GDC China: Mechner Charts Prince Of Persia's Creative Evolution
In his GDC China keynote, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner explained that the series' evolution in games and film was assisted by its unpredictable history, with cracks in the plan allowing room for the franchise to grow creatively.
Though the original game, which Mechner created for the Apple II, was born from a love of film, it was never conceived to be a film franchise -- just to sell well as a game. Mechner describes it as "in the tradition of Raiders of the Lost Ark and movies that inspired the games."
Though the game flopped on the Apple II -- the platform's market had more or less died by the game's 1989 release, "three years after the original version the publisher and I realized that this flop had become a hit" when ported to consoles globally, Mechner said.
Originally, Mechner had different plans than becoming a game creator. "My ambition was to become a filmmaker", he says, and during the three year development cycle, "my worry while I was making the first game was that I was taking time away from what I should be doing."
The Evolution of the Game Franchise
Between the game's original release and its console success, Mechner applied to NYU Film School, one of the most prestigious in the U.S., but was rejected because the dean didn't think that his work in games showed any interest in the film medium -- ironic, now, because PoP is launching as a film franchise in 2010.
Though he did make a sequel, it was released only for PC, not the console platforms where the game found success. The franchise lay dormant until 1999, when the critically reviled Prince of Persia 3D, made without Mechner's involvement, was released. Says Mechner, "you really couldn't find a better example of what not do than the first 10 years of Prince of Persia. The franchise was like a garden that I was neglecting. By 2001 Prince of Persia was really a dead franchise -- completely and totally dead."
His reaction? "I thought that was the end. I moved to Los Angeles and thought it was time to get serious about becoming a film screenwriter." When he was living there, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot called to propose a reboot of the franchise.
Though Mechner joined the team at Ubisoft Monstreal working on 2003's Sands of Time, he was not a founding member of the project, and the ideas the team came up with impressed him -- an example of one of the cracks in the franchise where organic growth occurred.
"We really felt we were underdogs, because it was a dead franchise," says Mechner, which gave them the freedom to change it. "We really felt we had to make an original game, as if nobody had heard of it." However, Mechner's involvement made sure it kept ties to the original games.
Getting Hollywood Interested
At this point in his presentation, Mechner showed a trailer he cut in 2004 to show to film executives -- noting that he did not show them any trailers produced by Ubisoft's own marketing team to sell the game to gamers. The reason? "To pitch this as a movie, I didn't want to follow the storyline of the game exactly."
At the time, game to film adaptations were relatively new, and Prince of Persia had one major difference, says Mechner: "this is the first time the creator of a game was also proposing to write the screenplay for the movie." He notes that in all adaptations, "studios worry when the original creator of something writes the screenplay."
However, as Mechner has an understanding of film, it didn't present an issue, because, he says, "While it might seem that Prince of Persia was a great chance for me as the creator to write a screenplay that would be faithful to the game, I didn't, and it didn't even occur to me. The things that made it a good game story were very specific to the medium."
The game's story, he says, "is geared toward what the player can do with a controller. And to give the hero that kind of power takes the drama out of [a film]. What's fun to play is not fun to watch."
Film and games, though they have similarities, have important differences as well, says Mechner. "There's no button on the controller for sit down with someone and have a nice conversation... The game story was just an excuse for getting the player to get from point A to point B and kill everybody he meets." It is not, in his words, "this epic, romantic action movie that [the film version of] Prince of Persia was setting out to be."
In fact, while there might be a film to be made from the story as the game presented it, according to Mechner, "it's a B movie."
There's also an important business reason the two are different, says Mechner. "Ubisoft was doing the games, and Disney was going to be doing the movie, and these were separate endeavors."
And the creative staff who got behind the film project -- producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Mike Newell, were drawn for other reasons than the success or core content of the game franchise, says Mechner. "The reason they wanted to make this movie, not because it was a video game, but because they liked the idea of doing a swashbuckling adventure movie."
The film project benefitted from Hollywood trends, says Mechner. "Movie genres follow cycles, just like game genres. The Arbian Nights genre hadn't been done at the A level in 40 years. It was a film genre that was ripe for renewal." This is much the same as the situation with Pirates of the Caribbean, another Bruckheimer project. "Somebody else would have made [an Arabian-themed film] that'd be coming out right about now."
Where The Light Gets In
In essence, says Mechner, "There were a lot of misfires and missed opportunities, but I think that's a large part of why the franchise has endured. The space between the plan was where these new ideas were able to form and flourish."
The franchise became rich, he says, because "there was no top down strategy... There were all of these different people and companies doing their own thing, and some of these things ended up taking root and flowering. This is not something that anyone could have planned." While it has benefitted greatly from the strong production systems of companies like Disney, Ubisoft, and Jerry Bruckheimer Films, what happens in the spaces is just as crucial.
Mechner isn't so optimistic about the production style followed by other projects. "In a cross media franchise, the film and the game are planned not just to release at the same time and be consistent... Because of the way the Prince of Persia property was developed, this was impossible" because of simultaneous production on games and film at different studios.
Film games, even those planned for long cycles, face issues with hitting a release date, relying on movie content, and going through tough approvals processes, which "makes it hard to do anything fresh," says Mechner. "There has to be some space for a project to develop organically, and it's a lot harder to do that on a project with all of these constraints."
He notes that adaptations of other works into film -- games, or even novels, are also tough. "This also works the other way. It's really hard to make a good movie. It's really easy for a movie to have almost everything going for it, and not to work. The freedom to depart from the game is one of the cracks" that has made the Prince of Persia film, in his view, also creatively successful.
Asked by the audience how the franchise will evolve, Mechner espoused the philosophy of directed, yet natural, creative change. "I don't have a preconception of what the Prince of Persia game in 10 years should look like. I think we're at a good place because the games that have been done up to this point have been so scattered and the franchise isn't locked into one place, but I think people have feelings about which parts they like best... The next game can take the best parts of the franchise and build from there."
And he doesn't see any need to merge the two, even though he does see film sequel potential as well. "I don't think the movie and the game need to come back together into lockstep," says Mechner.
One of the audience members took Mechner's description of the game's story as "an excuse" to explore and battle as a knock against game story. But Mechner resisted that suggestion, saying, "I think the Prince of Persia game story was compelling and well-developed and subtle for a game story."
It's more just a contrast between the media that allows that interpretation, he says. "A movie story needs to be simpler in some ways, and more sophisticated in others. It's not that game storytelling is simpler or less advanced than movie storytelling, it's just a different type of storytelling because it's not geared around the characters, it's geared around what the players do." By that token, says Mechner, "I think that game narrative is best when the plot twists influence what the game player can do."
Another audience member pointed out that the game's original inspiration had been film -- and wondered if games without that backing wouldn't translate as well to the medium. While Mechner admits that "some games certainly lend themselves more readily to film than others", he's not so sure that a strong film inspiration is always a good thing.
Says Mechner, "A lot of games are so clearly based on other movies that if you just made a movie out of a game, it's not exciting, because we've all seen the movies this game is based on. A lot of games seem to be the B version of the movie, so to make the A version of the B version... No, you'd need something more."
He says that the time-rewinding dagger concept from the Sands of Time game helped sell Hollywood on the project. "The kinds of things in games that get filmmakers excited is a particular world, a particular type of action, or a superpower that has never been seen before."
Someone asked about the differences in the production processes at different studios he alluded to. Mechner concentrated on their commonality. "They all have steps, or checks, where you step back and say, 'Are we fulfilling this criterion?' That feels like a safety net, but it's tense. You're afraid that this idea you have... You're not going to be able to sell it."
However, that system is ultimately valuable, he says. "To do this kind of creative work you need to keep this vision of the finished product alive, but leave room for it to grow and change, because a lot of times when people point out flaws in it, they're right. The reason that these systems work so well, they do produce better results."