Episode 264 — Deconstructing Prince of Persia
Episode 264 — Deconstructing 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.
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. 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. 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.
In this Podcast, Allan deconstructs his previous Podcast with Jordan Mechner, the Creator of Prince of Persia — and the actionable steps you can apply to your creative career.
Jordan Mechner on Allan McKay’s Podcast: www.allanmckay.com/244/
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
[03:08] Allan Talks History of Prince of Persia
[05:47] Leveraging Your Resources
[08:00] The Outcome
[08:24] See the Elegance and Art in Everything
[08:44] Exploring Ways to Be Creative in Everything
[10:11] The Takeaway
[11:06] Leveraging Solutions in Unconventional Ways
[13:12] Get Scrappy
[14:35] Embracing Your Insecurities
[16:17] Success and Momentum
[18:34] Leveraging Your Success to Fulfill Other Passions
[22:30] Working with Constraints Creates Focus
[25:58] Bonus: The Sizzle Reel
EPISODE 264 — DECONSTRUCTING PRINCE OF PERSIA
Welcome to Episode 264! This is Allan McKay. I’m going to be deconstructing the top 7 things that I’ve learned from my conversation with Jordan Mechner, the Creator of Prince of Persia, the game and the movie; and the actionable steps you can apply to your creative career. This is a follow up to my interview with Jordan (www.allanmckay.com/242).
What I wanted to do is use this as a case study. I wanted to translate what we talked about into actionable steps you can apply to your creative career. I would love to get your feedback if this is a successful format. If so, I’ll do more of these for earlier Episodes. Let me know, shoot me an email: [email protected].
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:51] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what was the reason 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!
[27:03] 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!
PRINCE OF PERSIA DECONSTRUCTED
[03:08] When I was 11 years old, I was so inspired by the game Prince of Persia! I would stare at the name Broderbund Software on the screen wondering who that was. And who is this creator Jordan Mechner who inspired me to get into art? So this game inspired my career. A couple of years ago, Jordan and I got in contact and I secretly conspired to get him on a Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/244). Jordan has a book coming out: The Making of Prince of Persia. It marks the 30th anniversary since publishing the game. In the book, he talks about the thoughts and ideas behind the game, the doubts he had at the time, the creative habits. Jordan is a journaler. He kept journals as he was developing the game; so he has all of this information that helps him accurately recall his experience.
[04:50] This is a new format for the Podcast as well. I’ve interviewed hundreds of industry leaders on how they got started and the steps to their successful careers. I’ve interviewed:
- The Head of ILM Rob Bredow: www.allanmckay.com/219/
- The Head of Amazon Game Studios Louis Castle: www.allanmckay.com/249/
- Other successful Artists, Feature Film Directors, Authors.
[05:21] I thought it would be fun to deconstruct some of the processes and habits that got them where they are today. Let me know if you want to see more of these: [email protected].
LEVERAGING YOUR RESOURCES
[05:47] Starting out, Jordan wanted to make video games but he had no resources. One thing he did was figure out a solution. In his case, it was taking advantage of the IBM Explorer Program which allowed him to access a computer, one hour a night. That allowed him to get some traction, but one hour a night isn’t enough to hone your skills. He was 14 years and needed a computer. Most of us would blame the situation. Jordan looked at the resources that he did have: He could draw! He worked as a caricature artist selling his artwork, to buy his first computer.
[06:42] I can identify with that experience. When I was 11, I desperately wanted to get into computer games. But I lived with my mom and we didn’t have enough money. We lived off of food stamps and we had a black-and-white tv until I was about 15 years old. Not having those resources, I looked at the one resource I did have: I could draw! I started creating my own artwork and selling it wherever I could. [07:24] Rather than creating an excuse and not trying in the first place, both [Jordan and I] looked at what we did have and how to leverage that to get the result that we wanted. We built around the problem rather than using it as a problem. Both Jordan and I looked for a solution rather than looking for an excuse. Removing that obstacle allows you to start making your own artwork.
[08:00] It’s easy for us to make excuses and the reasons why we don’t try something in the first place; rather than hustle and create opportunities where we can. If there is something standing in your way, remove those obstacles. The more you teach yourself to do this, the more you teach yourself to become unstoppable.
SEE THE ELEGANCE AND ART IN EVERYTHING
[08:24] Jordan didn’t set out to be a programmer but he had a vision for what he wanted to create — and programming was a means to the end. He acknowledged that there were technical aspects to art as well. There is also elegance in the art of programming.
EXPLORING WAYS TO BE CREATIVE IN EVERYTHING
[08:44] By learning to program, it allowed him to overcome problems. Without programming, he couldn’t make his game and he couldn’t see his art inside a game either. Something we need to equip ourselves with certain skills as part of the process. Just like with Jordan learning to program, there are other steps that artists prefer to skip because they don’t align with their stereotypical idea of what it means to be an artist. Most artists avoid to learn business skills because they hold onto the fallacy of the Starving Artist. Just like they avoid marketing themselves because they need to be humble! But then they get frustrated that they aren’t getting discovered. Instead, they could get the tools and skills they need to be a successful artist. It’s not cool to embrace the failure and the struggle.
[10:11] It’s easy to call yourself an artist or a musician. But by labeling ourselves, we’re also compartmentalizing ourselves. We are creatives. We are creators. We come up with creative ideas and share those with others. Artists create. By compartmentalizing ourselves, we’re limiting ourselves to one thing or another. We could embrace everything we do — and look for art in everything. John Lennon famously said, “I’m an artist. Give me a tuba and I’ll bring you something out of it.” By being an artist, you should be a creator in everything you do.
LEVERAGING SOLUTIONS IN UNCONVENTIONAL WAYS
[11:06] So what I love is that Jordan wasn’t a trained animator by any means. What that means is he looked for other solutions. Sometimes we need to examine where we fall short. Those times, it’s important to lean into those weaknesses and turn them into strengths. There are other times though where it’s good to acknowledge that it’s just not your area of expertise. Rather than putting out content that’s subpar or spending too much time on learning something, it may be better to look for external resources. One of the recurring things that I love about Jordan’s story is that whenever there was a problem, he’d build over that problem; rather than give up. In the case of not being an animator, in his video game he looked at rotoscoping which is what Disney used to do: where you can trace over real people acting. He videotaped his mom’s karate instructor. Later on, he shot his brother doing motions — and then scanned those into the computer. Pixel by pixel, he was able to get the result he wanted without having the knowledge.
[13:12] Just like when he couldn’t afford to buy his own computer, he sold his artwork to be able to afford it. This again is that recurring theme. He didn’t have the money to buy a VHS deck. What he did was he got his first credit card and purchased the deck he needed, knowing that there was a 30-day return policy. He was able to film everything, freeze frames on this deck, take stills of the photo to get the motion he wanted. He returned the deck after 30 days and got his money back. He hustled just like he did when he sold his artwork. This was the solution that allowed him to move forward without the financial setbacks. This pattern is important: [14:22] Wherever there is an obstacle, there is always a workaround. It’s on you to come up with the solution. It’s easy for us to fail but the successful ones focus their energy on finding solutions — not finding excuses.
EMBRACING YOUR INSECURITIES
[14:35] Over the development cycle of Prince of Persia, there were many days when Jordan doubted himself. There were other days when he felt that the game would be a massive success. By acknowledging this roller coaster and what they were, it allowed him to not get too entangled in it either. It’s common for all of us to have moments of doubt. There is an inner critic that tells us that we’re going to fail. By acklowdeging these things, we’re able to double down on the excitement and work those late nights. When we doubt ourselves, we can use that as our secret power. My own inner critic tells me that “everything is going to suck”. I can always feel that feel when I’m just about to release something new. I’ve learned to embrace it and leverage it by thinking, “If it does suck, what can I do to make it better?” By embracing the fear, it allows me to make my creation better. But I also recognize this as part of the creative process. And as long as I recognize that, it’s not going to override me or derail me. Instead, it gives me a laser-like focus.
[16:09] Rather than letting fear eat you alive, it allows you to be critical of yourself and understand that it’s all part of the creative process.
SUCCESS AND MOMENTUM
[16:17] One of the interesting things about Prince of Persia was that it wasn’t an instant success when it came out on Apple 2. Despite all of his hard work and long late nights, it didn’t get the recognition it deserved. When we release our work and it doesn’t get the recognition, we think that it flopped. In reality, we aren’t giving it room to breathe. This is what I call the Entrepreneur Fallacy: An artist who has an idea becomes obsessed with the creative process. Once we release that product, we already move onto the next idea. We aren’t focused on the “What now?” When an entrepreneur is always looking for the next thing he / she wants to create. Rather than giving the product a chance to breathe, we’re ready to get on with the next thing. This is the opposite of, say, a Broadway show where once you’ve created a show, you put it on the road. The creation gets nurtured and introduced to the world. It’s important to give our creation a moment to breathe.
[18:01] With Prince of Persia, it wasn’t until it was imported into the PC and other platforms that it got the success it deserved. So by having it drip out and someone else push it, it saw the light of day and managed to exist.
LEVERAGE YOUR SUCCESS TO FULFILL OTHER PASSIONS
[18:34] One of Jordan’s passions was screenwriting for Hollywood. Once Prince of Persia’s sequel was in the works, instead of being in the weeds and coding it, he was able to direct it. As he got more experience and built other games, he pitched Prince of Persia to Hollywood as well. He was able to leverage the success of one thing into other projects. He was able to grow and gain momentum with other things. Maybe you have an interest in doing one thing at a company; but it allows you to work on set, or write a book, or do other things. This is something I use in my decision making: I look at the opportunity cost involved. Maybe one project costs more than the other. But I’m looking at how I can leverage each of those opportunities:
- “If I do this one, what are the things I’m going to miss out on?”
- “If I do this one, what are the things I get to gain?”
[20:30] I’m not looking at just one thing, like money. I’m looking at other opportunities a job would create: Could I gain relationships from a job? Could I write an article about it? Could I sell digital assets from it later on? Whatever it is, I look at the opportunity cost involved. Jordan was able to leverage the success of the game to gain opportunities in Hollywood. Jordan wanted to write screenplays for Hollywood. By having success with a video game in the 80s, he was able to have more success with Ubisoft picking up Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. That video game was a great moment in time. Then he could go to Disney and pitch that game as a film. That other passion came true! Whether it’s PR, marketing, a case study, look at how one thing can leverage another.
WORKING WITH CONSTRAINTS CREATES FOCUS
[22:30] During the development of the game, one of the memorable parts was the Shadow Man. It was a duplicate of the player. This character shows up in the game. Later on, there is a moment where you face the Shadow Man. Everytime you strike him, it takes a point away from you because you’re essentially fighting with yourself. I love this because it’s such a memorable part of the game. It’s such a brilliant concept. And it wouldn’t have been created — if there wasn’t a problem for which Jordan had to find a solution.
[23:40] Throughout the game, he got to a point where the game was near complete. But the key antagonist was missing. The limitation was that Jordan had already run out of the 148 kilobyte limit. Giving that limitation, he had to find a solution. While discussing it with his friends, he had a flash of genius: He remembered the command “exclusive or”. It’s a machine code command that could shift the pixels slightly and create a duplicate character without costing you any memory. Now he had the duplicate of the hero character. When you’re faced with attacking the guy, you defeat the Shadow Man by becoming one with that character. I love this because of how original that idea was! And it wouldn’t have happened because the obstacle made him come up with a solution. That’s the critical point I see in every production I’m part of: The obstacle is the way!
THE BONUS: SIZZLE REEL
[25:58] When Jordan pitched the movie to Disney, one of the things he brought was a sizzle reel. It’s something we use in tv or movies to communicate the idea. We mash together other clips to sell our pitch. The fact that the video game existed, he was able to put clips of the game together. I love that because instead of coming in empty handed with a script, he had a visual tool.
I hope you got a lot of this Episode. I had a blast interviewing Jordan (www.allanmckay.com/244). If you like this format, let me know.
I’ll be back next week, with a new Episode. Until then —
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