The Making of Prince of Persia (Journals 1985-1993) by Jordan Mechner

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The Making of Prince of Persia (Journals 1985-1993) by Jordan Mechner

Post by Flack »

The second (of two) books Jordan Mechner self-published is another set of his own hand-written journals, this time covering the development of Prince of Persia and its sequel, Prince of Persia 2.

The journal begins as Karateka has become the #1 best selling game on the Apple II. Not only does Mechner make 15% royalty off every copy sold for the Apple II, but a slightly lesser royalty (7.5%-10%) on ports for other systems. It's enough money to cover his expenses for the next few years, but eventually he'll either need to make another game, sell one of his film manuscripts, or (gulp) get a day job. After graduating tom Yale in 1985, Mechner makes the trip from NYC back to California to begin work on a new, Persian-styled game that is instantly dubbed "Prince of Persia" around the office.

The Broderbund Mechner returns to is not the one he left. Games like Choplifter aren't selling like they used to. The company's new best seller is Print Shop.

Like Karateka, Mechner decides again to use his rotoscoping technique. Some of his models are shot on 16mm, while others are shot on VHS. As he struggles with this technology, he spends a lot of time outside the office. It's fun to read about Mechner's first time to see a Nintendo, or the first time he and his friends play Gauntlet ("an arcade game with an appetite for quarters"). He also upgrades his Apple II development system, moving from Apple DOS 3.3 to ProDOS, and eventually getting a hard drive.

When it becomes evident that Prince of Persia will take years instead of months to complete, Broderbund leans on Mechner to produce Karateka II, and is disappointed when he pushes back. Mechner has an artistic vision and wants to make new and exciting games with new stories, and has little interest in revisiting the past. This is a bad move for him, financially. By 1988, sales of Karateka have dried up and he is completely living off of his savings. Broderbund's opinion is that the Apple II market is dead, and no one believes in Mechner's new silly sword-fighting game.

Mechner's an interesting character. When he's sitting at Broderbund working on Prince of Persia, he dreams of attending film school at NYC. When he goes back to NYC to work on films, he wishes he was back in California. He eventually moves to Cuba for six months, wishing he was in Paris. When he moves to Paris, he wishes he was back in the US.

While Mechner is shopping around his screenplays, Broderbund is sinking, and Prince of Persia is getting expensive. Mechner hires an artist to create the game's opening splash screen for $30/hour and receives a bill of $1,015. They then turn around and drop $5,500 on the box artwork, which all the women in the office complain is sexist. The company constantly begs Mechner to finish the game, but the closer he gets, the worse the Apple II market begins to look. An MS-DOS port is planned almost immediately. Mechner pays two programmers $3,000 out of pocket to get started, but after a few months they lose interest and quit. Mechner has been offered a 15% royalty rate on Apple II sales, 7.5% rate on the MS-DOS port, and 3% on any sequel rights. But none of this matters if he doesn't finish the game.

Prince of Persia is finally released on the Apple II, but not to much fanfare. Other companies see the value in the game, and not only is the MS-DOS version highly anticipated, but offers to port the game to the Amiga, Atari, Amstrad, Macintosh, Gameboy, Nintendo, and Sega systems are all knocking on the door.

A few months after its release, Prince of Persia wins game of the year (January, 1990). the problem is, there are still no sales. The Apple II version is selling 500 units a month. Tandy agrees to buy 11,000 copies when the MS-DOS version is released, which means the IBM version had officially outsold the Apple II version 2:1 before it had even been released. The MS-DOS version, of course, blows the Apple II version out of the water. It was first developed using EGA graphics, and then upgraded to VGA. The graphics are better. The sound is better. The whole game is better.

In the summer of 1990, Mechner laments that Prince of Persia has sold a total of 9,741 units, and during that same time Karateka (which was five years old at the time) had sold almost the same number of units at 9,645. Mechner is convinced the game was a failure and so he returns to NYC (again) to work on his screenplays.

Of course the game is not a failure. The MS-DOS port (and others) begin selling. Mechner's royalty check in October, 1990 is $1,500. His check in February of 1991 is $56,000. By March of 1992, they're $80,000 a month.

By 1992, Broderbund has already contacted Mechner about Prince of Persia II, which they say he can produce, they will develop in house, and he will still get 10% royalty. Of course he agrees.

One thing I enjoyed in both of Mechner's books was when he talks about meeting his heroes. We're not talking about presidents or astronauts here. When Mechner first arrived at Broderbund he was star-struck after meeting Dan Gorlin (author of Choplifter) and Doug Smith (Lode Runner). Later at an award show where he is slated to win an award for Prince of Persia, he meets Frederick Raynal (Alone in the Dark), Eric Chahi (Out of This World), and Paul Cuisset (Flashback).

The journal ends with Mechner as a 25 year old millionaire, unsure of what he's going to do next. In the last chapter he has begun work on what he calls "the train game," which would later be called The Last Express, his third and final game.

I found it interesting at how sure Mechner was that his games would be hits. He seemed convinced Karateka was a groundbreaking game, and it was, and that Prince of Persia would also be the best selling game for a period, and it was, too. The guy certainly had a knack for combining cinematics, music, graphics, and a good plot into making fun video games.

So there you go.
"Jack Flack always escapes." -Davey Osborne