Last week we sat down with Jan-Erik Sjovall, animation director on Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. Read on to hear his thoughts on the Prince's changing style, the problems with film-to-game adaptations, and why George Lucas is beyond comprehension.
Q: It's great that you guys are showing off a later level today. I found it quite challenging, but then that's what the game is, right?
Jan-Erik Sjovall: It gets even harder! [laughs]
Q: How much harder?
JES: It gets very much harder than that! But there's always a path. It's not just for hardcore gamers, but we're banking on the learning curve, that you're getting comfortable, over the maps, with the way you're playing. Fighting will stay within certain types of level, new challenges will be posed, boss fights will be put in there, but with the acrobatics... the idea is that with every map, you introduce something new. If we were to keep it all on a certain level, it would get boring very quickly. So we have what we call these epic moments, kind of the "wow" moments where it's like, "Holy shit, I just figured it out! And now you're throwing this at me." It's kinda cool for me to see you guys playing...
Q: It's certainly a lot harder than the last game. At the time, the approach with Prince of Persia 2008 seemed quite bold – the whole "no dying" thing. It didn't hand-hold, exactly, but it was fairly gentle. What was it that prompted you to say, "screw it, let's go back to the old way"?
JES: It's not really "screw it". I'm still behind a lot of the decisions that were made for 2008 because they were fresh. It was a new approach, and I have no issues having a beautiful woman hold my hands every once in a while. But it was interesting to see the reactions of players, and to hear the feedback. So this time around it was like, "We want to go back to Sands of Time." And what was Sands of Time? It was challenging, and it was really squeezing you as a player. You were dying quite often. We didn't want it to be a frustrating experience, so there's error management through rewind, and what we call "comfort powers", that help you do certain things. But it was still supposed to be challenging, on the player's behalf. You asked for it, so here you go: you die, and you die. You will die a lot my friend. You will go to hell.
Q: I've got a bad habit of being a bit sloppy with my directional inputs, and while playing the game I'd occasionally find myself running up a wall, rather than along it. I quite like that though, the fact that you have to be precise with your controls.
JES: Well, one thing that's still being tweaked, even as we speak, is camera-relative controls. As a player, I sometimes have issue with that. You've probably learned for yourself with the lever-switches: if you press up [on the pad] you'll push the lever forward, and if you press down you'll pull it backwards. To me, that can get quite confusing – I end up pushing left, right, up, down, arrgh! So that's still being tweaked. They're doing focused tests to figure out what makes sense - we play the game a little too often so it's good to see a fresh approach to it. Camera-relative controls were already in POP 2008, and I really couldn't get into them. But like I said, the camera in today's build isn't final, so you'll see some changes.
Q: Prince of Persia 2008 was very well received. Are you turning your back on that way of doing things, on that approach to the franchise?
JES: No. I'm not sure what the plans are, but I know that Ubisoft is still standing behind that game. We're just trying to do something that was the original plan, to next-gennify the original trilogy. It comes at a convenient time, I'd say, but it was the original plan to do this. It's just basically been pushed with the convenient release date, it means nothing for the other title. We have to look at how many Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed, similar types of adventure title can be in our catalogue. I'm an animation director, that's way beyond my thing. But it's a business decision, they have to figure out what they want to do with the IP.
Q: So we could see another similar game?
JES: It's not abandoned. What I liked about Prince of Persia 2008 was that it appealed to women a lot. We have to bring more women into the games industry, it's a male audience. And then all of a sudden you have a game like Prince 2008 where all the female journalists, all the female gamers come out and say "I love this game!". How is it that males don't like this game? It's bizarre. The gaming industry has nothing really controversial going on, but that was close. It was polarising the audience. But this [Forgotten Sands] is definitely not doing that. It's just a step back to Sands of Time. We've tried to upgrade the gameplay, to learn the lessons from the last six or seven years – because you can't just bring the old game back and think it's going to work.