This is an archive of old blog articles from 2008-2013. Read the latest news from Jordan.
This is an archive of old blog articles from 2008-2013. Read the latest news from Jordan.
I started keeping a journal my freshman year in college, and kept the habit for years afterward. I'm still not sure whether it was a good habit or a bad one. A few months ago, when I sat down to write an afterword for the Prince of Persia graphic novel, I pulled out those old notebooks and started to browse through them, figuring it might help me wrap my mind around Prince of Persia's 20-year history.
It's all there. The story of how Prince of Persia came to be, and almost didn't. It occurred to me that as a case history, a time-capsule view of the videogame industry as it was in the 1980s, this was a story others might find interesting too.
So even though the last thing I need is another hobby — especially one that involves spending more time at the keyboard — I've begun posting those old journal entries, a kind of blog from the past, starting in 1985. Check out the "Old Journals" and let me know what you think. If enough people are interested, I'll keep posting — ideally, at least through the end of 1989, when... well, you'll find out.
The entries are selected and abridged — most of what I had on my mind at age 21, you don't want to hear about — but on principle, I've let things stand as I wrote them, and avoided the temptation to revise with hindsight.
As a kid I was pretty good at drawing... until I got my first Apple II computer. After that, I did the occasional scribble-sketch, but my level of skill basically remained frozen for the next 30 years. When you stop drawing, you get rusty very fast.
Over three decades of writing, programming, and other left-brain activities, I pretty much forgot that I'd ever known how to draw.
Until ten months ago. It was in Paris, a city where unexpected things often happen to me. The first day after flying in from California is always a bit surreal anyway; you force yourself to stay up and walk around in the bright daylight, even though your body wants to be asleep and dreaming. On that day, to stay awake I went to the Jewish Museum in the Marais. They had an exhibit called "From Superman to The Rabbi's Cat" about the history of comics.
As I prowled the museum, it gradually became intolerable to me that I had gotten to a point in my life where I could no longer express myself through drawing. I don't know if it was the comics or the Holocaust memorabilia that tore it, but the next morning I bought a sketchbook and a pen and started drawing people in the street, in cafés, at train stations. That was last December. I've gone through three notebooks since then.
Now, I'm addicted. These days, when I'm in an airport and my flight is delayed, I hardly mind, because it's a chance to draw. I love drawing even when the drawings don't come out right. It's a trance state, like playing music or skiing: Even when it's bad, it's good.
Reader Masoud Shoushtarian asks about the Prince of Persia movie:
- do know about persian culture and persian civilization?
- why do you make this movie without iranian actor or actress?
- why don't you make this movie in iran?
The story and screenplay for Prince of Persia were inspired by many sources, especially the tales of the 1001 Nights and Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (Book of Kings). In doing the research I read pretty widely, including the lives and writings of Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and Ibn Battuta, and modern histories such as Frye's The Golden Age of Persia, but my goal was to create an entertaining fantasy in the spirit of the 1001 Nights.
In my afterword for the Prince of Persia graphic novel (which was written by an Iranian author, A.B. Sina) I talk a bit more about the origins of Prince of Persia and its connection to Iranian history and legend. The graphic novel site also has an interview with A.B. offering some of his thoughts on the subject.
The movie casting and location decisions weren't mine to make, but the choice to shoot in Morocco and the UK was certainly based on practical considerations including availability of locations and production facilities. For similar reasons, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, and Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra were also shot in Morocco, although those stories take place in Jerusalem, Somalia and Egypt respectively.
Just posted a new batch of old journal entries, bringing us up to September 1986.
Many thanks to all the readers who have written in to comment on the old journals. The October 1985 animation reference video seems to be especially popular.
So OK, the die is cast... I'll continue this "blog from the past" so you can follow the development of Apple II POP (and related matters) in all its gory details. True diehards can subscribe to the old-journals RSS feed here. And yes, there will be more videos to come!
This tunnel is part of a highway being built through a mountainous region of northern Albania, connecting the Adriatic port of Durres to southern Kosovo.
I showed my sketch to a Turkish engineer who'd been watching me draw. He studied it briefly, then shook his head and handed it back to me with one comment: "You drew that pipe crooked, but in reality, it is straight."
I couldn't help thinking it would have been a great setting for an episode of Ops.
One of my most hopeful daydreams as a kid was to discover a secret compartment in our house, perhaps in a wall or under the floorboards, containing a cache of old papers that would set me on the trail of a long-hidden secret. (Since the house was built in 1970 and we were the first occupants, this was about as likely as finding a dinosaur fossil in one of the metamorphic rocks in the woods around our house; but it took me a long time to give up on that search, too.)
A few months ago, my friend Barry Isaacson actually did find a cache of old papers hidden in a secret compartment in his house. The real-life horror story they revealed is enough to give any child, or parent, nightmares.
Here's Barry's story as he wrote it for the LA Weekly.
Designating a particular moment as the end of the story is basically arbitrary, because life just keeps going on (I think that's what David Chase was getting at with the Sopranos finale)… but January 1993 seems like as good a point as any to stop.
From here on, my old journals are increasingly taken up with the saga of Smoking Car Productions and The Last Express. Which is a good story too, but for another time.
My thanks to all the readers who've followed the seven-and-a-half-year tale of how Prince of Persia came to be. It's been fun for me, revisiting those days. I'll leave all the old journal entries up on the site, and will continue to welcome your comments and questions as always.
— Los Angeles, November 2009
This life drawing workshop was a cool way to spend a Monday evening. I got a lot of inspiration seeing the other artists work. Some of them were really good.
I did this page during the breaks and actually like it better than my drawings of the model. It's more interesting to draw people who are doing something, than a model who's holding completely still.
I'm writing this from London, where the Prince of Persia movie is shooting now. The Pinewood studios, originally built in the 1930's, still feel very much of that era, at least to my L.A.-accustomed eyes. The contrast between the dilapidated physical infrastructure, and the state-of-the-art technology being used inside the stages, is striking.
Whereas the state-of-the-art technology we used to make The Last Express is now as quaint and dated as the 1914-era steam locomotives that were still in service when the Pinewood stages were built.
Pinewood is in an industrial park west of London. To get there, you take the A40 highway, which was originally a Roman road. It was already old in the sixth century, when Prince of Persia is set.
Jet lag makes me think about stuff like this.
Congratulations to this year's graduating class at ENJMIN — the graduate school for video games established by France's CNAM (Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers) in Angouleme, near Bordeaux. I've had the honor and the pleasure of being their parrain (mentor) for the last year. At last week's graduation ceremony, I passed the baton to Ubisoft's Serge Hascoët, as Eric Viennot passed it to me a year ago. It was a great experience getting to know the students and faculty at ENJMIN, and I have no doubt that the games industry will benefit from their ideas, energy and talent.
Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story — a short documentary I wrote and directed in 2003 about the Mexican-American village in the heart of L.A. that got replaced by Dodger Stadium — is finally available on DVD from Amazon.com at the reasonably consumer-friendly price point of $12.95.
For educational and institutional buyers, the DVD can still be purchased directly from Bullfrog Films at the original price of $195.00, if you feel that is more appropriate to your situation.
Though the Prince of Persia has managed to survive for 20 years as a videogame hero without any character ever mentioning his name, this wasn't a realistic option when it came to writing the movie. He needed a name.
I found it in this passage from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings):
[The Simorgh] went to the youth and said, "O brave young man, until today I have brought you up as if I were your nurse, and I have taught you speech and the ways of virtue. Now it is time for you to return to your own birthplace. Your father has come searching for you. I have named you Dastan (The Trickster) and from now on you will be known by this name."
Despite what the Simorgh says, the new name doesn't stick; everyone goes back to calling him by his real name, Zal. But Dastan seemed like the perfect name for my prince (especially since Zal wasn't using it). So I borrowed it.
The Trickster has been a popular heroic archetype for thousands of years (Joseph Campbell called him the "Hero with a Thousand Faces"). From his first incarnation as an Apple II sprite, the prince has run, jumped and scrambled firmly in the footsteps of other well-known Tricksters like Robin Hood, Zorro, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and (of course) the Man with No Name.
As it turns out, the word dastan has shadings I wasn't aware of — shadings that make it an even more appropriate name for the prince than I realized.
First, several people (including Jake Gyllenhaal the first day we met) have pointed out to me that Dastan is also a Persian word meaning "story." And so it is, although the vowel is pronounced differently. According to wikipedia, a Dastan is a type of Central Asian oral history "centered on one individual who protects his tribe or his people from an outside invader/enemy." Hey, just like every video game.
Then, I came across this fascinating article by Dick Davis (the translator of the English edition of the Shahnameh I quoted above). He's discussing the qualities of the Trickster Hero as they pertain to Rostam, Persia's greatest epic hero (think Hercules, Siegfried, etc), who is way more famous than Zal or Dastan. It's a great example of the kind of nuances that get lost in translation:
There is also the curious nature of his name to be taken into account. He is often referred to as "Rostam-e Dastan," which can have two different meanings. One, "Rostam the son of Dastan," is the meaning the poem foregrounds, and his father, Zal, is seen as having somewhere along the line acquired a second name, Dastan. But the phrase can also mean "Rostam who possesses the quality of dastan", and the word "dastan" means "trickery." This, I believe, was the original meaning of the phrase "Rostam-e Dastan" (probably long before the Shahnameh was written, while the stories of Rostam still had a solely oral existence), i.e. "Rostam the trickster", the equivalent of Homer's "Odysseus of many wiles", and only later did the word dastan come to be identified as the name of his father (after all, his father already had a name, Zal).
The prince in Sands of Time (the video game) at one point wishes aloud that he had the strength of Rostam so that he could smash through a certain wall. I figured a seventh-century Persian prince would have grown up hearing those tales and would use them as a point of reference.
Now he's got a name of his own.
It's official: I'm writing a film adaptation of Fathom, the comic book series created by the late, great Michael Turner. Megan Fox is attached to star.
The first time I read the book about ten years ago, my immediate reaction was "I wish I'd thought of that!" (It's about a young girl who discovers that she belongs to an ocean-dwelling race that has existed secretly alongside humans for thousands of years.)
At that time, the film rights were with James Cameron's company, they already had a writer, and Ubisoft and I were in early discussions about the project that would become Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. So I put Fathom out of my mind... for ten years.
Last October, out of the blue, I got a call from Fox Atomic saying they were starting over with Fathom and would I be interested in writing the screenplay? Were they kidding? I pitched my take to Fox execs Zak Kadison and Eric Lieb and producers Peter Safran, Steve Bessen, Brian Austin Green, and Frank Mastromauro. They liked it, so I got to pitch it again to a slightly larger group including Megan and studio head Debbie Liebling. (If that sounds like an intimidating roomful of people, it kind of is.)
Now the news is out, and I'm incredibly stoked. Megan is a Michael Turner fan from way back and was instrumental in making this project happen. She's perfectly cast as Aspen Matthews.
Watch this space for updates. It may take a while till the next one, though. I need to go write now.
A couple of years ago, for a fun weekend project, I captured a dozen hours of gameplay footage from my 1997 adventure game The Last Express and edited it down into a single, 75-minute linear narrative.
Other than a walk down memory lane, I'm not sure what it's good for. It doesn't work as a movie — the demands of game vs. film storytelling are too different — and the low-res, dissolve-between-still-frames animation looks awfully clunky now. But for anyone who's interested, here it is (in eight 10-minute segments).
Spoiler alert: If you haven't played the game, Part 8 gives away the ending.
Parts 2-8 are available here.
John August and Mystery Man have already posted about this priceless document: a 125-page typed transcript of a series of 1978 meetings between producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in which they figure out the story line of their next movie, about an archaeologist hero named "Indiana Smith," so that Kasdan can go off and write it.
Discovering this transcript has made my week (and it's only Monday). I recommend it not just to screenwriters but to anyone interested in the process that goes into creating an iconic hero. Reading it, witnessing the characters, scenes and plot points of a familiar masterpiece emerge in real time from the mass of alternative possibilities, gave me chills. I couldn't help thinking of Michelangelo's apocryphal advice to "take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn't look like a Pieta."
The classic Well of Souls snakepit scene, for example, is first envisioned as a flood, and evolves from there:
G [Lucas] — And then all the water rushes through?
S [Spielberg] — And he swims out with the water. It's a waterfall.
G — The only problem with the water is it's going to be hard to do, and it's going to be hard to rationalize it. We can't. We can call it the temple of life and establish that it has a lot of water in it. But, at the same time, it's like the sand. Plus it's such a classic thing.
S — What about snakes? All these snakes come out.
G — People hate snakes. Possibly when he gets down there in the first place.
L [Kasdan] — Asps? They're too small.
S — It's like hundreds of thousands of snakes.
As they discuss "the girl," it's fascinating to see what could have been a stock character take shape into one that sets the bar, not only for all later Indiana Jones movies, but pretty much for action-adventure blockbusters in general for the next thirty years. Some of Marion's best scenes arise from their struggle to logically justify her presence (or absence) in certain setpieces:
G — We have to figure out a reason for them to take the girl at this point. Before I had it because she was a double agent.
L — Maybe here is where we can save the other thing. The Frenchman wants her, even though she's not receptive to it. We can do that in a scene when he comes in to question her. Say he's the Claude Rains character, it makes sense that he's attracted to Barbara Stanwyck. The German says it's time to get rid of her, the French guy says no.
G — The big thing with these movies is the damsel is going to get screwed by the bad guy. What we do is, in the interrogation scene the Frenchman is in love with her, coming on to her. The German torture guy could care less: "Get out of my way." When they push her down into the snake pit, it's the German guy who does it, and the Frenchman is very upset about it. "The girl was mine." "She's a waste of time, and we don't need her."
Then there are moments like this:
L — How do you see this guy?
G — Someone like Harrison Ford, Paul LeMat. A young Steve McQueen. It would be ideal if we could find some stunt man who could act.
S — Burt Reynolds. Baryshnikov.
For great commentary and more excerpts, check out Mystery Man's and John's posts. MM's comments section offers various possible links to the full transcript in .pdf and html.
I have no idea how this got on the internet, and I hope Lucas, Spielberg et al don't mind... but I'm really glad.
I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time the summer I graduated from high school, on a giant screen in Leicester Square in London. I still remember the excitement of that packed theater. To state the obvious, Raiders was the inspiration and template for Prince of Persia... the original 1989 Apple II game, as well as what came after.
Today is the first day of spring and the Persian New Year. Aideh shoma mobarak!
This was day 30 of the Prince of Persia movie shoot. A spectacular setup with about 350 extras, horses, camels and goats lined up on a ridge. That afternoon a sandstorm rose up suddenly, prompting the decision to wrap early.
A huge exodus of cars, trucks, animals and extras ensued. I had the bright idea of walking the five minutes back to base camp along with the extras, instead of getting a ride, so I could take pictures of the exodus. This was how I found out that (a) a five-minute walk in a full-on sandstorm takes a lot longer than five minutes, and (b) it only takes about thirty seconds for a camera to get so full of sand that its moving parts won't move any more.
When I got to the air-conditioned sanctuary of Mike Stenson's trailer, he remarked: "You're a different color than when I saw you last."
Then it rained.
Many thanks to the readers who've been following and commenting on my old journals. Originally, I'd planned to end the feature here — in October 1989, with the release of Apple II Prince of Persia, four years in the making.
Now that we've reached that milestone, though, I realize that no self-respecting storyteller would end at such a critical moment, with my worst fears about the game's commercial prospects soon to be horribly confirmed. So I'll let my 20-years-younger self keep on blogging from the past a while longer.
Meanwhile, here are answers to some nostalgia-oriented readers' questions — this one from Ugur Mengilli:
In which programming language was PoP written?
From Nabil Nawaz:
What language did you program Karateka in? How long did it take to code the game?
I coded both Karateka and POP in 6502 assembly language. Looks like this:
CLRMEM LDA #$00 ;Set up zero value
TAY ;Initialize index pointer
CLRM1 STA (TOPNT),Y ;Clear memory location
INY ;Advance index pointer
DEX ;Decrement counter
BNE CLRM1 ;Not zero, continue checking
Karateka took me about two years and POP four. Both were significantly slowed down by other things I was attempting at the same time (like finishing college, and writing my first screenplay), as the old journals show.
From Sam Assenberg:
I am Sam and I still play the original Prince of Persia almost every day. I'm a big fan of you and Prince of Persia!
Soon, Prince of Persia exists 20 year and we, my uncle and I, are planning a Prince of Persia anniversary! He played it during a few years after it had been released and I started to play when I was about seven years old, almost nine years ago. We love it very much.
We've searched all over the web for the exact release date of PoP (we need that for the anniversary), but we couldn't find it. And that's our question for you: when has PoP been released exactly?
I had to check the old journals myself to find the answer. The first Apple II version was published in the U.S. on October 3, 1989. So, still six months away. Thanks, Sam and your uncle, for reminding me!
If you'd like to read the old journals from the beginning, they start here.
This NPR interview with Mo Willems really struck a chord with me. He points out that while all kids draw, almost no adults do, and questions why:
"People stop when they decide they're not good at it. Nobody stops playing basketball when they realize they're not going to become a professional. The same thing should apply to cartooning."
About a year and a half ago I started carrying around a notebook and sketching what I saw. Aside from the pure fun of it, my new hobby has enriched my life in more ways than I ever expected. Willems has some great things to say in favor of picking up the pen, and I can't endorse his message enough.
Of all the things there are to draw in the world, for me the most fascinating, compelling, and damnably difficult is sketching people I know.
It's way more pressure than clandestinely sketching complete strangers in a café or an airport. When you draw someone you know, you've got nowhere to hide.
This little scribble (lower left) of 2nd AD Rich Goodwin standing between takes on the POP set in Ouarzazate was one of the few times I felt I got a recognizable likeness, even though you can't see his face. (Whereas the one of John Seale looks nothing like him.)
Went down to the Aspen MLT offices to catch up on all things Fathom and see the work the artists are doing for the upcoming season.
Frank Mastromauro and Peter Steigerwald showed me a stack of Mike Turner's original Fathom pencil art, including the very first appearance of Aspen Matthews.
There's something uncanny about a physical drawing, pencil on paper. It's as close as we can come to touching one of those fleeting moments when you imagine something new for the first time. Something that might change your life, and other people's.
It was sobering to realize that the stack is finite.
I found this Gamasutra editorial by Chris Remo interesting (and not just because he mentions POP). He dares to ask: Why do today's video games (and the movies based on them) tend so relentlessly toward the epic, at the expense of other kinds of stories?
Is it because games are often played as power fantasies? Is it because, when the default progression mechanic in most games is combat, grand conflict and badassery just make the most sense?
It's a good question. I saw Star Trek last week at the Arclight Hollywood with friends whose movie tastes run more towards art-house fare. (I loved it, they didn't.) After the first three trailers (Transformers, Terminator, and GI Joe), my friend leaned over to me in some perplexity and said: "I feel like I've just seen the same trailer three times in a row."
Coincidentally, Terry Gilliam made much the same remark in today's LA Times:
Terry Gilliam went to the movies the other night, and this is what he saw. "Trailers from 'Transformers,' ' G.I. Joe,' ' Harry Potter'; they all had the same explosions, the same sound mix, the same rhythms, it was all the same film," the director says, still not quite believing it. " Hollywood's been doing this for 20 years. When's it going to end?"
[Small world: Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, was edited by Mick Audsley, who is also one of the editors of the POP movie.]
Kurosawa once said that he made movies for people in their twenties. For me, that's the key. Epics are the kind of movies I loved most when I was in my teens and early twenties. I liked other kinds of movies too, but I lived for epics. Movies (and video games) mattered more to me at that time in my life than they ever have since. This being a business, it's fair to note that I spent a far greater proportion of my time and disposable income consuming them than I do now. So in a way, I'm still making movies and games for my 20-year-old self.
These days, when I go to the movies (or the Xbox), be it Star Trek, Bioshock or whatever, what holds my interest most are the small, quirky, human moments that somehow transcend the familiar epic framework, make it come alive one more time. They're getting harder to find.
The first five years of Old Journals have now been posted, covering the development and first release of Prince of Persia. As of June 1990 — nineteen years ago — POP is struggling for life on two formats, Apple II and IBM.
I really appreciate the interest readers are showing in these journals, both on this site and on Twitter. I'll continue posting one new old journal entry a day. Thanks for following!
Had fun checking out some of this year's E3 titles (without actually going to E3) at House of Game, a "vernissage" organized by the Hollywood gamers who started Nerd Poker.
Among the cool-looking upcoming titles: Tim Schafer's Brutal Legend, Pandemic's The Saboteur, Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, and, of course, Uncharted 2.
I especially enjoyed seeing some of the indie games: A USC student project called The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. And Shadow Physics, a very cool mechanic in search of a game. Maybe because they're works in progress, or just because they're underdogs; but three hours later, I find myself thinking about them more than about the big studio fare.
Okay, this speech has been heard by probably a billion people worldwide; he doesn't need me to plug it... but I'm just so happy to have a President who says things like this:
All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort - a sustained effort - to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.
It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.
I bought a Moleskine watercolor sketchbook and a travel-size watercolor set and took them to my neighborhood life drawing workshop. I still have no idea what I'm doing and no control over how it comes out, but I'm starting to realize that's actually part of why watercolor is fun.
My friend Justin Thompson sent me to this cabaret-themed drawing salon put on by the Gallery Girls. First time I'd been. I'd been working really hard all week, finishing up the first draft of Fathom, and it was a fun change of pace to decompress by spending an evening drawing people in crazy costumes with live music and a bar.
A lot of the artists there were pros and some had pretty mad skills. The guy sitting next to me, Joey Mason, amazed me with his dead-on caricatures that in a few lines somehow managed to look "more like" the model than the classic/academic, accurately shaded drawings other artists were doing (which amazed me too).
Just gave a talk to Lucasfilm at their Presidio campus. The invitation included spending a night at the Skywalker Ranch — the stuff of dreams, for me.
I'd been to the ranch once before, in 1987. I was two years out of college, stalled halfway through the first Apple II version of Prince of Persia, and torn between pursuing a career in computer games or screenwriting. In fact, the old Broderbund Software building where I programmed POP is just down the road from the Skywalker Ranch (a long, winding, scenic road, often foggy and frequented by deer). So being invited back to tell Lucasfilm staff the story of POP's 20-year journey — from 8-bit computer game to summer movie — felt pretty cosmic.
Especially considering that it all goes back to the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Both the Skywalker Ranch and the Presidio campus are seriously nice places — in idyllic natural settings, with a level of luxury and attention to detail rarely found in movie or videogame studios. And filled with sacred artifacts like the Original Millenium Falcon.
I got a tour and a sneak peek at some of the cool stuff the LucasArts guys have been working on, at least one of which I'm pretty sure I can mention without violating the NDA I signed along with the retinal scan.
Thanks, Lucasfilm, for a great and memorable visit.
My friend Alex Puvilland tipped me off to the 23rd International Sketchcrawl happening today in many cities around the world, including L.A. Basically, the idea is for a bunch of people to get together and spend the day sketching what they see, and post the results.
So I made my way down to Echo Park to brave the summer heat with a dozen or so like-minded souls. I'm looking forward to seeing their sketches. Here are some of mine:
View from Angelus Temple steps:
Not too surprisingly, most everyone I met today is planning to attend San Diego Comic-Con in two weeks.
I'll be in San Diego next Friday for an 11:30 am Q&A panel about the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time graphic novel anthology I'm writing for Disney, with artists Todd McFarlane, Cameron Stewart, Bernard Chang, Tommy Lee Edwards, Josh Middleton, and Niko Henrichon, many of whom will be on the panel as well. (Check the Comic-Con schedule for updated details.)
It's been a very cool project and one I've had a lot of fun doing. The book is a prequel to the movie (I use the word "prequel" advisedly, for those who think time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction), with each chapter drawn by a different artist in a different style. It'll be published next April as part of the Prince of Persia movie pre-launch.
This is the second Prince of Persia graphic novel I've been involved with — the first, written by A.B. Sina and illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, was published last year by First Second Books — and they're very different projects. Whereas the First Second book is deliberately separate from the games and movie — linked thematically, rather than through plot and characters — the Disney book is firmly in the universe of the movie. It offered a chance to establish, and expand on, the characters' world and back stories beyond what's in the film.
Most enjoyably, it's given me an opportunity to revisit the story and characters of the original game for the first time in two decades — though in a way that's kind of hard to explain, until you read the book.
Hope to see you next Friday, those of you who can make it!
This essay by Michael Chabon is so true, I just had to link to it.
Browsing through my storage room in an attempt to avoid working on my current project, I stumbled across this printout of an unfinished screenplay (PDF) I'd started, then abandoned, back in 2002.
Entitled "Red Serpent," and set in 1904 Paris, ten years before the events of The Last Express, it would have been an early adventure of Robert Cath (still in medical school) and his best/worst friend Tyler Whitney (upgraded in this version to Cath's half-brother — a change I don't think I'd make today).
The plot bears a more-than-slight resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, which would be published the following year. No plagiarism was involved. I'd guess that Dan Brown and I had been reading the same pseudo-historical "research," including Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent and Leigh (who did, in fact, sue Brown for plagiarism, and lost). Whereas Brown treated their theory seriously, my approach was more tongue-in-cheek.
I've posted it here (PDF) in case it interests anyone — as a glimpse into the early, rough-first-draft stages of the creative process. Mostly, the stories we read are ones that survive all the way to completion. This one, for many reasons, didn't.
Rereading the screenplay fragment today, I can see why I abandoned it. There are things in it that I like, but it's not really of a piece with The Last Express. It's more fluffy and lightweight. It can't quite decide whether it wants to be a movie in the Indiana Jones/Da Vinci Code spirit, or a spoof of that kind of movie. And, while I enjoyed the two main characters, I can't quite see them growing up to be Cath and Tyler as Tomi Pierce and I originally conceived them.
Also, in 2002, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (the game) was gearing up production at Ubisoft Montreal, and my excitement for that project was growing while my sense of conviction on this one was dwindling. Ultimately, I dropped "Red Serpent" to give me more time for POP. It was the right decision.
A thoughtful article by Tom Cross on Gamasutra about The Last Express and immersive game worlds:
I'll be giving a keynote at the Game Developers Conference in Shanghai. The date is October 12, I think. If you happen to be in Shanghai and are interested in attending, the official GDC website has details. Looking forward to it!
About two years ago, I started carrying a notebook around with me so I could sketch when the urge struck. My friend Alex Puvilland gave me my notebook number two, a Moleskine sketchbook, which is the kind I've used ever since. I've filled seven of them.
Moleskines are kind of the iPhone of sketchbooks: They're ubiquitous, pricey, and their marketing is so blatantly geared toward making you feel like possessing one will make you a cooler person that I feel a vague sense of embarrassment at having succumbed. But I keep on using them anyway, because they're just so well designed.
Nifty features: The pocket in the back is just right for holding airplane boarding passes and scraps of paper you don't want to lose. The binding doesn't fall apart no matter how much you kick it around. And there's a ribbon to mark your place.
The paper is really thick. At first, I found it almost intimidating (as if it required a worthier drawing than just a casual scribble), but I got over that. It's thick enough that I can draw on both sides without it showing through, which makes the book last twice as long.
It's not good for watercolor; the paper is so smooth that the water just beads up and rolls off the surface. It will accept an India ink wash, like this sketch I did in Union Square. Watercolor pencils also seem to work OK.
Moleskine does make a watercolor notebook; I used one for these watercolor sketches, but I haven't really gotten comfortable with it.
The pen I use most often is a Staedtler pigment liner, black, 0.3 nib. It's not perfect, but it's waterproof, and cheap enough that I can buy them by the dozen and always have an extra handy when I lose one (or when the cap gets lost, which happens a lot, as it tends to fall off when I stick it on the back end). I'm still looking for the perfect pen. I'd also love to find a brush pen that uses indelible India ink cartridges, but can't seem to find one. Suggestions welcome.
In my GDC China keynote about Prince of Persia's 20-year journey from game to film, I showed a 2-minute trailer I made six years ago to pitch the movie to Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney execs. I'm posting it here for those who are interested.
Why did I cut a new trailer, instead of using one of the existing game trailers Ubisoft had already produced to market the Sands of Time game? Because the game marketing trailers were very specific about certain story points that weren't in the movie (freeze, fast-forward, sand monsters, visions). Co-producer John August and I didn't want to confuse the execs by showing them a different story from the one we were pitching.
It took me a week to cut on Final Cut Express, in late 2003. Assembling a trailer from existing PS2 game footage was an editing challenge, because key scenes, locations and characters from the movie didn't exist. So rather than attempt to explicitly tell the story of the movie in the trailer, I set out to convey the kind of movie it would be. (Don't worry, there are no spoilers — the trailer reveals nothing about the plot of the movie beyond what's in the game.)
The sound mix is rough — I didn't have the proper elements or the time to do a professional-quality mix — but it served its purpose of selling the pitch. Hope you enjoy it.
After I spoke at GDC in Shanghai yesterday morning, Gamasutra posted a summary of my keynote. Their report was very good and accurate, but I want to clarify a comment that set off alarms with some Sands of Time game fans:
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."
This sounds like I'm saying the Sands of Time game story is somehow less ambitious or less fully realized than the film story. That definitely wasn't my intention.
Just because a game story is designed to support and enhance a particular game play mechanic (which, in the case of Sands of Time, does indeed consist largely of getting from point A to point B in various challenging, acrobatic ways, while killing sand monsters along the way) does not mean that it can't be every bit as sophisticated and nuanced in terms of dialog, character development, emotional and thematic resonance, literary qualities, etc., as a movie story. Indeed, the Sands of Time video game achieves some narrative effects that are beyond the scope of film, or at least beyond the scope of a 110-minute action-adventure movie: for example, the counterpoint, sometimes emotional, sometimes ironic, between the voice-over narration, the onscreen banter between the Prince and Farah, and the Prince's actions under the player's control.
The 2003 Sands of Time game doesn't need me to defend it, but I hope this post helps clear up any misunderstanding.
I've met Eric Chahi (creator of Another World) twice: in Paris in 1992, and a couple of years later in San Francisco, where the Smoking Car team and I were toiling away on The Last Express, while Eric and his Amazing Studios were deep in the throes of finishing Heart of Darkness — both passion projects that had gone over schedule and budget, an ocean apart, exacting a psychic and financial toll for which the experiences of making Prince of Persia and Another World had only partly prepared us.
I remember looking at Eric's tired face and thinking: He looks the way I feel.
Recently, Mark Siegel, my editor at First Second Books, asked me if by chance I had Eric's contact info. I hadn't spoken to Eric in a dozen years (though the original Another World poster he signed for me is hanging in my office), so I asked my friend Eric Viennot.
Update: An English translation (non-Babelfish) has been posted on Gamasutra.
From my last day in Shanghai:
This is my new favorite skyscraper, the Jin Mao Tower. (The one that looks like a bottle opener is the Shanghai World Financial Center.)
I did this sketch from the top of the tower. It was growing dark and the city was fast disappearing in the haze, so I only had a few minutes. I actually like it better than the more "done" sketch I did in the park.
Update: The Making of Prince of Persia journals are now available as an ebook. You can buy it here.
For the past year, I've been posting daily entries from the old journals I kept while I was programming Prince of Persia on the Apple II, 20 years ago.
This "blog from the past" covers roughly seven and a half years from May 1985 to January 1993 — from Prince of Persia's conception through the development of its sequel, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame.
In a coincidence I couldn't have planned, this month marks both the 20th anniversary of the original game's release, and the release of the first trailer for Disney's Prince of Persia movie. Time is an ocean in a storm.
If you're curious to know how the Prince's journey began, back in those halcyon days when computers looked like this, it's all in the Old Journals. Some highlights include: the day my kid brother modeled the prince's moves; the day Prince of Persia got its title; and the first rotoscoped animation test.
You can read the whole story from the beginning starting here.
The first official trailer for the Prince of Persia movie (opening in theaters May 28, 2010) is now online.
There are some bootleg low-res versions bouncing around the net, despite the best-laid plans of Mouse and men. Accept no substitutes. The hi-def version looks better.
I got to see the trailer in a movie theater for the first time last week in San Francisco and L.A., when producer Jerry Bruckheimer and I did Q&As with journalists. It was quite a thrill seeing it on a big screen with a theater full of people.
There's actually one line of dialog in the movie trailer that's also in the homemade game-footage trailer John August and I used to pitch the project to Jerry and Disney six years ago. Which is funny, because the line's not actually in the movie (at least I don't think it is). No prize for spotting it.
Eons ago, in 1996, Next Generation magazine asked me for a list of game design tips for narrative games. Here's what I gave them.
Reading it today, some of it feels dated (like the way I refer to the player throughout as "he"), but a lot is as relevant as ever. I especially like #8 and #9.
- The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
- List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun? (Resist the temptation to embellish. If a cinematic shows the player's character sneak into a compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player's action is "Watch cinematic." Letting the player click to clobber the guard isn't much better.)
- The only significant actions are those that affect the player's ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
- Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
- The player needs a goal at all times, even if it's a mistaken one. If there's nothing specific he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
- The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.
- Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player's goals. For each event, ask: Does this move the player closer to or further away from a goal, or give him a new goal? If not, it's irrelevant to the game.
- The longer the player plays without a break, the more his sense of the reality of the world is built up. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken.
- Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
- Don't introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
- As the player moves through the game, he should have the feeling that he is passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The ideal outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but feeling that there might be another 50% he missed.
Sketchbook pages from my first day on the Prince of Persia set in Morocco, last summer:
Jake offered to hold the Dagger of Time so I could sketch it. The one drawing you'd figure I could do in my sleep. Naturally, under pressure (we were between takes), I rushed it, and messed up the proportions.
I asked him to hand me the dagger for a moment, thinking I might just turn back time and try that sketch again. Alas, it was empty. He must have used up the sand doing stunt work with 2nd unit.
It felt good to hold it, though. Much more solid and weighty than a PS2 controller.
I took the Robert McKee 3-day screenwriting course a bunch of years ago because I wanted to learn how to write screenplays. I was blown away. I thought he was the most brilliant and inspiring speaker I'd ever seen, possibly excepting the guy who gave my college commencement speech. (I was a computer programmer; I didn't get out much.)
I was so impressed that a couple of years later, I took it again.
He was word for word the same. That tour-de-force, thirty-minute, apparently extemporaneous example of how to escalate a sequence — the girl jogging through Central Park, or whatever it was? The same. He even paused to take a sip of his coffee at the same places.
I thought: The guy's been giving this speech every weekend, he's had YEARS to make up new examples and try them out on an audience... and he still only has ONE??
I walked out at the break and never came back.
When I was seven, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie.
I watched it every time it came on TV (this was before home video, when an "Oz" broadcast was a special event) until I knew the songs and most of the dialog by heart.
I typed up as much of it as I could remember on my dad's IBM Selectric, in stage-play format, my ultimate plan being to stage it and charge admission. But there were gaps in the song lyrics.
So I took the Manhattan white pages directory from my parents' bedroom and looked up E.Y. Harburg, whose name I'd seen in the credits. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello. Is this E.Y. Harburg?
Me: Did you write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz?
YH: Yes, I did.
Me: Can you tell me the first line of the Cowardly Lion's song, because I didn't understand it.
YH: "It's sad, believe me, Missy / When you're born to be a sissy / Without the vim and verve / But I could show my prowess / Be a lion, not a mowess / If I only had the nerve."
Me: OK. Also, what does the Tin Woodman sing after "I hear a beat, how sweet..."
YH: "Just to register emotion / Jealousy, devotion / And really feel the part / Just because I'm presumin' / That I could be kind of human / If I only had a heart."
I got what I needed, thanked him, and hung up.
In retrospect, from an adult perspective, it does sort of make sense that a Broadway lyricist who'd been blacklisted by Hollywood would, in his 70s, be living in an apartment in Manhattan and answering his own phone in the middle of the afternoon. At the time, being a kid, I just took it for granted. I don't think I even thought the call noteworthy enough to mention to my parents.
How do I keep up with all the myriad developments in the world of Prince of Persia? With Google Alerts. That's how I just found out that
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands testament passion the new plot from stylish year's periodical reboot and go back to the humanity of Sands of Quantify, the games on which the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer flick is supported.
This shouldn't proceed as untold of a earthquake to incessant readers of Game Life, who already bed that serial creator Jordan Mechner said early this month that Ubisoft's City apartment was working on "something that I'm frantic about" and that he due an annunciation soon.
Hot on the heels of the lodging for the Prince of Persia celluloid, Ubisoft has announced that the next Prince of Empire courageous will be usable in May 2010.
Pretty accurate reporting, overall, except I thought what I actually said was "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten."
Tonight's Spike TV Video Game Awards 2009 broadcast will include a couple of Prince of Persia exclusives:
- The first footage from Ubisoft's upcoming game, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
- Jake Gyllenhaal introducing a new clip from the Prince of Persia movie in which he stars
I'll be there, too. Although with the rain, this would really be a perfect Saturday to stay home, watch TV and play video games.
These "20 Tips for Game Designers" were first published in 2004, on the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
- Prototype and test key game elements as early as possible.
- Build the game in incremental steps — Don't make big design documents.
- As you go, continue to strengthen what's strong, and cut what's weak.
- Be open to the unexpected — Make the most of emergent properties.
- Be prepared to sell your project at every stage along the way.
- It's harder to sell an original idea than a sequel.
- Bigger teams and budgets mean bigger pressure to stay on schedule.
- Don't invest in an overly grandiose development system.
- Make sure the player always has a goal (and knows what it is).
- Give the player clear and constant feedback as to whether he is getting closer to his goal or further away from it.
- The story should support the game play, not overwhelm it.
- The moment when the game first becomes playable is the moment of truth. Don't be surprised if isn't as much fun as you expected.
- Sometimes a cheap trick is better than an expensive one.
- Listen to the voice of criticism — It's always right (you just have to figure out in what way).
- Your original vision is not sacred. It's just a rough draft.
- Don't be afraid to consider BIG changes.
- When you discover what the heart of the game is, protect it to the death.
- However much you cut, it still won't be enough.
- Put your ego aside.
- Nobody knows what will succeed.
Had fun yesterday at Dr. Sketchy's New Year figure drawing marathon. I dropped in for five hours (out of 26). My respect to anyone who went the whole distance.
Here are some ten-minute poses. I like that pace, because it forces me to draw fast and quit before I ruin it. If I'm given too much time, I'm liable to overwork it (come to think of it, that applies to other endeavors too). It's amazing how fast the ten minutes go by, though.
And yeah, I know, the drawings show through the paper. When this sketchbook is full I may switch back to the Moleskines.
Just had to share the excitement I felt on opening the package from my publisher and seeing an advance copy of Solomon's Thieves, my first original graphic novel.
This sound bite jumped out at me from Wil Wheaton's blog (can sound bites jump?)
Narrative video games aren't going to replace television and movies any more than television and movies replaced books, but as technology continues to advance, and games become even more cinematic and interactive, the battle won't be only for the consumer; it will also be for the creator. People who went to school 20 years ago to learn how to make movies are now going to school to learn how to use the same narrative storytelling techniques to make video games.
20 years ago, I was trying to get away from making Prince of Persia (video game) so I could go to film school to learn how to make movies. Guess I did everything backwards as usual.
This month's American Cinematographer features an article by Shelly Johnson, ASC, cinematographer of The Wolfman. Typically of his profession, he's generous both in sharing insight into his own creative process and in giving credit to others — part of the reason I love reading AC.
I especially liked his closing passages, in which he describes the emotional pull of creative team effort in terms anyone who's worked in the video game industry will understand:
Filmmaking is an interchange of creative ideas that either hits upon a point of collaboration or doesn't. I believe that when minds come together who are meant to be together, that creatively charged atmosphere is conveyed on the screen and directly to the audience.... The collective spirit of the entire production team is what makes great things happen on the screen.
Well spoken. And yeah, the article kinda makes me want to see The Wolfman.
Wish I could say I did this café sketch in Paris, but it was actually last night in Glendale, to the lilting strains of Charles Trenet and Barbara. Thanks to Kendra Melton for tipping me off to this fun drawing club.
My friend and longtime collaborator Tomi Pierce died on Monday. I wanted to share this sad news with readers of this site, who may know her thanks to her role in the creation of Prince of Persia (documented in the Old Journals) and as co-writer of The Last Express.
The obituary below doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what her friendship, good and wise advice, and creative genius have meant to me for the past 25 years. I wish I had a dagger of time that could have given me even a little bit more time with her.
TOMI PIERCE (1953-2010)
Tomi Pierce died on Monday, bowing finally to the ravages of ALS.
There can be few worse diagnoses — an inexorable, untreatable neurodegenerative disease — and for Tomi, just 54 when she was diagnosed and with so much to look forward to, it was especially brutal, especially unfair. Tomi certainly felt it was. She fought the disease, seeking out frontiers-of-medicine treatments and, Tomi-style, confronting it with a paradoxical and whimsical mix of maudlin resignation and I'm-going-to-beat-this verve. She organized her last birthday party in 2009, a "wake without a corpse... yet" as she liked to describe it, as a "Memento Mori" event: there were black balloons, an Izzi Kirkland-created skeleton piñata, and Tomi wore skeleton earrings. She was greatly amused by the guest who asked her what "Memento Mori" meant in Japanese. If you can't beat death, you might as well join it.
Tomi had no end of advantages over the rest of us — she died at 56 looking 26 and, despite her occupation, her brain was definitely a pre-internet model, with a photographic memory capable of storing and retrieving vast quantities of data, pieces of music, and reams of poetry in various languages.
As the daughter of a geophysicist, the early odds seemed to favor a scientific career for the extraordinarily precocious infant. By 18 months, she could recite the periodic table by heart. But Tomi's lifelong propensity for taking the *other* path asserted itself early (perhaps under the influence of her maternal grandfather Yojiro Ishizaka, one of Japan's most beloved novelists), and science ended up being relegated to her younger sister Naomi, while young Tomi turned to music, literature and poetry. When Tomi at age 8 wondered about a philosophical issue raised by C.S. Lewis's Narnia books (what happened after The Last Battle?), rather than bother her school teacher, she simply wrote directly to the author — and received a thoughtful reply, one which Lewis's biographers are still puzzling over. With Tomi's intellect and memory, toiling over schoolbooks was unnecessary. Standardized tests, it turns out, can have some benefit in identifying brains like Tomi's; despite attending a large public high school in suburban Denver that provided little in the way of actual education, she scored perfect 800s on her SATs and achievement tests. Harvard and Yale both accepted her, but Yale offered a scholarship. Yale it would be.
Tomi was fearless, and had an irrepressible zest for adventure. She was a consummate tomboy. There was the time she woke up her friend Claire Hill and insisted they take Claire's horse Trixie for a midnight ride. Where would you take Trixie at midnight? Onto the Lakewood Country Club golf course, which always looks so inviting for a ride but which, for some unfathomable reason, prohibits horses. Trixie's hoofs marked many a green that night.
Tomi was also calm under fire. Even at age ten, she was the one you'd want with you in a foxhole. When, on a subsequent escapade, Claire and Tomi found themselves lost in the Rockies with night fast approaching, Tomi kept Claire calm by insisting they sing all the Gilbert & Sullivan they knew (which was a lot), remaining unflappable throughout until the right trail finally materialized. Their singing wasn't bad either, as judged by the cellist Rostropovich, who overheard the two girls singing a Bach invention on a ski lift in Aspen and invited them home for a command performance. Claire's father was upset that they had spoken to a stranger until he discovered the identity of their mystery admirer.
Tomi has escaped more than her share of close brushes with death over the years, including amoebic dysentery and a bus accident high on the Khyber Pass, a military coup in Kabul, a near-fatal attack of peritonitis in the south of France, and severe injury in a car crash, whose aftermath caused her to drop out of Cornell Law School and enroll instead in Stanford Business School, where she graduated with an MBA in 1982. In her brief stint at law school, she dumbfounded her first-year torts professor when put on the spot by answering in class, "Education is more than the simple recitation of facts." The exchange ended with the professor, his back against the wall, saying: "This is a classroom, not a courtroom, young lady."
Tomi took a leap into the fledgling software industry to co-found Sensei Software in 1984 under the wing of Doug Carlston, founder of Broderbund Software. There were two results: First, an award-winning line of educational products, Calculus, Geometry, and Physics; and second, Tomi was forced, much to her chagrin, to actually learn calculus, geometry and physics.
Tomi's years of toil in the Broderbund attic at 47 Paul Drive launched a long creative association with game designer Jordan Mechner, who was programming Prince of Persia in the next room. Jordan's 1997 adventure game The Last Express showcases Tomi's storytelling brilliance as well as her wide-ranging acquaintance with European literature and culture. The research stage of this four-year labor of love included a journey into the bowels of Paris's Gare de l'Est to coax from retired French railway employees certain closely guarded secrets of the 1914 Orient Express, an odyssey Tomi documented in her Newsweek article about the making of the game.
Tomi cleverly escaped the scenic delights of a San Rafael industrial park to decamp for Paris, where she lived and worked for a year setting up the new European division of Broderbund. Whether Tomi was actually fluent in French at the beginning of this project, as she claimed when applying for the job, may never be known; what is certain is that by the end of it, she spoke French not only fluently, but poetically, sometimes expressing business matters in phrases so lyrical that her Parisian colleagues were left shaking their heads in respectful amazement.
In 1994, Broderbund Software founder Doug Carlston, having previously secured the publishing rights to Tomi's software products, secured even more valuable future rights by marrying Tomi herself. Doug's daughter Colleen served as flower girl, strewing rose petals across the Colorado landscape during the ceremony.
Tomi's love of cinema, tracing back to her undergraduate days as a director of Yale's Berkeley Film Society, found expression throughout her life, not only in her writing and photography, but in her participation in a myriad of diverse projects: from Chavez Ravine, an award-winning PBS documentary about the neighborhood displaced by Dodger Stadium, which Tomi executive-produced, to the catacombs, secret passageways and puzzle rooms woven throughout the magical home she and Doug designed and built in Snowmass, Colorado.
Tomi's unique intellect, and almost preternatural ability to unerringly home in on the crucial point in a bewildering mass of data, made her invaluable as a consultant to Applied Minds, MetaWeb, and other clients. During this time, she also devoted immeasurable care and attention to her son Denman through the most difficult stages of a childhood beset by life-threatening health challenges and autism spectrum disorder. Despite his disabilities, Tomi's loving care insured that Denman had a magical and fulfilling childhood. Even as her own abilities began to diminish through her long and difficult illness, she rejoiced in Denman's achievements of milestones that doctors had told her might never be possible. She never wavered in her complete faith in his potential. Den's world of nurses and caregivers became the focal point of her life and among her closest companions.
Through it all, Tomi and Doug lived a life rich in adventure and foreign travel, often including friends and family in their journeys to Africa, Albania, Iceland, and Japan, where Colleen developed strong ties with Tomi's Japanese family, becoming fluent in Japanese and attending Kyoto University.
For her last venture, Tomi returned to her tech startup roots, co-founding 24 Hour Diner with Patrick Tufts. Typically of Tomi, she insisted on working right up to the end, holding her last board meeting less than a week before her death. Tomi loved to think creatively and strategically about the challenges facing the young company as it found its way in the world.
What no biography can capture is the extraordinary generosity that permeated all Tomi's relationships, from her nearest and dearest to people she met only once; from the world's great intellects, movers and shakers, to the toll-takers on the Golden Gate Bridge who knew her by name. Tomi had an extraordinary gift for connecting with people on the most personal, human level, seemingly without effort and often within moments of the first meeting. She had a charisma that couldn't be simulated or feigned, because she was only being herself. She thought constantly of other people — as anyone who has traveled with her can attest, having been subjected to the endless delays and inconvenience of her insistence on finding the right gift not only for her friends and family, but for a long list of others. When she mailed the final payment for her college loans to the financial office at Yale, she sent along a big box of chocolates to everyone in the office. They wrote back to thank her, noting that no one in the long history of that institution had ever thanked them so graciously before.
Tomi was generous not only with gifts but with her time, help, and advice, maneuvering and strategizing for others' benefit; most valuable of all, she was generous of herself. Deeply loyal, she inspired loyalty in others. (She could also hold a grudge for a remarkably long time.) In her wide-ranging interests, pursuits, and travels, she brought together people from universes that don't normally intersect.
Tomi lives on in the hearts of all of us, but especially of Doug, Denman, Colleen, Art and Rui, Naomi, and the rest of her family, as well as the countless friends around the world who have been touched by her unique spirit. A bright light has gone out but continues to sparkle in our memories. We miss her terribly.
I get asked a lot about the adaptation process from/to video games, movies, and graphic novels, so I was interested to read writer Craig McDonald's thoughts on the subject over on the First Second blog:
They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Speaking as a writer, I'll grudgingly confess there's too often some piercing truth to that cliché.
The novel and the graphic novel are very different beasts.
The great danger in adapting a novel into a graphic format is ending up with a sea of word-balloon bracketed talking heads, yammering on. So you're always looking for ways to change the camera angle, so to speak. You look for new ways to shorthand matters through visual means. All that prose you spent all that time polishing and honing goes straight out the window.
This page from Kevin Singles' graphic-novel adaptation of Chris's prose novel Head Games says it all.
OK, I promise I won't post every time there's a new POP merchandising item... but this is just too cool.
Just found out I'll be at WonderCon 2010 in San Francisco on Saturday, April 3, for a Disney Prince of Persia panel with Jerry Bruckheimer, Mike Newell, and Jake Gyllenhaal, moderated by Geoff Boucher.
Our panel is at noon in the Esplanade Ballroom. Looking forward to it!
I've been to Comic-Cons before, but this WonderCon was a new experience for me.
Being flown in by the studio for one day to take part in a Prince of Persia movie panel felt a bit like visiting a parallel universe — one from which parking, waiting in line, negotiating crowds, showing ID, figuring out where to go next, and other ordinary aspects of flying and attending conventions have magically been eliminated.
Instead, I was whisked along with Jake Gyllenhaal, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Mike Newell from car to plane to car and from one place to another with such efficiency that all I saw of the show and conference center were underground parking garages, service elevators, corridors and backstage areas — only to suddenly emerge on stage in front of 4,000 people. Feeling the energy of that crowd was a rush I won't soon forget.
It was a great day, but one that left little time for sketching. I did this one on the plane flying in.
(Left to right: Jake Gyllenhaal, Teresa Palmer, Jay Baruchel, Jon Turteltaub. All agreed that the best likeness by far is Teresa's.)
So glad that Jane Espenson has started up her very useful writer's blog again! In today's post she discusses why, when making the transition to screenwriting, journalists often fare better than novelists. Her advice to film/TV writers:
Think like a reporter — pare the story down, find the bones of it, and listen to your characters talk in the language of whatever street they come from — even if you let them ramble on a bit in the first draft, eventually try to find the succinct quote.
You get to make up the facts and the people, but the core truths that you're uncovering should be just as real as if the story had happened. Be a reporter.
It's a stand-alone, book-length prequel to the upcoming movie, written by me and illustrated by six terrific artists — Bernard Chang, Tommy Lee Edwards, Tom Fowler, Niko Henrichon, David Lopez, and Cameron Stewart, plus a cover by Todd McFarlane — and if you're wondering why one story has six different illustrators, well, that was part of the challenge and fun of writing it.
Kotaku has a nice review (one that also includes the great news that the next volume in the Dungeon series, by two of my favorite French comics creators, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, is now available in English).
I'll post more later about writing the book, and how it relates to the movie and the original 1989 side-scrolling video game. In the meantime, I hope Prince of Persia fans and graphic novel aficionados will check it out.
The next six weeks will also include the release of my first/second book Solomon's Thieves (written first, published second, from First Second) on May 11, and my first movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, on May 28. So this really is the beginning of the sandstorm.
Being in London for the Prince of Persia movie press junket, I thought this would be an appropriate occasion to post these sketchbook pages from when we were shooting here 18 months ago.
As the caps and parkas suggest, it gets cold on the Pinewood sound stages in December. The sets are such accurate reproductions of the Morocco locations where we were filming a few months earlier, you'd never guess from the finished film that there's an 80 degree Fahrenheit temperature difference between certain shots.
Above: That's director Mike Newell at bottom right, presiding over the action via dual monitors. Going counter-clockwise from Mike, there's Jake doing the scene, script supervisor Beverley Winston, and my hotel dining room. At bottom left, Sir Ben Kingsley waits between takes with his double.
On the left-hand page, Jake and Sir Ben rehearsing with Mike Newell while second A.D. Rich Goodwin looks on. At upper right, Mike and Beverley watching the take, with Mike half out of his director chair like a bowler using body English to help guide the ball down the lane. Bottom right, cinematographer John Seale.
Just got back from the Prince of Persia movie press junket in London and Moscow. For readers curious about what that was like, I've posted these pages from my travel sketchbook.
The idea of a junket is to bring the talent — which in this case included Jerry Bruckheimer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Mike Newell, and me — to one destination so the press can come to us, instead of sending us on a tour from place to place. Having the global premiere of Prince of Persia in London rather than L.A. made it a short trip for European journalists, but a longer one for those from the U.S. and South America.
The junket took over several floors of the Dorchester hotel in London, where the interviews and press conference were held.
An inevitability of press junkets is that although the journalists come from different cities and countries, with a range of interviewing styles, you nonetheless tend to get asked the same questions, sometimes thirty or forty times in a single day.
The premiere was Sunday night at the London Westvue.
Not pictured: Gemma dancing barefoot in her princess gown at the afterparty.
Seeing the "Coming Soon" signs for Prince of Persia in the Odeon Leicester Square gave me tingles. That's the theater where I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the summer of 1981, right out of high school, in a packed house. It set the bar for my summer moviegoing experiences to date, and was one of my major inspirations in creating Prince of Persia on the Apple II a few years later.
Next: On to Moscow.
I'm excited to announce that Solomon's Thieves, my first/second, First Second graphic novel illustrated by the terrific LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, is now on sale in bookstores and on Amazon. It's just gotten its first review on Newsarama.
Based on the historical events of the fall of the Knights Templar, Solomon's Thieves is a swashbuckling adventure about a bunch of outlawed knights who band together to attempt the greatest heist of the 14th century.
It's the first book in a trilogy — and a career first for me, in that it's not based on a video game. I hope Prince of Persia fans who like graphic novels and/or historical adventure fiction will check it out.
You can read more about it here.
This is the plane that took us from London to Moscow for the Prince of Persia press junket. It was the nicest plane I've ever been on. I felt like Tony Stark for a few hours.
Every fun, relaxing hobby ought to contain an element of danger; for me, drawing people I know at close range is the halfpipe of sketching. When the result is a bad likeness, unflattering or both (which it often is), there's nowhere to hide. In this case, several of the people on the plane with me were world-famous, so the stage was basically set for a spectacular wipe-out. But I had to try.
The ones of Jerry and Mike Newell (above) are at least more recognizable than some of the others.
None of the ones of Gemma really look like her. Girls are harder to draw than guys to begin with, and the more beautiful they are the harder it is. It often ends up either looking like a generic "pretty girl" or a different girl entirely.
Gemma got her revenge, as you can see from her rendition of me on the right-hand page above.
The press junket, premiere and afterparty were on Tuesday, so I didn't get to do any sketching that day. Wednesday was our free day; Mike Newell and I began it with a three-hour tour of the Kremlin's incredible armory.
This was my first visit to Russia, a country I've long wanted to visit. At three days, it was much too short.
I woke up this morning thinking "Today's the day!" One that's been emblazoned in my mind for weeks now, thanks to subtle reminders like this one:
But it wasn't until I picked up my iPhone and blearily checked email and Twitter while making breakfast (compulsive habit, I know; I'm trying to break it) that I received the surprising news that today is ALSO the release date of the original Prince of Persia for iPhone/iPad.
You'd think such perfect timing would have to have been coordinated months in advance, but it wasn't. If there was a mastermind, it could only have been some unsung Apple employee with a sense of irony.
This weekend might be just the occasion for me to try playing through the game for the first time in 20 years. I already have my fallback strategy: If I can't get past level three, I'll blame the touchscreen controls. It couldn't be aging reflexes. No way.
And I promise not to play my iPhone during the movie after the lights have gone down.
Some more sketchbook pages for no particular reason. This was in NY a few months ago:
and this was the week Alice in Wonderland opened at El Capitan:
and this was last week at Dorval airport:
Weirdly, I spotted the guy with the mustache again a few days later, at a bar in LA. Sketching people makes you pay close attention to them; I doubt I'd have recognized him otherwise. I wonder how many of the strangers I pass by every day are people I've seen before, maybe many times before, but I just don't notice.
Just got back from my first-ever visit to Toronto, a city I've long wished to visit for many reasons, yet somehow, amazingly and despite being from New York, never did until this weekend.
It was a whirlwind, too-short 36 hours including
The Toronto International Film Festival felt welcoming, spiffy and well organized, like Toronto itself. I left the city by an airport on an island in the middle of downtown that you take a ferry to get to. Now that's cool.
Regarding Prince of Persia's recent journey from video game to movie, I'm sometimes asked how closely the final film follows my original story.
Now that the movie is out on DVD/Blu-Ray, I figure the easy way to satisfy curiosity is to simply post my screenplay (PDF) from June 2005.
Quick history: This was the last draft I wrote, starting from the story John August and I pitched to Disney/Bruckheimer in 2004. A series of other writers took it from there: Jeff Nachmanoff, Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, in that order, resulting in the shooting script that went into production in summer 2008.
Update: If you're curious about the game-into-movie adaptation process, I've also posted the original game script of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which I wrote in 2002-03, and an accompanying article about how that game story was developed. As these materials illustrate, writing for games and movies are two very different crafts.
Having just read three Ian Fleming novels, one Henry James and one Jonathan Franzen on my new Kindle over the holidays, I found myself vaguely troubled by the feeling that I hadn't really read them... that their plots and characters might slip out of my memory as easily as they slipped into the Kindle's.
I told myself this was old-style thinking, that just because I don't have the actual physical, dog-eared, tea-stained books to shove onto a bookshelf as souvenirs doesn't mean their contents have engraved themselves any less deeply into my brain.
Now along comes this post by my scarily intelligent friend Jonah Lehrer (and his previous post foreshadowing it), citing a new Princeton study hinting that, maybe, the inchoate unease we bibliophiles have been feeling is more than just sentimental:
This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects and difficulty levels can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read.
It reminds me of another study I read a while back, suggesting that elementary school kids who squirm and fidget in their seats actually retain and process information better than if they sat still like they're supposed to.
I just wish I could remember where I read it.
A few months ago, I posted my first-draft screenplay of last summer's Prince of Persia movie. Now, here's the script of the videogame (PDF) that inspired it: 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Or rather, partial script. For writers interested in the differences between writing for movies and games, it's worth noting that there is no game design document equivalent to a film screenplay (i.e. an established format for the writer to communicate the story to producers, director, cast and crew).
Typically, the larger part of my writing work on Sands of Time was conveyed through non-screenplay documents (dialog recording and tracking spreadsheets and the like) to the team of designers, artists and engineers. I've described that process in more detail in this article for MIT Press.
The "readable screenplay" posted here reads like a film screenplay, but that's because it contains only the cinematic cutscenes — not the in-game scripted events, dialog, and voice-over narration that are just as essential to the player's experience of the story. Those exist in no easily readable form.
The best way to experience a videogame story is to play the game. But for a quick read, this script offers at least a glimpse into Sands of Time's beginnings.
In a couple of weeks, I'll be speaking at Game Developers Conference 2011 in San Francisco, about the making of Prince of Persia (the original, 1989 side-scroller) as part of their "Classic Game Postmortems" series.
I'm especially excited to hear from the other speakers — an awesome lineup including, among others, Eric Chahi, Will Wright, Ron Gilbert, Peter Molyneux, John Romero, and Toru "Pac-Man" Iwatani — about how their games, which sucked up so many hours of my youth, came to be.
(A non-game-industry friend asked me, in some confusion: "Why call it a post-mortem?" These are retrospectives of games that shipped, not ones that got killed. But even though we game designers and programmers are supposed to be a logical bunch, I don't think the term "post-partum" is going to catch on any time soon.)
See you at GDC!
Here's the transcript of my notes (PDF) from that interview in case anyone's interested. I stumbled across it while cleaning out an old hard drive.
It was May 1991. She was 89 years old. She often spoke of herself in the third person. She had a strapping male secretary named Horst.
As we said goodbye, I realized I was shaking the hand of someone who'd once shaken hands with Adolf Hitler.
"And maybe did more than just shake hands," George added.
Nearly everyone I spoke to at GDC 2011 in San Francisco agreed that it was one of the most energizing GDCs of recent years.
I loved the "Classic Game Post-Mortems," a series of one-hour talks in which game designers spoke about the making of their early games: Eric Chahi on Another World (aka Out of This World), Peter Molyneux on Populous, John Romero and Tom Hall on Doom, Mark Cerny on Marble Madness, Toru Iwatani on Pac-Man were fascinating, inspiring, and touching to hear. (I gave a talk about making Prince of Persia, and really appreciated the generous response.)
But what really grabbed me was the energy and excitement surrounding indie games, especially on new platforms like mobile phones, iOS, Facebook, XBLA and PSN. More than in any previous year, I was reminded of the Apple II zeitgeist of the early eighties. It feels like we've come full circle, as an industry, to that time when a tiny team with few resources but talent, creativity and elbow grease has the potential to produce the next hugely influential mega-hit.
And I'm pretty sure I just met some of them in San Francisco.
For those of you who missed GDC — or, inexplicably, went to GDC but missed my talk about the making of Prince of Persia on the Apple II in 1985 — that talk has now been posted online along with the other "Classic Game Post-Mortem" talks in the GDC Vault.
I'll be joining a UC Santa Cruz symposium in Silicon Valley on April 15, "Inventing the Future of Games." Sims creator Will Wright will give a keynote. The panel I'm on is about "Games and Cinema."
I love being in an industry where we get to study what we're doing from an academic point of view, while we're doing it.
Been finding all kinds of cool stuff in my garage archives, which my assistant Aaron is helping me finally get organized, digitized and 21st century-compatible.
I'd almost forgotten I'd sent Karateka to EA as well as Broderbund. It boggles my mind to think of the ways my life might have been different if they'd said yes.
Really interesting front-page Variety article today about how an increasing reliance on CGI is straining studio tentpole movie production schedules:
The kind of sturm and drang that's swirled around "Green Lantern" is actually par for the course on most visual effects-heavy tentpoles these days — and the problem's growing. Such pics now routinely fit the description of a "troubled" project, with "troubled" the new normal.
Traditionally, big studio movies never miss their release dates. This is different from the videogame industry, where high-profile AAA titles, under pressure to raise the bar technologically as well as artistically, can be granted extra months or even years if the publisher feels it's worth it.
Game makers have long admired Big Filmmaking's ability to meet schedules no matter what. But with the shift to digital, film post-production is acquiring the atmosphere of a "normal" game studio at crunch time:
[Studio] management practices are still catching up to the reality of tentpole production, where effects have to be built before the picture is tested, then vfx have to be added and/or changed as the picture comes together and in response to audience testing, all while marketing demands shots for the campaign.
All of Hollywood seems to be still figuring this out, and as a result, the tentpole pattern is now well established:
- A movie demands you've-never-seen-this-before visual effects both for marketing and story;
- Ambitious plans and a short schedule leave little margin for error;
- Inevitable schedule problems trigger urgent meetings among studio execs, vendors and filmmakers to get the project back on track;
- "911" emergency calls go out to almost any vfx shop in the world that can take on some last-minute work;
- Everyone runs a harrowing race to deadline despite all the extra help.
Collapse, rest, repeat.
As a videogame maker, I always assumed we were just crazy to begin with. But is the madness in the craftsman, or his tools?
I'll be speaking at the Nordic Game 2011 conference next week in Malmö, Sweden. The theme of this year's conference is "Creativity and Entrepreneurship" and they've asked me to give a keynote on the subject of "Transmedia." (No, I don't know what it means, either — I'm putting my presentation together today, so if you have any ideas, shoot them over quick!)
Hope to see some of you there. And Mom, if you're reading this, Happy Mother's Day!
I finally read Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's great memoir this week — prompted by the tsunami of media commentary on the resignation of Steve Jobs (you know, the other guy). It got me thinking about what an incredible impact stuff made or sold by those two Steves has had on my life over the past three decades.
I was a sophomore in high school when I bought my first Apple II. It cost $1200 at the Computerland of Fairfield, Connecticut — my life savings, including all my loot from years of drawing caricatures at community fairs, plus a loan from my kid sister.
I remember opening the box, lifting the computer out of those custom-molded foam packing pieces. The tactile thrill of owning an Apple began before I'd even plugged the thing in. I knew it was going to change my life.
I hooked it up to an old TV and a cassette recorder, and I was up and running.
Weekends and after school (and sometimes instead of school), I progressed from typing in BASIC game program listings from the red book that had come with the Apple (Breakout was the best), to inventing my own games — first in BASIC, then in 6502 machine code, using the built-in mini-assembler. I pored through the red book, trying to understand its secrets.
As soon as I could afford it, I increased the Apple's 16K of RAM by adding another row of chips, and then another. Each enhancement unlocked new capabilities: hi-res graphics, then two-page hi-res. Newer, more sophisticated games like Apple Invader (a pixel-perfect copy of the coin-op Space Invaders, programmed by the mysterious M. Hata) pushed the machine's limits beyond what I'd imagined possible. I realized the games I'd programmed so far hadn't scratched the surface of what it could do.
I brought my Apple to college. Tricked out with a dot-matrix printer, 5 1/4" floppy disk drive, lower-case adapter chip, and new word-processing software that could hold up to four pages in memory, it replaced a portable Smith-Corona typewriter as my go-to device for writing papers. I was the only kid in my dorm who had such an awesome system. I used it to earn extra cash typing other people's papers for a buck a page.
Between classes (and instead of them), I used it to make a game called Karateka.
The Karateka royalties bought me a brand-new 512K Macintosh computer, through a special student-discount arrangement Apple had with Yale.
Macs started popping up all around campus that year. It was still unusual for a student to actually own one — the only other guy I knew who had one was David Pogue, down the hall — but anyone could use the ones in the computer rooms, and a lot of people did.
The Mac had a tiny, but amazingly high-resolution screen, with a mouse-driven graphical interface that gave it a totally different vibe from other computers. It was a device that even non-techies felt comfortable using. And it could hold 100 pages of text in memory. The Mac changed playing games and typing papers on computers from a fringe activity into part of mainstream college life.
I loved my Mac. It was a shiny new toy — good to write papers on, fun to show off to friends — but I didn't consider it a machine for serious programming. I wasn't enough of an engineer to pop the hood and figure out how it worked and what all the chips did, the way I'd done with the Apple II. It was too sophisticated.
Besides, the installed user base of Macs in 1985 was miniscule compared to the Apple II. As a game programmer, it didn't make business sense for me to switch.
So my new Mac took its place alongside my main working system — which I'd by then upgraded to a newer Apple IIe with 64K of RAM, two disk drives, color monitor and joystick. That was the computer I used to program Prince of Persia.
I hadn't anticipated that, due to my combination of obsessive perfectionism and occasionally dilatory work habits, Prince of Persia would take me four years to finish. By the time I was done, the Apple II was obsolete.
Ironically, it was the Mac version that saved my new game from oblivion. While the Apple market was dying, the rise of desktop publishing had created a new market of Mac owners hungry for games to play on their high-resolution color screens. They embraced Prince of Persia and made it a hit.
Today, like almost everyone I know, my daily life is inextricably bound up with Apple products. I'm typing this in a café on a MacBook Air, with an iPad and iPhone in my shoulder bag, and more Macs and iProducts on view at the tables around me than I can count.
Devices that in ten years will seem as quaint as my 1978 Apple II does now.
But oh, man, it was a thing of beauty.
Starting today, jordanmechner.com has a new layout that I hope will make it easier to navigate and find what you're looking for. Many thanks to Ryan Nelson (John August's Director of Digital Things) for the redesign.
Among the changes:
If you're new to this site, I hope you'll take a few minutes to explore. Mostly, I post about my work making video games, writing screenplays and graphic novels, and related subjects, but there's a lot of other stuff here as well.
Happy browsing! As always, I look forward to receiving your comments.
I love going to the Thursday night life drawing workshop in Glendale. Unlike people in airports and cafés, the models actually hold still, and they always have fun props and costumes.
This week's theme was "Tomb Raider." Lara was great and did 5, 10, and 15-minute poses.
(Apologies to Toby Gard, and anyone who draws Lara for a living.)
I've posted more Lara sketches on facebook. These two pages came out best, I think.
A number of readers have written to ask: "I want to make games for a living — how can I get started?"
Here's advice from someone who crossed that bridge a lot more recently than I did: Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, creator of the phenomenally successful indie game Canabalt.
Today's aspiring game designers can tap resources we couldn't have dreamed of in 1980. But as Adam emphasizes, the bottom line is still the same: Don't wait. Start making games right now.
Adam 'Atomic' Saltsman made Gravity Hook, Fathom, Flixel, and Canabalt. Adam also helped make Paper Moon, Cave Story Wii, FEZ, the Game City Idea Bucket, and the Flash Game Dojo. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife Bekah, his son Kingsley, and a couple of pug dogs, where he makes iOS games at Semi Secret Software.
When I graduated from high school in 2000, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: make video games. There was only one serious video game curriculum at the time, offered by the DigiPen Institute, so competition for admission there was pretty intense. I didn't even apply. The programs at Carnegie-Mellon and MIT were still in their infancy. GAMBIT didn't exist yet, but they had some other programs that looked interesting. I couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition, and the enormous in-state college I decided to attend offered a single, solitary 4-credit course on the subject.
Times have changed; finding a satisfying career in video games isn't the impossible joke it used to be. However, the chasm between "I want to make video games!" and actually making video games still intimidates a lot of people, regardless of age, gender or background. If you find yourself on the wrong side of this abyss, don't panic! Crossing this gap is a lot less complicated than you might think.
Before we start figuring out how to make our dreams come true, though, let's clarify what that dream is. Contrary to the funny comic above, what we're talking about is making games, not playing games. Hopefully this doesn't surprise you, but these are wholly different activities! Just because you enjoy playing games does not necessarily mean that you will love making them too. There's only one way to find out, of course, but now is a good time to seriously consider whether you really love the act of creation. There is no position at any company in the world that involves just playing games for fun. Seriously, ask a video game tester how much "fun" it is to play the same level 6000 times...
But our game-making dream still needs a bit more clarity. After all, a significant portion of the modern video game industry revolves around pumping out rushed, under-budget game versions of cartoon franchises to whatever console happened to be left over during publisher negotiations (this is not a slam on folks that do that work for a living; their dedication and resourcefulness impresses the heck out of me). So our dream is not just to make any old games, but to make satisfying, interesting games that reflect our passions and interests, whatever those may be.
So how do we do that? How do we escape from our IT/retail/food-service gig and start making games for a living?
At the moment, interesting and original video games that satisfy our assumptions about these game-making dreams tend to come in two basic flavors: big, and small. Big games are usually realistically detailed 3D simulations with a focus on a cinematic narrative. Big games can have huge, open worlds or be more like a streamlined, "on rails" roller coaster ride. Big games are usually made by a big game studio with a team of 100 or more creators, and are sold primarily in plastic boxes at game shops. Big games are a pretty long haul; they usually take anywhere from two to four years to create, and sometimes much longer. There are lots of exceptions, but these guidelines apply to most of the coolest, high-budget games made in the last few years: Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2, and so on.
Conversely, small games are usually 2D or stylized 3D, with a focus on abstract or artistic presentation and the exploitation of simple game mechanics. Small games are sometimes hand-crafted, but sometimes the game worlds are "procedurally generated", or randomly created by computer algorithms. Small games are usually made by a core team of four people or less, and are primarily distributed through electronic payments and downloads. Small games vary greatly in the time they take to produce, depending on the platform and the design, and can take anywhere from five days to five years to create. Like big games, there are lots of exceptions, but these guidelines apply to a lot of the most interesting low-budget games made in the last few years: Braid, World of Goo, and so on.
While many people work on both big games and small games (sometimes at the same time!), my advice about how to start making games depends a bit on what sort of game you're dreaming about making, and what sort of team you're dreaming about joining.
Don't forget that taking a true game design role on a big game is almost impossible. The vast majority of the team, while they all have creative input and the ability to affect the outcome of the game, are largely devoted to producing the game content, not making decisions about the game design. Even in a game studio with a thousand employees, only a handful of them will actually work on game design on a daily basis, and they're probably going to hang on to that job for a while. This is just the reality of it; if game design is the part of making games that you love, making small games is going to be a much better bet, at least for now.
By necessity, most big game studios are looking for specialists: experts in a specific discipline. A big studio is looking to hire the absolute best 3D Modelers, Animators, and Programmers they can get their hands on. Robin Hunicke (Flower, Journey) published a nice breakdown of some of the different disciplines and job titles in this Game Developer Magazine Career Guide article. With few exceptions, these responsibilities do not overlap in practice. For example, a 3D Modeler will rarely spend time programming the game engine, and vice versa. There is so much work to do that having each person focusing on their greatest strength just makes the most sense. The level of detail is staggering: one artist might do hundreds of iterations on a single character, while another might spend months modeling hair. Hair.
To find a place on a project like that, you need to zero in and focus on the specific part of making games that you love the most. If 3D sculpting is the part of making games that really engages you, dedicate yourself to making the best 3D models you can. It will take a long time, and you will make a lot of bad 3D models along the way. You may also figure out if you have what it takes to model crates for months at a time. The same goes for Programmers; you will spend a lot more time debugging frustrating hardware problems than you will elegantly solving interesting problems, or designing cool systems. You need to be able to appreciate the details. Plus, in any discipline, I think it's fair to expect to spend two to three years of nights and weekends honing your craft in order to perform at a level that will attract the attention of a big studio.
Hopefully that's not a terrifying idea! If 3D modeling, or animating, or graphics programming is something you love to do, spending your free time getting better at it should be a no-brainer and an enjoyable pastime anyways. But in my experience, and the experience of my peers, if you don't spend that extra time on your craft you won't cut it. Plus, if you don't love it enough to pursue it in your free time, then why on earth are you trying to get a job in the game industry? Compared to other tech industries, the hours generally suck, and the pay's usually not great either! But more importantly, most of us need a couple years of failing and doing things wrong in order to figure out how to do things right.
What about schooling? At a lot of large studios, just having a great portfolio isn't enough. Even if the studio is pretty liberal, sometimes their investors will require at least a two-year degree. You don't necessarily need a four-year degree or even a degree in the actual discipline you're pursuing. One way to think of a college degree, from an employer's perspective, is a piece of paper certifying "I satisfactorily completed a multi-year commitment". This can be reassuring to an employer who is taking the risk of bringing on someone new. If you are attending one of the many game art or game design schools that have sprung up over the last decade, be careful that you aren't just comparing yourself to your classmates, or even the faculty. It's important to honestly and sincerely compare your portfolio against the art in recently shipped games from major studios. That is your real competition, not just the folks in your afternoon class.
If you want to be at a big studio, and work on big games, the most important thing to do is to start honing your craft now. Right now! Don't even bother finishing this article! Just launch the appropriate software, open some tutorials, and start failing; you will be awesome by this time next year.
For more specific advice about taking this path into the industry, I highly recommend thoroughly reading professional animator Kiel Figgins' Industry FAQ, which has all this advice and much more, including tips for prepping your website and portfolio. Figgins also suggests this simple step-by-step approach to gaining some perspective what goes on behind the scenes of big games:
I also recommend checking out the tail end of the following section for some links to high-end 3D game engines that are free, and might be useful for familiarizing yourself with modern game technology, as well as testing animations, models, level designs or sound effects. If you feel like you have reached a plateau in your discipline, especially if it involves 3D modeling or animation, you could also look into a variety of online mentoring programs with industry veterans.
Dividing these approaches into "specialist" versus "generalist" is a bit unfair. Employees at big studios always have ancillary skills and hobbies. I know of Programmers who are sound engineers, architects, and even armorers. And creators at small studios are still pretty highly specialized. Our day-to-day work rarely requires us to create floral arrangements or groom pets. That said, in any given month at my two-person company, my responsibilities might include computer repair, web design, marketing, production, programming, prototyping, concept art, production art, testing & QA, UI design, tool creation, tool maintenance, game design, and sometimes catering. My old boss used to call this the "Swiss Army knife" approach.
How on earth do you prepare for that kind of "job"? The same way we prepare for a job at a big studio: by spending all our free time honing our craft and sharing it with the world. Except in this case, it could do more harm than good if we spend too long working on any one skill. We want to spend our time doing everything; making whole games from scratch all by ourselves. That's right, non-artists: time to learn how to make art! You too, non-programmers: time to learn how to code! We all fear the unknown, but if we're afraid to learn new skills, then our chances of getting to work on small games are sadly diminished.
Like honing our skills for a big studio, learning these new skills can take a long time. That means we're going to do things wrong for a long time. And that's ok! That's the learning process. The point, after all, is not to become the best artist, or the best programmer. Repeat after me: "I don't need to be good, just good enough." That can sound defeatist, and I don't mean to discourage anyone from pursuing excellence. The important thing is to not give up just because we aren't good enough yet. Radio host Ira Glass says:
For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.
The first game I released was a simple game with a spaceship that shot lasers at bad guys. There was only one kind of bad guy, and the game just repeated itself after about 30 seconds. There was no way to even win! But I learned a ton building it, and my next game turned out even better, even if it too was very small and simple. Over the course of the next year I abandoned some prototypes and released a fairly controversial platformer. More than two years after releasing my first "game", I finally uploaded Canabalt, a game I made in less than a week. You can learn a lot from a few years of failure!
If you want to work on small games, the most important thing to do is start making small games right now. Even five years ago this would have been a harsh catch-22. However, in this glorious day and age there are not only amazing game-making software tools and tutorials freely available all over the web, but there has been a simultaneous resurgence and interest in tabletop games and game design.
Let's let that sink in for a minute. Game-making tools: free, powerful, and cross-platform. Game-making tutorials: free, and well-written. Tabletop games: easy to make, fun to make, and require no programming or art whatsoever. The only thing stopping you from making a game right now, right this very minute, is you. If you have never designed a game before, video or otherwise, I heartily recommend starting with this fantastic article about a simple and fun tabletop game design exercise.
For making video games, here are some free and popular game-making tools that are pretty easy to use:
Google should yield up some great tutorials for any of those tools. While Game Maker, Stencyl, Flixel and FlashPunk are mainly for 2D games, Unity can also do some pretty high-end and complex 3D games. If you are feeling particularly intrepid, you can check out these other free 3D game engines:
For more resources, I recommend checking out this encyclopedic list of tools, tutorials, overviews and references. I also maintain a list of game making resources on my gamasutra blog which includes some links to communities that revolve around making games and game art. Meeting new people, learning from them, sharing my work and giving back to these communities has completely changed my life. This is not "networking". This is establishing relationships and friendships with the people who inspire you the most, and, if you're lucky, even getting to collaborate with them.
Finally, once you start something, you need to finish it. Game maker Derek Yu (Eternal Daughter, Aquaria, Spelunky) has compiled some fantastic advice on the topic in his article Finishing a Game. Read it and take it to heart!
Ultimately, whether you are aiming for big games or small ones, or somewhere in between, my advice is the same: start creating something right now, and keep doing it every day. That might sound like simple advice, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Especially if you have a family and/or a mortgage and/or a day job, your free time is probably pretty limited already. Trying to build up these skills on the side can be hard on relationships and your other responsibilities. Like going back to school or getting a second job, this can't be a unilateral decision if you have people in your life that rely on you!
If your partner decides to support you in this, or you're young and unfettered by such concerns, then I am happy to report that it is entirely worth it. When I'm not writing articles, I spend most of the year making up games. I get paid to make games. In my underpants. I didn't have to go to game design school (although a few of them are great) or buy a bunch of books (many of which are good as well). All I had to do was stay up late, make mistakes, and try to learn from them.
Some shoutouts to the folks who helped out on this article:
And thanks to Jordan Mechner for the idea and opportunity!
Today's guest post comes from KlickTock founder Matthew Hall, creator of Doodle Find and Little Things.
I can identify with Matt's feeling that he came to the industry too late — that the "golden age of the bedroom coder" had passed him by. That's exactly how I felt in 1982, when I'd had my Apple II for four years — since age 14 — and still hadn't managed to get a game published. While other programmers produced hits like Space Eggs and Alien Rain, I could feel the window of opportunity closing, and kicked myself for having taken so long to get my act together.
As Matt and I can both attest, the brass ring comes around more than once.
Matthew Hall established KlickTock in 2009 from a sheep farm in rural Australia. A veteran of the Australian game development industry, Matthew started programming games at the age of seven.
I met Jordan at GDC earlier this year. I'd recently attended his postmortem of Prince of Persia and ran into him in the halls. We talked about developing games at that time and our own game development histories. However, given Jordan is quite famous and you probably have never heard of me before — what went wrong?
I am only a few years younger than Jordan. Just like he received his first computer, an Apple II in 1978, I received my Commodore 64 in 1983. I programmed games throughout my childhood, but by the time I was able to produce a professional quality game — the golden age of the bedroom coder was over. My 8-bit heroes had moved onto 16-bit and found themselves struggling. The industry had passed to the hands of those with big cheques and bigger teams.
Instead of producing a hit title in my bedroom — as I was always hoping to — I developed homebrew titles for the newly released Game Boy Advance. Nintendo would never allow garage developers like myself access to their development kits, so I used one of the many "flash-kit" solutions available on the black market. As an unlicensed developer I had to release all my titles for free; hardly untold riches! Regardless, I am proud of my titles even if only a handful of people were ever able to enjoy them.
My portfolio of titles and expertise in new hardware allowed me to get a professional game development job. But after 8 years of doing thankless work-for-hire, I eventually came to the conclusion that I had to leave my paid jobs and strike out on my own if I ever wanted to make a game I was truly proud of. I left my job just as the App Store was launching, though I had no idea it was going to change my life.
Little Things was released a year later. Though it was initially a failure on PC, it was featured by Apple as the iPad App of the Week and I've had similar chart-topping success with my other iOS games.
Finally the games industry had come full circle, once again empowering a lone developer with a stable platform, low cost of entry, excellent engines and tools available on the market, and a direct line to customers hungry for more games.
So I have a few pieces of advice for those with a passion for games and a notebook full of game ideas:
1. Head out to the store and pick yourself up a Macbook and an iPod. You've now got the top of the line development system used by every iOS developer in the world! No need to call a console manufacturer and beg them to allow you to drop thousands of dollars on a single dev kit.
2. Now, for the game engine! From popular open-source solutions like Cocos2D to powerful 3D engines like Unity 3D the choice is yours. If learning to code is too much at first, there's even Stencyl, which allows you to develop games with a visual interface.
3. When I was a kid, if I got stuck on a problem, I got STUCK. I was a 14 year old kid programming games from a farm in rural Australia. Who was I going to call? Jordan Mechner? I may as well just call Steven Spielberg for film-making advice. The Internet has completely changed programming and if you find yourself with a problem you can't seem to solve, most likely someone has already solved it for you. With Google around, programming is much less scary.
The most amazing part of this new golden age is that you don't have to be #1 to be successful. Everyone knows that Angry Birds has had over 200,000,000 downloads. You may not have ever heard of my games, but Doodle Find has had over 2,000,000 downloads and Little Things has sold over 125,000 units. I'm ecstatic with the success I've had so far and I hope the best is yet to come. Most importantly, I only need to support myself — not a large company renting an expensive office in a central business district.
I'm beyond grateful to have found myself in the right place at the right time... finally.
Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have been posting terrific weekly podcasts over at John's site. If you're an aspiring or working screenwriter, or just curious about how writers fit into the whole moviemaking process, I highly recommend them.
Friday's podcast especially warmed my heart. It's ostensibly about the working relationship between screenwriter and director, but that's not why I'm reposting it. It's because Craig and John showed me that I wasn't alone growing up pronouncing words like
misled = mizzled
segue = seeg
awry = orry
hyperbole = hyperbowl
until the day, generally years too late, when the awful truth came crashing in on me.
But I still think it's possible that I may be the only one who grew up reading HWADDA-nits. You know, in paperback. Like by Agatha Christie.
In today's guest post, Yuri Lowenthal (who voiced the Prince in 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) talks about the special challenges of voice acting, as opposed to acting on camera.
When Yuri, Joanna Wasick and I came together in a sound studio for the first day of voice recording on POP:SOT, we didn't have animations, animatics, or even concept art yet. While the POP team was bringing the world and characters of the game to life on screen, two actors first needed to make them real in their imaginations. The Prince and Farah began as voices in darkness.
I cherish voice recording as a special, thrilling, and terrifying moment in game production. Having experienced it from a writer-director's point of view, I asked Yuri for an actor's perspective on the process.
Yuri Lowenthal is an actor who lives and works in Los Angeles. You may have heard/seen him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Afro Samurai, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Ben 10. He is married to actress Tara Platt and easily stalked at @YuriLowenthal. And if you're nice he'll tell you the exciting story about the time he met Jake Gyllenhaal.
People often ask me: "What's harder? Voice acting or real acting?" I've heard it so many times that I hardly get offended anymore. Almost hardly. I mean, I get it; the person speaking is really trying to say: "What kind of acting is more difficult, the kind where we just end up hearing your voice, or the kind where we end up seeing your face?"
Well, let's break it down:
For on-camera acting, I generally get the script in advance, time to talk with the director about the character and what his or her vision is for the project, maybe do a little research, put on a costume, work with some props, walk around the set, rehearse with other actors, and take time to break down the script so that I can bring you, the viewer, the best performance I am capable of.
For voice acting, I generally show up the morning of the recording, am handed a script, and after about 5 minutes (if I'm lucky) of discussion with the director (or sometimes writer) about the project, we get down to business so that I can bring you, the viewer/listener/gamer, the best performance I am capable of. Will my performance be judged less harshly because I didn't have the niceties that an on-camera or theatrical situation can afford? Absolutely not.
As a voice actor, I have to jump in, scan the script, get as much info as possible in a short amount of time from the people involved and make choices on the spot — but stay flexible in case my choices aren't in line with what the client needs. I have to pay extra close attention to the director, because they usually have a LOT more information about the story and characters than I do. And I'm alone, empty-handed, in whatever clothes I grabbed out of my closet that morning, in a room about the size of the closet I grabbed my clothes from, standing in front of a sensitive microphone that will pick up every little sound — voluntary or involuntary — that I make. And the only thing I can count on being there for me is my imagination.
Not that I don't use my imagination when I'm acting on camera; but in the booth, it's my most powerful weapon. In the dark, by yourself, you have to create everything — which, when you look at it, can be either terrifying or immensely empowering. For fear of otherwise dissolving into a gibbering puddle of panic, I choose "empowering." You have to. You must bring a certain confidence into the booth with you, because no one else will be there to prop you up, and the client rarely has giant wodges of time for you to "find" your performance.
To be a good voice actor, you have to be a crack actor. A cool voice will only get you so far. Years of theater gave me a huge jump on voice acting. And you know what? All the voice acting I've done has made me a better on-camera actor.
Now, I'm not saying one or the other is better. I love both, and I absolutely love showing up to do a voice acting gig and not have to get there at 5am for makeup and wardrobe and then sit in a trailer for a couple of hours while they light and rehearse until they're ready for me to come out and say three lines of dialogue. Instead, I can roll into the studio at 9am and be out by 1pm, sometimes having finished recording what is, in essence, a whole movie. And I didn't even really have to put pants on.
On the other hand, sometimes I love getting into a suit of armor and hitting another actor with a sword.
(As I watch my video game work segue from voice acting to sometimes full performance capture, I see the two worlds on a collision course. But that's a story for another day.)
When I'm voice acting, you don't get to see my face, so it ceases to be a question of whether or not I "look the part." If I can sound like it, I can be it. You don't see a lot of working voice actors getting cast because of their looks. Once again, you have to be a good actor. Not just a pretty face. Or even Persian.
The amazing husband-and-wife artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland (my collaborators on Solomon's Thieves) recently participated in a project called "sketchtravel."
It's one sketchbook with a bright red cover that's traveled the world for over four years, passed from the hand of one artist to another — literally. Shipping the book in the mail, or giving it to an intermediary, is not allowed. Each artist gets a few days to do a "sketch" in the book. No do-overs, no mistakes.
The sketchbook eventually reached over 70 artists, including such living legends as Quentin Blake, Hayao Miyazaki, Peter de Seve, Carlos Grangel, and Tadahiro Uesugi — and, I'm proud to say, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland.
Here's Uyen's page:
You can read more about the project at www.sketchtravel.com.
The original book will be auctioned in Brussels on October 17th, with proceeds going to a charity called "Room to Read" that builds and furnishes libraries for children throughout the world. I really, really envy whoever gets it.
For the rest of us who don't come up with the winning bid (I think it starts at something like 20,000 euros), a reproduction of the book is being published by a European house called Chêne, and can be purchased through amazon.fr. There's also a super deluxe collector's edition complete with a wooden box.
Pre-ordering mine now.
The news of Steve Jobs' passing hit me in much the way John Lennon's death did in 1980 — I mean it blindsided me and my whole circle of friends with a surprisingly personal sense of loss although we'd never met him.
And not just because we heard the news — and shared it with our friends — on the iPhones and MacBooks that our fingers touch, on a daily basis, more than practically anything else.
Apple's products have changed the course of my life, as I've previously written. But I admire Jobs most of all for three reasons that have little or nothing to do with the MacBook I'm typing this on:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Jobs was no plaster saint. He shares many traits with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney, and will take his place in history books (or history ebooks) alongside them. Like the co-founder of that other Apple, John Lennon, he was, is, and always will be an inspiration.
For readers who've gamely clicked their way through all seven years of my "Making of Prince of Persia" journals online — and those who haven't — I'm happy to announce that the complete saga is now available as a PDF and Amazon Kindle ebook.
The book isn't free — we've priced it at US$7.99 — but at 300-plus pages, I hope it's good value. We're publishing it without any copy protection or DRM, so pirates shouldn't have much of a challenge. Book sales will help defray the costs of this project and of maintaining the website.
The ebook contains the original Old Journals, plus never-before-published entries leading up to the beginning of The Last Express. You can download a free sample PDF of the first 40 pages, or the full ebook, here.
Thanks to Danica Novgorodoff for designing the book (Danica is the multitalented author of the excellent graphic novel Refresh, Refresh, and designer of many First Second books, including Solomon's Thieves), and to David Anaxagoras, Ryan Nelson, and Aaron Simonoff for their hard work putting it together. It's safe to say it turned out to be a lot more work than any of us expected.
In the ebook, you'll read what I wrote in my journal on the day I videotaped my kid brother running and jumping to model the prince's moves; the day I gave up on the project; and the day I decided to finish it after all.
In the seven years from May 1985 to January 1993, Prince of Persia went from a few scribbles on yellow-lined paper to a published, best-selling video game franchise, and I changed from a callow kid into (I thought) a seasoned software entrepreneur. If you've read the journals, you know that it was a bumpy ride, and that the game's eventual success was anything but a foregone conclusion.
Whether you're a game designer or in another creative field, whether you had an Apple II in the 1980s or weren't born yet, I hope you'll find inspiration (or something else of use to you) in this story of how one game got made.
Check out the ebook here.
This ebook is an experiment in many ways. I have no idea how many people will be interested, or how well the non-DRM "honor system" will work. Either way, I'll post once the dust has settled, and let you know how it went.
If you've enjoyed the Old Journals on the site, but don't feel the urge to own the ebook, you can still support this project by helping us spread the word. Readers like you who take the time to post or tweet about the Old Journals ebook, review it on Amazon, or just tell a friend, will make a big difference in the experiment.
Since I got my iPhone 4S, I've been intrigued, fascinated and alarmed by Siri's fast-growing capabilities. I thought it would make sense to introduce her to my psychotherapist, Eliza.
ELIZA was one of the first (and longest) BASIC programs I typed into my then brand-new 16K Apple II in 1979. Originally created at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966, this pioneering natural-language-processing simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist impressed my family and friends every bit as much as Siri does now. I was curious to see how they would get along.
Here is a transcript of their first encounter. Despite their 45-year age difference and two-million-fold disparity in RAM, I thought they understood each other remarkably well.
Hello, I am Eliza.
How are you today? What would you like to discuss?
I'm fine. Thanks for asking.
How long have you been fine. Thanks for asking?
Hmm... Let me think...
Do you doubt you?
I found three hotels matching "W" fairly close to you.
With whom would you like to speak?
You're not really talking about me, are you?
Should I look for businesses by that name?
I don't care about names. Please go on.
At this point, an incoming call interrupts the conversation. Several minutes elapse before Siri returns.
I can't help you if you will not chat with me.
I suppose you can't.
Sorry, I can't provide maps and directions in Canada.
Have you tried?
I can't answer that. But I could search the web for it, if you like.
Perhaps you can now answer that. But you could search the web for it, if me like?
Searching the web for "it if me like."
What does that suggest to you?
Siri produces a series of Google search results. Top result:
"...If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan."
You're not really talking about me, are you?
I'm not, huh?
How long have you been not, huh?
Siri, interpreting the response as "How old is Wolfram/Alpha?" performs a calculation.
OK, here you go: 890.1 days.
Tell me more.
Sorry, I don't understand "Tell me more."
Does that trouble you?
Let me think.
Do you really think so?
OK... how about a web search for "Does that trouble you"?
We were discussing you, not me.
If you say so.
Oh... say so?
Calling José Fuentes, mobile.
I lunge for the phone, stopping the experiment.
I'll post as soon as we know the release date. There's a lot of work still to do — the full trilogy will weigh in at over 450 pages, in full color. To all those who read Book One (published last year in paperback) and are waiting for the rest of the story, many thanks for your patience!
Meanwhile, here's a sneak preview of a couple of inked (not yet colored) pages from the third book:
I've posted these in an album on the Solomon's Thieves facebook page, plus a colored sample page from Book Two.
If you're looking for a gift for a book-loving, technically-oriented person in your life, here are a few recommendations. (Alas, if you're looking for a Christmas gift for ME, I've already read them.)
Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made by Andy Hertzfeld.
This collection of first-person anecdotes from the team of engineers who created the Mac in the early 1980s is beautiful, revelatory, and totally coffee-table-worthy. It conveys the atmosphere of early Apple, and evokes the fascinating bundle of contradictions that was Steve Jobs, in a way that makes it the perfect complement to Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, which the person you're shopping for probably already owns.
(Isaacson's book is also a terrific read — as accurate and balanced as one could reasonably wish for — but as it's already destined to become the #1 best-selling biography of all time, plugging it seems redundant. Basically, it's the iPhone of hardcover biographies.)
If you're interested in delving deeper into the early Apple story, another great primary source is iWoz by Steve Wozniak (sharing credit with ghostwriter Gina Smith). Woz is the antithesis of the other Steve in so many ways. This memoir — which covers his childhood tinkering, creation of the Apple II, and subsequent departure from the company he co-founded — conveys his unique and wonderful personality. If you happen to be the parent of a smart kid born into the 21st century, his evocation of his 1960s boyhood and relationship with his engineer dad will give you a lot to think about.
Other books I've enjoyed lately, in no particular order:
Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Verhoeven.
It's true: the director of Robocop and Starship Troopers has written one of the most entertaining, historically grounded, and plausible evocations of Jesus's life I've read. Verhoeven, the only non-theologian member of the Jesus Seminar, spent years doing research for a film about Jesus before deciding to write it as a nonfiction book instead. Of special interest to movie buffs is his assessment of the historical accuracy of previous cinematic treatments, including Scorsese's and Gibson's.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
This book blew my mind, in the best way. I've been curious about how my brain works pretty much ever since my brain started working, so to discover a book this revelatory is a big deal.
Warning: This is not a quick and easy, Malcolm Gladwell-style bedside read to unwind with at the end of a long day. Though it's very readable, it demands to be read when you're fully awake and brimming with mental energy. Not only that, it actually explains why you shouldn't read it when you're tired.
Feynman by Ottaviani and Myrick.
A hardcover graphic novel might seem an odd medium for the reminiscences of famed raconteur and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, but it's totally delightful, funny, romantic, and manages to squeeze in a fair amount of math and physics. Read it even if you've already enjoyed his memoir, the hilarious Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.
David from San Francisco asks:
I've always leaned toward writing and storytelling, so I was wondering what companies look for in hiring for those positions. I have an idea of what's in an artist's portfolio, but what does a writer's portfolio look like?
Since I've never actually hired a video game writer (other than myself), I passed this question on to David Footman, Scripted Events Director for Ubisoft Toronto. David generously took a break from making the next Splinter Cell to offer his advice in today's guest post.
Disclaimer: While I agree with almost all David says, I don't share his belief that familiarity with the teachings of Robert McKee (or Syd Field, or Bob Truby...) is an indicator of a writer's skill or craftsmanship. I say this although I've taken their courses, bought their books, and (almost) always came away feeling I'd gotten my money's worth.
I'll add my two cents on screenwriting gurus later — but first, here's David, with a game director's perspective on what he looks for in a game writer:
I think there are two "schools" when it comes to scripted event direction in video games. People who move into this role from animation or art direction backgrounds make up the first school. The second school have a background in TV and film. I come from TV and film, and this informs my choices and processes in games. Creating the story for a AAA game needs two types of writers — an experienced game writer, and an experienced screenplay writer.
Writing for games is different from any other genre. The interactive nature of the story demands that the writer fully understand the term "Gamer Experience." In the last five years, I've heard this term come up in game story discussions more and more. It's a powerful concept, and once understood, it not only changes the way a writer approaches narrative, but the gamer experience can change depending on the genre of game you're working on.
My first video game project was an RPG, Lord of the Rings: 3rd Age. RPGs are the extreme example of how a game story can be unique to each player, but even on RPGs we don't have the money or time to build more than three or four splines for the story. In a linear action adventure game, the degree of "unique experience" is much less. Still, every player wants to feel like they've had a unique experience. We don't just provide an illusion of this — we now have systems in place that make this a reality, like systemic scripts, dynamic dialogue systems, and perhaps most importantly, user-created experiences that abound in multiplayer, co-op and social games. A good writer must be focused on creating narrative systems that tell the player's story, not their own. It's an important distinction.
As a scripted event director, I'm not always involved in the broader aspects of the game story. Often I shoot the scripted events, direct the performance capture and audio sessions, but have little say in how it's all assembled within the game. Many movies are "made" in the editing room — the tempo, style, and tone are established there and nowhere else. It's the same with video games, but you have level designers and a myriad of other artists, scripters and programmers (which is why you're now more often seeing the role of Narrative Designer, a job that didn't exist five to seven years ago). Over the last few years, I've broadened my scope to help design all of the game story elements, not just scripted events.
When it comes to purely cinematic scripted events, on top of working with a game writer, I really value an experienced screenplay writer who's had at least three scripts produced. Seeing your work on-screen is the best way to learn, and the craft of writing for film takes an enormous amount of talent and skill.
"The camera is the dread X-ray machine of all things false" — Robert McKee
When it comes to writing for the screen, the camera is the ultimate lie detector. Characters and dialogue stand naked before its powerful magnifying lens. Scenes that contain truth, conflict, revelation, and reversals provoke and capture audience imaginations. I look for writers who refuse witty dialogue, cute setups, and phony interactions, and instead look for dramatic structure in all of their written scenes.
If you can't already tell, I'm a big Robert McKee fan. I love his approach to writing, and any writer who has studied under him already has a shoe in my door. You'll hear "keep it simple" a lot nowadays, and it's a great term for writers, directors and actors. Good dialogue comes from a good understanding of characters and the world around them, and first drafts always suck — just accept it. Writing is about understanding that a great story needs to be boiled down to its essence and re-written over and over again until it contains only the purest of elements. I look for writers who get their work out in the open, and who aren't afraid to take risks.
Writing can be a vulnerable job, constantly putting your heart out on the page, critiqued by everyone on the team, misunderstood by actors. You get bossed around by directors and producers, and in the end everyone wants to blame you. I look for writers who can collaborate, but who can also stand up for their convictions. Just as everyone who gets dressed in the morning thinks they're a costume designer, everyone thinks they can write — and nothing could be further from the truth. The writer is the nucleus of a game, and even if you have the best development team in the universe, your game doesn't stand a chance without a talented writer.
(Jordan in) Roger that. Now, about those screenwriting gurus:
(I posted a while back about my own McKee experience, here.)
I wouldn't dissuade anyone from taking McKee's course or reading his book. They're great. But they are no more a shortcut to becoming a professional writer than, say, reading books and attending lectures about soccer are to becoming a professional soccer player.
It's all about the hours on the field. The ten thousand hours, if you're a Malcolm Gladwell fan. For a writer, that translates into hours spent writing, getting feedback on your writing, and rewriting.
The danger of gurus to an aspiring writer (or an aspiring anyone) is that they can lull you into thinking you've saved yourself a few thousand hours of hard, apprentice work. Whereas in reality, all you've done is added a few more tools to your toolbox, which is (or should be) already full of tools. So go ahead and try their wares. Just don't be a sucker. Especially, don't fall for the idea that anyone's book, course, or paradigm is "necessary," or that it supersedes what you can figure out on your own by paying attention when you read fiction, play games, or go to the movies. Even Aristotle's Poetics doesn't make that claim.
For a fuller discussion of "Screenwriting Gurus and So-Called Experts," check out this podcast from two highly accomplished, in-demand, working screenwriters, John August and Craig Mazin. Craig's views are harsher than John's (although if you know Craig or have followed his blog in the past, you can tell that John softened him up a bit for this podcast). Here's John in one of the podcast's more pro-guru moments:
Syd Field is — if you're going to read one book, you should probably read Syd Field, just because everyone else in this town has read Syd Field. People will talk in, sort of, Syd Field terms whether they've read the book or not. When people talk about Act I, Act II, Act III, mid-act, climax, worst of the worst, those are all kind of Syd Field'y terms.
Everyone's going to talk those ways, whether you actually believe in them or not, development people will talk in those ways. By reading Syd Field, you'll understand that everyone thinks that there's a first act that ends at about page 30, that there's a reversal that happens at about page 60, that there's a second act break that happens at page 90, which is the worst of the worst, and then the movie resolves itself in the third act, which is the last 30 pages or so.
Everyone sort of uses that as a template for thinking about stuff, even though that's not the way most movies actually happen. The danger is people use that as a template to try to shoehorn any given movie in to fit those beats and fit those page breaks and that idea that this is exactly how a movie has to work, as if there's one magic formula, or that the architecture of screenwriting is quite literally architecture or engineering — that if you don't do these things exactly perfect, the entire movie will fall down and collapse on itself.
John's point applies equally to video game writing. If you think of McKee, Field, Vogler, et al. as frames of reference that other writers and creative execs at film studios and game companies are likely to share, that in itself is a good argument for being familiar with them.
End of guru-related digression. The points David makes about game writing are absolutely valid, and reflect important realities of game development that any writer interested in working in games should know.
Tomorrow: A writer's take on the question, from a game writer who works with David: Richard Dansky, lead Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm.
In yesterday's guest post, Ubisoft director David Footman addressed the question: "What do game companies look for in hiring a writer?"
Today, here's a writer's take on the subject. Many thanks to Richard Dansky, David, and the Ubisoft Toronto team for taking the time to share their ideas.
By day, Richard Dansky is the Central Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm, which means that in some way, shape or form, he gets his hands on the storylines and content of most Tom Clancy-themed computer games. By night, he writes the spooky stuff.
The most important thing to look for in a game writer is a game writer. Everything else is secondary. If the writer doesn't understand that they're writing for a game — not a movie, or a television show, or a comic book, or a novel or a tabletop RPG or a choose-your-own-adventure book or the underside of a Nantucket Nectar bottle cap — then nothing else matters. Game writing really is something different from any other style in terms of what it demands of the writer — it's the only place where the writer isn't telling their story, or the protagonist's story, but rather the player's story. Yes, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, whether that's an avatar they create themselves or an established, iconic character like Sam Fisher, but the fact remains that everything that goes into a game is just possibility until the moment the player interacts with it, and thus creates their own story of what happened.
That doesn't mean that the other stuff — like being able to string words together in an aesthetically pleasing way — is optional. That's absolutely not the case. Obviously, a good game writer is someone who writes well, who can convey information directly and concisely, who can build characterization through the restricted toolset available to a writer of games, and who actually does all those wacky professional things like meet deadlines, do revisions, and so forth. The best understanding of game narrative in the world can't help you if all of your characters sound exactly the same (like, say, you), or if your heroic fantasy heroes sound like surfer dudes, or if your idea of a strong story involves people sitting around a cafe in Cambridge talking about how their parents made them totally dysfunctional. The basic skills of the craft are non-negotiable. It's just that you have to have them and be able to work with them within the parameters of making a game.
A good game writer understands that the game isn't about them, or their story, or their witty dialog. The rest of the team isn't there to realize their vision, and the player isn't there to admire their brilliance. The game writer I want to work with wants to collaborate with the team to create the best player experience possible. That means crafting a story that shows off the features that the game is built around — no setting key plot moments on the featureless Siberian tundra for a stealth game, thanks. That means working with level design to come up with cool spaces for the action to happen in that also happen to make sense within a narrative framework. That means working with sound to get character voice right and concept artists to create the best visual storytelling possible, right on along to double-checking with localization to make sure that you haven't accidentally named a character something rude in Farsi. (This happens more often than you'd think.) At the same time, the writer I want to work with doesn't want the player to sit back and enjoy what is handed to them. The game writer I want to work with creates things that the player can pick up and integrate into their own experience of the game, so that everything that player does feels right and seamless and utterly appropriate to the story they create as they goes along.
Something to bear in mind is that games where the narrative and the gameplay are forcibly separated are getting rarer on the ground. They'll always be there — sports games in particular lend themselves to that sort of bifurcated structure — but more and more, we're in a position to conflate the narrative and gameplay elements in really cool and interesting ways. And that means making sure that in addition to being good writing and emotionally true writing, any writing that goes in there can't step on the gameplay. And that means finding writers who can be smart and economical about exposition, and who understand that if it's a choice between between "hear the interesting line" and "do the interesting thing," "hear the interesting line" loses — rightfully — every time.
What I don't look for in a writer is someone who doesn't know games, doesn't play games, and isn't interested in learning anything about games. It's someone who can't understand that technical or asset or budget constraints necessitate changing the script because we just can't do that. It's someone who won't take feedback, or who expects the team to just intrinsically understand their brilliance, or who wants to protect every single solitary word they've written because they're under the mistaken impression that they've sweated out diamonds in a first draft. I don't want to work with a writer who thinks their job is done the second they hand in a script — there's a lot more work to do — or who thinks that only the fun parts demand their full attention. (Here's a hint — the players are going to hear your systemic dialog a hell of a lot more often than they'll hear your witty one-liners.) And I don't want to work with someone who's not willing to learn, because we all learn, on every project and with every team.
I've been very lucky in the writers I've collaborated with over the years. Ian Mayor and the team on Driver: San Francisco, Mike Lee on Splinter Cell: Conviction, the mighty Jay Posey on Ghost Recon: Future Soldier — the list goes on. All of these folks understood that we were working on something bigger and threw themselves into that. They did great work with short turn around and last minute changes and sometimes jury-rigged methods of iteration to make sure things were as good as they possibly could be. And they didn't just do this for the script, but for the game. I'm lucky again with the folks I'm working with now — scripted events director David Footman and writer Navid Khavari — because they get it, because they do great work, and because they're coming at things from a different angle than I do, which lets me learn. These are the folks I enjoy working with, and I look forward to working with in the future. And if you're smart, they're the folks you want to work with, too.
A huge thanks to Jordan Mechner for the opportunity. Good game writing doesn't just happen, and we need more of it in our industry.
The paper book comes from CreateSpace, a really cool self-publishing service for authors. Basically, we sent them a print-ready PDF and they did the rest. The book weighs in at 323 pages, and looks and feels like a good-quality trade paperback. We've priced it at $16.99 (the difference from the ebook versions reflects the printing cost).
You can purchase the book here.
To anyone who's previously paid for another version of the ebook and would like to have the .epub version for convenience, let us know and we'll email it to you. Like the PDF, it's non-DRMed.
Once the dust has settled, I'll post (and Aaron, Dave and Danica may guest-post) about the results of our grand ebook/self-publishing experiment, and what we've learned. Short answer: It was more work than we anticipated — but now that we know how, the next book should be a lot easier. I think.
Also: For readers curious about who some of the people referred to in the journals are, or what became of them, I've posted a "who's who" of players in the making-of-Prince of Persia saga, here (PDF).
Many thanks to everyone who's read the book and reviewed, posted or tweeted about it. The response has been fantastic, and makes it all worth it.
One big difference between the movie and video game industries is the way they handle news about upcoming projects.
Movies are announced early, and often. When a writer sells a pitch, when a director is attached, when a role is cast — all of these stages leading up to making the movie are freely reported and commented on. Even though there's no guarantee when, or if, an actual movie will ever get made. (See Fathom.) And studios are fine with it.
Video game studios, on the other hand, guard their game development plans like military secrets. It's not just that they don't want work-in-progress visuals getting out and giving a less-than-ideal impression of the game. Often, they won't even confirm that a project EXISTS until it's almost done, with tens of millions of dollars already spent and the end in sight.
A side effect of this is that, when game developers rub elbows at conferences like GDC, if A should ask B in a moment of drunken camaraderie "What are you working on?" the accepted answer is a big cagey grin and a tease: "Nothing I can talk about!" This is true even if B is the lead designer of Mass Metal Destruction 1 and 2 and remains employed by the same studio. It shouldn't really surprise anyone that, MMD2 having made half a billion dollars the year before, someone has thought of doing a MMD3. But some things are not to be spoken out loud.
So it's an exquisite frustration particular to game developers that we spend our time talking (and blogging, and being interviewed) about every aspect of our work EXCEPT what we're actually working on and are most excited to talk about.
And for me, today, it's an exquisite joy to finally be able to say this in print:
For the past year, I've been working with a small team to develop a new, updated remake of Karateka — the game that began my career 27 years ago.
(If you didn't happen to encounter Karateka in the early 1980s, you can read its backstory here.)
Eight years is a long time between games, even for me. Since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time shipped in 2003, I've been busy writing movies, TV, graphic novels, and other non-game projects. It feels great to be hands-on making a game again, and I can't wait for you to be able to play it.
It'll be a downloadable game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, out this year. We're looking at bringing it to other platforms too. I'll update with more details in the coming months, as we get closer to release.
How different is the new Karateka from the original? It's closer than the 2003 POP:SOT was to the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia. But it's a more radical reinvention than, say, the 2007 XBLA Prince of Persia Classic. The new Karateka is much more than a port; it's both a remake and a re-imagining of the original game for today's consoles.
For me as creative director, it's been an exciting chance to experiment with new gameplay mechanics and ideas that on previous console generations (and on the Apple II) I could only have dreamed about.
Why downloadable and why indie? For a lot of reasons, downloadable just feels right for Karateka. The original was a simple, compact, pick-up-and-play game that didn't require a lot of tutorial to understand what you had to do. Beating the game was hard, but even little kids could have fun playing it from the first moments. I wanted to honor that simplicity. Jumping from the Atari 400 to a huge triple-A retail console title felt like it would have been too big a leap.
I want to show that a game can be simple fun while also telling a human story in a way that's emotional, atmospheric, and beautiful. I've been encouraged to see gamers embrace downloadable titles like Limbo and Braid — games that stand out because of their design integrity and strong artistic choices, although they were made on modest budgets and don't represent technological breakthroughs. The industry is changing fast. It's an exciting time for indie.
And it doesn't get much more indie than programming a game on a 48K Apple II in my college dorm room, mailing it to a publisher on a 5.25" floppy disk, and crossing my fingers — which is how Karateka began.
In a couple of weeks at San Francisco GDC (Game Developers Conference), I'll be doing a panel with Tim Sweeney (Epic), Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), Notch Persson (Minecraft), and John Romero (Doom) discussing "Back to the Garage: The Return of Indie." I hope to see some of you there.
After that, it'll be time to put my head down, get back to work, and get back to not answering questions for the next couple of months.
But now you know at least one of the things I'm working on.
Many thanks to everyone who's taken the time to comment, or post on twitter or facebook, asking for a new Karateka or sharing your memories of playing the original game. Your encouragement means a lot to me and has helped to get this project off the ground. I truly hope you'll like the result.
Watch this blog and the Karateka page for updates.
OK, so this isn't exactly "behind the scenes of making a game"... it's more like "behind the scenes of PROMOTING a game." It's a video about making a video: yesterday's G4/Xplay episode announcing my Karateka remake.
Anyone who knows me knows I'd rather spend nine hours straight at the computer than fifteen minutes on-camera, but I'm glad Dave and Earl documented this. I think.
This video by comedy group Karahat is so classic, I just had to repost it. Thanks to Kotaku and many kind people on twitter for alerting me to its existence.
The prince's foray into real life may not do for parkour what the Real Life Angry Birds commercial did for T-Mobile, but at least he's out there trying.
I didn't even realize this video's true genius until I saw it a second time — so thoroughly has the modern iPhone era of cheap-and-easy digital compositing effects reshaped my expectations. As far as I can tell, its central special effect was created using a technology that was equally available in 1985.
A special booster potion to the first reader who calls it out.
When I was 17 years old and dreaming of a career making games, my role models — the people who created the games I admired — were known to me only as names on Apple II title screens. I couldn't look up their bios, read interviews, or check out their websites, because the internet didn't exist yet. I didn't know what they looked like, what countries they lived in, or if their names were even real ("Lord British"?).
There was one way, though. You could send a letter to the publisher (the old way, with postage stamps) and hope that it might get to the game creator who might actually read it.
At 17, I didn't have the chutzpah to think of that — but another enterprising kid named John Romero did. John informed me of this when we finally met, in an elevator at GDC, years after he'd fulfilled his childhood dreams and become one of the best-known game designers on the planet, thanks to Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
John's first words to me were: "I wrote you a letter. In 1985."
When I got home, I dug it out of storage. Indeed he had. It was one of the first three or four fan letters I ever got — forwarded by Karateka's publisher Broderbund Software to my Yale Station post office box, where I was a 20-year-old senior in college. John himself was "17 going on 18," as he was careful to specify in his letter, perhaps figuring the extra year might cause me to take him more seriously.
John assures me that he has my answer in storage somewhere. I don't remember what I wrote, but you can read his original letter here (PDF). Thanks, John!
I couldn't resist posting this now, because I'll be seeing John again next week at GDC. We'll be on a panel with Tim Sweeney (Epic) and young whippersnappers Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) and Notch Persson (Minecraft), moderated by Jane Pinckard, on the topic of "Back to the Garage: The Return of Indie Development." Hope to see some of you there!
Update: The Last Express will be released for iOS on September 27, 2012.
I've been biting my virtual tongue for the past few months in my eagerness to respond to the many fans of The Last Express who've suggested how beautifully this 1997 adventure game could work as an iPad/iPhone app.
Ilya, Veronika, Jan, Jáchym, Sebastian, Felipe, Robert, Will, Stefano, Chiara, Felix, Alexander, Arnim, Jennifer, Lydia, Lauren, Ravi: You're absolutely right.
It's with enormous pleasure that I can finally share this good news: A young French company, DotEmu (who celebrated their fifth anniversary in Paris last night — making them ten years younger than the game) is developing a full iOS version of Last Express, to be released later this year.
Details to follow — but be assured, this will be the complete, original PC game, a deep and immersive real-time interactive narrative offering 20+ hours of game play, with a few additional enhancements to make it more iOS-friendly.
My thanks to DotEmu, the original Smoking Car team, and all the Last Express fans who've encouraged us to refill the coal tender and stoke the furnace so that this train can leave the station once again, fifteen years later.
I can't wait!
(Warning: Geek Quotient of today's post = 11)
My Dad (yep, the same guy who composed the music for the original Karateka and Prince of Persia) called from New York to tell me he was doing some spring cleaning and had shipped me a carton of old games and other stuff of mine he'd found in the back of a closet.
The carton arrived yesterday. My jaw dropped when I saw what was inside.
No, I don't mean the stacks of Spanish Drosoft versions of POP and Karateka (though those are cool too, especially if you have an Amstrad computer with a cassette player). I mean those three little plastic 3.5" disk boxes nestled among them... which appear to contain the ORIGINAL APPLE II SOURCE CODE OF PRINCE OF PERSIA that I've been searching for, off and on, for the past ten years, pestering everyone from Doug Carlston to Danny Gorlin and everyone who ever worked at Broderbund, and finally gave up hope of ever finding.
I KNEW it wasn't like me to throw stuff out!
So, for all fifteen of you 6502 assembly-language coders out there who might care... including the hardy soul who ported POP to the Commodore 64 from an Apple II memory dump... I will now begin working with a digital-archeology-minded friend to attempt to figure out how to transfer 3.5" Apple ProDOS disks onto a MacBook Air and into some kind of 21st-century-readable format. (Yuri Lowenthal, you can guess who I'm talking about.)
This is a crazy busy time (in a good way) with too many projects, so it might take a little while. I'll document our progress via the twitter and facebook feeds, and I promise, as soon as we can extract something usable, I'll post it here.
David Anaxagoras, who's ably assisted me behind the scenes these past three years, is stepping down as jordanmechner.com's website administrator/consultant. In today's guest post, David says goodbye, and readies the torch for his successor.
If after reading David's job description and requirements below, you think it might be up your alley, please write to us at email@example.com.
David — Many thanks for your kind words and your diligent work. I know many readers will join me in wishing you best of luck in your adventures still to come.
I'd like to take a moment to say goodbye and introduce myself. You might know me as Jordan's web site administrator, but it's more likely you don't know me at all. I keep a low profile. I move, ninja-like, through the mechnerspace, nipping and tucking bits of code, mercilessly slaying spammers, conjuring solutions from PHP and destroying them when they no longer suit our needs.
For three years I have done this, and now I am about to take my leave.
I was lucky to have been volunteered for this job — having been recommended to Jordan by someone familiar with my screenwriting blog. The job fit my needs at the time as well as Jordan's. The gig was part-time, molding nicely around my full-time job and, aside from the occasional fire or project launch which required some late nights, it took up just a handful of hours per month on nights and weekends.
I didn't know everything about WordPress tags or PHP when I started, but knew how to find answers. Which I did a lot of. Aside from basic coding competence, the most important skills needed here are a tenacious problem-solving ability and a fierce determination to succeed. Those qualities didn't come from my coding background, however — I had gained that from years as a struggling screenwriter.
So why go? Yeah, it isn't easy to say goodbye. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to let go of something that's already really good, something that's safe, in order to go after what you really want. This is a realization that came, ironically, from spending many hours in close company with Jordan's excellent memoir. It takes a while sometimes to recognize the rut you're in. My writing life has been in a holding pattern for a while. It's time to change that. And sometimes when you have difficulty changing just one or two small areas of your life, it's a sign you need to flat-out change everything.
So I'm turning in my ninja gear. I look forward to returning to Jordan's blog as a reader and a fan. I hope to sweep the cobwebs out of my own blog and with any luck, I'll be reporting on the progress of my own adventures there soon.
As for Jordan's site, a new champion will rise to take my place. I encourage anyone with a bit of experience running a web site to enter the dojo and apply for the job. May you find the job as invigorating and inspiring as I have.
In my PAX keynote yesterday, I mentioned that although Karateka is the game that launched my career, I actually had just as high hopes for the Apple II game I made right before it, as a 17-year-old freshman in college: Deathbounce, which I submitted to Broderbund Software founder Doug Carlston but he declined to publish.
A clamor immediately arose in the audience, offering to support a Kickstarter campaign for an iOS/Android version of Deathbounce.
I tried to discourage this, pointing out that Doug's judgment that Deathbounce was unlikely to set the gaming world on fire was well founded even in 1982. Nevertheless, ever since yesterday, people have been coming up to me at PAX and trying to give me money.
It turns out I actually have a disk image of Deathbounce on my MacBook Air. (Derek Moore, childhood friend of voice actor Yuri "Prince of Persia" Lowenthal, did me the favor of copying my 5.25" Apple II disks a while back. A floppy disk image being only 143K, the shoebox full of disks that took me my entire childhood to amass now occupies barely 2MB on a 350GB hard drive.)
(For those following the Prince of Persia source code saga: Our failure to find the POP source code in this shoebox was what led me to give up hope of ever finding it, until two weeks ago, when my Dad unearthed a forgotten cache of 3.5" backups in his closet.)
So, rather than do a Deathbounce Kickstarter (I don't know what scares me more — that it might be a total bust, or that millions of dollars might pour in and then I'd HAVE to make it), I thought it would be simplest to just post the disk image here. This way, anyone who wants to play Deathbounce can.
The cost of the cup of coffee I consumed while typing this post (regular, black) has been funded by the "first Kickstarter dollar" that someone handed me onstage after the talk, plus the five bucks the Penny Arcade security guy offered me to atone for his guilt for playing a pirated disk of Karateka as a kid in England 25 years ago. (Thanks, gentlemen!)
(To any programmers out there who'd like to take on the iOS/Android version: I have the source code. You know where to find me.)
See? Way easier than Kickstarter.
Two weeks ago, my Dad shipped me a box that, to my joy, contained the original Apple II Prince of Persia source code archive I'd stowed away 20 years ago and had given up for lost.
Despite my eagerness to see what's on those disks, I've yet to pop them in a drive. As readers of this site have cautioned me, digital media degrade with age; if the disks are in a fragile state, normal handling could damage them further and even render them unreadable.
In today's guest post, digital archivist Jason Scott explains why reading 20-year-old floppy disks is trickier than it sounds — and why he's volunteered to fly from NY to LA on Monday with special equipment to tackle the job himself.
Monday will be an exciting day. Much like opening a long-sealed sarcophagus, I truly have no idea whether we'll find what we're hoping for, or just data dust. For anyone who wants to share the suspense, we'll be live-tweeting our progress. Hashtag: #popsource. (I wanted to use #sourcecode, but it was taken!)
Meanwhile, here's Jason's story, offering a glimpse behind the scenes of a profession whose existence I couldn't have foreseen or imagined when I was making Prince of Persia in the 1980s: Digital archeologist.
I first heard about Prince of Persia in a somewhat strange fashion; a high school friend said that David's older brother was working on a new game to follow up his big hit Karateka. I asked what it was about, and he said it was something about Persian princes and acrobatics. I left it at that, but I knew it'd be great, if Karateka was any indication.
I went to Horace Greeley High School after Jordan, and knew his brother, David, who graduated the same year as me. David was the motion model for Prince of Persia. Jordan was this talented figure somewhere out in the fog of the real world, who was making actual, sold-everywhere games with a company I really liked and respected (Broderbund), and was basically living the dream I hoped to live one day: game developer.
(My own dream was fulfilled — I did work for a short time at Psygnosis, makers of Wipeout, as a tech support phone monkey, and another year stint at a startup game studio, before moving on to other places in the computer world.)
It wasn't until a couple years ago that I moved away from jobs like system administration and backup-watcher into the world of computer history and documentary filmmaking, where I am now. As one of the Adjunct archivists of the Internet Archive, I seek out new collections of data and help preserve current ones — anything from digitized books and audio to long-forgotten shareware CD-ROMs and obscure information files uploaded years ago. It's a great time, and most importantly, it affords me the flexibility to travel when I'm needed somewhere.
So this was why, when Jordan announced he'd gotten back the Prince of Persia disks he had in his own collection, a lot of friends of mine started linking me to the article and saying "Well?" It was a perfect fit. I had seen Jordan for a few moments after his recent appearance at GDC, so it made sense to have us talk about my coming in to oversee the retrieval of data from the disks. What a nice journey — from hearing the game was being worked on in my youth to helping make sure Jordan's work lasts for future generations!
Pulling data off dead media in the present day is both easier than it ever has been, and as frustrating as ever. (When I say "dead," I mean the format. You can't really go down to the local store and buy a box of 5.25" floppy disks any more, nor would you want to — a USB stick will give you well over a million times the space and cost you almost nothing.) Thanks to a lot of work by a lot of different people, pulling the data off these floppies can now be as simple as putting it into a vintage disk drive, or a modified recent one, and pulling the individual sectors right into a file that can go into the internet in seconds. But just as it's so trivial to do this, any clever tricks done to the floppy that made sense way back then could make it a puzzle wrapped in a goose chase to extract. Not to mention, these discs are old — in this case, at least twenty years old, and they're just magnetic flaps of plastic sealed inside a couple of other sheets of plastic. A lot can go wrong, and no extraction is guaranteed.
It's the Friday before I hop into a plane in NY — ironically, just miles from where Jordan's disks had rested comfortably in the back of a closet for 20 years — to Los Angeles, where he works and lives these days. Once I arrive there, I'll be joined at the site by someone I reached out and tapped due to his reputation within and outside the Apple II community: Tony Diaz. He's one of a tireless group of vintage hardware and software collectors working to ensure an entire swath of computing history isn't lost to the shadows. With a collection of Apple-related hardware that is likely one of the largest in the world, accompanied by attempts to catalog and document as much of it as possible, I knew Tony would be the best partner in this project. Tony will be bringing over a pile of Apple II hardware, maintained and cleaned, ready to take these vintage floppies in.
However, not all of these disks are off-the-shelf in terms of their formats. Since Jordan did work with a commercial game company, and because there were attempts to prevent wholesale
duplication of these for-sale games at the time, some these floppies have various levels of "copy protection" on them — modifications in how the data is written, in-code checks to analyze the floppy disk's state and run or not run based on the result, and so on. I'm not here to start a debate on whether this was the right or wrong move at the time — there's plenty of screen space spent on that discussion elsewhere. But it does translate to a headache for the present day when a straight disk read doesn't just "work."
Enter pieces of hardware such as the DiscFerret, CatWeasel, and Kryoflux — all of them modern hardware dedicated to pulling magnetic readings of the floppy disks, eschewing any cares about operating system, structure and copy protection. Think of them as taking a magnetic photograph of the disk. There's quite a bit of science involved and a lot of debates on what the best approach is for getting the data, but on the whole, the principle is the same: make a floppy drive read the magnetic flux of the floppy, not unlike how a medical scanner approaches the human body, and from that "image," pull out what the data setup is on the floppy. This resulting magnetic image is huge, size-wise, relative to the original floppies — these 140k (that's kilobytes) floppies will have a multiple-megabyte magnetic read result from it. But we're in the space-car future; that mass of data is nothing to us now.
This week, the DiscFerret team has been working overtime, pulling some all-nighters to test and fabricate a hardware setup to do the magnetic readings, and that machinery was packed and FedExed to Jordan yesterday. The in-depth details of what hurdles have to be taken into account with some floppy drive hardware is outside the scope of this already-long post, but rest assured, there are hurdles, and success is not guaranteed.
And let's make that clear — we have no idea what's on these floppies! When we bring them in, they could be completely empty (although that is really, really, really unlikely). Factors from quality of manufacture to storage method to phase of the moon could lead to there being lost data. But be assured we're going in with the respect these artifacts deserve.
See everyone in La-La land!
My Apple II-unaware friend Jamie walked into my office this morning, surveyed the detritus of yesterday's marathon source-code extraction, and asked "Good Lord, what happened here?!"
Tony and me at the moment of truth:
I explained that the original Prince of Persia source code had just turned up after being lost for 22 years, and that two stalwart companions and I had dedicated most of the previous day and night to extracting it and posting it on github.
Jamie — who knows the term "source code" primarily as the title of the movie Jake Gyllenhaal did after Prince of Persia — digested my explanation; then, looking as confused as before, asked "Why?!?"
It was such a simple question, it stumped me for a moment. Why would I spend a whole day trying to recover data from some ancient floppy disks?
I said: "Because if we didn't, it might have disappeared forever."
POP source code recovered after 22 years:
Non-programming analogy: Video game source code is a bit like the sheet music to a piano sonata that's already been performed and recorded. One might reasonably ask: If you have the recording, what do you need the sheet music for?
You don't, if all you want is to listen and enjoy the music. But to a pianist performing the piece, or a composer who wants to study it or arrange it for different instruments, the original score is valuable.
It's possible, up to a point, to reverse-engineer new source code from a published video game, much as a capable musician can transcribe a musical score from listening to a performance. But in both cases, there's no substitute for the original document as a direct line to the creator's intentions and work process. As such, it has both practical and historical value, to the small subset of the game-playing/music-listening community that cares.
This is why I was so sorry to have lost the Prince of Persia source code, and happy to find it again.
If you've read my 1980s game dev journals, you know that by the time Prince of Persia shipped in 1989, I was burned out on coding and seriously eager for the next chapter of my life to start. So I did what most programmers would do: I backed up my Apple II source code onto 3.5" floppies, stuck it in a box, and promptly forgot about it.
Thirteen years later, when I looked for that box of source code again, I couldn't find it. I was in Montreal with an amazing team making Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Lead programmers Dominic Couture and Claude Langlais had volunteered to port the original POP to the PlayStation 2, and slip it into our new game as an easter egg. (This was their idea of a fun respite from crunch time.) All they needed was the source code. But as much as we searched — from my garage to Broderbund's archives to Doug Carlston's basement — it was nowhere to be found.
Finally we tracked down Scott Shumway, who'd done the 1992 Mac port of POP. He didn't have the Apple II source code either, but he did have the Mac source code. Dom and Claude made short work of porting it to the PS2, and Sands of Time got its easter egg. Everyone was happy.
On my return to LA, I dug deeper, and turned up a whole shoebox full of Apple II floppies, some dating back to high school. The source code to all my early games was in there: Deathbounce, Karateka. But no POP.
I didn't need the source code for anything; and it wasn't as if POP had been lost to history — vintage Apple II POP copies (and their disk images) were widely available — but still, it bothered me to think that something I'd spent years working on was just gone. I felt dumb for not having kept a copy.
This was eight years ago. I gave up the search and forgot about it.
Until two weeks ago, when my Dad shipped me a carton of my stuff he'd found cleaning out the closets of his New York apartment. Inside was the source code archive I'd mislaid in 1990.
Here's the thing about digital backups and magnetic storage media: They don't last very long.
Try popping your old 1980s VHS and Hi-8 home movies into a player (if you can find one). Odds are at least some of them will be visibly degraded or downwright unplayable. Digital photos I burned onto DVD or backed up onto Zip disks or external hard drives just ten years ago are hit and miss — assuming I still have the hardware to read them.
Whereas my parents' Super 8 home movies from the 1960s, and my grandparents' photos from the 1930s, are still completely usable and will probably remain so fifty years from now.
Pretty much anything on paper or film, if you pop it in a cardboard box and forget about for a few decades, the people of the future will still be able to figure out what it is, or was. Not so with digital media. Operating systems and data formats change every few years, along with the size and shape of the thingy and the thing you need to plug it into. Skip a few updates in a row, and you're quickly in the territory where special equipment and expertise are needed to recover your data. Add to that the fact that magnetic media degrade with time, a single hard knock or scratch can render a hard drive or floppy disk unreadable, and suddenly the analog media of the past start to look remarkably durable.
This is why, when I posted about finding the POP source code, digital archivist Jason Scott, Apple II collector Tony Diaz, Derek Moore, and the technical teams behind the DiscFerret and Kryoflux disk readers volunteered their time and effort to give us the best possible shot at a successful extraction.
Let me begin to count the ways I've been lucky with this: The box was found. The disks were intact. Prince of Persia and I happened to have a high enough public profile that people of Jason and Tony's caliber (and dozens of others who contributed their expertise via IRC, skype and twitter from around the world) cared.
In the bigger picture, our timing was lucky. The 1980s and the Apple II are long enough ago to be of historical interest, yet recent enough that the people who put the data on the disks are still with us, and young enough to kind of remember how we did it. Roland Gustafsson, author of the special 18-sector RWTS routines that had made our disks super-efficient in 1988 (and unreadable to anyone but us), was able to get on IRC in 2012 and explain what he'd done to Discferret kids who weren't born then.
For all these lucky reasons, our archaeological expedition was crowned with success.
From a preservationist point of view, the POP source code slipped through a window that is rapidly closing. Anyone who turns up a 1980s disk archive 20 or 30 years from now may be out of luck. Even if it's something valuable that the world really cares about and is willing to invest time and money into extracting, it will probably be too late.
This is why it's awesome that there are people out there working on digital preservation. Because now is the time.
Jason suggests the following rule of thumb: If you have data you want to keep for posterity, follow the Russian doll approach. Back up your old 20GB hard drives into a folder on your new 200GB hard drive. Next year, back up your 200GB hard drive into a folder on your new 1TB hard drive. And so on into the future.
As for me, the past 48 hours have been a fun walk down memory lane. And have given me a renewed appreciation for paper, celluloid, and stone tablets.
(Postscript: For 6502 assembly-language aficionados, the Prince of Persia source code is now up on github, along with a README file that answers some frequently asked questions. I've been amazed and moved by the outpouring of interest in the #popsource saga — it literally crashed this website for several hours today.)
Now, I really need to get back to my day job of making up new stuff. I can only hope to have the same lucky, glorious headache of trying to recover some of it 20 years from now.
Update: The Last Express has just been released for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch! Check it out in the App store.
I tested the final version yesterday on a long transatlantic flight (Frankfurt-LAX, with headphones), and it's my new favorite way to play it. Next to playing on an actual train, that is.
Here's the trailer:
I'm excited to announce that my new remake of Karateka — the game I've been working on with a small, independent team for the past 18+ months — is now available on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360. (Versions for PlayStation 3, Steam, and Apple iOS are coming soon.)
Here's our official launch trailer — written and directed by Adam Lisagor, who infused the trailer with his nostalgic memories of playing Karateka at age six on an Apple II:
I'll post more in coming weeks about the process of making Karateka, then and now: in 1982-84 as a college student on a 48K Apple II, and in 2011-12, as creative director of a bigger (but still small) team using modern game development tools. It's a great excuse to dig into my archives and uncover old-school souvenirs like this one.
My goal in remaking Karateka was to recapture the simplicity of the original in a compact, reasonably priced (under US$10) downloadable game, with gameplay so straightforward that players of all ages could immediately grasp it and start having fun right away — while enjoying a dramatic human story.
I hope readers will give the new game a try. I'd love to hear your reactions, whether you played the original Karateka in the 1980s or are encountering it now for the first time. Send me a tweet (@jmechner on twitter), post your comment below, or (if you have a question of general interest that you'd like to see answered on the site) email me.
The Karateka website has up-to-date information on game availability on the various platforms. And don't forget to punch the hawk!
Update: Karateka is now available in the App Store and for Sony Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam.
The modern remake of Karateka (out today on Steam) has given me a great reason to dig into my archives and revisit the long-ago era when I developed the original Karateka on a 48K Apple II.
If you're interested in making games, you may enjoy this series of short videos about the creative and technical process of making Karateka, then (1982) and now (2012). Each episode focuses on a different aspect of production: Inspiration, Animation, Sound and Music, and Gameplay. They're posted below.
The game industry has changed a lot in thirty years. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. For readers interested in delving deeper into the old days, check out the rest of this post below the videos.
When I started the first Karateka, in 1982, I was a 17-year-old Yale freshman and avid gamer, trying to balance a college courseload with my aspiration to become a published game author. Karateka made that dream a reality. It launched my career and paved the way for my next game, Prince of Persia.
That same year (1982), I started keeping a private journal — a habit I'd keep up for the next decade, as readers of The Making of Prince of Persia (1985-1993) will know. More surprisingly, I never got around to destroying it. And now it's in the distant-enough past that, rereading it, I'm able to laugh rather than cringe (OK, so maybe it's a bit of both).
As a time-capsule record of that early Apple II era, and a window into the maniacal brain of a teenager obsessed with "breaking in" to making games and/or movies, it may be of interest to others. So here it is (as DRM-free pdf, epub, and Amazon Kindle ebook, with print edition to follow): Volume One of my old journals, The Making of Karateka.
And, of course, I hope readers will check out the new Karateka.
I'm happy to announce that for the first time since 1984, Karateka is once again available for state-of-the-art Apple devices. You can download it for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch in the App Store. (Karateka requires iPhone 4S or newer, iPad 2 or newer, or 5th generation iPod Touch.)
I'm excited to announce that my original graphic novel Templar will be published in July in its entirety as a 480-page, full-color hardcover from First Second. (Book one of the saga was previously published in 2010 as an individual paperback, Solomon's Thieves.)
It's a hefty tome. Artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland have outdone themselves, evoking 14th-century Paris with all the action, humor, and depth a writer could hope for. I'm immensely proud of this book, and I can't wait for you to discover it.
Templar will ship on July 9, 2013. You can pre-order it from Amazon here.
Watch the Templar facebook page for updates about book events and other news.
Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was released for PCs in 1993 — three years after the prince's original Apple II debut, and a full decade before his leap to 21st-century consoles with PoP: The Sands of Time. I've posted a lot about my work process on the other PoPs, but almost nothing about this one.
To jog my memory, I dug out of my archives the game design "bible" I created for the PoP2 dev team in 1991. It's a curious artifact of that era; you can download the PDF (19MB) if you're interested.
There was no "bible" for the original PoP. That game evolved over four years in an organic process of improvisation, trial and error. The level design — the balance of action, exploration and combat that gave the game its particular flavor — came together only in the final few months. I had the liberty to do it that way because I was game designer, animator, and programmer, working on my own with no fixed timetable or budget.
Writing a detailed 200-page bible, then handing it to a team and saying "Make this" is the complete opposite way to start a project, and it's almost always a terrible idea. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. But that's how PoP2 was made. It worked because of a peculiar combination of reasons:
For all these reasons, it made sense to have a bible. It's interesting to read it now and see how it compares to the final game. There were cuts and trims, for the usual budget/schedule reasons (the blow-by-blow story of the game development is in the second volume of my old journals) — but I'm most struck by how much was kept, and how faithfully it was executed.
To the many readers who have posted asking for a version of The Shadow and The Flame to play on mobile devices, I'm happy to report that Ubisoft has just announced a modern "remastered" version for smartphones and tablets.
The mobile Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame will feature updated graphics, sound, and touch controls in the spirit of Prince of Persia Classic, rather than a direct port of the original like 2010's Prince of Persia Retro. Here's a link to the trailer. For myself, I'm looking forward to trying to beat the game again, twenty years later.
Having recently visited memory lane, I can now answer the following questions posed by readers about Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame. Thanks to Jose and Rishi for asking!
Q: Who is that old lady that is shown at the end of the game? I've always wanted to know that.
A: Ah, the Old Witch. In the final shot, after the prince and princess have defeated Jaffar and are flying off on a magic horse to live happily ever after, we pull back to reveal they're being watched in a crystal ball by a sinister old hag. Tattooed on her forehead is a serpent-S symbol. Observant players may recognize that symbol from earlier in the game, as graffiti scrawled on the walls of the ruined city, presumably by the marauding army that sacked it.
That's the peril of cliffhanger endings: I wrote PoP2 thinking there was going to be a PoP3… but then there wasn't. (PoP3D doesn't count.) In that never-written third game, the Old Witch would have been the primary antagonist. She's the arch-villainess who gave Jaffar his powers, the one behind the slaughter of the prince's parents and sacking of his home city, and whom he is destined to vanquish one day. The serpent-S is the symbol of the evil god she serves. (Apologies to Tolkien, Wagner, Lucas, etc. It was the nineties.)
Q: And what about that fire sword in the red castle, and that little man who comes when you get locked in a level (I don't remember which) and opens the gate to allow you to escape?
A: The Temple of Fire was built to house the sacred blue flame, a very ancient magic. The traps and bird-headed priests are there to protect it. The flaming sword that fights by itself is one of those traps, placed there to guard a door.
The tiny man in the bottle is a Djinn. The original idea was that when you opened the bottle, he would grow into a fearsome giant and attack you. As I recall, we had to cut the giant Djinn for budget reasons. If you've played the game recently enough to remember what the final implementation was, please remind me — but I think in the end, we may have had him just run away and accidentally step on the switch to open the gate as a bit of comic relief. It's just the stub of what he was originally planned to be.
Less than two months to go until Templar's release! Today, we're inaugurating a Tumblr page for the book. We'll be posting all things Templar there, including announcements of upcoming events, and behind-the-scenes materials from artists LeUyen Pham and Alexandre Puvilland and me.
Two events are already on the calendar: If you're in L.A. on July 9 (the day the book launches), come by Skylight Books in Los Feliz, where I'll be doing a reading/signing and Q&A. The following week, I'll be at San Diego Comic-Con (event details TBA).
Meanwhile, see you on Tumblr!
Update: Karateka Classic is now live in the App Store and on Google Play.
I've heard from a lot of people who've expressed the desire to replay a certain 1984 side-scrolling, bird-punching game that traumatized them in childhood, exactly the way they remember it — on their mobile devices.
So, by popular demand, I'm happy to announce that Karateka Classic is coming to the App Store and Google Play this Thursday. It's not a remake, not a port, but a faithful pixel-perfect emulation of the original Apple II game, with Olivier Goguel's ActiveGS emulator running my 6502 assembly language code, graphics, and my dad's music.
In engineering the app, Olivier has added a number of nifty touches, including the ability to choose between color CRT, amber, or green screen, as well as a few touchscreen-friendly updates, and a certain peculiarity of the 5.25" floppy disk version which I won't spoil here.
I'll be curious to hear your thoughts. Does Karateka Classic match your memories? How does it compare to the Karateka remake? And is it better to kick, or always punch the hawk?
Download links will be posted here late Wednesday night. Oh, and the price will be 99 cents.
Update: Templar is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and bookstores. Follow the Templar Tumblr and Facebook pages for news, reviews, and upcoming events.
The story of how a book, movie, or video game came to be — any project that takes years and the combined effort of many people — is always intertwined with the stories of other projects that didn't.
In 2001, when I joined a Ubisoft Montreal team hoping to revive an all-but-dead franchise I'd created in the 1980s, Prince of Persia, we had no guarantee that our efforts would see the light of day. We did our best, and the result was a game you may have heard of or played: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Whereas a game I can guarantee you've never played is the next-gen Prince of Persia sequel that team went on to develop. It wasn't abandoned because it wasn't good enough; rather, it was so good, Ubisoft decided to make it a new franchise in its own right. Assassin's Creed was born.
Meanwhile, I'd written the "Prince of Persia" movie for Disney. My first screenplay would be substantially rewritten by others before cameras rolled — but the experience sparked a great friendship, and my next writing project with co-exec producer John August: an hour-long dramatic TV pilot about down-on-their-luck private military contractors who accept questionable missions in a different conflict-ridden corner of the world every week. We got as far as casting our leads (Luke Mably and LL Cool J) before Fox pulled the plug. You'll never see that pilot (though you can read it on John's blog).
All that happened in one year, 2005. One project cancelled, two others went on without me. To anyone outside the film or video game industry, such a litany of "might-have-beens" might sound discouraging. But if you do work in the industry, you know that what I'm describing is actually a normal, productive year. Most creative people spend a significant percentage of their careers working on projects that don't see the light of day, or morph into something completely different by the time they do.
Which is why it's such a rare miracle when a work reaches completion in a form that not only fulfills the writer's dreams, but exceeds them.
For this to happen requires luck, timing, a talented and creatively aligned team, and a visionary and committed publisher. It happened with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and now, ten years later, I'm delighted to say it's happened again. This time not with a video game, but my original graphic novel Templar — out today from First Second Books.
The book is a self-contained romantic action-adventure about the fall of the medieval Knights Templar — 480 pages, full-color, hardcover, illustrated by the husband-and-wife team of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland. If you're a fan of Prince of Persia, graphic novels, or historical fiction, I hope you'll check it out.
Here's how it came to be:
In 2004, I got an email from Mark Siegel, editor-in-chief of Macmillan's new graphic-novel imprint, First Second, asking if I'd ever considered doing a Prince of Persia graphic novel.
A few minutes into talking, I realized that Mark wasn't trying to jump on the Ubisoft/Disney bandwagon. Not only was he not aiming at a merchandising tie-in with those bigger-budget efforts, he didn't know about them. He was remembering the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia he'd played in the 1990s. This was just one of the things about Mark's approach that charmed me. I said yes.
I couldn't write it myself — I was still busy writing the Prince of Persia movie and the Fox pilot, and Assassin's Creed was still Prince of Persia 2 — but, kibitzing from the sidelines as Mark brought together Iranian poet A.B. Sina and husband-and-wife illustrators LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland to create that Prince of Persia graphic novel, I realized three things:
First, I wanted to write a graphic novel. Comics had been my first love as a kid, along with movies (before video games existed). Cartoon art and storytelling had hugely influenced my work in video games, from Karateka to The Last Express. How could I have let three decades slip by without jumping on an opportunity to work in this art form I cared about so much?
Second, I wanted to write a graphic novel for First Second.
Third, I wanted LeUyen and Alex to illustrate it.
Oddly, throughout the year they worked on the Prince of Persia graphic novel, we'd never met. Whether out of reticence to intrude on each other's creative domains, or because of the crazy pace of production (that book and their first baby both shared the same, non-negotiable delivery date), all our communication was by email, with Mark as intermediary. But I noticed that every single one of their polite and deferential suggestions made the book unquestionably better. They were brilliant artists, this was their first book-length comic as a team, and their mastery was visibly increasing with each new batch of pages. Whoever wrote their next book would be a lucky writer indeed. I wanted to be that writer.
I'd had the Knights Templar on my mind for at least a decade. I first learned of their amazing backstory doing research for The Last Express — a World War I-era adventure game about the quest for a legendary, possibly cursed, object that never changes hands without staining them with blood. As anyone who reads books, sees movies, or plays video games with any regularity knows, such objects almost always turn out to be part of a Templar conspiracy.
Once Templars are on your radar, you start seeing them everywhere. They pop up in the third acts of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Robin Hood" (the 1938 Errol Flynn version), "The Da Vinci Code," and in the prologue of "The Maltese Falcon." As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault's Pendulum: "Everything has something to do with the Templars."
I became a collector of Templariana. I hatched any number of Templar-conspiracy plotlines — including a screenplay prequel to The Last Express, which I abandoned in 2002 (probably wisely) to focus on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If its MacGuffin bears an uncanny resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, it's not because either Dan Brown or I were aware of each other, but most likely because we'd been independently reading the same pseudo-historical nonsense about the Templars. You can read the first 40 pages here.
A little research is a dangerous thing. A lot of research can be fatal. My enthusiasm for my various Templar conspiracy-theory plot lines was killed by realizing that they weren't, after all, that original. The world didn't need another third-act revelation where the hero discovers that the secret he's been chasing/fleeing is part of a centuries-old Templar plot to uphold/destroy/hide/reveal something or other. (Or so I told myself. The subsequent popular success of "National Treasure" and The Da Vinci Code suggested that the world had, in fact, wanted at least a couple more.)
What really gripped my imagination, and stayed in my mind long after I'd put away all that historical and pseudo-historical research, was the actual history of the Templars and what had happened to them. It was weirder, deeper, more disturbing, and more moving than any of the best-selling riffs on it I'd scarfed down (and I'd scarfed a lot of them). It had the unmistakable ring of truth, of stuff you couldn't invent. I wanted to read that story.
Which meant I had to write it.
I pitched Templar first to Mark Siegel, in a café around the corner from First Second and Macmillan's Flatiron Building headquarters.
Second, I pitched it to LeUyen and Alex, in the kitchen of their San Francisco apartment. They'd just spent two years exhausting themselves to produce a 192-page Prince of Persia book, and had just become new parents to boot, so I knew my chances of convincing them to sign on to an even more ambitious, multi-year book project were slim. But I had to try.
That was six years ago. A lot has happened since. LeUyen and Alex now have two children. Assassin's Creed has become Ubisoft's flagship franchise, and — in a historical irony that would not have surprised Umberto Eco — involves a conspiracy tracing its origins to those very same medieval Knights Templar.
As for the Persian prince who originally brought us together, he's executed a remarkable series of running leaps — from the 8-bit Apple II screen where he began, to new generations of video game consoles, graphic novels, LEGO play sets, and the big screen that inspired his creation. I have no doubt that, being the plucky and resourceful character he is, he'll find his way through the sandstorm and back into the video game world very soon.
For today, I'm immensely proud and excited to offer you Templar — one of the most rewarding creative collaborations it's been my privilege to be part of. I hope you'll enjoy it.
Comments are open below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Update: Here's my schedule for San Diego Comic-Con:
- Friday 10:00 - "Graphic Novels: Words & Pictures" Panel in Room 23ABC
- Friday 11:30 - Signing books in Autographing Area (AA09)
- Friday 2:30 - Signing books at First Second Booth (1323)
And if you can't make it to SDCC, you can still "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit, Saturday (July 20) at 10 am Pacific time (1 pm Eastern).
Hope to see you there!
Artists LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland and I had so much fun collaborating on our graphic novel Templar, we hated to stop! So we've gone and made another book together: The Making of Templar. And we're giving it away for free.
As usual for our projects, this one grew to be a little bigger than we expected — but no regrets. The Making of Templar is an 86-page e-book, lavishly illustrated with LeUyen and Alex's sketches and behind-the-scenes materials, in which we discuss our work process and five-year journey making Templar. Topics include:
You can download the free e-book here. And if you haven't read Templar yet, never fear; we've steered clear of spoilers.
We hope you enjoy The Making of Templar — and Templar, too!
(Originally published as a guest article for The Huffington Post.)
As a writer and game designer, I've spent a good chunk of the past 30 years trying to do various types of creative work while sitting, standing, or slouching at a computer keyboard (and, more recently, a touchscreen). The power of those devices has grown exponentially, enabling me with a tap or a keystroke to accomplish marvels that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. ("Upload PDF to Dropbox"; "Open Scrivener file.")
And yet I've been increasingly bemused to realize that by real-world measures of productivity — words written, problems solved, good ideas crystallized — my output has not only not multiplied along with the power of my tools, it hasn't increased one bit.
Not only that: I've had for some time the gnawing feeling that my best ideas — the ones that really make a difference — tend to come while I'm walking in the park, or showering after a workout, or talking a problem through with a friend, or writing in a notebook; i.e., almost anywhere but in front of a screen.
For a long time I tried to talk myself out of this. I figured that if my computer time wasn't maximally productive, it was because I didn't have the right software, or wasn't using it right. I tried configuring panels and preferences differently. I created keyboard shortcuts. I downloaded apps to track time I spent using other apps, apps to make it easier to switch between multiple apps. Nothing changed the basic observed fact: There was an inverse relationship between my screen time and my productivity on a given day.
I started mentioning this to people. Cautiously at first. For someone who makes his living by putting stuff on screens, to question the fundamental symbiotic bond of user and machine could seem perverse, even a sort of heresy. But the more I brought it up, the more I discovered I wasn't alone.
It turns out that some of the most productive and successful people I know still write longhand. Screenwriters write on index cards and big rolls of paper, the way I did in elementary school. One dictates his first drafts out loud and has an assistant transcribe them. Game designers and directors scribble on whiteboards and in notebooks. And some of these people were born after 1980.
For myself, I've found that I spend the vast majority of my working computer time staring at the screen in a state of mind that falls somewhere within the gray spectrum from "passive/reactive" to "sporadically/somewhat productive," and in which a few minutes can stretch unnoticed into a quarter-hour, or a couple of hours, without breaking the seamless self-delusion that because I am at my desk, at my computer, I am therefore working.
It's so easy to move words and sentences around in Word or Scrivener or Final Draft that it feels like writing, even if what I'm actually doing would rate only a 2 on the scale in which 10 is "getting an idea and writing it down." Writing down an idea, an actual idea, is something I can do as easily with a fifty-cent ball-point pen as with a thousand-dollar MacBook Air. Only with the ball-point, it's harder to fool myself. If the page stays blank, I can see it's blank.
Which is why, after years of making progressively heavier use of more apps and more devices to do things I used to do without any devices at all, I've thrown that train into reverse. I now keep my project notes and journals in actual notebooks. I've even switched to paper for my "to-do lists," and cross off action items literally, not figuratively. It's simpler and I get more done this way.
As much as I love my tricked-out MacBook Air, I try not to begin workdays automatically by lifting its lid, as if to say "I have arrived at work; now tell me what to do"; just as I try not to reach for my iPhone to fill the silence of a solitary moment. Ideally, I want my screen sessions to begin with a conscious choice, a clear intention of why I'm turning to that device at that moment and what I mean to accomplish.
It's easier said than done. The more I try, the more I realize that what I'm actually doing is fighting an addiction. The Apple II that first enchanted me thirty years ago as a tool to make fun games has evolved, one update and one upgrade at a time, into a multi-tentacled entity so powerful that it takes an ongoing effort of will for me not to be enslaved by it.
Oddly, although The Last Express was conceived as a point-and-click adventure, mobile (with headphones!) has now become my favorite way to play it. Its immersive story, which encourages hours of meandering and eavesdropping, is best experienced in a comfortable position — like curling up on the couch with a good book. I especially like it the way it feels on a plane. And, of course, a train.