bit as soon as you get inside. As soon it gets a little tight and you have to jump there [points directly behind him], like actually doing that jump is almost completely unreadable. Because all you see is this blurry wall and then all of a sudden you’re over there. And you can’t really understand how you got there, because what you saw was a wall pass by your viewpoint and then suddently, you’re looking in another direction.

So some of the reward that comes with doing cool moves is lost when you’re in those more tight, confined spaces. We saw the same thing with Prince of Persia. When you’re doing a vertical wall run, when we just messed around mapping it on first-person, it was completely unreadable. It was distracting, it was confusing. It was not smooth poetry in motion, it was stuttery, like trial-and-error-type gameplay.

I’m not trying to suggest that there’s not a future for first-person acrobatic parkour-type games. I think Mirror’s Edge proved there is that potential for that, but I just think there’s maybe some growing to be done there. I think there’s still some lessons to be learned, and it’s just not what we wanted with Prince of Persia. You don’t see the quality of animations when it’s all in first-person, and one of the things that’s defining for the Prince of Persia franchise is the spectacular animations and the quality of that movement. So we wanted to make sure that these spectacular movements had spectacular animations to acompany them.

With the new Prince of Persia, you’ve kind of closed the book on the Sands of Time trilogy. There’s a movie coming out, Sands of Time. I’m not going to ask you about that, since you probably don’t know too much about it.

You know as much as I do. I think Jake Gllyenhall is playing the Prince.

He was on Entertainment Tonight talking about how he had to work out for the role to get buff. He was really excited about it. So is it possible that we’d see that Prince again?

I mean, never say “never.” I think the Sands of Time trilogy had a really interesting hook to it, a really kind of interesting theme to it. But certainly we are done telling the story for now, and certainly we’re telling another Prince of Persia story that we think is every bit as rich and interesting and unique as the Sands of Time story was.

So yeah, I think the best I can say is, “Never say never.” You know, [the film’s producer/director] Jerry Bruckheimer [and] Disney, it’s a pretty powerful attractor in terms of drawing eyeballs to the Prince of Persia franchise. I think it would be negligent of Ubisoft and/or some other company to not kind of capitalize on that by creating a videogame that kind of goes along with that. In my opinion, it’s an appendix — for me, the movie would be an appendix to a story that was already told. And the story we’re telling now is the future of the franchise.

So can we expect a trilogy from this new game?

If the sales and critical acclaim are there, I don’t see any reason why not. It’s certainly designed to allow for that potential.

Nick Chester