Ben Mattes


Posted by Drummond Doroski, Philip Jong.
First posted on 23 January 2009. Last updated on 23 January 2009.
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Ben Mattes
Ben Mattes is the producer of Prince of Persia at Ubisoft.
Ben Mattes

Jordan Mechner's original Prince of Persia (1989) has been a gaming classic for 20 years. Even today, its innovative style and design are a clear influence in the video game industry. In 2003, Ubisoft impressively rebooted and revitalized the franchise in a manner that appealed to many fans of the action adventure platform genre. With more exciting acrobatics, an engaging new storyline, and a whole new setting, Ubisoft took the Prince on 3 more successive grand adventures (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones) that marked a turning point for the series.

Now, Ubisoft is giving the Prince another fresh start with Prince of Persia (2008). We are privileged to have an opportunity to ask Ben Mattes, producer of Prince of Persia at Ubisoft Montreal, a few questions regarding the challenges and inspirations behind designing the next chapter of the critically acclaimed series. In the interview, Mattes speaks in detail about the new combat mechanics, the Prince's vibrant and vital new ally, and the overall design goals the development team has to make this Prince of Persia stand up to its intimidating predecessor of the same name.

The Prince in this game is a whole new protagonist. How does he compare to the Princes in previous games? Will he share similar heroic (or even evil) traits with the others?

First, it's important to mention both Princes since they are not linked at all and are based in a different setting and story. There are some similarities between them but there are differences as well. Both of them are basically the most agile hero of their time.

The Sands of Time trilogy received accolades from both fans and critics for successfully rebooting the Prince of Persia series. What prompted Ubisoft to change the central protagonist to a different character and start a new storyline in this game, especially at the risk of alienating existing fans of the series?

Simply put, we have a new story to tell. We have a new Prince, a new quest and a new innovative feature. It was an easy decision to let go of the Prince and the Sands of Time once we knew we had found a replacement that surpassed it in terms of gameplay and the impact it will have on the players. The Sands of Time mechanic started to feel old to us – it had been copied in many other games and had lost some of its uniqueness. Elika is our new sands of time and I think she more than makes up for their absence.

What are your personal all-time favorite video games? Have any of them influenced your work on Prince of Persia?

There are many games I cherish and listing them all would be long but I can tell some of those games that inspired the development of Prince of Persia.

Team ICO is definitely an inspiration for us and both Shadow of the Colossus as well as ICO were games we played extensively during the development of Prince of Persia. Team ICO consistently proves that videogames can be so much more then "just" a form of entertainment – they can enlighten, teach, and make us express various feelings. I welcome any and all comparisons to the incredible development talent of that studio. Okami and many Eastern games were big inspiration for us as well.

It was very important to us, though, that our game be incredible accessible and action packed, too. We were not creating a game just for those players who like "art" in their games. We have spectacular acrobatics, incredible combat and a rich story. In many ways we consider games like Burnout influential as well in their immediate accessibility – you pick up the controller, press a few buttons and right away spectacularly rewarding things occur. This was very important to us in the development of Prince of Persia.

To what extent was Jordan Mechner, creator of the original Prince of Persia, involved in the development of this game?

He wasn't involved at all. The first time he actually played the game was at E3. He is very busy with other projects...

The previous Prince of Persia games are known for their open-ended environments. How much freedom will the player be given to explore the new world in this game? Will this freedom include decisions that will affect the outcome of the game?

Prince of Persia has always been a good balance of acrobatics, combat and puzzles. With the new open-world system, we could really push the acrobatic aspect and find new game play elements to add to the experience. Players will get to choose how they explore the world and how deeply they want to discover all of its part. There are many things to see and discover in the game in both corrupted and healed world. The corrupted parts of the world are intense and dangerous to move through as the player needs to make their way through traps, challenges, puzzles, fights... So the exploration is bit more tricky and dangerous in the corrupted state. Once one of the areas in the world has been healed, the exploration of this area can be pushed to new limits as this is now a secured land since the enemies and all the Corruption has been pushed away. There are now new places in this healed area to explore which were previously blocked and dangerous to access due to the Corruption. There are Light Seeds that will appear in the healed areas. Collecting all the Light Seeds will require skill and exploration as our level designers have spent some time placing them in the world, challenging the player to use all of his abilities to find them. These Light Seeds are required to unlock Elika's special powers to access new regions. The power to unlock will of course be the choice of the player.

The game only has one ending. This ending is going to be something you will remember! Storyline has always been crucial to all Prince of Persia games. There were lot of thoughts and efforts to craft this particular story. We want all the players to live that story experience until the end of the game. The player will be able to explore the world in his own way and unfold different parts of the story, like a puzzle. Eventually, you will bring the pieces together. The global picture is the same.

In this game, the Prince is joined by an ally named Elika. Rather than allowing the Prince to die when he (or the player) makes a mistake, either in combat or in acrobatics, Elika saves him at the last minute. How concerned are you that this will make the game too "easy" for the player? Will the player have the ability to tailor the amount of help that Elika provides?

What I believe to be a good game is one that tries to immerse the player more in the world they create. The traditional "game over" screen in a game is something that comes from the traditional arcades to suck up all of your coins – and let me assure you, I've spent all my coins on those damn arcade machines. Since then, many game developers kept the sometime frustrating "game over" screen and the number of "life" in their game. With the evolution of video games, I see in more and more games some simple and interesting mechanics integrated in the world to replace those unrealistic, frustrating and punitive traditional elements. The "save-me system" isn't meant to be there to reduce the difficulty but to reduce the penalty and its frustration when the player fails an action. There is a big difference between difficulty and punishment. The save-me system is exactly like a checkpoint system and I'm sure player will understand that when they get their hands on the controller. When the Prince fails an acrobatic, Elika brings his back to the latest safe platform. She won't bring him back in the middle of an acrobatic sequence; therefore, players have to try again this acrobatic sequence. Same thing is done for the combat, when the Prince fails and is about to die, Elika pushes the enemy away, and this enemy regains health making this encounter a fresh start. The save-me system is there to make players less frustrated when they fail but without taking the difficulty away. Therefore, we want player to fully experience what can done in acrobatics and combat, without getting frustrated too much, so that they get a complete Prince of Persia experience. Elika and the Prince are a duo so to progress in the game; the player needs to use of Elika. He calls for her when he wants to but he will definitely need her power for some situations – coop jump – while other powers are secondary – compass -.

Combat mechanics have gone through iterative changes with each and every game in the Prince of Persia series. How will combat in this game differ from that in previous games? What kind of combat style are you aiming for the new Prince?

Combat has evolved since the last game as our ambition is to add the reactivity and strategy typically found in fighting games into our new combat system. We have studied numerous fight games and learned what worked/what didn't work, and implemented the most absorbing moments into our gameplay. We want the dramatic attack sequences of the Prince to be complemented by the use of camera, sound and visual effects to create an overall combat sequence whose intensity rivals the most spectacular choreographed fight scenes in cinema.

The new duel combat system allowed us to push the artificial intelligence of the enemies making each one an intense and dramatic fight. Enemies you fight will be more cunning then any ever seen in a Prince of Persia game before, strategically using the environment to gain the upper hand, forcing the player to use quick thinking and reflexes to succeed. Enemies have benefits from a learning curve and will gain more strength and skill after every encounter. The reflex of the player, the correct input and the right combo will definitely be the crucial elements to win a fight.

What kind of villains will the Prince be fighting in this game? Will there be more boss fights in this game than there have been in previous games?

There are different types of enemies in Prince of Persia. I can split the enemies in 4 major categories: the Corruption, the corrupted traps, the generic enemies, and the Corrupted (the Lords).

The Corrupted are the lords of Ahriman and are the most dangerous enemies. There are fewer “Lords” in the game since we have a duel combat system but every encounter will feel like an epic boss fight. The artificial intelligence has been upgraded a lot and enemies will gain in strength and skill after every encounter. Each enemy (for example, the Hunter and the Warrior) has a unique background and personality. There are more enemies to discover but we don't want to spoil them all :).

What ancient worlds will the Prince get to explore in this game? To what extent is the architecture of these worlds influenced by that of ancient Persia from real life? Where else have the artists drawn their ideas from when designing these worlds?

One of our mandates for this new title of the Prince of Persia was to embrace the fantasy aspects even more than in previous titles. The Prince will travel in a huge kingdom with different zones that each has a unique feel to them: desert, High castles in the sky, City of light, a huge valley that serves has a laboratory and more... Some zones like the desert of the architecture from high castle will definitely have a Persian/middle eastern environmental and architectural feel while other zones will purely reflect fantasy. Therefore, creating a fantasy world requires a lot of work and imagination from our artist. Our artistic director gives his vision to the team and the artists look into internet and find a reference that suits this vision and so on...

Elika and the Prince are together throughout much, if not all, of the adventure in this game. Will they have a dynamic and developing (perhaps even romantic) relationship as the story progresses? Will the player be able to affect this relationship at all?

The level of innovation we wanted to bring with Elika is similar and even more ambitious than the innovation we brought with the Sands of Time system in the previous trilogy. We worked hard on finding how we wanted to present that innovation but we knew very quickly from the start that it would be through a person, or should I say, a support character. We thought of many different characters but with the positive feedback we received from Farrah, we decided to go with a woman named Elika – her name means: mother earth – a blossom and fruitful tree. We wanted Elika to be a vital part both game play wise and through the narrative elements.

How do we create a real bond between two characters in an action/adventure game that the player will appreciate without annoying him with babysitting game play elements and boring cut scenes? We wanted to include in Elika many game play mechanics that would help build the relation with the Prince. Elika has multiple game play mechanics that complement those of the Prince without taking away his leading role. First, our main thesis was that we wanted Elika to be always a positive for the player making her not frustrating for the player. Starting with that fact, it was easier for us to decide what we didn't want Elika to be... With what we didn't want Elika to be, we could than work on what we wanted Elika to be. Game play wise, Elika will interact with the player in combat, acrobatics and puzzle-solving and always in a positive and helpful way. She enables special moves such as cooperative acrobatics, special combo attacks and navigation. Additionally, all of her magical powers come into play only when the player requests them. Our philosophy is to leave as much control to the player as possible without having her bog down the fast-paced rhythm of the game. This way we add a layer of strategy and make sure the player uses Elika when and how he wants. She can never be killed and will never force her will on the player.

Besides the gameplay asset that Elika represents, we want to build a strong bond between her and the Prince. Elika behaves as no other NPC has ever behaved in a video game. The relation and the interaction in between the Prince and Elika will evolve throughout their adventure to heal the world. At first, they don't know each other and will somehow have to learn to work together... The evolution of their relation will be felt within many gameplay elements not only the narrative, like the on-demand-dialog that is a key feature in our game, but also through the interaction while moving and performing acrobatics in the world. For example, in the beginning of the game, Elika will be standing further away from the Prince than towards the end of game; as she gains more confidence in him, she'll stand closer to him. Again, the on-demand-dialog is a main feature in our game as the player will be able to trigger a button and make the Prince talk to Elika anytime, anywhere in the world. This feature will let the player learn so much more about the diverse story elements and will let them understand more deeply how the relationship between the characters will evolve. Developing Elika to be like our vision wanted her to be was a lot of hard work that is reflected through many little details. We believe Elika is a revolutionary support character!

A lot of the action and flow of the game feel very cinematic. What traditional filmmaking techniques, such as cinematography, have been adapted by the artists in creating the game's animations?

First off: All In-Game Animations – Acrobatics and Fight – are Hand-Keyed Animations as you would expect from a 'Prince of Persia' Game. We use 3DSMAX to make all our animation.

We did use Motion Capture to support the Cinematic Sequences. We used about 60/40 (Motion Capture / Hand-Keyed Animation) for the cinematic – but for example all Boss Monsters, Facial and Hand Animations had to be animated by hand still. This takes a lot of time and effort.

We used about 6 days worth of Motion Capture for the Cinematics. This was about half of the 210 Cinematic Sequences that made it in the game in the end.

In-Game Acrobatics, Fight: around 3500 Animations including transitions

In-Game Cinematics: over 1 hour of animation was created for the Cinematics

Overall the Prince and Elika have the same amount of animations throughout the complete game, so I would say 60/40. The Prince has of course a couple of more moves, due to all his different Fight Actions.

With such a large and vocal fan base, what challenges did the design team face when developing a game that needed to satisfy both gamers new to the series and old-time fans alike? What balancing acts did the team have to make in the gameplay to meet these challenges?

First, you don't need to have played the past trilogy to play this new game. We have a new story to tell, a new Prince and a new kingdom... In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy, the innovation was the Sands of Time.

We want the game to be more user friendly and accessible for gamers without taking away the good amount of challenge for experts so the experience feels gratifying. We are trying to blend every in-game mechanics into some elements of our fantastical world so it feels more immersive for the player – for example the save-me system as opposed to a game over screen OR the compass as opposed to a hub map. One of the best compliments that any reviewer has given us so far is that we've recaptured the magic and mystery that made the original Sands of Time so great.

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