While he’s not the most prolific of game developers, Jordan Mechner remains an important part of the industry, having created some of its most important games. Here he talks to us about Karateka, Prince Of Persia and starting off in the industry.
What was your home life like and how did your schooldays influence you?
I grew up in New York and I didn’t much like school as a kid. But I loved to draw and write stories and comic books and I spent a lot of time trying to make animated movies on Super 8 film. I might have stayed on that path if I hadn’t stumbled on to computers.
When was that?
When I was a teenager. Videogames didn’t appear till I was in junior high school and I didn’t get my first computer until I was 14. It was a 16K Apple II.
Can you remember the earliest game you played?
I grew up playing games, but they were tabletop games, like cards and chess and Monopoly. There were pinball machines at the bowling alley, then one day there was something called Tank War. It wasn’t like ‘Oh my god, it’s a videogame, this is the future.’ It was just an alternative that co-existed with the pinball machines. It didn’t seem intrinsically more interesting, only a little different.
Did you enjoy playing games?
Playing the latest game might hold my interest for a few days or weeks but programming the Apple II kept me enthralled for years.
So you enjoyed programming more than playing games?
When I first discovered programming as a kid, I enjoyed it like a game in itself, a pastime that I found endlessly absorbing and challenging.
What was your first stab at programming?
IBM had something called the “Explorers” program where they let kids come in after hours and use their computer terminals. I did a bit of programming in APL and BASIC, but it only really became a full-blown obsession when the Apple II came along.
Why the Apple II?
A friend had one and I would use it at his house after school each day. I saved up to buy my own using all the money I’d earned over the years drawing caricatures at local fairs and from then on, I pretty much spent every spare moment at the Apple. What really hooked me about it was the colour graphics. It wasn’t just programming text. Suddenly I could make games that were like little animated movies.
Is that where the idea for Karateka came from?
My first game was a shoot-’em-up called Deathbounce which I had sent to Broderbund Software for consideration. It didn’t like it. But when I saw Broderbund’s new number one bestseller, Choplifter, it blew me away. Here was a game that went beyond arcade-style racking up points to depict a human, dramatic situation. It had the smoothest, most sophisticated animation I’d ever seen on an Apple II. Choplifter inspired me to make a game that would be even more cinematic. And that led to Karateka.
What else inspired you?
I took a lot of inspiration from sources other than games. My favorite Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, Hokusai, Japanese woodblock prints. D.W. Griffith, early silent movies and how they used cross-cutting to create suspense. Bruce Lee movies. Disney animation. I look karate lessons at that time as well.
Jordan’s Prince Of Persia series has been a huge success for him.
Was it a challenge to program the game – what was most difficult about it?
The hardest thing was finishing. I was 18, Karateka was the biggest project of any kind I’d taken on. It took two and a half years to finish.
What was the turning point when developing Karateka?
I decided to try rotoscoping. I’d begun trying to draw the frames by hand, but it just looked like programmer animation and it was not nearly good enough for what I was dreaming of. I used Super 8 film to shoot my mom’s karate teacher doing punches and kicks, and then traced the outlines into the computer.
How did you balance studying at Yale with developing Karateka?
Not very well. It’s a miracle that I actually graduated.
Rotoscoping was very much your hallmark at the time. Did the technology restrain you, though?
Designing the games to fit in the 48K of Apple II memory was a huge constraint that influenced every aspect of the game design. Later, this yielded an unexpected benefit: because the game was so compact, it was able to be ported later to a huge variety of computer and console systems around the world, many of which also had tight technical constraints.
When you created Prince Of Persia, did you have more flamboyant ideas for the game?
Part of my original plan for Prince Of Persia was to include the level editor on the disk, so players could create their own Prince Of Persia levels, as Broderbund had done with Lode Runner a few years earlier. I spent months creating a full-featured, user-friendly level editor – but in the end, the only person who got to enjoy using it was me.
You were only 21 at the time. Did you find yourself maturing as a games developer?
I just graduated from college. I was 21 when I started the first Prince Of Persia and my idea was to take the fluid action and presentation of Karateka and combine that with a puzzle solving game. That was really the primary inspiration for Prince Of Persia – that and, as I said before, movies like the first ten minutes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with that kind of running, jumping action, where you feel like the hero is in great danger and escapes by the skin of his teeth. I wanted to bring that kind of excitement to the platform.
On the set of the Prince Of Persia film.
Films are very much your thing. Are you a fan of technology or do you see it as a means to an end?
As you might guess, since all my games and books have been period pieces, I like old things. Ironically, I think I’m most fond of technological marvels once the world has moved on and they’ve become artifacts of the past – like steam locomotives, as in The Last Express, or the manual typewriter, or the Apple II. Maybe 20 years from now, I’ll have the same nostalgia for my iPhone.
For the second game, you directed the game more than being hands on, is that right?
For the first game I made and remade the levels so many times over a period of three years and the second game had a much more conventional, sort of a planned development. I worked with a team of programmers and I sort of directed the game remotely. I was living in Paris at the time, making a short film. I wasn’t there 12 hours a day for the development. With the second game, I pretty much made a couple of drafts of each level and that was it. I had to stick to the schedule.
Prince Of Persia was a well-ported game but were you heavily involved in converting your early games to other formats?
In the Eighties, it was very important to find the right programmer to do a port. Each system – Apple, Commodore, Atari – had its own quirks and tricks, and good programmers who knew how to extract the most from the machine were much in demand. Typically, doing a port was a one-man operation, and could take months or even years.
Did you design your games with ports in mind?
As an Apple II game author, I was well aware that the ultimate fate and commercial success of my game would depend largely on the quality of the ports. There were horror stories about games that failed or never even shipped on an important platform because the programmer it was entrusted to didn’t deliver.
How concerned were you about this happening to your games?
If you read my old journals from the period of Karateka and Prince Of Persia, you can see what a huge concern it was to me at the time that the ports be done well. With Karateka, I was lucky to have Robert Cook do both the Commodore 64 and Atari 400/800 ports. He was a rare programmer who was also a game creator in his own right (Gumball, D/Generation) and had a great eye for detail in graphics and sound. My dad re-orchestrated the Apple II music for the Commodore and Atari versions, to take advantage of the better sound capability of those machines.
Were the ports crucial for the success of Prince Of Persia?
It’s thanks to the various ports that Prince Of Persia survived and is still remembered today. With Prince Of Persia, a few years later, the PC port was done by an internal Broderbund team with Lance Groody as programmer, and it took full advantage of what the PC could do that the Apple couldn’t, including VGA graphics, sound and music. The Mac version went even further, with different versions of the graphics for every type of Mac screen – black and white, colour, LC (this was 1992), and it was really on those platforms that Prince Of Persia took off. The original Apple II version didn’t actually sell many copies, because the Apple II was a dead platform by the time the game released in 1989.
When you formed a studio to make The Last Express, at what stage in your career do you consider yourself to have been?
After Prince Of Persia shipped, I felt burned out on making games. Career-wise, you could say I was on top of the world – I’d had two consecutive hits, starting with Karateka – but I was keenly aware that I’d been glued to a computer screen for most of the last decade, from age 15 to 25. I wanted my life to change. I felt that to keep growing creatively and as a human being, I needed to sink my teeth into something that wasn’t pixels and games.
Notable Jordan Mechner Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Jordan Mechner in issue 112. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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