Thursday, December 11, 2008

Game Design Notes: Prince of Persia - Fertile Grounds

The nonlinear level structure of the new Prince of Persia doesn't provide the gradual skill ramp up that makes the series so satisfying. It does, however, give new pleasures.

I recently started an account with GameFly so that I could save money by downsizing my absurdly large gaming budget. With a rotating rental service, I lose a lot of the excuse I had for going down to the store and buying $70 games on a whim.

So far the experience has worked out. It has allowed me to meet my goal of playing what's coming out in a reasonable time frame while still staying solvent in the global financial implosion. Time budgeting is another challenge I hope to tackle soon.

This morning I dropped Prince of Persia (2008) in the mailbox after having played it as much as I am likely to play it. I finished the game, something I rarely do anymore, which means I must have at least enjoyed it. Of course, I also finished Too Human, a game that I liked but that was nowhere near worth the money I paid for it. If I had paid full price for Prince of Persia, I would have been disappointed. Fortunately, I did not and thus I had a pretty good time playing the game.

Prince of Persia
is an ancient IP by video game standards. As a result the differences between it and its predecessors are going to be the most obvious things about it to anyone who has followed the series. This group of people includes me.

By the way, before I really get into things, I am assuming that the audience of these notes has a familiarity with at least the Sands of Time series of Prince of Persia games. For those who don't they mostly involve running around on things and doing impossible acrobatic wall run/double jump style platforming. For more depth I encourage you to seek out other sources.

The most obvious departure from the Sands of Time series of games, aside from the storyline break, is the addition of a Map. Previous entries in the Prince of Persia series played pretty much like standard, railroading, platformers: jump through a level, maybe kill a boss, move to the next level, rinse, repeat. PoP 2008 does not do this. Instead, the world is divided into four major regions each of which has five Fertile Grounds in it plus a final area.

A Fertile Ground is this game's answer to levels. To get to each Fertile Ground a player must go through some significant platforming sequence which may or may not involve special powers that are unlocked through the course of play. At the end of all this platforming he must defeat an incarnation of the area boss. Recall above where I said that there were four major regions - each one of these regions has its own boss that guards each Fertile Ground and also must be defeated in a final sequence to "beat" the region.

After defeating the boss, the player "cleanses" the Fertile Ground which means all of the ugly dark textures are replaced with bright sunny grassy textures. It also means that the region is now filled with "Light Seeds".

A Light Seed is, basically, a coin from Mario 64. Each area has a finite number of them and, once you collect enough of them, you can get access to new areas that themselves will have more light seeds. Also, like coins in Mario 64, Light Seeds let the game developer get a lot of milage out of repurposing levels and getting you to go through them again.

So there you have the basic engine of the game. You start out with access to four Fertile Grounds. You cap these, gather a bunch of light seeds, and gain access to the powers that unluck the next four fertile grounds, and so on until you've capped all the regions.

This central mechanic is actually pretty compelling. It has, after all, been basically proven in very popular platforming series. It gives the player a lot of freedom in how to play through the game. Almost an unprecedented level - you can play through the stages in essentially any order as you can pick up the powers in any order. And yet they still manage to ramp difficulty over the course of the game by making bosses harder (by giving them new moves and stances) and by making platforming harder (adding obstacles and other constraints).

The game is, however, different from predecessors and not all the differences are good. As has been mentioned elsewhere the game is easy compared to other entries in the series. There are some difficult platform sequences, mostly in the final section of the game and in the "boss" levels of each region. However, it doesn't match the feeling that the previous games could give you.

One of the great joys of the Prince of Persia - Sands of Time games is that as you played through them you felt yourself becoming more and more of a badass. Platforming and combat ramped up as the game progressed to the point where, at the end of the game, you were doing platforming sequences you would have balked at at the beginning. Sequence that strainb you towards the beginning become second nature by the end. This is a deeply satisfying feeling, and a feeling that this game's structure makes it unable to capture.

The difficulty scaling measures are good - they do add some depth, but they don't measure up to a thoughtfully constructed measured skill ramp up. The add timing elements and pressures to complete but, if you're playing reasonably well these obstacles don't even make you blink. They don't make it more difficult by the time they come around.

The platforming also feels a little too discrete -- a little too much like its on rails, which is a feeling I never had playing earlier games in the series, but that's more of a side note.

Like I said, I enjoyed playing this game. There are lessons that can be taken away from this level design and layout and I think they did a lot of things right. However, the constraint of having to make the great majority of levels playable from an early point in the game prevent it from living up to its predecessors as a gaming experience.

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