As the sun streams through the windows of a five-story brick building in Montreal, Canada, Yannis Mallat, 29, briskly walks across the hardwood floors. His destination, it soon becomes apparent, is a 6-foot-high black cabinet up against a wall. As he approaches the cabinet, he turns to a programmer, snaps his fingers, and points to the lock with his index finger.
"Get me the keys," he says with a smirk.
Moments later, a young programmer with a shaved head walks up to the cabinet, rummages through a key chain, and slides the key into the lock. He steps back, and Mallat, sporting a heavy five o'clock shadow, flings the doors open. Inside, 151 CD-ROM cases are neatly lined up in two rows, organized numerically by a red number on the spine of each CD.
"This," Mallat says, as he runs his finger along the top row of CDs, "represents the last two and a half years of our lives. It's every version of the game we have made." He continues to run his finger along the line of CDs until he reaches the last one, build 151, which was completed just hours ago. "We've got a bet going right now," he says while tapping the case of the last disc with his finger. "I'm guessing we will have 153 versions of the game by the time we are done. So two more to go." What isn't said is implied: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, one of the most highly anticipated games of the year, is almost finished.
Right now, all that stands in the way are a few dozen bugs. Already, the team has fixed more than 13,000 bugs in the past three months. "It's amazing it has all come down to this," Mallat says, as his eyes scan the large open area that houses his team of 50 young French-Canadians. To the untrained eye, the room looks a bit like a rowdy frat house crossed with a COMP SCI 101 classroom. Look at the team members, and you can't help but notice how young they are: Almost all of them are in their mid-20s, and none of them have a hit game on their resume. "It feels like we've all come so far in such a short period of time," Mallat says with a hint of pride.
That may be understating the fact. In just two years, French publisher Ubisoft has grown from the house that Rayman built into a blockbuster game publisher with hip franchises like Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia. And more importantly, the so-called "POP Team" in Montreal has gone through a radical evolution all its own. Two years ago, the team members behind Prince of Persia were the folks responsible for forgettable kids' games based on the Playmobil toy series and Disney's Donald Duck. But now, almost in the blink of an eye, these young nobodies have become known entities. And their game, Prince of Persia, is a title many have earmarked as one of this year's best.
Of course you don't need to tell this to Patrice Desilets, 29, the game's creative director. As he sits with Mallat and goes over a bug list for the game, his eyes are saucer-wide, and he gives off a thousand-watt smile. It's as if he still can't believe he's about to finish a cool game, not a kids' title that he'd be embarrassed to tell his brother he made. Desilets, a professional improv comedian on weekends, flips through the bug list and discusses the remaining problems with Mallat. While 24 bugs aren't many, everyone knows that the last bugs are always the most elusive. "Yesterday was the last time I said to myself that we should push the game to 2004," Desilets says. You get the distinct impression that he's only half joking.
But everyone knows that missing the release date is no longer an option. In the next few days, the PlayStation 2 version of Prince of Persia has to be finished and sent off in preparation for its early November release. When it's finally done, though, the game will mark something of a milestone for the team: their first hit product. After all, the team is well aware of the downside of the games business. They've all experienced the frustration of standing at a trade show and realizing that no one will even give their game a cursory glance. And worse, they've felt the heartache of spending two years of their life working on a game that is almost instantly forgotten upon release.
This time, however, success is within arm's reach. Everyone on the team knows it too. But they also know that getting to this point hasn't been easy. In fact, the journey they've taken is a fascinating tale filled with twists and turns, surprises and drama. And now, for the first time, the remarkable story behind the creation of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is about to be told.