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How old were you when this all started?
Jordan Mechner: I had just graduated from college. I was 21, but I looked about 15. I couldn't help that.
Someone says that you looked like you grew up, later on in the book.
JM: Yeah. The ordeal of the software development had matured and aged me in a matter of months.
In this part, you talk about how you're going to get the footage that you recorded onto the computer, and it sounds like you really had to improvise.
JM: Yeah. Today, of course, you can point your cell phone at something, press a button, and you're done. But to actually get frames of video into the computer was a multi-step process. I'd done it on Karateka a couple of years earlier using Super 8 film, to get the rotoscoped animations into the computer.
But for Prince of Persia, in the intervening years, VHS had been invented, so the process that I found worked best was to go through VHS to still pictures, by taking pictures off of a freeze frame on the TV screen, getting them developed at the Fotomat, and then pasting them up and using a video camera to capture one still image into the computer, and then cutting out those pictures frame by frame. Kind of laborious.
It sounds incredibly laborious, actually.
JM: But so rewarding, after weeks of work to get all those steps in place, to finally see a little character running and jumping on the screen, and realize that, yes, this was going to work.
These days, there's a lot of technology in place that enables workflows in games. Did the fact you didn't have any technology to rely on free you, creatively?
JM: I think there's something about multitasking... I took three years to make Prince of Persia by doing, sequentially, all the things that a team of three people could have done in a fraction of the time. So in a way, it was inefficient, because I'd get an idea, then I would spend a month building the tool to let me do it, and then I would get back to putting the idea in the game.
But having so much time, I think, really gave room for the game to grow organically. In reading the journals you'll see there were key changes that I made to Prince of Persia when I was a year in, two years in to development, which totally changed the feeling of the game.
For example, adding sword fighting, which was not part of the original game design. Once the game was fairly far along, and much of it had been implemented, it really became apparent that this would inject an element of action and suspense into the game that was missing. So, yeah, I think time is a luxury that makes up, in a lot of ways, for not having readymade tools.
You talk about having a "development system", and how that's not something you had had before. In those days, with the Apple II, you could just program on it. It's not like now, where you have tools that cater to this.
JM: No. We developed software on the machine that was the target platform. When I started, I was working at home, in my parents' house -- so all I had was the Apple II that I brought to college with me. When I got to Broderbund, I saw development systems for the first time. And some of the programmers had hard drives, which I'd never seen, or two computers on their desks.
That opened up new worlds. When I realized I could have two Apple IIs on the desk next to each other, I could use one of them to test -- I could make a change in the program and then I could swap the disk, take a five and a quarter inch disk from one computer to another, boot it up, and test the change I made without destroying the source code file. Yeah, that was a huge time saver.
It's kind of amazing.
JM: Peviously, of course, the computer didn't have enough memory to hold the game and the assembler -- the assembler that would enable me to edit the source code text file -- in memory at the same time. It had to be one or the other. I had to wipe out the machine in order to run the software.
It sounds like such arduous work, but you also have an obvious enthusiasm for it.
JM: Yeah, I think I really enjoyed the work. I mean, I enjoyed that sense of immersion to a task that I thought was exciting and motivating. So I really cherish those moments of payoff, when they come together.
But of course, in the journals, there are a lot of emotional ups and downs recorded there. Some days I think the game is great; others I think it's not good enough, and should I even bother to finish it? But reading the journal, the times when I was happiest, I think, were when I was really deep in the work, and working long hours, completely absorbed in what I was doing. I didn't mind the long hours at all. I loved it.
There's a bit where you talk about working on a screenplay. I know you've always been interested in film, and it's interesting to see the tension between your two ambitions this early on.
JM: Yeah. When I was in college, and out of college, I was really torn between these two careers. I had the idea that I had to choose one or the other, and that the time that I was spending making Prince of Persia was taking me away from film, and vice versa.
It's ironic, of course, because 20 years later it was Prince of Persia -- this game that started on the Apple II -- that gave me my first breakthrough as a film screenwriter. That was, my first screenplay that actually got produced, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.