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The Story Behind The Making Of Prince Of Persia
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The Story Behind The Making Of Prince Of Persia

November 4, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Excerpt Three: Hitting Bottom

November 11, 1988

"I like games where you can shoot things. Your game has no rewards except getting to the next level. It's all survival and no triumph." - Tomi

She's right about POP. It's empty and lifeless. I don't know if even the shadow man and sword fighting will change that.

On the other hand, I put in a new door which looks pretty good.

Oh, God. I want this game to be a hit. Like Karateka.

Maybe this whole modular-design approach is wrong. Maybe the thing to do is put in a whole bunch of hard-wired enemies, one after another, and forget the whole free-floating, random-access, 24-screens-per-level idea.

24 screens, if they're linked sequentially, could give a playing ex­perience as satisfying as a whole level of Karateka. But they should be in the form of obstacles to be overcome one after another. For example:

  • A chasm that has to be jumped
  • A gate that has to be raised
  • A guard that has to be killed

The way it is now, you're plunged into a huge arena with no overall idea of what you're trying to accomplish except "get out." It's too perplexing, especially at first.

Maybe after the first 10 or 15 levels, I could start introducing some real Lode Runner/Dr. Creep "puzzle" type gameplay. But in the be­ginning, it should be pretty much left-to-right (like Karateka) with a little bit of up-and-down. So the player can get his bearings.


November 12, 1988

Still not enough.

What's the point in running, running to get to the exit, if all it gets you is more of the same?

The princess waiting at the end is a reward only in the story. We need rewards in the game -- like beating a guard in Karateka. What makes a game fun? Tension/release, tension/release. Prince of Persia has nei­ther. It's like going on a 25-mile hike. Every now and then, you get to step over a log or cross a stream. Big deal.

Running, jumping, and climbing, no matter how beautifully ani­mated, hold your attention for maybe the first three screens. Then you start to wonder: when is something going to happen? Like: a guard to fight. An airplane to shoot down. Something.

There need to be sub-goals. Places where you can say: "Whew! Did it! That was a tough one!... What's next?"


  • clearing a screen in Asteroids or Pac-Man
  • beating a guard in Karateka
  • solving a level in Lode Runner

Right now, solving a level in Prince of Persia has none of the feeling of accomplishment of any of these. It's more like "Oh... so that's the end. Oh."

What elements do All of the Above share?

1. You can tell at any moment, by glancing at the screen, how close you are to finishing, how much is left.

2. There are setbacks and successes on the road to ultimate success. You get a smaller version of the "Whew! Did it!" when, say, you clear a difficult area (Pac-Man), or drive a guard back with a series of blows (Karateka), or retrieve a hard-to-get sack (Lode Runner).

Conversely, you get the "Oh, shit..." reaction when you acciden­tally split up a bunch of bigger asteroids into more smaller, faster ones; or when you finish a pattern and see that you've missed one dot; etc. Some setbacks are fatal, some are just irritating. But when they happen, you feel they're your own fault.

3. You can hold off on the next task, waiting for the right moment, be­fore saying "Okay... Now" and going for it... plunging into a period of higher tension, higher chance of either a setback or success.

Persia has none of these features at present.

If the sub-goal is "solving the level," you need a consistent visual in­dicator of how close you are. You don't just stumble onto the exit and say "Oh -- guess I'm done." Or stumble onto a sack of gold and say "Oh -- here's another one." That's why collect-the-dots games like Lode Runner and Pac-Man always show the entire screen at once. That's key.

But POP doesn't show the entire screen at once. That's a problem.

November 13, 1988

How can I be so up on screenplay story structure, and so blind when it comes to my own game?

A story doesn't move forward until a character wants something. So -- a game doesn't move forward until the player wants something. Five seconds after you press start, you'd better know the answer to the question: "What do I want to happen?"

There always has to be a range of possible outcomes, some better than others, so you're constantly thinking: "Good... Bad... Terrible." Ev­ery event has to move you closer or further away from your goal, or it's not an event, it's just window dressing.

The overall goal of POP is to get the girl. But that's not a strong enough magnet to pull the player through all that distance. It needs sub-goals.

Beating a guard in Karateka buys you time to gain distance. You want to get closer to the palace because the princess is there; every guard you beat brings you closer. It's simple, but it works. In psychological terms, it even follows the classic addictive pattern of diminishing rewards: each subsequent guard is harder to kill, and gives you a smaller reward for your pains, until you reach the intermediate goal (the end of the level), at which point there's a bigger reward, and things get easier again.... for a while.

Getting through a dungeon in Prince of Persia doesn't give that satis­fying feeling of getting closer to the goal. Partly because it all looks pretty much the same. That, I can fix.

But there's another key element in story structure that also applies to games, and is missing from this one: The Opponent. Someone competing for the same goal as the hero, or trying to stop him from attaining it. The more human, the better. (The days of Asteroids and Pinball are over.)

In this case (we're short on time, so let's use the opponent we've al­ready got), it's Shadow Man.

Some games boast a whole series of different opponents. (According to [screenwriting teacher John] Truby, this is characteristic of Myth, and it weakens the story.) We'll make the shadow man your opponent for the entire game. You're competing for hit points. Each blow you deal him weakens him. Each power dot you eat makes you stronger. But if he gets there first and he eats it, he gets stronger. So when you face each other with crossed swords, the balance of power is not predetermined (as in Ka­rateka), but is the result of your own actions thus far in the game.

It links the combat with the running-around. It's brilliant. I love it!

(Forget the boring damn keys.)

Prince of Persia


You describe the game as empty and lifeless.

JM: Right, that's -- what was that, '88? This is another one of those unplanned bonuses of the roundabout way that the game developed.

Originally, I had developed a game with the idea that this was going to be packaged with a level editor, like Lode Runner, which was one of the games that had inspired Prince of Persia. And I thought that by packaging the level editor with the game, users would then have fun creating their own levels. And so I was thinking of it in a very abstract way, as kind of a puzzle game with action.

And at this point, at the point you mention, I realized that that the game -- although technically it had come together, and working in all the ways it was supposed to -- it wasn't giving the player a fun, exciting experience in the way I had hoped.

And so in a period of a few weeks, and months -- fairly close the end -- I radically changed the design of all the levels, the pacing, the rhythm of the game, the balance of action, exploration, and puzzle solving, and combat. I found the fun, found the balance that made Prince of Persia what it was.

But it was only possible to do that at that late stage because I had invested so many months early on in building a fully-featured level editor, that made it very fast for me to build new levels. You know, move enemies and traps around, and then instantly play the game, and iterate very quickly, so I could actually build a completely new level, and playtest it in a day. And that's what made it possible to rebuild the game at such a late stage.

That's something that's a lot harder to do today. Building an environment in a triple-A console game requires dozens of artists working for months to build the world, and make it look good. You have to make certain decisions early on, but because Prince of Persia was so modular, it was cheap to tear down a level and rebuild a new one from scratch.

Until I read this, I didn't realize what a huge influence Lode Runner was on you. Thinking of them as finished products, I wouldn't see the connection. But the connection, in the end, became more subtle, but also more profound, I guess.

JM: Lode Runner is deep in Prince of Persia's DNA. Lode Runner is like the light pencil sketch that you can't see anymore by the time you have a finished ink drawing.

You talk about trying to find the goal for the game -- the opponent. You write, "the more human, the better." That's something about Prince of Persia. It bucked the trends of the time. Prince of Persia is a very humanistic game.

JM: Yeah, I really wanted to make a game that would also be an exciting and visceral human drama. Even the animation -- sort of the original concept that launched me on making Prince of Persia was the idea that it would be a platform game where you could run, and jump, and fall to your death, and so forth, but that if you fell you would really feel that it hurt, that your character was flesh and blood, as opposed to the sort of the Lode Runner, Mario Bros. kind of characters that could float, that felt that they didn't really have bones to break.

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