The visual look of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia franchise reboot is aimed at breaking away from what players have gotten used to in the series, while addressing what they now expect from next-gen art direction.
It's perhaps more complex a mandate as it seems, and Gamasutra attended producer Ben Mattes' talk at the Montreal International Game Summit to learn more.
According to Mattes, when the creative team met for the first time on the project, they started with one question: "What does a next-gen game look like?"
After a quick survey, they found that the majority of games on current release schedules aimed for near-photorealism, from Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed to other titles like Oblivion and Resistance: Fall of Man.
But the creative team's own favorite visuals came from previous-generation games -- Okami ("at the top of our list") Zelda: The Wind Waker and Shadow of the Colossus, all of which are highly-stylized.
So they set the goal of creating a "next-generation" incarnation of similarly-stylized graphics -- and began by exploring what that could mean.
For example, they looked at the illustrations seen in different version of the 1001 Arabian Nights tale, the classic fiction that strongly influenced Prince of Persia, and examined orientalism, highly detailed art that looks "near photorealistic from a distance, but more obviously a painting when you get closer."
This concept in particular influenced the level of detail in the game. "We really wanted the detail to shine in this game," said Mattes, "Every object in this game was hand crafted and unique to its particular environment."
"There's very little repetition. A rock 500 meters away from another rock is not the same rock copy and pasted; it's unique. We wanted to have that feeling that everything in this world was hand-made by someone."
Alongside this concept, the design of the Prince character presented its own challenges. The team moved through a variety of different archetypes -- from the soldier and the adventurer to the traditional royal prince. Mattes noted that their original "adventurer" model had a monkey on his shoulder -- "the original Elika [the Prince’s human, female AI companion]."
"Obviously some people at Lionhead shared that idea that an animal AI partner would be easier than a human one," he noted, but in the end, the team decided a monkey was simply less interesting.
From their studies, they realized that though they liked the "adventurer" concept, they artistically (and thematically) appreciated the vibrant colors of their regal "prince" concept. As a result, they worked toward an "educated rogue" -- a character who, though he may live in a desert and rob caravans, knows what to do with the luxuries he steals, be they dyes or rugs.
"This guy doesn’t use a rug to wipe his ass; we wanted to establish a character comfortable with luxury through his design," said Mattes. And the Prince concept's cape and scarf had the added bonus of creating an easy silhouette.
Mattes showed the early "target gameplay footage" that was used to focus-test their early designs, featuring a very cel-shaded Prince and Elika riding a magical griffon-like creature, co-operative acrobatics and battling dark, gloopy enemies, all of which seemed heavily influenced by the style of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
"Some of these things that you see in this version are going to ship in the game," Mattes said, but unarguably this first look was a disaster. Focus groups found the prince "not princely enough, more ninja like," and were overwhelmingly negative towards Elika, who at this stage was a white haired, floating magic user.
"When we asked if people thought they could care about Elika, people said ‘well, she's more powerful than the prince, so why can't I play her?’ so we realized we needed to make her more human," said Mattes.
Finally, marketing weighed in, noting that the overall look was "[Hayao] Miyazaki-esque" which would be "very well received in Europe and Asia," but that "Americans are going to hate it."
With all of this in mind, the team went back to the drawing board, re-evaluating their decisions. Whereas Elika originally had an exposed midriff because they assumed it was "something video game females need,"" they wanted to move away from the stereotype of the "hot, sexy hero in the metal thong" and allow her not to be a "sex object."
"We decided to focus on creating a universally appealing face, one that anyone could like, doesn’t matter if they’re White, Black, Asian, male or female," Mattes explained.
"And how we did this was to take a bunch of Hollywood stars and smush all their faces together. There was a big dose of Natalie Portman and a dash of Halle Berry to give that ‘ambiguous tan’ that gameplayers like so much."
In closing, Mattes explored the new world in which these characters would exist, emphasizing that just like their characters, the world was aimed at challenging what people expect from a Prince of Persia game.
"People ask us why this Prince of Persia isn’t market stalls, ruins and palaces, but we don’t know why that has to be the case. For us, Prince of Persia could be anything that can be imagined."