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Prince of Persia Interview with Ben Mattes

17 November 2008

Prince of Persia is not only a re-invigoration of storied franchise, but also the last heavy hitter of 2008. Last week, Ubisoft held a special event for the media to get some hands-on time with the title. While I wasn't busy playing the game, I snagged a comprehensive one-on-one interview with Ben Mattes, the producer of Prince of Persia.

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PSU: Press releases have mentioned that the Prince of Persia team experienced a vast improvement in working with the game's engine this time around in comparison to working on Assassin's Creed. In what manner was the development of your newest title easier, and how will it affect the players?

Ben Mattes: Simply put, the technology, all technology matures. So, Assassin’s had to develop the game at the same time as developing the engine. You can imagine a gameplay programmer wanting to introduce a feature into Assassin’s, but the technology isn’t developed to that point yet. In Prince of Persia, the engine was more mature, so we had less of those constraints, less of those bottlenecks and delays where we wanted to develop an idea and we couldn’t. This was the biggest advantage we had over Assassin’s Creed with PoP. The natural evolution of this technology had matured and we were able to achieve those things.

PSU: Was there anything in Prince of Persia that the developers weren’t able to achieve because of that technological maturation?

Mattes: No, there wasn’t. I don’t consider Prince of Persia to be what we call a tech demo-like game. Something like Creed was more like a tech demo. Prince of Persia doesn’t have any of that. On Prince of Persia we have a lot of pretty impressive tech features. We have a vast dynamic world with no loading screens which is a pretty significant technical accomplishment. What we wanted to do was create a sophisticated, entertainment package. It’s much more than a sum of its parts. When you’re done playing it, you’re not going to put your finger on one part of the game, it’s all going to be on a equal platform to create an overall cool package.

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PSU: Ubisoft claims that Elika is as big of an innovation as the time-control powers from the Sands of Time. Can you elaborate on this a bit further, and perhaps clarify what makes Elika so innovative?

Mattes: The first big innovation about Elika is that she’s an AI controlled character that you’re not going to hate. I think that is a big enough deal as it is. If you look at other titles with AI supporting characters, generally speaking, they suck. They get lost, they fall behind, they go too far ahead, they get stuck on geometry, they shoot the wrong guy, I mean, they are a bane to co-op AI controlled games. Developing really good AI for a support character is very difficult to do. The experience of Elika, in order to be appreciated as a character, she couldn’t do any of those things. So we had to set that goal and say, “You know what? Elika can never get lost, can never fall behind, never do any of that stupid stuff that’s going to make the gamer angry with her.” This is part of what makes her such a key innovation. What she brings to the game in terms of helping in combat, help in acrobatics, the dialog, the narrative, the pleasing eye candy, etc, is never marred by the resentment of having her around. There is no point in the game where the player will suffer because of Elika’s existence.

Think of a shooter like Gears of War 2. The Lancer is $#%@%$ awesome. Think of how you’d describe the Lancer to a friend. Most likely you’ll say, “I $#@$#@ love the Lancer.” The key word there is “love.” I love the Lancer. Why do you love the Lancer? It makes you feel powerful, it never breaks down, it has a great ammo click and the chainsaw never falls off. So when we started developing Prince of Persia, that’s one of the things we thought of. If we want a character like Elika, that some people may have some sort of bond with, that they may have some type of connection with, we should then probably treat her like Epic treats the Lancer; then we are trying to treat her like a human character. We want to make her first and foremost a super powerful tool in your arsenal that makes you, the player, feel like a more spectacular badass because she’s around. I think that in and of itself is another innovation, the way we treated her as a game mechanic. This will make her more endearing to players because they’ll never have that feeling of resentment towards her.

PSU: You've said before that Prince of Persia is not cel-shaded, despite its appearance. Could you elaborate on that statement?

Mattes: To me, cel-shaded is like Wind Waker. If you look at a character in Wind Waker, it’s like 200 polygons. The face is basically a square, his eyes are two squares and his hat is like a pyramid. In terms of textures, there is none. That’s cel-shaded as far as I am concerned. Cel-shading is simplification of texture detail to an extreme. On the flip side you have realism. High level realism would be where you can see the beads of sweat and individual hairs. The reason why Prince of Persia isn’t cel-shaded is because we have that level of detail. If you zoom in, you can see the individual stitching in Elika’s clothing or how many eyebrow hairs The Prince has. We have more detail in our characters than Assassin’s Creed did. We have more polygons and high resolution textures than Assassin’s Creed did. Then we apply some post-effects and filters such as the black outline to help separate the characters and the fine edges to help separate the environment. If we were to turn all of that off, the game would look like Call of Duty. So that’s why I don’t consider it to be cel-shaded. Our game is anything but lacking in detail.

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PSU: It has been stated that exploration will play an important part in the game. What have you put in place to encourage exploration?

Mattes: I think that the biggest thing is the Light Seeds, but you have to explore the entire world to truly complete the game. You have to heal every section of the world via the Fertile Grounds in order to drive the corruption out in order to push Ahriman back into the Tree of Light. This kind of means that exploration is forced upon you to a certain extent, but you’re not going to be able to see all the world has to offer if you don’t manage to branch off path a bit on your own. All the little secret passageways, all of the little nooks and crannies and all of the Light Seeds will play huge roles in getting people to explore more of the world.

PSU: Is the game world in Prince of Persia bigger than that in Assassin’s Creed?

Mattes: In terms of square footage, no. The scale of our world wasn’t a focal point. Far Cry 2 is a really big world, but if you can’t fill it with intense action then it kind of takes the risk of feeling too big. So we didn’t want to necessarily make a big world, we more wanted to create a smaller world that is jam packed with action sequences and spectacular gameplay. Prince of Persia is very vertical as well. The verticality and concentration of gameplay allows it to go head to head with any world out there.

PSU: Enemies such as Ahriman, the Hunter, and the Warrior have already been disclosed. Are there any other enemies that the developers are particularly proud of? Why?

Mattes: I think all of them are very carefully designed to be unique from each other. They all have a unique style, a unique back story, a unique personality, a unique way of defeating them, a unique experience. I mean, the whole point is that every enemy you fight should feel like a boss. It should feel like a character that means something when you fight them. That’s the experience we are looking for. A good example of this is Shadows of Colossus. Those bosses really stood out, you really felt something when you’d defeat them. This is something we were aiming for and grew inspiration from. Whether it is the Warrior, the Hunter, the Alchemist or even Ahriman, each should have something about it that stands out. This way gamers can say, “My favorite character was the Alchemist, my favorite fight was the Hunter, and my favorite story was the Warrior.” That’s what we’re hoping for, for people to find something they love within each of our enemies.

PSU: The combat mechanics are now focused on one-on-one scenarios opposed to swarms of enemies. Can you explain why this change was made?

Mattes: This is a multi-part answer. The easiest answer is that we wanted to do something unique. We wanted to be different. We could’ve continued to iterate on a free-form fighting system, but then we would have been head-to-head with God of War, Heavenly Sword and Devil May Cry. Not to mention a million other competitors who all do it better. Why go head-to-head with God of War? They’ve won. God of War hands down wins the one vs. a million head-to-head challenge. They’ve perfected that, and we’re going to find our own niche. Nobody has ever done a fight system in an action adventure game before like we have. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny the fact that it’s unique and is a ballsy step in carving out a great game that is uniquely ours.

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A second reason is that everything in our game is complimentary of each other. We want our hero to be approachable, to feel human, to feel like he is a semi-realistic hero. Take Drake’s Fortune -- love the game, [it's] one of my favorite games. Here we have this realistic hero, who is fallible in his personality and fallible in his platforming who then slaughters like 3,000 pirates with his guns. How does this guy sleep at night? I mean, it doesn’t really fit. Our hero is human, with Kratos it's okay. We knew we wanted to have one-on-one battles against fewer [enemies], but more rewarding encounters. By the end of the day, we didn’t want a huge tally of kills because he wouldn’t feel human anymore.

The last reason is that we knew we wanted our fight systems to be very dramatic and feature a lot of collaboration between Elika and The Prince. We wanted them to have this dramatic partnership between them and with hordes of enemies this may not have been possible. There would have needed to be too much micromanagement and that’s not Prince of Persia. We wanted it to flow, so you never had to think of who was attacking who and it was just a choreographed dance of combat.

PSU: In a holiday season with a record-high list of strong titles for the PlayStation 3, what sets Prince of Persia apart?

Mattes: That’s a good question. I think one thing that the gaming industry sort of needs right now, a need that Prince of Persia fulfills is that there is all of these niche markets in gaming. Your sandbox or your linear, your hardcore or your casual, you’re always in one camp or the other. Let’s take Prince of Persia’s world structure for example. If you’re an action adventure gamer, you fall into two categories. Either you like games like God of War or you like your sandbox style games like Crackdown. There is nothing in the middle, until now. Prince of Persia is in the middle. You’re in complete control of your experience. You can make choices of your own on how the story will develop and how things will progress. We have a combat system that is accessible and deep, yet if you’re a hardcore gamer, you’ll be pulling off 14 combo attacks that just blow everyone else away. However, if you’re a less skilled player, you can still do cool stuff without needing to be some expert gamer. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the thing that is going to make Prince of Persia stand out is its uniqueness in comparison to the other generic niche titles.

PSU: Nolan North and Kari Wahlgren are two outstanding voice actors with a strong background in the industry. Both have done spectacular titles like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Tales of Symphonia. Did working with these two voice actors bring The Prince and Elika to life?

Mattes: I think so. We wouldn’t have hired them otherwise. We knew when we hired them it was going to be a controversial topic. Some people are going to find his personality a little abrasive at the beginning. We knew when hiring Nolan North, that some people might say, “Well, he’s not Persian. He doesn’t sound British.” I don’t understand this whole British thing, why is British the international sign of exotic language? Anyway, that’s a totally different subject. It was all part of our own design. Everything was thought out. North is perfect for the role because our character of The Prince is based off of a hybrid of many other inspirations. First and foremost is Han Solo. He’s an unlikely hero that is doing things for the wrong reasons, but by the end, he’s doing the right things for the right reasons. Han Solo is the perfect example of this. Nolan North is the best Harrison Ford that isn’t Harrison Ford that I’ve ever seen. Nathan Drake is the new Indiana Jones and North played that role perfectly. We knew we wanted The Prince to be our Harrison Ford and we knew Nolan North could do this.

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An additional value to having Kari as well is that they know each other in real life. We recorded both of these actors at the same time. This allowed them to play off of each other and it really comes through the dialog. This adds subtle nuances to the game that we would have never gotten out of any other voice actors out there. It’s surprising to me to see some of this backlash we’re getting about our choices. I’m counting on the fact that when the final review scores come through, people will be more appreciative of what we’re trying to do with these characters.

PSU: Nolan North also played Desmond Miles in Assassin’s Creed. Which role do you think he played better, Miles or The Prince?

Mattes: In my opinion? I’m a little biased. It’s a no brainer, he nailed The Prince. He got everything out of that character that we wanted. I could not have asked for a better Prince.

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PlayStation Universe thanks Ben for the time he took out to speak with us at the event. Prince of Persia is set to launch on December 2 in the U.S., and December 5 in the U.K.


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