Jason JunJason Jun

The Making of Prince of Persia

Jordan Mechner


Do I really want to write another game? Can I do that and write screenplays at the same time? Can I write screenplays at all?

There’s no guarantee the new game will be as successful. Or that there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now.

July 17, 1985 Gene and I came up with a setting for the new game before lunch. Ali Baba; Sinbad. It’s versatile, familiar, visually distinctive, and — in the video game field — hasn’t been done to death.

The older ones, like Chris and David, are starting to get scared, because programming’s the only marketable skill they have, and it’s a young man’s game. The new crop of kids coming up are willing to work harder and cheaper, and don’t have girlfriends or families yet to cut into their working hours. And nobody knows how long the games market will be around, or what it’ll be like next year.

Then a strange thing happened. I started getting images in my head of the characters: The Sultan. The Princess. The Boy. I saw the scenes in my mind as if it were a Disney movie. So I wrote up a scenario — churned it out in an hour. It came out pretty well, I think.

My night thoughts lately have been along the lines of: “Do I have it in me to do another computer game? Is this what I want to do? Can I do it? What if the code-writing part of my brain has atrophied? Will I fail ignominiously? Should I just turn to screenwriting full-time?”

I’m unutterably happy that I’m getting psyched up for this new game. It fills me with joy and confidence in the future. Then again, maybe feeling good doesn’t necessarily mean that what I write is good. Maybe the best stuff is produced out of blackest despair. Or maybe not.

Last night I was kept awake by anxiety about the new game. All the detail I’m gonna have to put in… it just seems so daunting. How did I do it for Karateka? I can’t remember. I’m not sure I can do it again.

The Doubt is still there in the back of my mind. It talks to me from time to time. “Jordan!” it says. “What are you doing? You’re taking a step backward. You want to be a filmmaker. It’s time to move on! You brought the Apple-computer-game thread of your life to its climax a year ago. You caught the industry just before it started to die, before you started to lose interest in games yourself. Now you want to do ‘just one more game’… why? Timidity! Fear of breaking loose! You’ll waste a year, man! If you’re going to try for Hollywood, now is the time!” “Shut up,” I say, and Doubt grumbles and crawls, for the moment, back into its hole.

October 20, 1985 Videotaped David running and jumping in the Reader’s Digest parking lot. It’ll do for a start.

The key is not to clean up the frames too much. The figure will be tiny and messy and look like crap… but I have faith that, when the frames are run in sequence at 15 fps, it’ll create an illusion of life that’s more amazing than anything that’s ever been seen on an Apple II screen.

December 2, 1986 Spent most of the day trying to figure out the velocity of a falling human being as a function of time. Enlisted practically everyone at Broderbund at one point or another. They all seemed to find this a more interesting problem than whatever they were working on.

People tend to be pretty bowled over by the animation test I’ve been showing them. “Don’t you realize what you’re looking at?” Jon Menell said. “This is the light bulb.”

November 20, 1987 Yesterday I went in to work for the first time since I can’t remember when. I booted up the game and looked at it. It was deeply depressing. “Think of the game as an old car you’re fixing up in your spare time,” Tomi suggested, urging me to resume work on it. This old car has an engine block that’s rusted solid. I can’t even think about how much work lies ahead.

I was startled to realize that the most recent code printouts in my folder are dated March 26, 1987. In essence, I stopped working on the game the day I got the call from Virginia Giritlian… eight months ago. What the hell have I been doing for eight months?

A week ago, I was an aspiring screenwriter. Now, I’m a working computer game designer with an ace up my sleeve.

SHADOW MAN. Credit Tomi with this one.

Robert suggested that Shadow Man could come into being when you run through a mirror. You leap through the mirror; simultaneously your evil shadow self leaps out the way you came, and slinks off into the darkness.

“You’ll sell a billion copies,” Tomi predicted. “All I want is a Honda Legend. Coupe. Silver.”

I have no excuse for slacking off. As Adam Derman once told me in a letter (about Karateka): “You dumb shit. You’ve dug your way deep into an active gold mine and are holding off from digging the last two feet because you’re too dumb to appreciate what you’ve got and too lazy to finish what you’ve started.”

At the beginning of the game, story is everything. By the end, it’s practically nothing. The experience distills into pure game play.

My most concrete achievement today was to print out the entire source code – all 1,000 pages of it.

May 11, 1989 Everyone is being nice to me because they think my game is going to be a hit.

So I’m not just a programmer any more. The bad part of all this, though, is that I only have about three hours a day to actually work on the damn thing.

Have I ever had what it takes? Am I losing it? Give me a signal; show me a sign. Where’s the meaning in all this? Nobody cares about the fucking game, not even me. Why am I doing this?

but as The Connelley Group proved on IBM Karateka, the comfort of having an organization is largely illusory. It still comes down to one programmer in the end.

I’ll miss the San Francisco 4th of July fireworks, but it was worth it.

It’s good, and it’s mine, and thousands of people are going to be glad it exists. How many things can you say that about?

The truth is, I like going into the office every week. I’d go crazy if I had to sit at home all the time.

God, I want this game to be a hit so badly. It’s the best game I know how to make. As far as I can see, I’ve done everything right. If it doesn’t become a hit, I don’t want to be in this business any more.

Apple Prince sold fewer than 150 units last month. It’s dying out there. This is unbelievable.

Prince sold 500 units last month on the IBM, 38 on the Apple. That’s about as dead as can be.

Failure really does weigh on the heart. Even the shadow of failure weighs, a little bit.

I feel like if Prince fails, I’ll be a failure.

No… the way I’m doing it is right. In two years there’ll be computers with CD-ROM and the need for live-action footage. By then I’ll have made some movies, and know my way around a film set. I’ll be in a perfect position to raise some capital and put together a really hot development team to launch a new line of interactive CD-ROM games. If Doug’s still running Broderbund, he’d back me in a second. They all would. I’ll be an irresistible combination of new kid on the block and old familiar face. So I’m doing all the right things. sigh…

I don’t understand why they think this can be a Christmas 1991 release. There’s no such thing as a six-month development cycle. If even one thing goes wrong, we’ll miss Christmas. And something always goes wrong.

January royalty check came in at $56,000. I’m still in a daze. That’s the whole next year paid for right there. I guess now I can stop worrying about money.

I’ve got light-years to travel, technically and aesthetically, before I could call myself a cinematographer, let alone a good one; and quite probably I won’t travel much further down this particular road.

I have no illusions – it’s still the same company that almost buried Prince 1 – it’s just that now, I’m on the other side of the river. And loving it.

First ideas are never the best. Even when you think they are, later on it turns out you can improve it.

I’ve got some great ideas for Prince 3. The Princess and the mouse. It’ll be a milestone in computer gaming, a classic, a megahit. If only I ever get to do it.

I don’t regret any of the things I’ve done in the meantime – Prince, Prince 2, New York, Salamanca – but now I’m asking myself: What, exactly, am I waiting for? I know what I want to do with my life. Why not just do it?

Here I am, as free as it’s possible for anyone to be – free to travel, work, fall in love – and I’m holding back, like I’m waiting for my life to start. This is my life. It’s not a preparation for anything – it’s the thing itself. I have got to remember that.

“Ah yes, Paris,” she sighed. “Of course, it’s a heartless and materialistic society, but it takes you a while to realize that because it’s so beautiful.”

I wish I could be like Patrick just for a little while… so that people would come to me just because I’m cool and it makes them feel more alive just to be with me, and not because of anything I’ve done, or might accomplish in the future. I wish I had nothing to lose.

I’ve got so much money it hardly seems real. It’s so much more than I need. The awful thing is, now that I have it, I feel the urge to keep it.