Prince Of Persia: The Lost Crown Devs On Respecting Legacies, Creating A New Chapter, And Impressing Jordan Mechner
A trio of developers behind Ubisoft Montpellier's new entry to the Prince Of Persia franchise talk about their varied influences and bringing the series to new audiences.
Ubisoft Montpellier has revealed Prince Of Persia: The Lost Crown, the first new entry into the franchise for 13 years. Announced during Summer Game Fest on June 8, the game marks a shift in style that draws inspiration from modern metroidvania games, as well as Prince Of Persia's origins as a 2D adventure platformer.
During a preview event at their studio in Montpellier, France, GameSpot sat down with The Lost Crown director Mounir Radi, producer Abedlhak Elguess, and art director Jean-Christophe Alessandri to discuss the game's development, their desire to respect Persian culture, and their hopes for the next chapter in the franchise.
GameSpot: It's been 13 years since Prince Of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, the last entry in the franchise. Why is now the right time to bring back Prince Of Persia?
Abdelhak Elguess: When you need to work on such an important brand, you really need the right people to give the right touch to bring it back. I had the opportunity to gather the people that I really trust to do this job that needs a lot of talent, but also a lot of ability to respect the DNA of the brand. So that was the perfect opportunity, the perfect timing.
Mounir Radi: To be honest, we have tried in the past to push this concept. We had iterations and we didn't get the chance to push it further. At the end of 2019, I was in Canada and I had Abdelhak call me, just to [say], 'I think this is the right moment. We have the team, we have the right resources, and if you want we can come back to France because I think this is the right moment.' We had a lot of ideas to make it happen.
Jean-Christophe Alessandri: We had the opportunity and we had a lot of ideas. It was so exciting and, at the same time, intimidating, because it's a part of video game history. We had to work hard to find a new way to bring something fresh and a new vision to that new chapter. We try to bring modernity, but we also wanted to keep the pillars of the franchise, the DNA.
From meeting people across the team and touring the studio, this seems to be a game that is very tied to the identity of Ubisoft Montpellier and the people who work here. What is your take on that?
Radi: It's a human journey. I see much more of the people here than my own family. You have to be sure that everything in this game comes from your heart and not only your brain. So with this game, we wanted to be sure that our players trust us, trust this love letter, because each time you have a game from [Ubisoft] Montpellier, you have this kind of magic. I worked on ZombiU, I worked on Rayman, I worked on Ghost Recon, and this is for a specific reason--because we have a lot of freedom, because we have the trust of the editorial, and that's why we have the chance to put a lot of personal things in this game.
Elguess: Ubisoft Montpellier's experience in platforming was very important for a brand like Prince Of Persia. If we go back to really the roots of Prince Of Persia, that was something that made Prince Of Persia as it was after a lot of evolution. So we think that we were the right people to go back to the roots and bring it to a high level. Also we have a great knowledge in animation, and this is something very important for the brand. A lot of work on narration. So I think that Ubisoft Montpellier was a perfect match.
You mentioned you started work on the game at the end of 2019. How much of an impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on development?
Radi: No more [of an impact] than for other people, because during this time we had to understand the code, the signature of the series. We had to play all the titles, come back to our ideas, be sure that all the ideas that we had in the past were still modern.
In conception, you have a lot to learn. We talked about Persian folklore, we talked about combat, because we tested some mechanics in the past, some prototypes. It was the time to gather everything and mix it up to be sure that both our desire of coming back to the roots of the series and all the people, the strengths of the people there. And because Ubisoft Montpellier is always [the place for 2D platformers], everything could mix up well at this moment and we had the right moment to do it.
Unlike your previous platforming titles, you've incorporated more fully-formed combat situations alongside the platforming. What were the challenges involved in that?
Elguess: We knew that combat is very important in this brand and designing the combat needs very precise knowledge in terms of design, and also great knowledge of animation, because the animation needs to have the right timing and stuff like this.
So it was very important to have a combat expert. At the beginning for me it was important to begin the project with a combat expert, and Mounir was available and was interested to work on the project. In terms of combat design, he is a very, very talented expert, with a great knowledge in animation. We also gathered some people from CG animation, with a great knowledge in keyframe animation, and with a great knowledge in video games. That was a perfect match to really work on the core gameplay. And I think that the result is a very, very exciting game feel when you take the pad.
One other element that was very important is performance, because we wanted to have a game that was very fluid. So from the beginning we targeted 60 frames per second on the Nintendo Switch in order for all the players to have a very great feeling when they take the pad, and after five minutes, you feel, "Okay, I want to play this game."
In a presentation, you mentioned wanting to bring back the "core ingredients" of Prince Of Persia. What are they to you?
Radi: For me, first it's a sense of adventure, epic adventure. Depending on which episode [of the franchise], you always have this feeling of isolation in a dungeon, the feeling that you have to master everything around you by your skills and your cleverness. When we asked our players what the pillars of the Prince Of Persia series were, they always started with the narrative. For us, we wanted to tell a new story, tell something that was super strong in this area, and of course there's some iconic things. The acrobatic combat, the platforming sequences, the traps, everything that is tied to those pillars are super iconic for our players. But our purpose was to respect all those pillars and puzzles and to twist them, to twist them, to find a way to modernize them without compromising players' love for this series.
When we had the chance to come back with this new episode, we decided to, at a specific stage, show [Jordan Mechner, creator of Prince Of Persia] our progress. He was no longer at Ubisoft, and for us it was super important to respect the DNA of the [series].
So of course when you show your work to Jordan, the first thing is you [are sweating a lot], because you want to be sure to understand and to respect what the creator did, and because you want to capture a specific sense, specific mood. When we had the chance to show our game to Jordan, his first answer was, "It's cool, it's a Prince Of Persia game." Of course, that was my biggest fear, because I wanted him to recognize that we understood all the codes and used them appropriately. It was super cool for us to receive this answer.
There's been quite a dramatic shift in art style from the previous Prince Of Persia games, including an incorporation of anime influences. Is that shift in style an attempt to carve out a different space for Prince Persia in a world where Assassin's Creed has become such a huge franchise?
Alessandri: When Sargon uses his superpowers, we wanted to make that a very impactful moment, a memorable moment for the player. That's why it makes sense at that moment to use the visual codes from anime, for example, all these modern codes to really give the feel of epicness for the players. In the team, everyone has their own references and so we bring them together, we gather them, and layer by layer, step by step, we add some aesthetic and at the end it's a formula of all our references, all the tastes of different people, the members of the team. We wanted a unique art signature and to really find the identity of these brand new chapters and I think the art has a part to [play to] make it distinctive.
Elguess: From the beginning, we made some strong decisions in terms of our direction to really bring a new identity. We also knew that it was important for us to really take advantage of the Persian mythology, and try to really work, because sometimes in Prince Of Persia there was a mix of Arabic and Persian. So, from the beginning we wanted to come back to the mythology of Persia. Because there are such rich elements, so many rich references.
You mentioned drawing from Persian references there. The world's understanding of cultural sensitivity, and how other cultures are used and incorporated into products has changed a lot since the previous games. How do you ensure The Lost Crown uses its influences in a sensitive manner?
Alessandri: First we try to immerse ourselves in the Persian mythology, the roots of the Persian mythology, the historical part, the fantastic places, and propose a vision through the prism of fantasy. On the other side, we in the team are passionate and love modern pop culture and anime, shonen, comic books, and even fashion influences. We thought it was a good move to bring these kinds of influences and merge them with a more traditional and strong historical background and setting, which is the Persian Empire and the Persian legacy.
When you learn about the Persian culture, the Persian history, the Persian mythological lore, you have emotions and you want to translate that to the players. This is the first step. In our research, we get help from experts in this era. It's a really specific era--it's the Achaemenid era, the Sasanian era, which is little known, but it's very rich and very inspiring.
Elguess: From the beginning we have tried to be very respectful. We worked with experts in specific areas to bring information we have to work with, and one of our composers [Iranian avant-garde musician Mentrix] is from Persian cultures. We work with external people and researchers, and we share the scenario with them, we share our research and references and ask them if we've misunderstood anything. It's really about a back-and-forth discussion on stuff like this.
We consider that Persian mythology is something really universal, and I think we'll be able to show people that this mythology in fact has influenced other mythologies. For instance, we have learned working on this project that the Manticore that [is found in] Greek mythology in fact was first born in Persian mythology. We want to bring some light to a mythology that maybe should be better known. And I hope that that kind of intention and respect will be understood by our players.
You described the game as taking place in "legendary Persia." Could you outline what you mean by that?
Radi: Well, if you think to the previous episodes that were more set in the Ninth Century, the golden age of Arabic time, it was a time of poetry, the 1000 Nights, of super great tales. But it was just a glance, a small part of what Persia has to offer.
If you come back to the Achaemenid period, the Sasanian period, and even further back, you come into an era of great heroes, great kings and a super folklore that have inspired even series like Game of Thrones. We have Zoroastrianism, cool ideas like that corpses and corruption can affect water and fire. A lot of those things were super cool, and we were excited to build up a new world. A lot of people don't know that in Persia and Iran, there are canyons, forests, and mountains with snow. We wanted to invite players to discover something else other than, you know, pillars.
Do you see this game as a reboot?
Radi: It's not for me a reboot. It's a new chapter and I have to be humble there. For sure, we have a lot of things to tell after this game, because we want to create a world, we want to create a saga, but I think the players will have the chance to give us this opportunity or not.
You mentioned accessibility features are planned, but aren't ready to be shown yet. Can you outline what those features will be?
Elguess: In fact there are two aspects really--accessibility and approachability. As the game can be quite demanding, for instance, it shows that we should really work on different difficulty levels and really give the ability to players to have control over detailed elements like a longer parry or a shorter parry during the combat. In that kind of element we're trying to give some freedom to players. It's more about how skilled I am, whether I want to live more in the narration and the adventure.
Regarding exploration, because this genre is quite demanding in terms of exploration, we have a series of vision features that allow players to aid memorization for people, but we have also implemented a guided mode for people who want more information about where to go. Some people like to be lost in the world and that's fine, and there's many games where it's working very well and as metroidvania fans we love to be lost. But we know this is why we need to open some doors to people, so we are also trying to work really hard on this more guided mode.
As for the other aspect of accessibility, we are working on a contrast mode for people who are not able to distinguish between colors, we are trying to work on the ability to choose the size of the text. So there is a list of accessibility challenges--we have an accessibility champion in the team that is already trying to add these elements. We want this because it's also what brings us to the Nintendo Switch--we want a mass audience to be able to discover Prince Of Persia.
Prince Of Persia: The Lost Crown is slated for release on Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S consoles in January 2024.