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Pointless Prince

June 5, 2010

A bit late to the party, I decided to acquaint myself with the second-to-latest Prince of Persia. You know, the one that appeared before the Sands of Time needed to be exhumed because of dealings with Disney and movie tie-ins and whatnot. Anyway, I quite looked forward to the game, seeing that I liked the previous three a lot. They were the games that redefined modern-day Ubisoft for me, appearing like a blessed ledge to save them at the last minute from the stigma of absolute mediocrity.

Now that I’ve played the next-to-latest game for a few hours, I’m liking it well enough, but with Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2 still fresh enough in my memory to make adjusting to the new controls a bit tricky, I find myself asking “who is meant to play Prince of Persia and why”.Don’t get me wrong, all of the Ubisoft games in the series have been quality titles. It’s just that there seems to be a bit too much of an overlap between PoP and the assassin games for both to be justified. Let me just cobble together a list real quick:

  • Magnet-Powered(TM) Platform/Parkour/Acrobatics level traversal
  • Exotic locales
  • Quipping, suave male main characters (at least since AC2 introduced Ezio – damn I hate Ezio)
  • Game mechanics such as death being avoided in their true form through various wrappers of fiction
  • (Insert more here, when not as glucose-starved)

The biggest thing is of course the environmental traversal. Most people looking at the games while someone is playing them will just feel the similarities, even if they can’t really add them up. So, if one walks into a game store, with a rough idea of this stuff, which series does one decide on purchasing and why?

Sure, there are differences between the games too. Possibly enough to sway some people in either direction. Prince of Persia makes no effort to fake being inspired by true events, and is decidedly more fantastical in its presentation and aesthetic. There are also differences within the game mechanics, to be sure… but these kind of seem a bit arbitrary. Yes, Assassin’s Creed seems to be more geared towards multi-enemy combat, but it works quite well for one-on-one fights too. It could’ve been made to work in PoP, I’m sure. Also, Assassin’s Creed seems generally just… better at the traversal stuff as well. Some will argue that there are differences there too, and there are. But most are just aesthetic differences; it’s all in the metaphor. In PoP, walking up to stuff and pressing a button results in Fairy Tell Magic Attack X. In Assassin’s Creed, Ezio kills someone with his bare hands and 2 minutes later laughs and parties with his friends. The mechanics are more similar between the two games than the aesthetic would have us believe.

Maybe it’s down to the target audience. Assassin’s Creed is an M/18-rated franchise and seems to like it that way. Prince of Persia is a 12+ game. Maybe this is what it all comes down to. But if that’s the case, why not make both games play exactly the same, and just change the aesthetics to get one to work better for the younger crowd?

Indeed, some of the differences between the two franchises seem to exist for difference’s sake. Like the developers are desperately trying to make the games easier to tell apart, sometimes even making certain mechanics more complicated in one game than in the other (interestingly, it’s PoP that feels a bit overcomplicated, which kind of squashes the kid-friendly theory). So all you ultimately end up with is near interchangeable mechanics that could generally work in either game. Plus a different aesthetic.

Maybe that’s all it’s about, really. A different wrapper, a different audiovisual feel to the two games. Perhaps intentionally similar and dissimilar at once, that maybe the same customer will buy both. I did, after all.

But I don’t think I’m representative in this matter. And the sales figures seem to agree. The game I’m currently playing seems to have sold just under 2 million copies on the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined (PC sales are likely marginal). Not the worst numbers, but nowhere near those of the Assassin’s Creed games. And the newest game, though it’s only been out for a few weeks, seems so far to be selling at about half the clip of its predecessor. Maybe it’s because of the backtracking to the Sands of Time canon; perhaps people preferred the new direction and were disappointed when Ubi didn’t stick with it. Maybe it’s that people are getting bored of the Arabian Nights aesthetic altogether. It’s probably not that AC cannibalizes on PoP sales – the previous game sold better than most of its predecessors after all, according to VGChartz.com. And yes, that game was released after the first Assassin’s Creed. Maybe… people bought it for their teenage kids, hoping they’d be able to play something as awesome as AC but without the blood, gore and overt sexuality, only to be let down.

I don’t have any answers. I do, however, have this niggling suspicion that everything would be made much clearer if we only had the correct answer to the question “who is meant to play Prince of Persia and why”. I wouldn’t be completely surprised if nobody at Ubi had a satisfying answer either.

Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe they just can’t bring themselves to let go of that ledge.

From → All Posts, Games

8 Comments
  1. Very good analysis.

    The main difference for me is not in the aesthetic, but in what the movement mechanics are for.

    In AssCreed 1/2, it’s about getting from point A to B in an interesting and fairly easy way, with some climbing/environmental puzzles thrown in for good measure.

    In PoP, the movement and climbing has always been there to overcome environmental puzzles.

    The point for me is, with AC(2)’s focus on being able to traverse a complex envronment with ease, PoP’s point of having the environment as a challenge and obstacle felt old. OK, so aparently I’m this badass gymnast prince, why can’t I handle the environment as easily as this other game I’ve been playing?

    (even more so when comparing AC 1/2 with the Tomb Raider series. Man, revisiting Undetworld felt like playing a game from ten years ago, in a bad way)

    • If by “overcom[ing] environmental puzzles” you mean manually having to press a button to do stuff, I’m totally with you, and that’s kind of part of my point also.

      It just feels a bit dumb to go from one game where you’re allowed to focus on figuring out how to traverse the environment to one where you have to do that, plus manually press buttons on time. Falling to one’s death happens so much more often in PoP and buys no enjoyment in return.

      I guess one could argue that there’s less linearity in the AC traversal gameplay, but it doesn’t really matter to me that much because I generally only play through AC missions one time anyway, so I might as well have been on a scripted path; I’m not going to play the mission again later and try another route. And that’s where the core mechanics of PoP let me down. It’s basically the same thing, albeit more linear, but requiring more interaction on my behalf and with a smaller margin for error. Which results in trial-and-error gameplay.

      I’d be glad if you elaborated on the “environmental puzzles” bit. ‘Cause in AC, I walk up to stuff and press triangle all the time, to finish objectives and progress. The fact that the same action in PoP has the same result, but with more flashy graphics or sends my flying across the room to another platform, is not really a functional difference to me. But maybe I’m over-abstracting.

      • I think we’re talking about two different things, and I completely agree with you on PoP’s non-rewarding deaths by pressing the wrong buttons.

        The movement over the environment in AC 1/2 is for me mainly about getting to interesting places in a smooth, flowing way. Rather than needing to figure out which points in the environment I need to focus on the get where I’m going, I just point and say “hey, let’s go there!” and the game handles the rest. I really enjoy this feeling of almost-effortless freedom of movement. But occasionally, the games tries to change things up by what I called “environmental puzzles.” You’re basically put in an environment where you carefully, deliberately have to plan exactly what to do in other to get to a certain point. Collecting the historical assassin pieces in the crypts is a good example.

        This form of “figure out how to overcome the environment” is one of the main staples in the PoP games (and Tomb Raider), and which is why i consider the two franchises to be very different.

        But the problem with the PoP reboot is that it feels as though they saw AC, and decided that they needed some of that in the remake. Problem is, it’s the smooth and flowing traversal that made AC good, but the PoP remake decided to try to emulate that but still use the annoying “push button X and Y to not die”, thereby abrupting the flow of movement.

        it just never felt smooth to me. So yeah, I think we kinda got annoyed on the same thing in that game.

    • Ah, I get you. That bit of differentiation comes from the fact that there’s no real open-ended, free-roaming traversal in PoP. And because you do so much of it in AC, and the environments are pretty convoluted in their design because they serve both mechanics and aesthetics, their system is simplified to great effect. PoP’s mechanics would be serviceable in such a context as well, but you’d see very different dynamics. Players would probably not climb or free-run nearly as much, simply because of the fatigue-inducing dexterity and constant focus required.

      The other context, where it’s level-based rather than a city that needs to be maneuvered (though AC’s cities often have climb-paths that are kind of like a scripted level), is different basically because of its linearity. It’s not so much that the game needs to be flexible enough to handle where YOU want to go, it’s the game telling you where IT wants you to go. That lets designers control camera angles, predict the player’s path and script events, etc. But even in this context Assasin’s Creed generally works better. So it’s not so much that PoP has something that AC doesn’t have, it’s that it’s lacking the free-roaming sections. Now, if that opened up gameplay opportunities somehow, it’d be fine, but it doesn’t really. PoP has the wall-run, and some other nifty moves, but they’re mostly there to solve problems that the game didn’t necessarily need to have. It all just… looks cool and adds some variety I guess. And it wouldn’t fit in AC’s aesthetic.

      So I can’t really agree with “very different”, though I can totally see how someone else thinks all the little things add up sufficiently to make both games feel unique enough and thus justified. I guess I’m just too much of a pathological abstractor by now.🙂

  2. Interesting, and well written indeed. Another way to phrase the question might be to consider why the idea to make Assassin’s Creed came up in the first place, instead of just reworking the Prince of Persia series.

    Ubisoft released The Two Thrones in 2005, and an estimated guess would have the development of Creed to have started about that same time. It would seem a perfect chance to give the Prince a makeover and create Creed within the Persia franchise. I mean, it has been done before. Probably there’s a lot to the age argument. Although I’d be surprised if, given these numbers, there’d be some sort of re-think at Ubisoft about this whole thing.

    • I think I remember interviewing someone from the Two Thrones team at E3 in ’06, who told me that the people behind “PoP 1” were behind Creed. In other words, other teams made the sequels (which makes perfect sense considering their quality and content). It’s not impossible to think that a skeleton crew was working on Creed after the first Sands of Time was released… it had a lot of novel tech and it’s certainly prudent to do a _lot_ of R&D before embarking on a project like that. Having 2-3 years of lead-time on developing for new platforms is not a bad idea.

      Maybe AC came about from a desire to use many of the ideas that came about while making Sands of Time that just didn’t fit in with that game’s framework.

  3. Who was it made for? Well, me! I completely loved it. From the first screenshot all through the epilogue. Why? Because it was never about the gameplay. And it was only about the experience. A zen-like traversal of beautiful environments with a great score. Finding all the seeds was a natural for me. I just had to be done, because the world was so amazing. And Elika and the Prince were great characters.

    And then the ending was absolutely stunning. Loved every bit of it.

    So it was never a game for gamers. Not a game for those who can play a game simply due to the gameplay mechanics. It was a game for the dreamers and the more casual core players. For people who don’t play videogames primarily for the highscore or the action. Not saing it was artsy-fartsy either. It was simply beautiful. And the ending powerful.

    Assassin’s Creed, while great games, never touch these kinds of heart strings. They were beutiful more from a technical perspective. PoP 2008 was like artwork. Now I haven’t played Flower, but I can imagine they have a similiar feel to them on some basic level.

    To me it was one of the best games that year.

    • I actually quit the game at the end. I refused to do the writer’s bidding. My story ended there, in the lesser tragedy than the one they would have forced me into had I not turned off the console.

      Nice that someone got something poetic out of it. To each his own, eh?

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