Episode 244 — Jordan Mechner — PRINCE OF PERSIA
Episode 244 — Jordan Mechner — PRINCE OF PERSIA
American author, game designer, graphic novelist and screenwriter Jordan Mechner is best known as a pioneer of cinematic storytelling in the video game industry and as the creator of Prince of Persia, one of the most successful and enduring video game franchises of all time. His other games include Karateka, The Last Express, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
Mechner began his career as a video game creator in the 1980s in high school in Chappaqua, New York, on a 16K Apple II computer bought with his earnings producing and selling Mad Magazine-inspired comics and drawing caricatures at local fairs. He developed and programmed his first game Karateka, while a student at Yale University. Inspired by his film studies and vintage Disney animation, Mechner developed a rotoscoping process to capture Super 8 film footage of his friends and family members, a first step toward the motion capture technology widely used in today’s video games. Karateka was published by Broderbund in 1984 and became a #1 bestseller. One of the first games to combine arcade action with realistic animation and cinematic storytelling, it created a new template that other early fighting games would follow.
After graduating from Yale, Mechner upgraded from 8mm to VHS to create the rotoscoped animation for his next game Prince of Persia. Inspired by the 1,001 Nights tales he had known as a child, Mechner completed Prince of Persia for the Apple II in 1989. Published by Broderbund and subsequently adapted onto nearly every computer and console platform of the 1990s, Prince of Persia is recognized as a major influence in the development of the action-adventure video game genre.
In 2001, Mechner joined forces with Ubisoft to reinvent his decade-old, best-known classic for a new generation of console gamers. Developed at Ubisoft’s Montreal studio with Mechner as game designer, writer, and creative consultant, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a breakout hit of 2003, winning two Game Developers Choice awards and sweeping the 2004 Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE) with 12 nominations and 8 awards. Its success relaunched Prince of Persia as a global franchise including toys, graphic novels, LEGO sets, and over 20 million games sold to date.
In 2010, Mechner became the first game creator to successfully adapt his own work as a feature film screenwriter with Disney’s Prince of Persia produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, and Ben Kingsley. Mechner received screen story and executive producer credit. With box-office receipts of $335 million worldwide, Prince of Persia set the record for the world’s highest-grossing video game film adaptation until 2016.
Alifelong journal-keeper, Mechner has published his game development diaries from the 1980s — The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia — along with Prince of Persia’s Apple II source code — lost for 20 years, then found in 2012 on a set of 3.5″ floppy disks. Mechner’s books include the 2013 New York Times best-selling, Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel Templar, a swashbuckling adventure about the historical Knights Templar, illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland.
Mechner’s work as an author, screenwriter, and filmmaker, along with his video games, reflects his passion for deep historical research and world-building, and interest in time and memory. In this Podcast, game designer, graphic novelist and screenwriter Jordan Mechner shares his experience as a multihyphenate, the ups and downs of the creative process, how to make production constraints work in your favor — and his experience creating Karateka, Prince of Persia and other projects.
Jordan Mechner’s Website: https://jordanmechner.com/
The Making of Prince of Persia: https://jordanmechner.com/backstage/journals/
Jordan Mechner on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0575338/
Jordan Mechner’s Projects on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jordan-Mechner/e/B00390YYXW%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
[05:22] Jordan Talks About Starting Out
[08:49] Balancing Technical Skills (Coding) with Art
[10:34] Jordan Talks About His First Game Design Projects
[11:48] The Ups and Downs of the Creative Process
[14:47] Jordan Discusses the Inspiration Behind Karateka
[20:41] Jordan Shares the History of Prince of Persia
[26:35] The Emotional Rollercoaster of Creativity
[30:38] Jordan Remembers the Challenges of the Vision for Prince of Persia
[32:28] Jordan Shares Insight on How Production Constraints Can Work in Your Favor
[37:30] Combining Business with Art
[39:31] Jordan Shares His Experience on Prince of Persia 2
[44:29] Jordan Talks About His Inspiration for The Last Express
[48:25] Jordan Talks About His First Graphic Novel Templar
[52:28] What Determines Jordan’s Choice of Projects
[56:42] Allan and Jordan Talk About the Meditative and Historical Benefits of Journaling
[1:03:09] Jordan Talks About the History of the Film Prince of Persia
[1:07:40] Jordan Talks About the 30th Anniversary of the Book on Prince of Persia
EPISODE 244 — JORDAN MECHNER — PRINCE OF PERSIA
Hi, everyone! This is Allan McKay.
Welcome to Episode 244! I’m speaking with Jordan Mechner, the creator of Prince of Persia as well as many other hits. I’m really excited for this Episode. Most of you are familiar with Prince of Persia, be it the 80s classic or Ubisoft’s re-imagining of it in the early 2000s, and the movie as well.
I’ve been wanting to sit down with Jordan for quite a while. The game Prince of Persia had quite an impact on my career. There weren’t many games with amazing graphics before. I would mess around with Deluxe Paint animation and recapture animation from that game.
Today, Jordan is releasing his 30th Anniversary book on Prince of Persia (https://jordanmechner.com/backstage/journals/). In this Episode, we dive into his habit for journaling. I love that he kept a journal throughout the development of the game and recorded all the moments in the trenches. It gives more clarity down the line. There are so many valuable lessons he also shares in this Podcast! Check out Jordan’s book.
The reception for the first 15 minutes isn’t the best. Jordan’s audio does get better after those first 15 minutes, so please stick with it!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:45] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:14:10] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH JORDAN MECHNER
[05:22] Allan: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! I was curious: How did you first get started in video games? Obviously, in the 80s, games were big. But at the same time, no one saw it as a booming career. Everyone was still stuck in the mode of, “Go to law school. Become a doctor. Get a real career!” What was the decision to start pursuing it as an art?
Jordan: Well, when I started making games, it wasn’t really a career. It was 1978 when I got my first Apple II. Before that, I was really oriented more toward comics. I drew caricatures at local fairs. It’s how I saved up the money to buy my first computer. So programing was just a thing to do. I had a few friends at my high school who were also into programing. But there was no internet or any real way to learn about it. I had to learn it on my own. IBM had something called the Explorer’s Program where they would invite high school kids to use their mainframe computers one night a week. So that’s how I learned. And then having an Apple II computer at home was this incredible luxury. I didn’t have to wait for the computer lab. I made my first games on in the basic on an Apple, and I learned the assembly language and how to do animation and high res graphics. That’s when I got more serious about it, and I was in college. I spent 6 months making a game I was hoping would get published. I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of this but it seemed it should be possible because the best selling games like Apple Invader, Apple Galaxian were selling well. But I didn’t know if I could make a living at it. It was kind of a fantasy.
[07:35] Allan: I’m curious about what your parents thought about pursuing this too. I ask this because I find that some people had people early in their career wishing them to get “a stable career”. What was it like for you? Did your family understand your passion?
Jordan: My parents always supported me in everything I wanted to do since I was a little kid. From the time I was 7 years old and wanted to make super 8 animated movies, they were tolerant and also supportive. They pretty much let me find my own way. My dad was an entrepreneur himself. He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1931 and came to New York as a kid. So he’d made his own way. He also trusted that I would find my way.
[08:49] Allan: I love that! I used to sketch to scrap some money together to get my first 286 when everyone had 486. Even when I got my computer, I was behind the times. What was it like for you to learn coding and having that technical background and the creative, to support your art?
Jordan: For sure! I saw coding as a means to an end. I enjoyed the challenge of programing. And it’s also art in its own right, trying to make the code as elegant and efficient as possible. But what inspired me was a vision of what I wanted the game to be like, in the end. So I saw programing, art and animation as the components.
[10:06] Allan: Yeah, it’s the obstacle to having your vision come true.
Jordan: People say left brain / right brain. But I think both programing and art have a lot of technical aspects to them: They both have a lot of technique but also that it serves the bigger picture.
[10:34] Allan: Absolutely! What was the first game you programed?
Jordan: Well, my first really ambitious game was clone of Asteroids which was big in the arcades. I was hoping to get it published, but I was just a little bit too late. That’s when Atari started cracking down on people copying their games. So when Asteroids didn’t work out, I spent the first few months of my freshman year in college programing [another] game similar to Asteroids. But that didn’t get published either. So Karateka was really the first one.
[11:48] Allan: Going through that development cycle and getting rejections for reasons outside of your control (it’s not like you were putting out duds, there were other reasons behind it), was that every discouraging to you?
Jordan: I kept a journal throughout all of this and my recollection is better than it would’ve been otherwise. I recently re-published excerpts of that journal as a book. And I can see the ups and downs where I questioned whether this would even work, or if I should put this aside and focus on my studies. But I thought that I should be able to publish Karateka. That it was good enough to get published! But I always seemed just a step behind where the market was. When I submitted my previous game in 1982 to Broderbund (that published Apple Galaxian), the Founder Doug Carlston called me. It was the land line in my college dorm room and it was someone from the software industry calling me — so you can imagine how excited I was, at 17! And he was very encouraging. He said he didn’t want to publish my game because it was a little old fashioned. But there was the big hit of 1982 called Choplifter! It blew me away and made me realize, “Why have I been trying to copy the arcade game structure?” Why not make a game on the Apple II that tells a story. Broderbund’s Choplifter! did that. I was inspired to put the arcade type games aside.
[14:47] Allan: Just to touch base on Karateka (which I was mispronouncing just like everyone else), that was a huge success. What was your experience like approaching that project? And how was it received?
Jordan: About the pronunciation, before the games were talked about on the radio or tv, I had no idea that everybody else in the world called it Karateka [stress on the second “a”]. Maybe I’m the one that’s wrong. In Japanese, there is no emphasis on any syllable. So in English, they are all approximations.
[15:48] Allan: Well, it’s your baby. But how did that come to be? What were the ideas behind it? That was another challenging project for its time.
Jordan: One big challenge of making Karateka was that I was still in college at the time. I was taking a full course load while working on the game in my dorm room. So my biggest worry was: Would I ever be able to finish it? It was inspired by other games — notably Choplifter! — but also, by movies! At Yale, I was discovering decades of film history like Kurosawa’s Seventh Samurai and the early silent films. Those filmmakers had to figure out things that we take for granted today, like cross cutting or closeups. With computer games, I felt like a lot that could be done but it hadn’t been done yet. I was kind of lucky to work on this new medium! A new art form!
[17:31] Allan: What were some of the challenges while you were working on the game?
Jordan: One of the roadblocks that I ran into was that when I started to do the animation, it just didn’t look as good as I’d imagined. I wasn’t a trained animator. I loved Disney animation. So in desperation, I used rotoscoping. With a super 8 camera, I filmed my mom’s karate teacher doing the moves I’d need for the game and the members of my family running and things like that. Then on the Moviola, I traced frame by frame, pixel by pixel into the Apple II. That was a technique I later used for Prince of Persia, a few years later. By then, the technology has grown from super 8 to VHS.
[18:27] Allan: I love that story! Was it on Karateka or Prince of Persia that you bough and later returned a VHS camera after filming the sequences? I instantly fell in love with that story!
Jordan: Oh, yeah! I probably would’ve forgotten that but it was in my journal. It’s now been published as a book. I was just out of college and had gotten my first credit card. I used that card to purchase a professional VHS deck that would give you a clear freeze frame (without the snow) so that I could take a picture of the screen. That’s how I did the rotoscoping for Prince of Persia. But that camera and the VHS deck were so expensive, it cost more than the whole Apple II system! I knew I could only afford to use it and then return it, within the 30-day money back window. So yeah, I did that! I feel bad about it.
[19:55] Allan: Actually, I know John Carmack. I heard a story of his slipping you 20 or 40 dollars at a party. Do you want to share that story?
Jordan: Oh, yeah! At GDC. It’s never too late to atone for our childhood sins. John came up to me at GDC and gave me $40. He pirated Karateka when it came out, felt bad about it and paid for it 30 year later.
[20:41] Allan: I didn’t plan to say this but I had people come up to me at bars and buy me a drink — because they had pirated something of mine years ago. Prince of Persia, I want to dive into that! Where did the original idea come from? Having Karateka have a lot of success, did you feel the pressure to follow up with something that had a bigger success?
Jordan: On the one hand, Karateka’s success was a huge gift because when I came out of college, I actually had the luxury of deciding what I wanted to do next. I didn’t need to get a job right away. I wanted to make a new game but I also wanted to write screenplays. So for a few years, I did both. Once of the reasons, Prince of Persia took so long is because I was writing a script and trying to break into Hollywood at the same time. Both of those were full-time projects. While I was making Prince of Persia, I worried that it wasn’t going to match the success of Karateka. I questioned the game design. I kept going back and trying to figure out what had made Karateka work and was trying to have those same elements. But I also wanted to surpass it in a lot of ways. The danger with Prince of Persia was that it was modular, more ambitious and complex and it would lose the thread. With Karateka, it was obvious what you had to do: You just run left to right and you fight. You have to win each fight to get reunited with the princess. With Prince of Persia, I had to figure out how to blend those three elements: exploration, puzzle solving and combat with the acrobatic element. That was the formula and it took a couple of years, of trial and error.
[23:14] Allan: Well, what was the entire development process, from the initial idea to completion?
Jordan: I videotaped my brother David running and jumping in the parking lot across the street from our high school in 1985. The game was shipped in 1989. That was 4 years that went into the film shoot and game release. Then after, Apple II, it was another 2-3 years before the game started having some success. Because it was really the release on other platforms that rescued the Apple II version (which on its own was just a flop). It came out on a dead platform. The Apple II was on its way out.
[24:10] Allan: Yeah, I’m curious about that too. What was the main distribution platform?
Jordan: It’s so different from the industry today! There was not marketing release plan. I was just programing it on the Apple II because that was the platform on which I knew how to program. In 1985 when I started, it seemed like a good idea. Four years later, Apple was on its last legs. It was a dead platform. So Broderbund, the publisher, said we needed to have a PC version. We poured it into the PC version and then to the Mac. But the Mac port took another 2 years. Apple kept coming up with different versions that had different sized screens, then there was the colored screen. So the Mac port happened to be a couple of years behind schedule, which would never happen today. Ironically, that’s kind of what saved Prince of Persia, the Mac version being so late. By 1992, the market kind of caught up with it and there were Mac users eager to play games. On PC, the machines were more powerful and they had VGA graphics, sound cards. And then there all these console machines that had come out. And Prince of Persia was put into all of those at different times, by different companies, in different countries. It was really the Wild West. But altogether, it took this game that had been a bit of a flop in its first release and made it into a hit. It was in 1992 that I woke up and realized that Prince of Persia had been a success after all.
[26:35] Allan: That’s so surreal! During those 4 years, what kept you going? Did you feel like you had something that would be a success?
Jordan: That’s what’s so interesting about rereading those old journals now. All of those emotional ups and downs were there. One day, I was super enthusiastic about putting in this new feature. A few days later, I would think, “I don’t know if this game is even worth finishing. The Apple II market is dying. I want to make films.” [27:42] Somedays, I really questioned what I was doing, other days — I believed in it. What I realized was that that kind of an emotional roller coaster is normal for artists. For anyone who’s trying to create something, there is no guarantee that it’s going to work out. On my projects today, I still have the same thing. It’s just about being able to take a step back and realize that those emotional peaks and valleys are part of the ride. And to not take them too seriously but to keep the big picture in mind!
[28:27] Allan: So you think that being more self conscious, it realigns you now? To realize that it’s normal to have these moments of insecurity.
Jordan: Yeah. I know that when I finish the first draft of something and I go to bed, I’ll think, “Ah, this is awesome!” When I read it the next day, I will see all these flaws and think it’s awful. But because I expect both of those, I don’t let them shake me too much, even when I’m in the pit of despair, thinking it’s no good. A part of me just says, “Okay, this is where I’m in the pit of despair.”
[29:20] Allan: I love that! It’s like psychology. If you’re aware, you won’t let it derail you. For me, there are parts of my business where I will get ultra insecure right before launching something. But then I realize that it’s a superpower: By getting super insecure, it makes me go back and make everything better. It becomes part of the creative process.
Jordan: Yeah, it is all part of the creative process. Buddhism and meditation say the same thing. While we all have emotions, there is a part of us that’s stable through that. It sees or feels ourselves having the emotions. But there is a me that’s observing that and not changing.
[30:38] Allan: With the game mechanics, what were some of the challenges? Prior to that game, no game had such fluid mechanics. Most things you’d have to hit jump. It was so different from anything else!
Jordan: That was the core challenge of Prince of Persia: to take the modular structure of a puzzle based game (like The Castles of Doctor Creep) and combine it with very fluid, freeform animation where the character is flesh and blood. If a character fell off and landed too hard, he would get hurt or die. Or if he grabbed on to the edge of the cliff, he could pull himself up. Those two things don’t necessarily fit together. How do yo know the right moment to jump? The controls have to be responsive enough that you feel that it’s you doing that. That was always the difficult balance to strike.
[32:28] Allan: There are such subtle things about this game that make it unique. The idea of jumping through a mirror and creating versions of yourself which later on you face. Even then, you see it reintroduced. The concept is not to attack the character. Every other game was about jumping and punching. What was the idea behind that mirror man.
Jordan: Shadow Man.
[33:16] Allan: Shadow Man?
Jordan: We called it Shadow Man. Shadow Man was born out of a necessity because at a certain point, I knew that the game needed some kind of an opponent. But I’ve used up all the memory on an Apple II. All those frames of running and jumping filled up all the 48KG of RAM. The first idea was that Shadow Man used the same frames of memory, and by shifting one pixel over, it would become this shimmery, ghostly outline. And it was the phantom version of the hero. The idea of fighting that enemy at the end because he is you — every time you land a blow, it costs you. All of that was born out of a necessity and it’s an example of how production constraints force you to come up with something interesting or more elegant.
[34:50] Allan: There is a book called The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. In a lot of what you’re saying, it rings true. Facing the problems bring better solutions.
Jordan: It forces you to dig deeper. There are other constraints that we have to deal with today, and we’re finding elegant ways to use those constraints to our advantage. That challenge will always be with us.
[35:27] Allan: I’m just curious, it took a while to gain the traction. But when you realized that the game took off, how did you respond to that?
Jordan: It’s interesting to read those journals that I’ve kept trying to see when Prince of Persia went from a flop to a hit. It was really gradual. By the time you’ve formed an opinion about something you’ve done in the past, you’ve already moved on to the next thing. Right after I’ve shipped Prince of Persia, I went to film school in New York. I wrote another screenplay. I really focused on if I could make that movie made. Then there was Prince of Persia 2 and that got green lit. That was a good moment! But all of this was happening at the same time. I can’t really pinpoint a moment.
[36:53] Allan: Right, okay! You wouldn’t expect that it would become a Disney film.
Jordan: I certainly didn’t think we’d be talking about it 30 years later, much less that it would become a movie produced by the same guy who did Top Gun.
[37:30] Allan: You were dealing with a game publisher yourself. What was it like negotiating for yourself, especially when you were that young? You needed to know how to handle the business side as well. What was that experience like?
Jordan: For sure! I was lucky that my dad was an entrepreneur himself so he never pushed me to become a salaried employee which is something what most people want. For him, it was normal for me to spend 3-4 years on spec, earning no money while I made this thing. So I just did that. It was what I’d been doing since I was a kid. My deal with Broderbund was that they game me an office but they weren’t paying me, and I would produce a game at the end of that. It’s good we did it that way.
[38:52] Allan: Was there any pressure because of that to turn out a result? You’re setting yourself from having to deliver in a way.
Jordan: There were certain points of the development when I wouldn’t show up at the office for weeks or months on end because I was off trying to write a screenplay. At that point, people were starting to notice it. They were giving me a desk and they’d tell me they’d give it to someone else.
[39:31] Allan: With Prince of Persia 2, you directed that. What was that experience like? The original you developed as one person, here you had a team. It had grown a lot more.
Jordan: Prince of Persia 2 was more ambitious in terms of the scope and the amount of graphics, animation and sound. But it was also easier. There was an in-house team. My role was to write the script and direct it, somewhat from afar. That was also when I moved to Paris, directing short films. I would go back to San Fransisco to check in with the team pretty regularly. But it wasn’t all on my shoulders, they way the first one had been. And there was also a model to follow. The basic animation was the same. It was less of a leap than Prince of Persia.
[41:04] Allan: Being more involved in the story, was that a chance for you to get more fulfillment to write screenplays? This was based on an IP you yourself developed. Then you had to expound on that.
Jordan: It’s funny to look at the 1992 PC now and say it was cinematic because it was still a 2D game. But at the time, it had more production values. Instead of being stuck in a dungeon, the Prince goes out on a journey, flies across the ocean on a flying carpet. That was fun to do that!
[41:56] Allan: Were there ever any talks about doing a third one?
Jordan: I had it in mind to make the third installment. The second game ends on a cliff hanger. It’s just at that time, Tomb Raider came along. Action gaming went 3D and didn’t come back for a long time.
[42:24] Allan: So Ubisoft eventually picked up the IP and continued to make games around it.
Jordan: Well, it was 2001 when Yves Guillemot, the CEO of Ubisoft, invited me to lunch in Paris and said he wanted to do Prince of Persia and that he had a team in Montreal, I went to Montreal. I wasn’t sure if Prince of Persia could work in 3D. Then I met the team and saw the prototype they’d come up with, I got excited. It was 2002-2003. It was a brand new game. It was inspired by the original Prince of Persia. That was just a great project!
[42:35] Allan: Do you feel like seeing that sparked the interest for the new generation? Obviously, then there was a film 4 years later.
Jordan: It’s funny! When I meet someone and they say they love Prince of Persia, I ask which one. They say the first one but the mean The Sands of Time. They’d played it on Playstation 2. They don’t even know there was a 2D version.
[44:29] Allan: I just want to touch base on The Last Express. Can you talk about it?
Jordan: Yeah! After making Prince of Persia 2, I didn’t want to go on making 2D version of similar games for the next 10 years. I wanted to work in different media. I was passionate about film, even as a kid, before there were computer games. That’s why I went to film school. The Last Express for me was blending of interest in cinematic storytelling and a more sophisticated narrative. I was inspired a lot by French graphic artists I saw in Paris. These were different from the graphic novels that I saw as a kid growing up in New York in 1970s. At that time, it was all Mad Magazine and superheroes. It was all the European influence along with the films that I loved, like The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon. All of that came together with the CD-Rom era where you could have large amounts of recorded dialogue and 3D rendered backgrounds. The Last Express came out on three DVD-Roms. I’ve done a rotoscoping shoot against a blue screen with 30 actors in costumes that were designed for digital rotoscoping. Both technically and artistically, it was a huge challenge. I fully drew from film studies I had done.
[46:40] Allan: What was that experience like? Because you’ve built a company for this, and this time you would be financially bound to it. You had a company, doing something you were passionate about. What was that like to have that much responsibility?
Jordan: It was a great luxury to do that at the time, with the success of Prince of Persia. [47:25] But I would actually advise to be cautious about creating a company that’s based on an artistic rather than a business idea. Those two things are inevitably going to come into conflict. Are we trying to have a company that’s going to survive? Or are we trying to create a work of art that’s going to be everything we’ve imagined? Those two things don’t line up. To be the game director and the person who was responsible for keeping the company going doubled the pressure for those 4 years. I would definitely recommend having one role or the other. Ideally, you have two people there.
[48:25] Allan: With graphic novels, when did you start exploring the idea of building out novels?
Jordan: Well, Templar was my original graphic novel. It was a collaboration with LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland who had been the artist on the Prince of Persia graphic novel that I hadn’t written. I worked with First Second Books to produce that at the same time. It was right after The Sands of Time when I was the screenwriter on the movie. That project reawakened my interest in graphic novels which went back to my childhood. I wrote the script for Templar and I was thrilled LeUyen and Alex wanted to do it. Then we worked on it for 4 years. It was a very massive 14th Century heist set in a medieval Paris. I wanted to do more of that! It’s such a fascinating form to work in. It’s a good compliment to making games. The production is more intimate. It’s a very small team.
[50:08] Allan: And you aren’t bound by the technical hurdles. It’s more about getting a bunch of creatives to mesh together. What was it like? Where did you source your inspiration?
Jordan: The story of Templar is in a genre I’ve always loved, going back to Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers. It’s a historical romance. It’s grounded in historical research of things that actually happened but the characters are are colorful. It’s really fun. When I was doing the research for The Last Express, I found out about the Trial of the Knights. It wasn’t such a well known story. I thought the real history was so much more interesting. The graphic novel seemed to be the perfect format for that, to delve into that.
[52:04] Allan: You released a hardcover back in April last year, correct?
Jordan: Yeah, the French edition of Templar just reissued in a new graphic novel. It’s 480 pages, hard cover, it’s beautiful! I’m really happy.
[52:28] Allan: You’ve had such a diverse experience as a video game designer, author, screenwriter. What is your decision making process in terms of where to put your time? For you, time must be the limiter than anything else. Is it risk versus reward?
Jordan: I’ve always got more projects on the back burner than I have time to do. So to invest 2-3 years on the project, it has to feel really compelling. My reasons have evolved depending on what stage I’m at. These days, I pretty much look at my passion first as the reason to do a project. Whatever I feel most excited about doing — like, “I want to have that in the world,” — I’m pretty likely to follow that one, be it a script for a pilot series, a graphic novel, a script for a AAA game. It’s the project that dictates what it wants to be. Templar just wanted to be a graphic novel. Some of the things I’m working on now are more intimate and smaller. But it’s really about the vision for the project itself that’s compelling enough to make me get up in the morning and push it forward.
[54:42] Allan: I love that! I felt like passion is going to overtake everything else. That is always going to be the conflict when running a business as well. What’s going to gain traction?
Jordan: And I’m really grateful to have the luxury to do the things that I’m most passionate about. Lately, I’ve been spending more and more energy on art, drawing and sketching. It started out as an extension of my journal. I just published a Volume 2 of those journals called Year 2 in France. It’s years of stuff drawing in cafes, in airports, or while waiting for meetings to start. It was an interesting record of my time. There is not big bucks to be made making sketches but I love doing those.
[56:42] Allan: I find that I’m fascinated by journaling. It’s like speed drawing, or even meditation, doing it every day can be really therapeutic. I’ve been fascinated by that. How long have you been doing it and what have been the benefits?
Jordan: I started keeping a journal my freshman year in college. I started keeping one even earlier as a kid, but then I ended up throwing that out. The one that I started in college, I kept going and I kept them. After enough time went by, about 10 years ago, I had the idea of turning them into Making of Prince of Persia and Making of Karateka. It was long enough ago that I didn’t feel as embarrassed by that. It was a younger me! But it’s also a time capsule because so much has changed. If I hadn’t written it down, I wouldn’t have remembered it. But also our brain reshapes memories and I think it’s the way that it happened. But then I’d read it over and it wasn’t actually how it happened. And I can’t deny it because it’s what I wrote on the day. About the daily practice, I think there is so much power in making habits every day. They can be positive habits and at the end of 10 years, you wake up and go, “Wow! I‘m really good at guitar!” In the case of the journal keeping, it really helped getting things off my chest. Rereading it years later has a value. Sketching is a form of journaling. I can see how much I’ve progressed in sketching. The power of daily practice over 5-10 years, all these years go by. And if you’re doing something every day, it can really pay off.
[1:00:13] Allan: How much impact has it made on your creative process, be it your stress or creative process?
Jordan: Sketching for me, when it started a few years ago, it relaxed me. At the time, I was trying to make movies. I was dealing with the logistics of filmmaking. Doing a sketch only takes a few minutes but for those few minutes I would be completely non-judgmental. It’s like a meditation and it released some kind of a neurotransmitter that released the creative process. No matter what’s going on, it’s a happy 20 minutes of sketching.
[1:01:21] Allan: That’s so great! I’m always fascinated by it. My last question would be how often do you go back though your journals. I’m an obsessive note taker. I’m constantly taking notes. It’s how I generate ideas. How often to you look back through your sketches or journals?
Jordan: I try to do it just often enough. There is a value in writing something down even if you don’t open that notebook again. It does something different in your brain. I’ve written so many notebooks over the years, I try not to go back to the past energy too much. I only pull out one when I’m really moved and I trust the impulse. But I have to balance the energy of the past and the forward energy of what I’m trying to create now. I try to use the journal to feed the forward motion.
[1:03:09] Allan: Just to go full circle, obviously your passion has been to write screenplays for Hollywood and Prince of Persia became a movie. How early on did you see that potential? I imagine it was a lot earlier.
Jordan: Another thing that my journal revealed that it was in 1992. Doug Carlston of Broderbund had the idea of making the movie. We never did it but the idea was already there. In 2004, we pitched Prince of Persia to Disney. That was right after the release of The Sands of Time on Playstation. That’s when it came together. I had tried before that. Before getting together with Ubisoft, I’d written the screenplay for director John McTiernan. We didn’t get to make it but the screenplay exists. And I learned a lot from him about screenwriting.
[1:04:47] Allan: That would’ve been a different film!
[1:04:58] Allan: How involved were you in the development cycle?
Jordan: For The Prince of Persia, I cut together a trailer, a fake one, on my Mac. John August brought it for our pitch and we played it for the execs. Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer bought the pitch. I wrote the first script and spent about a year doing rewrites. It took a few years before it went to production. By then, I’ve moved onto another project. They’ve brought in 3 or 4 more screenwriters. So the final movie still has the basic story but it’s a different version of it.
[1:06:27] Allan: I guess it goes back to what you were saying earlier about having a passion and having control over it. But when there are other people involved, the business side will intervene.
Jordan: Well, especially on movie of that size! Disney really wanted to have a Pirates of the Caribbean size franchise. It got bigger that it was meant to be originally. There were so many hands on it. It was a product of all of those forces. The first screenplay I wrote was the original idea; but by the time it got to the finished film, it had many generations.
[1:07:40] Allan: To touch on the 30th anniversary book of Prince of Persia, where did that idea come from?
Jordan: It was actually Patrick Collison, the Founder of Stripe, who reached out to me last year and asked what I thought about doing my journals (which he found online) as a proper hardcover book. The chance of adding illustration was something I wished I could do from the beginning. I had all those old archives. John Romero suggested that I donate all that material to the Strong Museum of Play. He donated his collection as well. I was happy to clean out half of my garage and entrust it to the Strong for safekeeping. But thanks to them, it was easy to access all the sketches and drawings. That makes the journals a much better reading experience. The first e-published version I did online was harder to follow. The illustrations help. I annotated on the margins for the new version as well.
[1:09:47] Allan: And it gives you a chance to reflect on your ideas.
Jordan: And then there is crazy stuff too. I’m reading my journal, “I’m having a phone conversation with Jack Abramoff about producing my screenplay.” Wait a minute! The corrupt lobbyist?! Yes, it was that Jack Abramoff, but it totally slipped my mind.
[1:10:36] Allan: Have there been any pleasant surprises like that?
Jordan: The pages are full of it! I’d forgotten that I had met Sir Ben Kingsley while I was in college. He came to a screening of Gandhi. Then again, I met him on the set of Prince of Persia. Those details are so easy to forget!
[1:11:20] Allan: What was your experience like overall, reliving those experiences?
Jordan: It was more work than I expected, actually. But it was a deep dive into the source material. It stirs up a lot of memories, but I’m glad I did it. There is a lot of different material. But I’m really glad I did! Stripe did a beautiful job! I think it captured something about the way games used to be created.
[1:12:53] Allan: When is the official release date?
Jordan: The book is coming out on April 28th.
[1:13:01] Allan: Where can people go to preorder it?
Jordan: The best place is on my website: http://jordanmechner.com/backstage/journals/. It will be on Amazon as well.
[1:13:19] Allan: Thanks for taking the time to chat! It’s been so awesome to go down that memory lane and dive into the insights! Thank you so much!
Jordan: And we didn’t even get to chat about VFX. We’ll have to do that on another call!
[1:13:45] Allan: I wasn’t sure. I was at ILM when they were pitching on the film of Prince of Persia. I’d be happy to dive into that as well.
Jordan: Alright! That will be the sequel!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Jordan for doing this interview. This was a lot of fun! I’d love to get Jordan back for another interview.
Please take a few seconds to share this Podcast around. I’ll be back next week with a a new Episode. Until the —
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“If only there was more time in the day”
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For many of us, finding time and energy to do more is one of the hardest things we have. Time is finite and we can either be pro-active with our time, or reactive. Meaning – we are constantly running around, jumping from one thing to another, and never really feeling in control.
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