'Prince of Persia':The Tale of a Thousand Textures

Andrew Farago reviews four short films: Drux Flux by Theodore Ushev, The Old, Old, Very Old Man by Elizabeth Hobbs, Sandbox by Avi Ofer and The Waif of Persephone by Nick Cross.

Prince of Persia has been received as an interactive work of art. Its universe is so rich and special: a photorealistic approach would have belied its Arabian Nights origins. All images © Ubisoft. 

If you're an old-school fan of the Prince of Persia games, then you remember Prince on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Master System. If you're a really old-school fan, then you remember Prince on old PCs like the Amiga and the Amstrad. Alright, that's enough reminiscing about stone-age computers. There is a new Prince of Persia out and I got to have a little chat about the new art and animation styles with the game's producer Ben Mattes.

Since its announcement, the newest Prince of Persia has been received by many on-lookers as an interactive work of art. The reason why is because the last three installments of Prince of Persia all had the same artistic style, which was very realistic and similar to the look of Assassin's Creed. This time around the artists at Ubisoft have created a 3D art style that is brand new to the Prince of Persia series, which is meant to look more hand drawn than anything else. "We wanted to remain very close to the 2D concept art, keeping the essence of their artworks in the 3D world," said Mattes. "The Prince of Persia universe is so rich and special that it would be a shame to picture it in a photorealistic way. We wanted it to be true to its Arabian Nights origins." Before the game was released, Ubisoft released comparison shots of the new PoP concept art and a final render of the Prince. To be honest, it was pretty hard to distinguish the hand drawn concept art from the 3D render!

The Prince gets help from a new female character, Elika, who helps him fight and advance through his adventure. Her introduction allowed the animators to create cooperative animations, which make the pair extremely acrobatic.

When asked about how they came up with the look and the feel of this new Prince of Persia world, Mattes replied, "The intention was to find a good balance in between the One Thousand and One Night's universe and paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme." Paintings by Jean- Léon Gérôme often tend to have a very Arabian, Middle-Eastern feel to them. To keep things looking hand-drawn, Ubisoft illustrators hand drew a series of very detailed textures, which were then mapped to the characters and environments. "We then applied different shaders to add some relief and shadow that really seizes and looks like what an illustrator would do. We then added a black outline around the characters, which makes them feel more hand drawn but, most importantly, it also makes them come out of the image, which helps for the reading of the game play," added Mattes. As for the environments, there was another distinct challenge: in this new Prince of Persia the world has been corrupted and so the environments look dark and damaged. As different areas begin to heal, they then looked completely different from their corrupted states. "Creating a style for both of those parallel worlds was a big challenge giving us twice the amount of work for every region. We knew we wanted for the corrupted world to be a desolate and forsaken land, and for the healed world to be a warm and bright land, but we had to really push our creativity to create all the textures to make the player feel the struggle of the land. Also, we didn't want to have the same style of corruption for every region giving them only one particular identity."

The Prince is not alone in this new version of Prince of Persia. And, no, I'm not talking about the addition of a bunch of non-playable characters; the Prince actually utilizes the help of a new female character named Elika who helps him fight and advance through his adventure. The introduction of this new female character allowed the animators to create a variety of cooperative animations in the game, which make the Prince and Elika extremely acrobatic. "All animations for acrobatics and fights were created with 3ds Max 9 and are hand-keyed animations as you would expect from any Prince of Persia game." Mattes continued. "There are around 3,500 hand-keyed animations for acrobatics, fights and transitions." Motion capture was only used during the cinematic scenes that push the story along. "For the cinematics, we used MotionBuilder, not only to edit the motion capture, but also to create hand-keyed animations in it. We still had to process the animation data through 3ds Max because all tools, like the animation exporter for Prince of Persia, were created for 3ds Max. We used about 60/40 (motion capture/hand-keyed animation) for the cinematics, but all the boss monsters and all the hand and facial animations had to be animated by hand," said Mattes. Another interesting aspect to note about Prince of Persia is how the facial animations were produced. "We used facial morphs instead of bones for the facial animation system. We have more than 6,000 recorded lines of dialogue in the game; therefore, we had to use a system that would help us to automate the lip sync in-game. For that we chose FaceFX. FaceFX also gave us the versatility to import automatically generated lip sync back into 3ds Max and then use it as a base for hand-keyed facial animation."

Before the game's release, Ubisoft compared shots of the new PoP concept art (above) and a final render of the Prince. It was hard to distinguish the hand-drawn concept art from the 3D render.

The developers of Prince of Persia also decided to forego developing a traditional, linear action / adventure title like the other Prince of Persia games were and create an open world, "sandbox" style game where the player could basically go anywhere and do anything. "For the first time in a Prince of Persia game, the player is able to evolve freely in an open-world kingdom. No longer is the player confined to a linear path adventure where everything unfolds just like the developer wants to," said Mattes. "The open-world structure combined with the epic scale of the world really pushed us to think and design diverse and distinct regions that would keep the player wanting more and excited while discovering them entirely." This coupled with the fact that there needed to be two different renders for every environment in the game meant that a ridiculous amount of modeling, texture mapping and lighting had to have gone into this new Prince title.

If, by now, you're thinking that this sounds very familiar to Assassin's Creed, then that is no coincidence. Previous Prince of Persia games were built on the Jade engine, which was suitable for producing those particular Prince games, but not suitable for this Prince of Persia. Instead, Ubisoft opted to introduce the Scimitar engine (or Anvil engine) in this version of Prince. This is not only the same engine that was used to create Assassin's Creed but was also used to create the more recent Shaun White Snowboarding.

Typically, in any game that is textured with a type of cel-shading (or toon-shading), there needs to be special care to make sure that the frame-rate does not get cut off at the knees. So far Prince of Persia doesn't seem to be suffering from that particular problem. Both the Prince and Elika move very fluidly. The addition of a secondary character, such as Elika, tends to be a nice touch in most games and definitely adds a whole new repertoire of attacks and actions to the Prince series but gamers tend to shy away from secondary characters in games mainly because experiences have shown them that these characters often hold them back or get in the way. However, secondary characters rarely introduce major problems in gameplay and if developed correctly secondary characters can prove to make the game great.

Artistically, there are certain colors that encompass the Prince of Persia world. Most of everything is colored in earth tones like brown, beige and off-white but the most apparent colors are the red and blue scarves that are wrapped around the Prince's head and shoulders. It's also important to note that this is not the same prince as the prince that was in the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, PoP: Warrior Within and PoP: The Two Thrones. The prince is actually not even a real prince in this title; he is not royalty at all. It's more than obvious that Ben Mattes and the rest of the Ubisoft crew have taken the PoP series in a completely different direction with the hopes that this will add a nice change to Prince enthusiasts. Not that the previous Prince games needed changing but why wait until it does need to be changed to switch things up a bit. The new Prince of Persia is now out for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 and, of course, for the PC.

Peter Rizkalla is a life long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco/Bandai and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences and events. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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