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Jordan Mechner's Journal

I recently finished reading 'The Making of Prince of Persia,' which is the journal Jordan Mechner kept between 1985 and 1993. I was expecting and hoping that this would be an inspiring success story. I was half right.

Bobby Lockhart, Blogger

December 11, 2011

4 Min Read

I recently finished reading 'The Making of Prince of Persia,' which is the journal Jordan Mechner kept between 1985 and 1993.  For those of you who don't know, Jordan Mechner is the creator of the 'Prince of Persia' series of games.  He even wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the film.

I was expecting and hoping that this would be an inspiring success story.  I was half right.  The story did inspire me -- it's part of the reason I'm writing more regularly.  I've also begun to keep a private journal.  I've put more than usual energy into my game design process.

But a success story it is not.  It is a story of a success, but not a "success story."  I'll explain.  When the journal begins, Jordan's first game "Karateka" is already the #1 selling game.  He's already been published by Broderbund.  The story these journals tells is of parlaying one success into another.

The journals are also not an in-depth look at the design thinking that went into this classic videogame.  In fact there's only one section in the entire book where he even discusses game design.  I'll excerpt it here, because it is quite good:

"A story doesn’t move forward until a character wants something. So – a game doesn’t move forward until the player wants something. Five seconds after you press start, you’d better know the answer to the question: “What do I want to happen?”

"There always has to be a range of possible outcomes, some better than others, so you’re constantly thinking: “Good… Bad… Terrible.” Every event has to move you closer or further away from your goal, or it’s not an event, it’s just window dressing.
The overall goal of POP is to get the girl. But that’s not a strong enough magnet to pull the player through all that distance. It needs sub-goals.

"Beating a guard in Karateka buys you time to gain distance. You want to get closer to the palace because the princess is there; every guard you beat brings you closer. It’s simple, but it works. In psychological terms, it even follows the classic addictive pattern of diminishing rewards: each subsequent guard is harder to kill, and gives you a smaller reward for your pains, until you reach the intermediate goal (the end of the level), at which point there’s a bigger reward, and things get easier again…. for a while."

Despite my flawed expectations, the journal is an interesting read.  It reinforces a lot of my beliefs about the early history of computer games.  The games market was a much smaller place.  With 10 games on the market, it's a lot easier to make the top 10.  I don't mean to say that Mechner's success was undeserved, only that it was amplified by circumstances. 

I was also reassured to find that Jordan Mechner is not a heroically hard working person.  Sure, he had his binges of 20-hour days, but he also spent 6-months trying to sell a screenplay, and another few months living in France.  Most of the time it was 2-3 days of intensity followed by 2-3 days of relaxation.

Throughout the journal he's constantly worrying whether he works hard enough - whether he's talked to the right people and said the right things.  In general, there's a lot of self doubt.  I liked that.  It felt human.  Mechner is no superman.

The last thing I noticed was the idealization of the film industry.  There are periods of disillusionment with the movie business, but they are an infrequent departure.  Mechner even goes to NY to work on student films, and enrolls in NYU.  It's only near the end that Jordan considers that he might not need to make movies -- that computer games might allow him just as much self-expression.

I went to NYU Film School before finding my calling in the games business, so I had a lot of affinity for this section of the journal.  He even describes loading an Arri-S while listening to a lecture in 721 Broadway, which I did many times myself.

So perhaps 'The Making of Prince of Persia' isn't so instructional.  Maybe it's not so prescriptive, but it is descriptive.  It's descriptive of a fascinating existence.  As soon as I finished reading I said to myself "I want a hit game."  That was a few weeks ago, and the enthusiasm hasn't subsided.  I'm still writing, as you can see, and I'm throwing myself into my designs and prototypes.

It's an inspiring story -- a story of what you could become if you have talent and luck, but it will get you no closer to achieving that ideal.  You'll have to figure that out on your own.

Thanks to @courtneystepien for reading drafts of this post.

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