For this month's spotlight, we spent some time with the Prince of Persia (PoP) speedrun community. It is impossible to cover every fascinating detail about this community, but we hope this article can give a glimpse to the rest of the speedrunning world. Let’s get into it.
Nearly every person I spoke to in the PoP community has fond childhood memories with the original game, which was already being speedrun as early as 2000. But for a while, the community was more focused on the Sands of Time Trilogy released between 2003 and 2005.
It is impossible to talk about the history of PoP speedrunning without ‘zipping.’ Originally discovered in late-2014/early-2015, zipping takes advantage of the physics engine in the Sands trilogy to launch the player in different directions and clip through the environment.
“The depth and scope of zips was crazy so throughout the entirety of 2015 it was amazing working on this trick,” said Joee, a runner who used to go by “Heneko_”.
When the glitch was discovered, the potential seemed almost limitless. Pretty much anyone who tried could find new ways to use zipping, and this led to incredible time saves throughout the games.
In the second game of the Sands Trilogy, Warrior Within, zipping vertically can even be used to move between the game’s separate time periods. It’s not actually useful in runs, but it speaks to the breadth of possibilities the glitch provides.
At Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) 2015, Joee represented the PoP community with a run that, infamously, did not go as planned.
Clocking in at 16 minutes past the estimated time, pretty much everything that could go wrong did. However, while the run time was dead on arrival, the run itself was not a complete flop.
In fact, Joee’s positive attitude through his missteps led to an increase in donations for SGDQ and showed the speedrunning world just how carefree and positive the PoP community could be.
Of course, there is more to the Sands trilogy than zipping, even if zipping gets most of the attention.
There’s the ‘first-person glitch’ discovered by epicdudeguy that allows players to teleport backward and once again clip through the environment.
“At first we found it by accident and we didn’t really know what to do with it but then we discovered later all the things you can do with it and that was really cool,” said epicdudeguy.
In 2019, when runner Jaka was still new and learning the game, he accidentally discovered a new, easy strategy in The Two Thrones that replaced a previous overly-precise run-killer.
He didn’t even realize he’d done anything important until 7eraser7, another PoP runner who was watching the stream, got really excited about the discovery.
A clip of this accidental discovery is available here and while the chat messages are no longer visible with the clip, Jaka’s reaction to the revelations in chat give a strong impression of the moment.
2016 was the first PoPRuns event, a yearly Prince of Persia marathon where the community showcases different runs and generally has a good time. In the words of 7eraser7, “the only purpose is to have fun together.”
For the past couple of PoPRuns, runner Samabam has hosted Prince of Persia-themed Dungeons and Dragons games to go along with the event. “It gives us an interesting way to interact with each other that we normally don’t since we’re usually focused on the video games,” he said.
While the event has mostly been held online, in 2019, ten community members crammed into 7eraser7’s home for a hybrid-live/online event.
“Even people who were not running the game anymore...still came,” said 7eraser7, who also thanked his girlfriend for being ok with hosting so many people at once.
“That was pretty special. I hope we can do that again sometime,” said epicdudeguy.
They are hoping to hold another partially in-person PoPRuns once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
The DOS Boom
After the earliest known PoP speedrun in 2000, world records for Prince of Persia (DOS) progressed inconsistently with some segmented records here and there.
It wasn’t until June of 2015 when a runner called Cap’nClever performed the first continuous PoP DOS Any% record and uploaded it to Speedrun.com. He improved on the record in January of 2016, but from then on his 14:44 run remained unbeaten for more than three years.
In 2019, Prince of Persia (DOS) experienced a bump in popularity and some new runners challenged CapnClever’s World Record.
Eventually, a runner named Karlgamer took first place and that year, the creator of Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner, included a screenshot of Karlgamer’s record in his self-published book on the making of the game.
Throughout 2020, Karlgamer continued to improve his run as new runners and glitch hunters entered the scene. The history of the Prince of Persia (DOS Any%) was recently detailed in a documentary by Youtuber The Otter’s Pocket, but even in the few months since the video went up, the run has gotten progressed even further.
In mid-2020, a new runner called Higlak joined the community and quickly rose to the top of the DOS Any% and Any% Glitchless leaderboards.
“The second that I joined in, everyone was very helpful with any question regarding the game mechanics,” said Higlak, for whom Prince of Persia was his first speedrunning game.
It’s a testament to how much impact a new member can have on a run as well as how much well-maintained community resources and a welcoming attitude can really make a game accessible to new players.
The most common word used to describe the PoP community has been ‘welcoming.’ With resources available for nearly every game in the Prince of Persia series and an inviting vibe, the community is always happy when newcomers show an interest.
“I’m not the type of person who usually joins an online community and makes friends, but just being there and being around them it was kind of inevitable. It’s full of a lot of helpful, polite people and they’re very passionate about the hobby,” said Samabam.
Another runner, WinterThunder said, “The guys are quirky and have a big sense of humor, and are quite helpful - if you have a problem with a trick, or setting up something - ask on Discord, and the answer will come in less than 5 minutes most of the time.”
The community also has something that pretty much any good speedrun community needs, rivalry and teamwork existing side by side.
“We are against each other on the leaderboard but in reality we are against the game. So we always try to help each other,” said 7eraser7.
New glitches, strategies, and exploits are readily shared so that everyone can compete on equal footing and work together to bring the game to new heights.
“I think most of the members are concerned more about pushing the games to the limits rather than getting themselves a personal record. We just love to see the records get lower because of new strats or just by improved movement regardless of who accomplishes it,” said GMP.
“The one trick that always was my Achilles' heel was jumping the guards...Almost every guard in the game can be skipped that way, and I couldn't do the trick reliably for the longest time - until Karlgamer, who seemed to pick up the technique more readily - explained to me that the set-up is more complicated and sometimes you need to jump twice before you're in the correct position,” said WinterThunder.
Because it’s existed over several years, some community members have become less active as speedrunners while still remaining part of the community.
Originally, Joee ran the community discord server before passing ownership to another runner, toca_1. Still, Joee maintains his connection to PoP. He said, “they are just my friends now.”
Technology and PoP
Throughout the PoP community’s history, there has been an undercurrent of community members using technical tools to push the games to new levels.
For the Sands Trilogy, this included user Sphere writing a script to visualize game code in Blender, a popular 3D graphics software, so community members could identify potential flags and triggers for runners to take advantage of.
For DOS, things get even more futuristic. In January of this year, glitch hunter Crem developed an artificially intelligent bot to optimize the best routes at the time.
Eien86, another glitch hunter in the community, initially found glitches with more common methods like brute force as well as tools like CheatEngine to get inside the game’s code and find ways to take advantage of it.
With those standard approaches, eien86 was able to find skips for the 7th and 8th levels of the game which were then optimized by crem’s bot.
About applying skips to the 8th level, he said, “I didn’t have too much evidence that it would be possible but I felt like I could do it and that it could be done. And I couldn’t sleep the day before...and I worked the full day thinking about -- I need to try this. As soon as I was over with work I threw myself to it and it was such a huge rush. It’s a single frame window opportunity.”
Then in March, eien86 and crem teamed up to push crem’s bot into new frontiers. The new, collaborative version of the bot, codenamed Jaffar, is widening the scope of applications, and eien86 has plans to run the bot in a supercomputer.
What is also incredible is how Higlak and other runners were quickly able to implement the AI-discovered strategies and optimizations into runs that have been shaved down by more than half a minute
This is both a feat of computers and a feat of humans that brings new perspective to the idea of “man vs machine.” Here the computers and the glitch hunters who programmed them are just another part of the rival-teamwork dynamic, always pushing the game to see what is possible.
Thank you to the PoP community for being open and excited to share their stories with us.
Header image of community members at an in-person Prince of Persia event in 2019, used with permission from the community.