Ubisoft's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake Misadventure and What It Means for Indian Game Development
Time is a flat circle.
A couple of weeks ago Ubisoft announced that its upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake would be developed by Ubisoft Montreal instead of its studios in India that were originally in charge of the project. More importantly, the company stated that it would “regroup on the scope of the game”.
Considering the game was first revealed back in September 2020 and it being a remake of a 2003 classic, you’d think the scope would be the least of Ubisoft’s concerns. More than that, the statement spins the move as a return to “the very birthplace of the epic Sands of Time trilogy”, suggesting that its India operations weren’t up to the task. However, there’s a lot more to it.
According to multiple sources at Ubisoft India (both Pune and Mumbai studios), there was not much in way of support from Ubisoft itself. All of them requested anonymity for fear of retribution. These include:
Little to no documentation: was given to the team in India. Granted the original game design document for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time wasn’t more than 10 pages, you’d think any material regarding the original release or its sequels would be shared. But this was not the case. This led to designers having to figure out how to make the game and its levels from scratch with little guidance.
Anvil Engine: furthermore, the team was forced to use Ubisoft’s Anvil Engine, that too a version based on Assassin’s Creed Origins, with management forcing them to retrofit the animations of the Prince — a lean, lanky character — on an animation rig meant for Assassin’s Creed Origins protagonist Bayek who has a stockier, heavyset frame. This is why the initial reveal had janky, odd animations those familiar with the project tell me.
Inexperienced leadership: prior to helming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake, its game director had no game development experience. He moved to the team working on Riders Republic shortly after the game was handed over to outsourcing specialist Electric Square last year. Speaking of which…
Getting it outsourced: following the poor reception to the game’s initial reveal, the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake was handed over to Electric Square to take it over the finish line. However it wasn’t able to do much with what it had in the time Ubisoft wanted it so Ubisoft handed it back to Ubisoft Montreal.
How did this happen?
To borrow a phrase from Elden Ring, Ubisoft’s India boss at the time, Jean-Philippe Pieuchot was emboldened by the flames of ambition. He had plans to turn India into a AAA game development hub with the Prince of Persia remake being one part of the puzzle. And the extent of his plans involved partnering with the likes of IIT, Rubika, and Ecole Intuit Lab to bring it to fruition.
“It’s to clusterise (sic) our studios to get close to the AAA ambitions that we have,” Pieuchot said to The Mako Reactor during the opening of the Mumbai studio in 2019. “So that in some time we can get to AAA development.”
While handling the remake of a highly-regarded franchise was a step in the right direction, then Ubisoft India Director of Human Resources Samira Chobani explained at the time that partnering with institutions like Rubika and Ecole Intuit were necessary to “design the specific programs” in disciplines like art, game design, and programming as these were seen as “top schools” at the time. As for the IIT tie-up? Pieuchot said it was to create tools for “internal process for our usage”.
Although these are admirable goals, Pieuchot’s way forward as elaborated in the points above left much to be desired. They showcase a glaring lack of know how regarding how games are made and what’s needed to see them through.
Incidentally, Pieuchot was moved to manage Ubisoft Kyiv and Odessa following Ubisoft’s re-evaluation of the game and the state it was in. While it would be incredibly easy to lay the blame on one man, it’s important to note that there was zero oversight from Ubisoft until the game’s public reveal and vocal backlash from fans (despite Ubisoft India’s claim of the game looking the way it does due to stylistic choices). I reached out to Ubisoft for comment and received none prior to publishing this newsletter.
Following the avoidable debacle that was the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake reveal, it seems that Ubisoft’s India studios — Mumbai and Pune have been relegated back to quality assurance and live operations rather than full scale development.
The Mumbai studio had a hand in a few VR projects like Assassin’s Creed but those have now trickled to a halt. This led some to speculate that it’s unlikely that it would renew the lease on its Mumbai studio, based in Powai when it expires.
That said, sources at the company have confirmed that Ubisoft has signed a five year lease on its Powai studio last year.
In addition to this, the rampant mismanagement has resulted in a mass exodus of senior talent, either to other studios or to simply strike it out as indies. What should have been the game that solidifies India’s development prowess at a global level ended up being a mess of colossal proportions with poor decision making and lack of actual leadership to blame. This wouldn’t be the first time an international games publisher tried making games in India and fail (outside of Sony’s flurry of PS2 and PS3 releases ending in infamy). Case in point: Square Enix.
The company had a presence in India between 2012 and 2014 (disclosure: I was one of the employees of the company at the time). During that period, it was based in Mumbai and met with nearly every developer in the country. No projects were greenlit aside from a mobile MMORPG that was cancelled three months into development. It returned to India in 2019 and collaborated with Pune-based JetSynthesys on a ludo game with little to no fanfare.
What does this mean for made-in-India games?
What makes Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia India misadventure sting is how unwarranted it is. Ubisoft’s India presence is nothing new. It got a foothold in the nation in 2008 by acquiring Gameloft’s Pune studio that was renamed Ubisoft Pune. In-house talent made the likes of 100 All-Time Favourites for the Nintendo DS and Monster Truck 4×4 3D for the Nintendo 3DS before moving onto more complex fare like remasters for Splinter Cell and Far Cry for the PS3 and Xbox 360.
It also supported larger franchises such as Just Dance and handled quality assurance for the likes of South Park: Stick of Truth and Watch Dogs 2 while running live operations for mobile titles such as Care Bears and Rocksmith.
All of this should have meant shared knowledge within the studio all while giving its developers a wide enough canvas to hone their skills. Instead it was brought down by incompetent, overambitious management.
With the Indian government wanting more games made in India (despite offering little to no support outside of a token ‘task force’ that includes gambling companies), the Prince of Persia remake was to be India’s big AAA gaming moment.
Perhaps its failure with this would do more to spur local game development the same way Zynga India’s presence led to the hypercasual boom in the country. Several developers with experience in working with global games created companies in India with multimillion dollar exits such as Moonfrog and PlaySimple.
Considering the venture capitalist ecosystem around game development in India has only gone from strength to strength in the last few years, funding everything from web3 vapourware to actual, tangible mobile fare, it’ll be interesting to see if any of it trickles down to PC and console gaming. For now though, it’s abundantly obvious that even the biggest publishers can’t seem to follow through on their own India plans.
UPDATE at 1524 IST on May 16, 2022: This article was amended after publication to include confirmation of Ubisoft signing a five year lease for its Mumbai studio.