Jordan Mechner: The Man Who Would Be Prince
Jordan Mechner is a very busy man. In fact, after more than 25 years in the entertainment industry, 2010 is by far his busiest year to date. In a few weeks, the Prince Of Persia franchise will celebrate its 21st year of existence with the launch of The Forgotten Sands, its eighth major console release. That will roughly coincide with a $150 million film adaptation of 2003’s brilliant The Sands Of Time, for which Mechner will receive the main screenwriting credit – a first for the games industry.
For most people, either of those considerable achievements would be wholly fulfilling, yet Mechner continues to disperse his efforts across a number of ancillary projects. Right now, his career seems poised to reach new heights of success, but Mechner has worked tirelessly since his teens for this moment. Whatever good fortune the next few months bring, it will have been a long time coming.
“When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a writer, animator or filmmaker,” Mechner told us during a brief stop on his whirlwind publicity tour for The Forgotten Sands. “When I got my first Apple II computer I saw this technology as a way to create games that were also stories, that would draw the player into an imaginary world with human characters.”
Much like the pioneers currently exploring the potential of Apple’s emergent platforms, Mechner took the initiative with an emerging technology that most people were still trying to assimilate. “I was impressed by early games like Breakout and Apple Invaders, which were just as addictive as the games in the local coin-op arcade. I poured my energy into learning to create my own games.”
If he were starting out today, Mechner would be able to attend a special school dedicated to teaching game design, and license off-the-shelf engines like Unreal or Source to turn his ideas into reality. Creating games in the Eighties was considerably different. “The hardest part was getting information about how to program,” he says. “There weren’t any books or courses about programming for the general public, and of course no internet, so I had to learn by trading tips with my friends, who didn’t know any more than I did. Also, we didn’t have software tools or applications to create graphics or animation, so I had to make the tools in addition to making the game.”
Mechner recalls sacrificing his academic career at the prestigious Yale University in favour of fulfilling his ambitions as a game designer. “At that time it was pretty much a novelty to even have a computer,” he recalls. “Most college students had Smith-Corona portable typewriters. Videogames were something you dropped quarters into, to kill time. My first three years at Yale, I got terrible grades because I was working harder at making Apple II games than I was on my classes… like, by a factor of ten. I don’t think even my friends suspected how little work I was actually doing to get by. It’s a miracle I didn’t get kicked out… All through [Yale] I was obsessed with getting my first game published. I’d look at the ads and the bestseller lists and daydream about the day I’d have a game there. I spent three years making games that ‘almost’ got published, before Brøderbund finally took Karateka.”
Mechner was taking a class on the history of cinema, and became fascinated with some of the techniques used in early silent films – rotoscoping, cross-cutting, tracking shots. He wanted to use the class as a source of inspiration for a game, and bring cinematic techniques to the Apple II. “My goal was to create a game that was visually sophisticated, yet so easy to play that even a non-gamer could immediately grasp the story, pick up the joystick and become addicted.”