In 1985 Jordon Mechner was a student at Yale riding high on a mix of euphoria over the surprise success of his first video game, Karateka, and trepidation over the idea of turning that success into a career.
Trading the east coast for the west landed him in the thick of a game industry beginning to realise the potential of the medium. Mechner’s journey from college student to Prince of Persia creator captures they birth of not just an influential video game, but of the industry. Fortunately, Mechner kept a diary. Below you will find a chapter from his eight-year chronicle of life as a developer and the birth of Prince of Persia reprinted with Mechner’s permission. Enjoy. – Ed’s Note
September 10, 1986
[San Francisco ]”I thought you were the pizza man,” Tomi said when she opened the door to the Baker Street apartment and saw me there at the top of the steep steps with my two bags.
Now I’m reclining in luxury in one of their new armchairs, listening to Maurizio Pollini play Chopin preludes on their new CD player. There’s a stunning view of San Francisco Bay out the windows that makes my stomach contract every time I look at it.
Did I mention that I’m scared? Getting a ride to work this morning with Tomi, pulling into the Broderbund parking lot — that was scary.
Now that the day’s over and it’s clear that I had nothing to be scared of, I’m not scared any more — I’m terrified. I’m scared shitless.
I have to rent a car. I have to drive it. On these insane twelve-lane racetracks they call freeways. I have to find an apartment and rent it. I have to move in. I have to buy a car. I have to buy insurance. I’ve never done any of this stuff before… and now I have to do it all at once.
And on top of this — or rather, at the bottom of it — I have to make a computer game.
It’s gonna be fun.
September 11, 1986
Visited Danny Gorlin. He’s sunk more money into developing the development system to end all development systems. Saw the final version of Airheart. It’s got some staggering special effects and it’s no fun at all to play.
Danny thinks spending a million bucks on a development system will give him an edge. He might be right. But the best Apple games have been developed on a plain Apple II with two disk drives. Lucasfilm spent a million bucks to make Rescue on Fractalus and Ball Blazer, and those games aren’t significantly better than, or different from, the competition. The real strides forward — Raster Blaster, Choplifter, (what the hell) Karateka — were the work of solo programmers with no special resources.
Maybe Danny is leading game design into the 21st century. Maybe he’s just flushing money down the toilet.
I’ll stick with my Apple II.
September 11, 1986
Met with Gene, Lauren, and Ed Badasov and showed them my Baghdad ideas. (Ed B. made up the working title Prince of Persia.) The storyline didn’t impress them much, but I think they saw promise in it.
It doesn’t really matter a whole lot what they think — I’m the one that has to do it — but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt to have them enthusiastic. In a few months I should have something to thrill them.
I’m starting to get psyched to write this game. Slowly.
September 12, 1986
Apartment hunting with Steve Patrick. We checked out one place with a pink carpet, dusty chandeliers, and an old-lady landlord who said she doesn’t like renting to kids. “They make a lot of noise,” she said. “They invite their friends over.”
“Not me,” I said. “I just got off the plane from New York. I don’t have any friends.”
“Oh, you will,” she said, ominously, sounding like Yoda in Empire. “You will.”
Steve and Tomi told me I can stay with them until they kick me out.
“You should live in the Marina district,” Doug advised. “You’d meet a lot of… (pause)… yuppies.”
September 18, 1986
Looked at a house in Mill Valley, on a shady road winding through the redwoods. When I rang the doorbell the lady peered around me and said, “Is your mother down there?”
She spent fifteen minutes showing me the house, but I don’t think I ever quite convinced her I was serious.
September 23, 1986
Spent much of today working on the logistical problem of how to get the footage from a VHS tape into the computer. I finally (tentatively) settled on photographing the frames one by one with a regular 35mm camera, getting prints made, then (after retouching as needed) digitising the prints with a regular Sony video camera. It sounds like a pain but I think it’s the best way.
September 25, 1986
Another solid workday. Today I stayed till around 7 and got DRAY pretty much finished. I tested it out by digitising a page out of Muybridge. It’ll do what I need it to do. It could use another day of work. Actually, I could keep working on it for a month, if I didn’t have so much else to do.
September 26, 1986
Ed Bernstein called his last P.D. meeting this afternoon. He’s leaving to head up Broderbund’s fledgling board games division. DOUG HIMSELF will be taking over as acting head of P.D. He’ll be taking my desk, the better to stay in touch with the people. So I’ll be moving into Ed’s office.
Life is strange.
P.D. is throwing Ed a goodbye party. “Better the devil we know than the deep blue sea,” Steve said.
At lunch, Doug said: “You seem to have a very strong entrepreneurial bent.” I was surprised, and said something about how I’d probably inherited it from my father.
Coming out here was definitely the right thing to do. In Chappaqua, I was in a rut. Now, I’m in the thick of it. It’s great.
September 27, 1986
I have a car.
September 28, 1986
I have an apartment.
September 29, 1986
Today I moved into Ed’s office. Obviously, this is a temporary arrangement; eventually some new guy will be hired to run P.D. and I’ll get booted to some other part of the building. But while it lasts, it’s great.
Besides vast amounts of space, a couple of armchairs for visitors, my own phone, and a door that I can close, the office has the most important thing of all — equipment. A printer. An amber screen. An Apple IIc. It didn’t occur to me until I was actually confronted with two Apple II’s on my desk and I had to figure out what to do with the extra one — but it’s perfect. Now I can run programs without destroying the source code in memory. It’s…(gulp)… a development system.
October 14, 1986
David Stenn read my screenplay. He said it has promise but would need at least one more rewrite to be saleable. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, he said: “Look, it’s great for a first script — it really is.
I wouldn’t show you my first screenplay. You obviously have talent, you should stick with it.”
He was more impressed with the reviews of Karateka I’d sent him. “You’re in the right business,” he said. “What do you want to get into this one for?”
October 15, 1986
Bought a camera at Whole Earth. It was more expensive than I’d anticipated – $US250 with the lens — but it’s a good camera, and I imagine I’ll find some use for it even after the game’s done. I shot my first roll of film (David turning around) and had it developed at the local one-hour photo stop. I think this will work. The real problem, obviously, will be going from a sheaf of snapshots to the 280 x 192 Apple screen, and the loss of accuracy entailed therein. It almost makes me want to do it in double hi-res.
October 19, 1986
Shot four more rolls of film: David running and jumping in the Reader’s Digest parking lot. One year ago tomorrow. Red and orange leaves… God, I’m homesick.
October 21, 1986
Today I wrote the first lines of code of the game (not counting the hi-res routines). It Begins.
October 23, 1986
Everyone in the office has been playing a lot of Tetris — a Russian submission for the IBM PC. It’s a classic, like Breakout. But I don’t think Broderbund is going to publish it. The knaves.
October 25, 1986
Yesterday I implemented the running animation. Next I’ll do the jumping… then the stopping… then the “jumping from a stopped position”… oh boy, this is great!
I restrained myself from taking all my work papers home with me yesterday… and I’m restraining myself from going to work today. There must be Balance.
October 31, 1986
Ed was pretty thrilled with the rough running and jumping animation, now under joystick control. So was Tomi. Lauren, Doug and Gary didn’t act all excited, but I think they were secretly impressed.
I love the quality of the just-digitised roughs, but I’m having trouble preserving that fluidity and realism when I clean it up and stylise the figures. This is going to be a problem.
I beat out Ed and Steve for the number one spot on the Tetris high-score list. The Mets won the World Series.
November 9, 1986
God, I miss New York.
Fifth Avenue… Christmas shoppers… rich ladies in furs laden with shopping bags and kids… crisp cold autumn air… the smell of burnt pretzels… St. Peter’s… the steel drum players wearing woollen gloves with cut-off fingers, breath condensing on the air…
I’m looking out the window at the San Francisco skyline across the bay dotted with white sails. It looks unreal. Like some kind of paradise.
November 10, 1986
Called Kyle Freeman in L.A. (he’s at Electronic Arts now) and asked him what he’d charge to licence his Apple music subroutine. He spent half the phone call dumping on Broderbund. I realised after I’d hung up that this was the first thing I’d done independent of Broderbund since I got here. Interestingly, it actually strengthened my confidence that Broderbund is the right place for me. It reminded me that I am independent.
November 18, 1986
Digitised the running skidding turn-around that was so amusing on videotape. It looks OK. I’ll need to redo the straight running, but I think everything else will work as it stands.
About half the animations are in now. Next step will be getting the character to interact with the environment (climbing a rope ladder, pulling a lever, etc.)
At this juncture I think I’ll redirect my attention to the game design.
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.
December 24, 1986
Home for the holidays. It’s good to be back. Not much has changed except that David has taken over my room. We played a game of go. He’s seven stones stronger.
Pizza at Mario’s with David and his friend Andy. We pumped about six bucks into a three-player game called Gauntlet, which has pretty good graphics and a great appetite for quarters.
People tend to be pretty bowled over by the animation test I’ve been showing them. “Don’t you realise what you’re looking at?” Jon Menell said. “This is the light bulb.”
January 11, 1987
Macworld Expo ’86 was pretty slick. The coolest thing there was the Radius 8 1⁄2″ x 11″ tall screen.
Dad called all excited because David did well in the dan tournament. I hadn’t stopped to think about it until now, but the speed of his rise has been really startling. From total beginner to shodan in nine months. If he keeps this up another year or two, he could be one of the best non-Asian go players in the history of the world.
January 22, 1987
The Nintendo game machine has sold a million units in the U.S. over Christmas. As of now, only a handful of cartridges are available. Nintendo is keeping a tight rein on new titles, presumably to avoid a flood of product like the one that sunk Atari a couple of years ago.
Broderbund – thanks to Doug’s Japan connections – has three of the coveted slots.
Karateka would be a natural, but Doug is apparently leaning toward choosing some older titles – Castles of Dr. Creep or Spelunker or Raid on Bungeling Bay or even Choplifter – instead.
I talked to Ed and Alan with great passion, trying to convince them. This is the first time in my life I’ve had to lobby so hard for something I desperately wanted, and it’s exquisitely frustrating. It’s so painful wanting something from someone, being reduced to wishing and hoping they’ll give it to me. I hate it.
If I’m going to be a screenwriter someday, guess I better get used to it.
January 23, 1987
Progress on Prince of Persia has slowed to a snail’s crawl. I’ve been drifting in to work around eleven or twelve, and between that, the Butchery and the Sport Court, my workday is about forty-five minutes long. Ed and Gene and Lauren keep checking in to see what new and exciting stuff I’ve got up on the screen, and they go away disappointed.
Instead, I’ve been spending my time playing with my new Mac, Radius screen, and Scriptor screenplay formatting software. Shiny new toys.
January 26, 1987
Got up early for a change and put in a full day’s work on the game. Corey talked me into switching assemblers, operating systems, and disk media (from DOS 3.3, S-C Assembler, and 5 1/4″ floppies to ProDos, Merlin, and SCSI hard drive). The change should take about a week, but I think it’ll pay for itself in the end.
January 29, 1987
Roland spent the whole morning helping me switch over to Merlin and ProDOS.
It was kind of a thrill to watch. Roland is a hacker of the old school. He’s polite and unprepossessing in his dress and demeanor, careful about money and contracts. He drives a Saab with licence plate SNABBIL. But under that conservative surface is a demon — a guy who will put his day job on hold for 72 hours and sit down and reverse-engineer an Apple II conversion of Tetris, just for the pleasure of it.
Watching him do what he did for me today, I felt a little of the old joy come flooding back. I’d almost forgotten the most basic thing: programming is fun. I’ve grown middle-aged these past couple of years. Roland is 23 but he’s still young at heart.
January 31, 1987
Got to Broderbund around 8:30 and put in another solid eight hours. Converted BUILDER over to Merlin/Pro, but it’s not working. Give me another day or two to get all the bugs out.
Showed Ed the latest (Jan. 27) working version. He was gratifyingly thrilled about the 3-D box with scrolling borders.
February 9, 1987
“When do you think you’ll be finished with your game?” Lauren asked me on the way back from the Butchery.
“I’m shooting for August,” I said.
We agreed the important thing is to make it as good as possible, and that a few months earlier or later wouldn’t really make much difference.
Today, for the first time, I constructed a really large level and played around in it. It was the first time this game had ever given me the feeling of space. It was kind of thrilling. I think it’s going to be a winner. I’m going slowly this time, building on a solid foundation, and I think it’ll pay off big.
February 14, 1987
It’s great having David here. All the stuff I’d gotten jaded about suddenly seems cool when seen through my little brother’s eyes. Like having a car, being able to drive anywhere I want, a place of my own, a key to Broderbund, free video games in the lunchroom… stuff like that. I’ll miss him when he’s gone.
February 16, 1987
Rented a camcorder and spent the afternoon in and around Broderbund, shooting more footage of David for the game. There were lots of people there even though it was a holiday.
March 5, 1987
The powers that be at Broderbund have decreed that Sensei (Tomi, Steve, Loring, Eric, Mike, and Robert S.), David Snider, Corey and I are all to be packed off from our present comfortable offices to a rathole on the second floor of 47 Paul. Tomi, Corey and I went there yesterday to check the place out. I’m seriously considering working from home.
The vibe at work has been kind of odd lately anyway. Doug is wrapped up in taking the company public, and the new people he’s hiring have no interest in games — or in software, for that matter. There’s really no reason for me to go into the office any more, except for camaraderie. I could always visit if I get lonely.
March 8, 1987
“This is a BAD day for you not to be at Broderbund, believe me. ‘Bye.”
Not the message you want to find on your answering machine when you get home at 5 p.m. after having taken the day off to play hookey and explore Mt. Tam.
I called Corey back. He told me we’d been evicted from our office and our stuff transferred to the dingy, unpainted, windowless attic of 47 Paul Drive. Corey was at the bottom of the deepest depression I’d ever seen him, and was ready to move back home.
Tomi had a plan. “You’ve got to get the small room,” she said. “It’s got windows and ventilation. It’ll be much better.”
“Corey said he already asked Adaire about that and she said…”
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law. If I were you, I’d go into work early tomorrow morning and move both your desks and all your stuff into that room.”
I called Corey back and told him the plan. He was terrified, but we did it that night, feeling like a pair of burglars.
March 9, 1987
I arrived at work to find Adaire furious. It seems they’d been planning to paint the room that day, and Corey and I, by moving in our furniture, had made it impossible for the painters to work. So we moved it all into the middle of the room and threw a tarp over it. We had to buy the tarp ourselves at the local hardware store, because the painters didn’t have one.
This has been an excerpt from THE MAKING OF PRINCE OF PERSIA: JOURNALS 1985-1993. Available now for sale as an eBook on Amazon in a Kindle edition and as a PDF available for purchase on jordanmechner.com. It retails for $US7.99.
Jordan Mechner is a game designer, screenwriter, filmmaker and graphic novelist. In addition to Prince of Persia, he created the now-classic video games Karateka and The Last Express. Mechner’s first graphic novel – Solomon’s Thieves, a swashbuckling action-adventure about the historical Knights Templar, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland – was published by First Second Books in May 2010. The next two volumes of the Templar trilogy are due in 2012. In 2010, Mechner also penned Prince of Persia: Before the Sandstorm, a Disney graphic novel movie prequel. Mechner previously collaborated with First Second, Pham & Puvilland on the 2008 Prince of Persia graphic novel written by A.B. Sina. You can learn more about him at jordanmechner.com.