Creating a sensation: Jordan Mechner built his first video game in high school, sourcing info from books (there was no internet); a few years later, he concocted the hit game Prince of Persia in his dorm room. On the podcast, Jordan shares an inside look into his new book and chronicles the time he spent building a genre-defining game: his creative process, inspiration for his work, and insights about building games then vs. now.
Paul Ford You wouldn’t anticipate that it would be reprinted by a giant ecommerce company’s custom [Rich laughing] in the year 2020. You didn’t—you didn’t predict that—
Jordan Mechner Also, none of the words that you used in that sentence would’ve meant anything to me.
PF They wouldn’t’ve made any sense to me two years ago! [Music plays for 18 seconds, ramps down.]
Rich Ziade Paul, there were two—You know I grew up—My first computer was an Atari 400, many years ago. The keyboard wasn’t an actual keyboard, it was like a touch screen. Like a touchpad—
PF Yeah, those were—I had a Timex Sinclair 2000 or something—
RZ Yeah [music fades out].
PF It was bad.
PF It was a membrane keyboard 2K.
RZ [Chuckles] It was a tough scene. And we couldn’t afford the 800 which actually had keys to type in but I used to code Basic in that terrible membrane keyboard. Anyway, there were two moments you could draw the timeline all the way through for me. It’s like Atari 400, Commodore 64 into the, you know, IBM clones and I kept building my own machines and eventually 3D cards show up and all that. So, I’m watching—watching it all happen. I’m a step behind cuz we just couldn’t afford the latest thing. My friend had an Apple II. There were two moments that stood out to me because they had nothing to do with the hardware. They had nothing to do with, like, the next CPU coming out or the 3D cards showing up. One [hmm] was Doom. I had an old machine. It was, I think, a 386. And all of a sudden, Doom comes out and you could just tell that the programmers—or programmer, whatever the team was made up of—played a bunch of tricks on the hardware . . . to make it feel like your computer was all of a sudden three years into the future. And it was a magical thing to see. And I got so excited, I was like—Cuz it wasn’t really 3D Doom. It was doing all kinds of tricks to make it seem like it was actually rendering 3D but it wasn’t and it was fast as hell for some reason.
PF It just felt like the future. I remember walking into a computer lab and all these business computers were running Doom. Just taking over.
PF They were supposed to be running Excel and they were—
RZ And there was one other moment, and then you have to go back I don’t know maybe eight years or ten years—
PF Before Doom.
RZ Before Doom.
PF Before. We’re out of chronological order.
RZ Correct, and my friend who had more money than I did—
RZ [Laughs]—loads up Karateka and I couldn’t really even explain it, it was just—it didn’t feel like what I was used to seeing. It felt fluid; there was an art to it; and I was like, “Woah! I guess you need an Apple computer with Apple CPU to do this,” but I wouldn’t say that was even the case. I think it was a lot of creative thinking. And this is—and those moments where you sort of hack into the future ahead of the hardware are very, like, inspiring to me. And so I’m very excited about today’s guest. We have on the podcast Jordan Mechner. Am I pronouncing your name right, Jordan?
JM You did. You even pronounced Karateka right.
RZ You know, I thought about Karateka [laughs].
PF Oh, as opposed to Kara-teek-ah [Rich laughing].
JM I say Kar-ah-take-ah.
PF Oh boy.
JM I’ve since found out that I’m the only person in the world who does. Everybody else pronounces it the way you just did. So, we won’t say right or wrong but I know what game you’re talking about.
RZ Ok, good, good [Paul laughs]. You know, first off, welcome to Track Changes. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
JM Thanks, happy to be here.
PF We should point out that Jordan kept really careful journals during his time developing games and Stripe Press, well known as the publisher of such books as—I mean, no. I wanna make fun of Stripe Press a little bit [Rich laughs] but they actually—they published some amazing stuff and they have enormous, multi-billion dollar global ecommerce platform—are producing some really interesting books in tech, tech history, and economics. And so one of the things is Jordan’s book, The Making of The Prince of Persia which is just a very pretty volume. Like, you can—you see the journal entries; you see the sketches that were made and—
RZ It’s very cool.
PF —things like that. And so, yeah, Jordan, welcome. And you know what had struck me? It’s just everything is very cinematic in your work. Rich, what is the—like, what’s the signature thing? Describe the signature thing and then let’s make Jordan explain how it happened.
RZ Just speaking from someone that’s on the consuming end of it: it’s just—you’d felt like even though you didn’t have a lot of power in your hands at that time, it’s just—you know, it’s an Apple II. Looking back now, we’ve got 6,000 Apple IIs in our pockets now but at that time it felt like you left the computer for a second. You were in this place that it was trying to take you to, from the music to just the motion of the characters in the game. A lot of care was put into what would usually not be put into those aspects of a video game at that time. At that time you were working with a lot of constraints and whatnot. I wanna start with this question, Jordan, like, usually you go down this regular path, what compelled you to kinda go in this direction at that time?
JM Well, it was 1978 when I got my first computer. It was an Apple II, the 16k, and at that time it wasn’t even floppy disks, it was a cassette deck and so one of the first games that came with the Apple was Break Out. And so [mm hmm] I started programming, like everybody, in Basic and sort of gradually started dabbling in machine language but, you know, my first games were, you know, simple, Basic language, low res games. And there were a couple of games out there that just really blew me away, like they were just on a completely different level and one that was also available on cassette, I think it was 1979, was Apple Invaders, it was a Space Invaders clone. And it was just as smooth and just as good as the Space Invaders that I was playing at that time in the arcades. You know, taking rolls of quarters and blowing threw them an afternoon after school. So I didn’t have any higher ambition at that point than to be able to program a smooth, assembly language, high res game that would feel as professional as Space Invaders. And my first games were, you know, I was literally trying to copy arcade games. I spent about a year in high school trying to do an asteroids knock off for the Apple II. I thought, you know, “If somebody did it for Space Invaders, you know, why don’t I do it for Asteroids?” And I actually did it; and that’s sort of how I learned programming was just by banging my head against the wall, making Asteroids for the Apple II. I made a deal with a publisher, Hayden Book Company. I was in high school; I was, you know, I had a publishing contract; I was gonna be a published software author but unfortunately that was about the time that Atari figured out that this was happening and they sent out a cease and desist lawyers to all the publishers of computer games that had sprung up sort of under the radar and were selling clones of the successful coin op games. So that Asteroids never saw the light of day; it was never published.
RZ Now, what did you write it in? What programming language?
JM 6502 [sixty-five oh-two] assembly language.
PF Mmm! That’s—that’s some rough stuff in there. That’s not for the faint of heart.
JM An idea of how rough: this was before I actually had an assembler, so I used the mini assembler that was built into the Apple II.
PF You might as well be flipping switches at that point. Just, you know—
RZ And you’re in high school! I mean, this is—so you just sort of got the manuals and just said, “Alright, let’s give this a go.” I mean, this must’ve been tedious. You know, you look at the tools and the IDEs people have today.
JM Yeah, obviously there was no internet. There weren’t a lot of books about how to do this. [Rich laughs] It was pretty much just desperate for any scrap of information I could get. Buying games or rather, pirating games, and then resetting and then looking at the computer’s memory to look at the code of the game and try to figure out how they’d done it and then sort of reverse engineer. You know, [mm hmm, mm hmm] that was a way to learn. But one good thing about there being no internet was that being in high school, you know, we had lots of time.
PF No, that’s utterly true! I mean I think about this a lot and I think a lot like when you’re young, and there’s no social media, you have unbelievable numbers of hours available to you. There was nothing you could do, you would maybe spend like an hour a day, you might talk to your friends on the phone for like 20 minutes.
PF And then you’d need to get off so that like your mom or dad could talk on the phone. That was it. You had to fill the rest of the time.
JM Yeah, remember being bored . . . and not having a phone to reach for? [Oh yeah] You could read the same comic books that you’d already read 50 times; you could play Monopoly.
PF That’s the good—Alright, so you go deep, pretty early on. When did your brain go, “You know what? I think I could make something almost cinematic . . . appear on this rinky dink computer screen.”
JM Like, the real lightbulb moment for me was I was actually a freshman in college at that point, and I had just—I tried to come back from the disappointment of not getting Asteroids published by programming another game which I called Death Bounce. And that was kind of one step removed from Asteroids. It was, you know, you had a triangular spaceship but instead of shooting space rocks, you were shooting these brightly colored bouncing balls. It was sort of a cross between Asteroids and pool—you know, billiards. Not super original but just original enough, I thought, that it didn’t infringe on anyone’s copyright. So I sent that—But by now I had a floppy disc drive, you know, I had moved on from cassette players and I’d also moved on from the mini assembler to an actual assembler. So I had, you know, my variables had names now.
PF [Laughs] You weren’t just operating a processor [Rich laughs].
JM It wasn’t hexadecimal anymore. So I sent this disc to Broderbund Software, my favorite publisher who had published Apple Galaxian most recently. And I got a callback from Doug Carlston, the founder and president of Burderbund. This was a thrilling moment for me. I was in my college dorm room and this was the first contact I’d had from, you know, a heavyweight in the game industry. You know, the real game industry that I aspired to join. Burderbund didn’t publish Death Bounce. Doug kinda let me down gently. He said, “You know, as an arcade game-ish kinda game, it’s very good, it’s professionally programmed. It probably would’ve done really well if you had released it last year.” But this was 1982. He said, “I’m gonna send you our current number one hit, the game that’s doing really well,” and it was Choplifter. Did you guys play that?
RZ Mm hmm. Oh yeah.
PF Hell yeah! Everybody—Choplifter! That’s some good stuff.
JM Choplifter was the ah ha moment for me because Doug sent it on a floppy disc, he also sent along a joystick to play it with because this was the first game that you actually couldn’t play with a keyboard, you had to have a joystick which I didn’t have. And Choplifter was cinematic! I mean you’re controlling a helicopter, you’re flying over the desert, there’s a kind of a 3D parallax scrolling, and it has a story. You’re trying to rescue these hostages who have been freed and who are running around in the desert. And they can get hurt. If you accidentally drop a bomb on them, you’ve lost somebody and you feel bad. If you fly over their head, they wave to you. And at the end of the game it doesn’t say, “Ok, congratulations, you got an extra life, keep playing, try to get a high score,” it says, “The End.” Not, “Game Over,”
JM “The End.” And so that was the moment where I was like, “Woah! Of course! I’ve been trying to copy the arcade format which is you have three lives and you can get an extra life by getting this many points.” That whole structure’s created to get addicted so that you’re putting in quarters until you’ve spent the whole roll. But on a home computer, it’s like the economic model is different: I’d bought the game, I paid for the game. They’re not gonna get more quarters out of me. Why don’t they give me a complete experience?” Choplifter was the first game I had seen that actually did that. That really, “Ah! I’ve finished the game. I got to the end. I’m done.”
RZ Also, I think—I think—
RZ At that point you’re starting to see, and you saw it in Asteroids, probably the first—one of the first and then in Choplifter, you start to get sort of this feeling of physics, of like real world inertia and motion that felt very satisfying at the time.
JM Choplifter, by the way, was amazing in that regard. It was a real helicopter simulation. And I later found [yeah] when I met Danny Gorlin and he told me a bit about the process of making it. He had earlier that were much more accurate in terms of helicopter physics. He just had been—ended up dialing it way back to make it easy and fun to play.
RZ [Laughs] Right, right.
PF This happens. I also love how many early games—the narratives end up being about US foreign policy in very strange ways. [Rich laughs] Contra also [laughs]—like as you were describing it and I’m like, “Oh yeah that would—you’d really wanna make that come out in the eighties because that was the story. Ok, so this just blows your mind. You’ve got a joystick. Somebody who runs your favorite game company has told you, “Go play this.” When do you start sort of writing it all down? Are you journaling as a kid? Is this something that starts for you—you know, when did that become part of your process?
JM That was actually right about the time I was a freshman in college and I started keeping my journal that year, 1982, and I was 17 and I just thought, “Ok, I’m just gonna try to write down—yeah, not every day but pretty much write down what happens . . . so I’ll have it later.” And yeah, it’s funny you do something every day and then it becomes a habit and then it’s like you can’t shake it. I still keep a journal today. I’ve kept a journal in one form or another, you know, with very few breaks ever since. I didn’t think I would ever show it to anybody. I hid my journal so that, you know, nobody could find it and read it accidentally.
RZ The backstory here—I mean the setting is interesting. You’re in college now, you’re a freshman, you’re thinking about creating a cool game in assembly, I gotta imagine you’re kind of alone here . . . on this, except for this very small, you know, population of people who are startin’ to sniff out that this is where the world is going. I mean, what are you thinking of majoring in college? I mean, is college sort of another world as you’re thinking about this game?
JM Yeah, I should mention that all of this stuff we’re talking about was stuff that I was doing instead of what I was supposed to be doing . . . which was going to classes and studying and having a social life—things like that. No, I was pretty much the only person I knew who had an Apple II in their dorm room. You know, the tool that we all used, that we all brought to college with us was a Smith Corona typewriter and I had one of those as well.
RZ And what school are you at?
JM I was at Yale. One of the advantages or disadvantages of a school like Yale is that they really have a liberal arts philosophy. That is freshman year, they really encourage you to not have any idea what you’re gonna major in. Like, just to take classes in a variety of subjects; try to get a well-rounded education. [Mm hmm] I took that at face value. I actually took classes in film and classical literature, mythology, sociology, I took one computer science course but only one because it was so much work. I mean that was real programming. I was surrounded by people who were really gonna be, you know, software engineers. I thought, “Ok, I’m already spending all of my spare time programming my Apple II anyway. If I’m doing that for school as well, then I’m not gonna have any hobbies.” So I [right] decided to, you know, to keep programming as the thing that I did, you know, for myself. But then for my classes I took other things. And that was actually a big influence on, you know, the project that came after Death Bounce which was Karateka. The fact that I had been seeing so many films in my film studies class, studying early silent film, how things like cross-cutting and close-ups, camera movements all sort of had—This vocabulary of film sort of had to be invented. And I realized that computer games were also—It was sort of a new—it was gonna be a new art form, a new medium. And that the grammar hadn’t been invented yet. I mean, we were in the process of inventing it so that three lives, extra life, high score—that was a grammar that had already been created for the arcades and we had sort of borrowed that wholesale for computer games. Just as early films, silent films, had sort of borrowed the vocabulary of theater, of stage plays. And just as early films, after a while, they sort of moved out of that stagey, theatrical set up and started having cameras that moved, close-ups, kind of rhythm in editing [sure, yeah]. Games were sort of—we were sort of discovering that too. So when I saw Choplifter I thought, “Ok, the sky is the limit,” and I started over. I set aside Death Bounce and I started making a game which became Karateka but it was also inspired by the films that I was seeing in my film studies class. By Japanese woodblock prints, you know, the Mount Fuji in the background is really stolen from Hokusai’s “Views of Mount Fuji” and just kind of threw all of this in there. And of course a healthy dose of Bruce Lee movies.
PF What I love here too is it’s kind of—Like, here’s this blank canvas and no one in the world was taking this canvas that seriously, except for you and—
RZ Four other people [laughs].
PF Yeah, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, we can actually create something that people will really react to here.” And it almost takes, like, an 18, 19, 20-year-old to do that, right, because you hadn’t internalized a lot of rules. You’re just like, “I think I can make a cinematic game that feels exciting.” Like I miss that motivation in my own life, that sense of like, “Let’s do it! Let’s go!” Although I can’t imagine it was good for you in terms of getting your work done at Yale.
JM No, I was constantly struggling to not fail out of college. [Others laugh] And then when I did catch up in my classes, then I started to fall way behind on a computer game and thinking, “I’ve wasted all this time. I’m never gonna get it done.” That’s sort of the fun thing about re-reading my journal now: all of those ups and downs, that emotional roller coaster is preserved.
PF You created an impossible situation for yourself [Rich laughs]. Jordan, what did your parents think of all this? You’re at Yale, you got your Apple II, you’re having trouble with classes, like, what’s happening there?
JM My parents had a—I guess you could say a kind of a laissez faire attitude towards child rearing because they felt that it would all work out. And they pretty much encouraged us—I had a brother and two sisters—they pretty much encouraged us in whatever strange thing we got interested in. Figuring as long as we were interested in something and doing something, we’d be ok. So, I forget—when I was, you know, 12, 13, 14 years old and spending all my time drawing comics and trying to make little animated movies. They were fine with that. And then when suddenly I wasn’t doing that at all anymore and I was completely obsessed with this Apple II computer programming games, they were fine with that tool. So I don’t think they actually knew how close I was skating to the edge of failing all my classes and getting kicked out. [Rich laughs] I mean, you know, we talk about—“So, how’s it going?” “Fine! Great!”
PF I mean, when has an 18, 19, 20 year old boy ever responded in any other way? Things are—
RZ Also, it’s like, “Hey, mom, dad, a software publisher wants to put my game out.” [Laughing] It’s like, “Go to your room!” I mean, let’s face it: this is not a bad path.
PF It’s also just—But it’s a hard world to explain, right?
PF “I have a really strong emotional reaction to Choplifter,” is something that not a lot of people were gonna get in that moment.
RZ [Laughs] Oh man, um—
JM Well, you know, my parents are from a different generation. They were interested. Like, my dad, by the way, he composed the music for Karateka and also for Prince of Persia.
PF Ah, that’s great.
JM You know, he was born in 1931 in Vienna, Austria. So he had kind of a classical music education. Obviously the technology was new but I think he recognized this as something, you know, that at least I was treating it as an art form. Like, I was trying to create a kind of a—you know, in his upbringing would’ve been called a Gesamtkunstwerk, you know, something that combined elements of animation and storytelling and play. And so when I told him one of the elements was sound and music, he understood. And he sat down at the piano and composed the themes.
RZ That’s amazing. There was a probably point oh oh [.003] probability that any parent will say, “That is really cool. How about we make music? [Laughs] That will go over your video game.” You know [stammers] I mean that’s just, I mean, there’s obviously your own capabilities and skill and vision but also, I mean, frankly fortunate setting and circumstances that—that cultivated all this.
PF So, I mean, look: Richard and I being old school nerds and—I mean, one of the things that happened before we started Postlight is I gave Richard a Commodore 64 as a birthday gift. This was about—probably about seven years ago. So, it was already a little bit of an antique. So our roots are very much here. We could talk about this endlessly but we should also point out that a couple of these floppy discs grew up to be a vast platform with 20 million Prince of Persia games sold to date and—
RZ A movie.
PF A movie with Jake Gyllenhaal which, you know, I’ve done—we’ve all in our lives done lots of interesting things but very few of them turn into films with Jake Gyllenhaal [Rich chuckling]. So this is—you know, we were excited to talk about the cassette drive but the reality is—and Jordan you’re very humble [chuckles] but you created a large media franchise . . . not quite in your dorm room writing the journals, but still that really grew. So here we are today in a world that’s slightly made by Prince of Persia and I’m sort of curious about your vantage point on, you know, games today cuz it feels like so many are sort of striving to do what you did and build that franchise but almost out of the gate. Is that a good goal? Is that something that—Like, what does the world look like from your point of view?
JM I mean, of course since the Apple II the steady technological advancement of games, you know, was exponential. Today’s Triple A games [AAA] are so far beyond what those 8-bit computers were capable of. But at the same time, it’s actually now possible again . . . for one person, in their dorm room, or in their basement to make a game which can have a big impact. And we’ve seen a few of them, you know, mobile as a platform. There was suddenly simple games that could once again have huge success.
RZ Mm hmm. The indie scene, yeah.
JM Yeah, I mean, Minecraft is of course—it’s an outlier but that’s—you know, it’s a very simple game, it didn’t take a large team or a big budget to make it but the impact has been so huge. So it’s possible. You know, the barrier to entry for anybody who wants to make games has never been lower. There have never been more tools available. The technology’s never been as universally accessible, the market has never been bigger. Of course, at the same time, there’s, you know, a huge number of games being constantly made and released so it’s a lot harder to sort of rise above the noise. The year that Choplifter was released, everybody knew about it because there were only, you know—there were only a few dozen . . . games that came out [right] for the Apple II. It was a small market but it was a small number of games competing for that market.
PF Role play for a sec: if you were to . . . show up in the world being 18, 19 now, do you think you’d be doing anything like you did? What sense would you make of the world we’re in today?
JM Man, well, espec—I mean, we’re having this conversation in April 2020 when the world just suddenly doesn’t resemble anything that I was hoping or expecting a month ago. Right? I mean, when the dust clears from the crazy, confusing crisis that the whole world is going through right now, a lot of things are gonna be different. It’s hard to know what. But I would say that—in terms of what an 18, 19-year-old would be excited by and want to do: at this point, games have been around long enough that not only has a 19-year-old today grown up playing games but then there are also the games that were made even before that. It’s already a creative art form that has a history. Much like when I was in college, that was film. You know, I was excited by the films that were coming out in the, you know—in the eighties but then there were also films that were made in the seventies and the sixties and in the thirties and forties before I was born. So, film was the—was kind of the established medium that I had grown up with, that I lived and breathed, and then computer games were just a brand new thing. They just appeared suddenly when I was in high school. So, I mean, they hadn’t existed when I was 12. So, they interested me as something new. So, what’s new today? It’s definitely not computer games but there’s aspects of, you know, of VR, of AR, there’s kind of social things that can kind of be at the sort of intersection of games and social media.
PF I mean, we don’t have to go specific. I mean what you’re saying is you’d be exploring new forms. You’d be finding new constraints and playing with them.
JM Yeah, I think that’s the nature of like, when you’re 18, 19 years old, then you’re sort of the right age to take something that’s pretty new and then run with it.
RZ As a dad of a seven-year-old and a five-year-old, I do worry—I mean, you mentioned before about how much time you had but even beyond that, you had these wonderful constraints. There just wasn’t a lot coming at you. So it’s not only did you have time but there wasn’t this constant sort of barrage of engagement and entertainment and—and—you know, my kids now are working from home and, you know, they have laptops and they drift off to other places and they could just sit there and stare at that thing in a very passive way for very long periods of time. I try to put those constraints in so that they have a sandbox to explore with and to wanna be creative with. Like, I take the laptop away and I give my daughter paper and she’ll paint for three hours. But you have to work really hard to create that space. It’s hard to create it because they are so accustomed to, you know, just all of that stimuli, all the time. I think, you know, I feel like escape rooms [laughs] are sort of—are sort of an antidote to all this shit that’s coming at us all the time. It’s like, “Hey, check it out: your phones stay outside and you’re gonna have to get out of the room.” “Woah, you know what? I’ll spend 80 bucks doin’ that.” [Laughs] So, I think that’s my only— you know, I fall back into old man complaining on the porch a bit here but that’s my only anxiety around—I think that there’s always that desire to sort of scratch that itch but there’s not a lot of oxygen in the room.
PF I also kinda doubt that escape rooms are gonna get marked as essential [Rich laughing] and survive the next 18 months.
RZ [Laughing] I don’t think escape rooms are gonna do too well! [Laughs]
PF I don’t think that that’s gonna be where a lot of America’s money is gonna be going—
RZ [Laughs] That’s fair.
JM Yeah, I mean, as a parent you try to steer your kids towards things that can be, you know, productive and enriching and so on but from a certain age, you know, at some point as teenagers we just—we have these devices and it’s sort of up to us to figure out how we’re gonna use them. I think, you know, the addiction to the constant entertainment, the constant distraction, social media. Like, as adults too we have to struggle with that. I mean I’m always making all kinds of rules for myself like, “I’m not gonna check email, you know, before lunch, so that I can spend the morning creating rather than reacting or responding. And nobody’s gonna make these structures for us, we kind of have to provide them. So, yeah, I mean there’s more distractions than ever, there’s more stuff out there sort of competing for our time, for our attention, for our dollars, you know, to try to exploit us as consumers but there’s also more outlets for us as creators. What would I have given at age 18 if I could somehow press a button and have this game that I had made or a comic strip that I had made or whatever, be suddenly available to millions of people. And then now everybody has that, like any kid can upload something and if it’s interesting enough, there’s no limit to the number of people that can see it. And there’s also ways that, you know, that the creator can be compensated for that. When I was making my games on the Apple II, I needed a publisher that would duplicate them onto floppy discs. You know, thousands of copies and put them in ziploc bags and then later cardboard boxes and distribute them to stores where people could walk in and physically buy them. That was a big barrier to entry that’s gone away. So, yeah, it’s double sided.
PF So, look, I mean, you know, we’re always wrestling with this stuff. We wrestle with this stuff on the show and I think everyone alive wrestles with how to interact with the enormous number of stimuli that are available to us at all times but you said something important which is that you have blocked out time for your creativity and you keep working on things. And so what today, you know, what are you doing with your long and meaningful creative session? [Rich laughs]
JM Well, like all freelancers, you know, I’ve got a bunch of projects sort of going in parallel, you know different sizes and different phases. One thing that I’m working on right now which I started doing about the time that the Prince of Persia movie came out, and it was kind of a reaction to being part of this giant, you know, Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer three ring circus. You know that took years and involved thousands of people but ultimately I was just sort of one of the cooks in the kitchen throwing, you know, my ingredients into the pot. So, after that I did a graphic novel, it was called Templar about the Knights Templar, sort of a 14th century heist Ocean’s 11 [mm hmm]. So it was me and the illustrators, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, there was something just about the intimacy of that creative collaboration where it came out exactly—you know, I wrote it, they illustrated it. And it came out the way that we made it and it was a, you know, 480 page full color comic book which was kind of epic and yet intimate. So I loved that and so now I’m doing another graphic novel.
PF That will keep a person busy. And I noticed too your—a lot of sketching. You’re in France right now, correct?
JM Yeah, I’ve been living in France for the last three years and yeah sketching is—well it’s something that I did as a kid but it’s kind of—it kind of became my hobby again about ten years ago. It was actually on The Prince of Persia movie set I started sketching what was around me in a notebook that I carried around with me. Just this kind of a way to kind of appreciate—and also creatively, there’s something for me very calming about sketching. It kind of focuses me on the—on what’s around me in a way that’s not judgemental. It’s almost like meditation but I kept sketching and now I do it a lot. In doing the graphic novels as well, I think, as a writer working with real artists, really accomplished illustrators kind of gave me the desire to get back and start doing that myself, try to develop in that direction.
PF So you’re always making something it sounds like.
JM Yeah, pretty much since the age of two. Ever since I could hold a crayon. Yeah.
PF That’s the answer! All you have to do to build something great is start making things every day from the age of two. So, you know, it’s never too late to be two years old and get started.
RZ You also have to be good [laughs].
PF Yeah, that’s true. Start there: be good and be two. This is great. So, look, there’s a question we always ask which is if people want to reach you or get in touch or ask you for cheat codes for Prince of Persia on the—what was the most obscure platform it was released on?
JM I was gonna say the Sinclair, that’s a UK platform that I—
PF Oof! Yeah.
JM That I never got to play.
RZ Oh yeah.
JM I’ve heard about it but I never—I don’t think I ever actually saw one. The place to go is jordanmechner.com, that’s my website. You know, it’s got links to past projects and yeah.
PF It also just has some lovely sketches, like all the things we’re talking about are—they’re nice and they’re great for your eyes. So, I enjoy us getting caught up for this interview, and spending some time there. So, there you go! We’ve unlocked it. The secrets of creativity, video games, cinematic things, just all of it. We did it. We nailed it. We’ve got it all in this one podcast.
JM And I guess I should finish by mentioning the Stripe Press book that’s coming out [music fades in] and like you said at the beginning, that’s a chunk of my old journals that I kept from about the time that I graduated from college in 1985, the next few years at Broderbund, developing what became Prince of Persia.
PF It’s a hell of a story cuz it is a time capsule as well as just kind of a classic narrative of somebody who doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing but has to keep pushing forward. And so—
PF You get a sense of these very slow computers being formed into an industry and you also get a sense of somebody trying to make a place for themselves, so it’s a hell of a read.
RZ Very cool. Jordan, thanks so much for joining us. This was really great.
JM Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
PF It’s been fun, thank you. So, speaking of craft, if you need to build something, maybe not Prince of Persia but something, you know, maybe a little more enterprise-y, Postlight will build you a great platform. We love our software, we like making it, and we care deeply about design and engineering and product management. It’s—even in the middle of a pandemic, we are keepin’ our focus. So, get in touch: email@example.com and we’re glad to hear from you.
RZ Reach out.
PF Have a great week, everybody!
RZ Have a good week, everyone [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].