by Thomas Cross for Gametopius
Q: You were
a level designer on Prince of Persia; what parts of
the game did you work on, and what were your goals
in these various areas?
A: I came in for the final year of production, right
as we ended pre-production stage, to design and script
five of the Ruined Citadel levels, and script 2 other
levels in High Castle. Ruined Citadel, ended up being
used for the E3 demo and therefore got to an almost
finished stage faster than all others. Having finished
most of the level design by then, the region also
ended up being the test subject for many of the subsequent
gameplay features we implemented. In the end, it was
also the first region to contain light seeds, the
compass system Elika uses to show you the way, and
traps. (Traps were obviously thought of when designing
the levels, but only implemented later on)
My goals for this region was to design maps that
would help drive the story of the Hunter forward,
while maintaining key settings and gameplay elements
for each area. In this game, each fertile ground area
is a separate level, but so are the connecting junctions
between each of them. One of these junctions, between
Marshalling Ground and The Sun Temple quickly became
a level focused around cracks for instance, and keeps
its own unique style separate from that of either
On the other hand, the collapsed bridge connecting
The Windmills to The Hunter’s Lair had to be fully
integrated with the design of the lair itself, as
this pair of levels were deeply linked in the story
PoP has come out, it’s been praised and ridiculed
for its writing and acting. As somebody who loved
all both of these elements, I’m curious to know what
you thought of them? Did the Prince and Elika seem
like believable people to you, and were you at home
with the Prince’s tone and delivery (here I’m specifically
addressing the English language release).
A: I think I, very much like many PoP fans, have
a love-hate affair with the Prince’s voice. It goes
back to the original game, which let each of us define
what the Prince would sound like should he actually
speak. Some have suggested we should have gone all
the way and cast someone that can speak Farsi, others
said Naveen Andrews would be perfect for the part,
everyone has his own personal favorite.
I still would have liked to see the reactions of
the fans had Nolan North not made Uncharted a year
before. Everyone saw his name come up and drew definitive
conclusions that sometimes were just not there to
be made in the first place.
In the end, the acting delivered was just fine, and
the game’s writing is much more debatable. The style
conveyed in this game was a lot different than what
was portrayed brilliantly in The Sands of Time, but
this entire trilogy was done and we needed a new approach
to the franchise.
specifically took issue with the Prince’s mannerisms,
and how they were seemingly at odds with the fantastical,
magical elements of the story and world. Was it the
intention of Ubisoft that he sounds so much less “fantasy-like”
than his fellow characters, or was that something
that occurred naturally as the character was fleshed
out and brought to life?
A: Others would have a much more educated answer
to give you here, but my take on it is that it really
actually serves the game and the story as the Prince
emerges out of the storm into this world with no clue
what role he will play in the grand picture. By setting
his manners and tone so differently than those of
the people that actually live in this world every
day, it gets the message across that you were just
never supposed to be there but for the will of the
In that sense, the Prince comes across to me as a
young man who has lost his childhood spirit and refuses
to believe in fairy tales anymore, until he gets to
live one through to the end.
Q: Its acrobatic
gameplay especially has come under a lot of fire,
mostly for being too simple and flowing. Since you
were tasked with designing the fluid motion of the
Prince, how do you feel about this last set of criticisms?
Did his movement style and the way he responded to
player input match with your goals for him, or do
you wish you’d made changes pre-release?
A: The game flow was exactly what we wanted, and
what we had been asked to do. While many seasoned
gamers expected to have more of the same, it became
clear to the team that we now had a chance to learn
from the criticisms from the previous trilogy and
expand the experience we provided to more of our customers.
While I can definitely understand many of the criticisms
that have been expressed, being an avid Sands of Time
fan, there is a line to draw when the game as good
as many have found it to be becomes a burden to many
others and remains unfinished.
Do I think we went a little overboard? Yes absolutely.
But the changes I would make now don’t necessarily
impact the fluidity of the gameplay in terms of pure
platform placement. The structure of the game imposed
this kind of approach. The changes would include not
counting on the story to deliver the traps one by
one, rather have all of them in all the maps from
the get go. That way you insure that all players have
the same experience. As it stands, people may be extremely
lucky and get to the specific points the traps are
released at the very end, making a majority of the
game essentially traps free.
But again, the major change in the structure brought
the approach to the platform placement. This is where
the huge difference in having a semi open world comes
to light. When you need all your maps to go both ways
(challenge parts excluded), there is only so much
height variation you can impose on the player for
Eventually many of the changes I’m talking about
here made their way in the upcoming DLC, to be released
on Feb. 26th. This DLC is about as close to going
back to the roots of the Sands of Time structure as
you could possibly get in this universe. The DLC is
a lot tougher, even for us developers, and it proved
an absolute blast to make and play.
was obviously integral to the story, but she was also
key to the game’s “no death, no reloading” mentality.
Did this mechanic arise out of her importance within
the story, or was her narrative place cemented by
her constant gameplay presence?
A: I really think you can’t separate the two. One
impacts the other. In all games with a sidekick, you
need to justify their presence one way or the other.
Many games have gone the cut-scene way, with various
NPCs telling you what to do. Others like Zelda Ocarina
of Time gave you Navi to call her at any time you
The first solution takes you away from your game,
while the second becomes essentially useless after
a while, and on top of this imposes some very painful
camera shots from time to time.
Elika is a lot more than this. She does provide the
same story elements a cut-scene would, but she doesn’t
stop you until you reach key moments where we thought
we should take the time to introduce more of the story
and gameplay elements, like the introductions of certain
tower levels. And she also is a Navi of sorts, by
having a lot more in depth stories to tell about the
world, should the player want them.
I really love Elika’s implementation for all the
points above. I think she absolutely never hinders
your progress, and there is something to be said there
for being one of the very few games ever to accomplish
At the same time, Elika proved troublesome on other
fronts. From a purely gameplay point of view, the
player needs to wait for her to follow in your footsteps,
and reaching ingredients like a crack or a grip cuts
the game flow, regardless of the beautiful animations.
I knew back then when I synched the traps together
in my levels that if I felt that, the players would
too. And synching traps became difficult when we found
ways to time our inputs so we wouldn’t have to wait
Finally, the whole argument about Elika saving you
all the time from dying is unwarranted. I don’t exactly
know where this originally came from, but it was clear
to all of us that Elika’s “save me” sequence was purely
a checkpoint in disguise. Let’s face it, we haven’t
played a game that actually lets you die in over a
decade. Some explicitly stated they still need a “You
failed” death screen to give them a sense of reward
for finally finishing a sequence, I would rather give
the player more fun actually playing the game and
getting them right back in the action.
Q: The various
colored pads that are scattered around the environment
are all point-to-point methods of travel, none of
them are used for freeform traveling. Did you ever
toy with the idea of making some of them more open-ended
(like the blue flying pad), or would that have created
too many opportunities for players to escape from
the map or the simulation?
A: Prince of Persia is a platforming game first and
foremost, and having open ended magical plates like
this would only mean breaking up the flow of the player’s
inputs. There is only so many different cases us level
designers can take into account before a level becomes
a maze of intricate ways that frustrate everyone.
I’m not so much concerned with the fact it only gets
you from point A to point B like any other platform
element would, rather with HOW it does it and what
you the player get to do while playing. I like the
green plates a lot and would like to toy with other
gravity defying moves like this in the future, should
I ever work again on a Prince of Persia title.
Q: The upcoming
Prince of Perisa DLC contains additional conversations
and character development between the Prince and Elika.
This was by far my favorite part of PoP. Was the story
section of the DLC designed concurrently with PoP,
or did you all take a look at PoP and think, “ok,
we have more story we want to tell, but not in a sequel?”
A: I think the question of a sequel didn’t really
come into play here. None of the DLC was planned,
written or produced before shipping the first game.
I personally had a hard time leaving our characters
and world behind like this, and when I heard a DLC
was thought of, I jumped on the occasion to delve
more into it and produce additional levels. We really
took the early criticisms from the game to heart,
and changed as many things as we could given the time
Q: How was it designing new areas and adventures
for the Prince and Elika (in the DLC). What was incorporating
the new moves and abilities into a game that had neither
of them in its original state?
A: It was a blast. Pure level design fun. Incorporating
the new moves required little changes on the structure,
as we simply designed these new levels around the
new moves. We worked with a smaller team of people
who all knew the engine and game structure by heart,
so reactivity was the key and I’m amazed we got this
much fun done in so little time. I really think this
DLC adds a lot to the overall experience.
what was your favorite part of designing PoP, and
what was your favorite part of playing the game in
its completed state?
A: I have a hard time pinpointing either one….I really
enjoyed designing the Hunter’s Lair through many different
stages and sizes, but as much as playing my maps still
puts a grin on my face, I had even more fun playing
some of my fellow level designers’ work. I think we
all purposefully left a few levels aside for our complete
walkthrough, so we would still discover new things
playing the game. It may not sound much to persons
outside the industry, but when you as a developer
still can’t wait to play your whole game when it ships,
there is a good chance you have something worth all
your efforts in your hands.
there points at which goals held by other departments
fundamentally changed your design plans (or already
A: Developing a game is a creative process and as
such you will always have to change your original
plans to fit new elements. It’s absolutely essential
to even fathom working as a level designer. But in
this case, we largely left things unchanged. There
were a few cases where the story script would change
and we would go back and modify maps, but only a handful
were heavily impacted. I know I had to script the
Concubine’s Lair 3 times over because of this, but
it was all worth it in the end. Like many other games,
Prince of Persia’s production was organized so level
designers and level artists would work hand in hand
from the start, minimizing these risks.
Q: How long
did it take you and the other designers to get the
feel of the Prince's movement down to where you liked
it? Was it a process that spanned the entire development
cycle, or did you have it balanced early on in the
A: It does last during the entire pre-production
development cycle. It may sound strange that something
so essential would remain up in the air for as long
as it did, but in the end you should never take things
for granted and if changes make sense you should really
focus on making your gaming experience better. Once
proper production begins, the only changes you should
do are minor ones (or really you’d still be in pre-prod)
as too many things can and will go haywire from these
Q: How did
you work with the other departments to create the
flow of the maps. Whatever people say, it is obvious
that there are several ways into and out of each map.
How did you make sure that the different exits and
entrances would mesh with the storytelling and cutscenes,
and the artistic vision the artists had for the levels.
A: The main focus was on the game flow, as can clearly
be observed in the game, and as such level designers
were the driving force behind all levels. Gameplay
first, everything else second. Once we had our own
very rough levels done, we worked hand in hand with
the level artists, sometimes up to 3 per level, to
bring them up to speed on our intentions, the story,
where the cinematics would take place, where the fights
would be, and we made sure they would respect our
technical constraints. I think they outdid themselves,
and we made sure to give them as much freedom as possible
to express their creativity in the places the player
would never reach. I think it shows. Taking the bridge
connecting The Windmills to The Hunter’s Lair again
as an example, its nature allowed for such creativity
where the player would only go in a very limited set
From then on, having already placed all rough levels
in the world, only small modifications were needed
to have a flawless experience.
Q: As regards
the different levels in the game, they all change
after the player liberates them from Ahriman's darkness.
For the most part, the level changes cosmetically,
but the main gameplay changes come in the unlocking
of plates to use, and the opening of new pathways.
How did you maintain the flow of levels once the darkness
was gone? Was it less important that there be a focal
point for each area, now that there was no area boss
A: The flow of the levels was harder to strike when
corrupted, so healing them proved inconsequential
in that regard. But we needed to find reasons and
fun ways for the player to go back through these levels.
This is a drawback to having an open world, or semi-open
world. You need to either open up new missions and
things to do, or place the missions that exist throughout
the world in no particular order, so no place ever
becomes stale. Light seeds provided that solution,
in what amounts to a story driven, gameplay intense
collection of hidden (or not so hidden) packages.
It gives collectors out there better reasons to pick
them up than simple hidden packages scattered around
the world. And even GTA went the same way and included
pigeons to shoot in the 4th installment. You actually
get to have fun experimenting how to kill them, and
I don’t think developers these days can afford to
just randomly place collectibles in their world if
they want players to bother.
did the difference in transportation methods through
each map (flying plates as opposed to wall-running
plates, say) affect how you designed the map?
A: Thankfully we knew way ahead of time the repartition
of these plates in the world, so that became easier.
It became clear however as time went by that certain
conventions would have to be bent to allow a better
experience for the player, so I don’t think any of
these sequences were done fast. In retrospect, more
time should have been spent on those during pre-production
so the design of the levels would take them even more
into account from the start.
Q: On a
similar note, the light seed collecting mechanic is
obviously meant to be a big time sink for the player.
How did you end up deciding where they'd be placed?
A: I will go back to the previous answer I mentioned
light seeds in. A big time sink for the player is
giving them random flags to collect that bring nothing
to the gameplay. Light seeds are a lot more than this,
they’re also your currency, and wisely enough we decided
the player would not have to collect them all to finish
the game as he can get enough just walking around
on levels he now knows. Now for those that would actually
collect all of them, we made sure there would be secret
locations, where the added gameplay value would be
finding out how to get there. Each level designer
was tasked with finding creative locations for some
of them, while leaving a mandatory few scattered along
the main path.
As for those of you readers who did not find all
of them, here is the actual repartition: As you well
know, each area has 45 of those. In tower levels that
are connected to two intersections, 33 of them are
in the main level, 5 of which being only accessible
by the extra magical power plate. 6 remain in the
connecting sections, on either part of the fight arena.
In tower levels that are connected by three intersections,
you will only find 27 in the main level, the missing
6 being of course in the third intersection.
© François Roughol
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