December 2, 1988
Doug wandered into my office today and I gave him the joystick to play with. He was impressed. When he left he said: "I feel like I've had an adventure." I told him I'd have a version in a couple of months that would really be playable. He said: "Seems to me it's pretty close."
Also spent a couple of hours with Lauren E., and some good ideas came out of that.
I realized that the 50-level, Lode Runner approach is all wrong. What made Karateka so compelling is that it's easy. You boot it up and pick up the joystick and it's obvious what you have to do. You're there, the guard's there, he's in your way.
The goal -- the bad guy and the princess -- is somewhere off to your right, and every step brings you closer. It's mindless, repetitive -- and addictive. Prince of Persia, with all its elaborate complexity, stretches that thread past the breaking point. The world is so big that the player is lost and confused.
So here's the new idea: 10 levels. Easy levels. About the same difficulty and amount of game play as Karateka. You start in the dungeon; you end with the princess.
But that's not the end. The princess gets taken away from you again and you have to go through another, more challenging castle -- four castles in all, 10 levels each -- to win the game and get her for good. Castle four is where we'll put the really tough levels -- for fanatics only, like the last 50 levels of Lode Runner.
At the beginning of the game, story is everything. By the end, it's practically nothing. The experience distills into pure gameplay.
So there it is: slap a story frame on it. Add combat. Design 10 easy levels. That's Prince of Persia. The rest is a bonus.
I'm starting to think there's no reason to include the level editor with the disk. In a way, it cheapens it.
The real trick will be designing those first 10 levels. Finding the right balance of action, strategy, and adventure. That will make the difference between an okay game and a great one. I could slap together 10 levels in a day... but it should take weeks. Weeks of watching beginners play, and revising, and finding new beginners to test it out on.
But first: Combat.
December 3, 1988
Rented a bunch of swashbuckling movies and took them to Robert's new apartment to study the swashbuckling. Of course we ended up watching Captain Blood straight through. We were both amazed by how good it was. I can't remember when I've seen a movie with such a well-constructed plot. Why don't they write screenplays like that anymore?
Then we spent a couple of hours at Broderbund, working out the logic and joystick interface for the swordfighting in POP. This must be the tenth time I've torn it all down and come up with a new way to do it. I hope it'll be the last.
December 5, 1988
Doug told Tomi my game is going to be a smash hit.
Spent much of today on hands and knees, poring with Eric over three dozen snapshots spread out on the office floor, trying to deconstruct Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn's climactic duel in Robin Hood. We really busted our brains.
As a result, my conception now is totally different from what it was yesterday, or Sunday. It'll all be worth it. This is going to be the greatest game of all time.
I just got off the phone (at 1 a.m.) with Lawrence Payne of Compu-Tech Systems in London, who make the digitizer that so inconveniently stopped working a few months ago. It's 9 a.m. in London. He gave me his home number so Russ and I can call him tomorrow morning and he can help us try to fix it.
But really, what I need to do is rent a video camera and find two people to re-enact the moves of Guy of Gisbourne and Robin of Locksley for digital posterity. I want to have it up on the screen now. When I'm pumped up like this, I can hardly sleep at night.
December 8, 1988
Russ and I "fixed" the digitizer (it was in the wrong slot) and changed my life. In the past week, swordfighting has gone from a vague notion of something I'd have to put in the game someday, to reality. The little guy now thrusts and lunges. Everyone who's seen it is thrilled. The amount of painstaking work still ahead of me is too huge to contemplate, but it's paying off more dramatically than anything I've done in months. This is going to be a good game.
December 15, 1988
I came up with an idea for Robert's game. The goal is to rescue people who are trapped in the building; you disinfect the rooms and make it safe for them to escape.
Robert, for his part, came up with a good idea for me -- solid blocks to fill up the empty spaces. It's totally changed the look of the game. Now, it really feels like a dungeon.
[Ed. note, per Mechner, this is "Robert Cook -- his game was eventually published as D-Generation. Robert had also programmed the C64 and Atari ports of Karateka."]
January 3, 1989
Been playing Super Mario 2. First time in ages I've been addicted to an arcade game.
Several points worth noting:
New Year's Resolution: Finish Prince of Persia. (Ship by June 30, 1989.)
January 17, 1989
Been working hard on POP (48 hours last week) and it's really looking good. The sword fighting is starting to take shape, and it not only looks terrific, it's actually fun. It blows Karateka out of the water. It'll become the centerpiece of the entire game. Tomi was right all along. ("Combat! Combat! Combat!")
At this point you seem to think you need a lot of time to finish the game, but Doug says you're close to the end. Were you cognizant of the kind of leaps you were making in progress or was it that, at that point, you were so deep into it you didn't have the perspective?
JM: I had really high hopes for the game, and there were parts of it that always worked, from the beginning, like the basic joystick controls, and the animation, that always felt solid. But there were several points where the game really took a quantum leap, and became significantly better than it would have been otherwise. And the addition of combat and sword fighting was one of those.
But then there was a late burst of level redesign, and that's what really tuned the difficulty curve of the game, and created the pacing that made the whole game really start to work as a storytelling experience from beginning to end. So I think, without that final pass, it would still have been good, but that last 10 percent made a huge difference.
I don't know when in the process elegance became a drive for you, but that's what set it apart as a game.
JM: Of course, for me, elegance is always a goal, an ideal to strive for. If you can achieve an effect with fewer elements, fewer moving parts, it'll have a more powerful impact.
And there, too, I think the memory constraints of the Apple II -- you know, it only had 48k of memory -- really helped, in a way. Because it forced me to dig deeper, to say, "Okay, we can't add moving walls, or stepladders, or explosives, because memory is full. But we've got pressure plates and loose floors. How can we combine those to make new puzzles?"
When the player has played through eight of the 12 levels, they know all the game elements. But now, how can we use those elements and reconfigure them to create something new that makes sense?
Some my favorite moments in the later levels of the game -- like the upside down potion, the feather potion, the leap of faith, the final battle with Shadow Man -- really came out of taking things that had been set up already, and just putting one more twist on them.