Last year, Ubisoft announced that the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake project was moving to Ubisoft Montreal, where the studio that created the 2003 original would take over development. While the project is still heavily under wraps and won’t be at Ubisoft Forward in June, it’s very much alive – and Ubisoft News had a chance to speak with Producer Jean-Francois Naud and Game Director Michael McIntyre about its status, what it means to Ubisoft Montreal, and what made The Sands of Time such a unique experience.
What is Ubisoft Montreal bringing to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake?
Jean-Francois Naud: Ubisoft Montreal is the birthplace of the original Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and, well, that’s a big deal. That’s a big deal for everyone in Montreal, I will be honest. And there’s a bit of pride to be able to take a second look at the game and identify the new tech we can showcase the Prince’s journey with, and bring the Montreal expertise that we’ve developed – on storytelling, on gameplay, on art – and leveraging the knowledge we have built since the original Sands of Time came out. It’s a pretty exciting time.
At what stage is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake at now?
JFN: In terms of the development stage, we’re in conception right now. Since we took over the project, we’ve been looking at feedback from the community and finding our own way of delivering the game. Now, we’re building up the team, defining the priorities, putting prototypes together, testing elements, and looking at how we can include community feedback in the development as well. It’s still in an early stage, and players should not expect to hear more about the game this year, but rest assured that we’re all putting our strengths and heart into this project.
Why is it important to approach this as a remake rather than as a remaster?
Michael McIntyre: It has been 20 years since the original game was released, and not only has technology advanced – which of course you would need for a remaster – but I think we, as players and game-makers, have evolved since that time. I do not think a remaster would take enough of those evolutions into account; I think you need to do a remake in order to truly evolve the game to meet a modern context.
In the case of The Sands of Time, it’s about how you would preserve those things that are still strong, right? One of the gameplay cornerstones of the original game is how the Prince moves around. And yes, there is technology that lets us execute that better – but there are also expectations from players, in terms of other modern games, of what it means to actually control a character. Ubisoft Montreal has developed a strong expertise in that, and we are looking at how we take those lessons and apply them to the spirit of a game like Prince of Persia. That kind of thing is more than just technology; it really is us as game makers having evolved, and understanding that for players, simply picking up a polished version of the original would not meet their expectations.
How do you even begin to approach remaking a 20-year-old game? Are you able to use the original production materials, either as an inspiration or as a guide for what you’re doing?
JFN: Yes, we have access to tons of documentation. When we did our research for the remake, we were able to see the ambition and the intention of the original team; they had a lot of limitations that are not necessarily there for us nowadays. So, we see these ambitions, and we’ll be able to better deliver them to our players. For example, the theme, the fantasy – it’s still very modern, and at the same time its setting and storytelling are still pretty unique, which makes this game very relevant and worth playing for new audiences.
You mentioned that movement is something that can be modernized; what else about the original needs to be updated or refined?
MM: That refinement is actually kind of across the board. I think part of remake-versus-remaster is that there really is some degree of refinement in every aspect. The movement is a big one for us, but combat will get a similar treatment, because of how movement is evolving. And when we as a team look at some of the things that need to be refined, even the story – the story will remain true to itself. But the way it’s delivered, we have new ways that stories have been told in games over the past 20 years, and it allows us to be a bit more nuanced and refined in the way we execute the story.
JFN: And the big challenge is really to find that narrow line where we can modernize the game while not distorting the original experience for fans, but still able to offer something new for newcomers. That narrow line is going to be our path.
MM: Yeah. One of the great things about Sands of Time is that it’s very appealing to newcomers, just in its whole premise and the way it was built, and when people played the original game, I think they felt it was very welcoming in terms of difficulty, for example. We definitely want to continue to embrace that philosophy. Also, one of the big advances in the industry in the past 20 years is accessibility features, ways that players can customize their experience to really suit the way they like to play it. And that will help newcomers come to this game even if, at the time, they couldn’t have played a game like this, because these accessibility features were far from the norm. And so that’s another aspect we’re looking to embrace in order to help newcomers come into this kind of game.
What do you see as the key elements of the original that need to be preserved?
MM: Obviously, those things that we have said before are important. The gameplay mix of acrobatics, combat, puzzles – those things have to stay, and they have to stay balanced to the same degree they are. You don’t keep those, and then double the amount of combat, and say that it’s still The Sands of Time. Keeping not only those gameplay pillars, but also the same balance, is important.
Obviously, keeping the same story and setting is important, but one of the things we identified as being critical to make certain that this is not just a Prince of Persia game, but that it is The Sands of Time, is that there is a narrator that is telling you this story, and it is a story within a story. Even other Prince of Persia games did not do that, and it really is a secret ingredient to that feeling of The Sands of Time, that sort of storybook feel. That is super-important for us to preserve.
Is the Prince still going to lose his shirt progressively over the course of the game?
MM: [laughs] We’ve talked about it! It’s definitely a thing we’re looking at. It’s a good example of what we sometimes call “nostalgic markers,” which are things that people remember, details people remember. So we are not going to be The Sands of Time in name only; we really will be the blueprint of the original, with every part refined, but also key memorable things are very recognizable, because that’s an important part of recognizing that you are playing the game with this name, right? We’re definitely not a re-imagining or re-invention where we feel like we have all this creative license to just sort of be inspired loosely. It’s a celebration, which gives us a certain commitment to truly stick with some of the details and structure of the original.
For many players, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was the game that really put Ubisoft Montreal on the map as a top-flight studio. What does The Sands of Time mean to people at the studio?
JFN: We’re pretty blessed. I was at the studio at that time; you had Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, and right after that, there was Prince of Persia. That was an exciting time, obviously, for the studio. It was a moment where we were recognized for our creativity not just by players, but the gaming community as well – game developers across the world saying, “There’s something happening in Montreal!”
That really allowed everyone to say, “We can develop these games, we have that experience, and can use that experience to continue to build on the Prince of Persia trilogy, but also to start new brands.” You might have heard of Assassin’s Creed, for example. This created something completely new, and there was this enthusiasm that we can do anything, and we’ll do it, and we’ll love it. So yeah, it had a huge impact on us.
Michael, you’ve previously worked on this series. Are there learnings from those later games that you could go back and apply to The Sands of Time?
MM: Oh, absolutely. I was level-design director on Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and I was a level designer on the Prince of Persia from 2008, and on Two Thrones. With those games, we were continuing what The Sands of Time started, so we learned how to make that kind of game from what the team that made The Sands of Time established, and we explored a lot of ways to expand on that. We learned a lot about how to add variety and richness and scope to that kind of game, and honestly also learned some things that feel less Sands of Time. We realized that there are certain breaking points where the game starts to feel like it’s a little out of the recipe for what The Sands of Time was. For me, I’m able to take both of those kinds of lessons back to doing the remake, both paying attention to what must be honored in order for it to feel like the original game, and also identifying ways we can bring richness and variety to the original that only were brought into the franchise later.
We talked a little bit about what it means to the studio – but to the people on your team, to the people you’re recruiting to this project, what does The Sands of Time mean to them?
JFN: There are dozens of great stories – and I’m saying “dozens,” because they’re not just from people on the project right now, but from people on other projects talking to us. We have one manager who was on another project in 2002-2003, and she could not join The Sands of Time. She was frustrated that she missed her chance. And when we started working on this, she was the first one coming back to me and saying, “I don’t want to miss my chance again. I want to be on that project!” One of our lead programmers was studying to be an actuary, and played The Sands of Time, and switched and said, “no, I want to go into videogame production.” The level-design director, he joined Ubisoft and said, “that’s where I want to work!” He was at school, if I remember correctly, and was playing the game and just said, “this is the studio I want to join, because of that game.”
On the project today, we have people who were on the original game that were saying the same thing: “We’re doing a remake? I must be on this game!” It’s not just another project; it means a lot for the team members, and it’s beautiful to get all these stories.
MM: Yeah. And I mean, for many of us, we did join because of this game, but the opportunity to remake it is an opportunity to make the kind of game that got us into the industry. And also to make the kind of game that we used to make – there’s a scope, there’s a focus; these are smaller, more intimate teams with a common passion and a common dream. And so there’s a real attraction to making games the old way for our team as well.
We’ve talked a bit about The Sands of Time’s place in history, but what do you think cemented that place? Why did it resonate so much that we’re still talking reverently about it 20 years later?
MM: The Sands of Time made you feel things with its setting, with its story, even with just how the Prince moved – there was an emotional response to the game that I think stood out, and really stuck with players who enjoyed the game, myself included. And so I think when we approach the remake, it has been very important for us to really nail down those feelings, agree on those feelings, and make certain that no matter what we modernize, those things cannot be compromised. They must be enhanced.
JFN: You can see that excellence was really a pillar, it was a mindset that the original game team had, and we’re approaching this with the same mindset. So, why was it a success? Because it was excellence across the board, and you felt that – you felt the passion of the game developers when you were holding that gamepad in your hand. This is the same direction we’re aiming for.
MM: Again, there was something about the game that I think hit players emotionally, and I think emotions last a long time. More than just, say, fun. So I think that is something that gathered passionate people around it. There’s also something about its recipe: the mix of the setting and the gameplay, the characters and the music, that just hasn’t really been repeated. It’s not like it’s been dried out and that there are all kinds of things that satisfy that appeal. It still stands alone in people’s memory as the one place you can go if you want that feeling. I think those things combined are what has given it its timeless quality.
JFN: The tale, really. The Thousand and One Nights setting makes it very unique. As Michael said, it’s not something that you saw in other games, or that was reused time and time again, and that makes it something that players are really eager to revisit.
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