GDC 11: Prince of Devs — Jordan Mechner Tells the Story of Prince of Persia

In a humorous, self-deprecating talk at the 2011 GDC, legendary game designer Jordan Mechner reflected on his beginnings in the industry and the work that went into designing his seminal creation. Mechner was helped in this task by his meticulous journals he kept during this period, which document his many trials and tribulations, while also providing some amusing quotes: “Will there even be a computer games market 2 years from now?” he scribbled absentmindedly one day. The video that follows captures the first five minutes of his talk.

After graduating from Yale, Mechner couldn’t decide between a career in programming and a career in the movies. In some ways, he chose both. His creation was heavily influenced by movies like Indiana Jones — “I wanted to do a game that if you missed, you could grab on and pull yourself up. If you fell too far, I wanted it to feel like it hurt” — and the classic “Thief of Baghdad” — “I liked the idea of using silent film techniques for games. They had a lot of the same limitations: no dialogue; you couldn’t move the camera.”

The development process was marked by amusing trial-and-error. Mechner made important strides motion capture in game animation by filming his younger brother and then altering the frames of film with a Sharpie. Every time he had a new idea, it was added to the mix: “I hadn’t planned out the Prince of Persia gameplay ahead of time. I had emergent ideas,” he recalled. This improvisational bent had to be supported by the software, explained Mechner: “I built the world in a modular way…so I could move around pieces…so I could playtest.” You can see his dev kit and level designer in action in the video below.

Ensconced at Broderbund and working on a project that seemed practically inexhaustible, the designer was party to more vintage hilarity. “Broderbund didn’t publish Tetris,” he said with a smile. “The conclusion was that this was a game that only programmers would like.” Surrounded by other creative designers, Mechner was able to take their advice and incorporate it into his game. One of the major innovations was combat. Neither he (with a semester or two of high school fencing) nor his brother were satisfactory mo-cap actors, so the designer turned to the swashbuckling films of his youth, eventually mapping out part of a classic Errol Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone sword fight to power his combat animations. You can see the comparison in the video below.

Eventually, the game came out, and Mechner had the pleasure of watching people play it: “I watched them die on the spikes, over and over, for half an hour…I liked these kids, and I knew that they loved games, and the fact that I had made a game that they wanted to play reminded me of why I got started making the game in the first place.” We’re all indebted to the designer for his game and the innovations it brought with it. About that movie, though…

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