Programmer. Artist. Musician. Designer. Producer. Editor. Collector
Video games comprise a multibillion-dollar industry thanks to the people who make and play them. From designers and producers to artists and programmers and passionate communities, each plays a role in maintaining and advancing the medium of electronic entertainment.
Each has a story to tell.
Collected from interviews with developers of classic games on the Apple II and older machines, GameDev Stories Volume 4 collects interviews from the early, "Wild West" years of the then-nascent games industry.
I've been telling the stories of game developers since I began writing professional nearly 15 years ago. These interviews are more recent, and informed many of my books and articles. Not every word from every conversation could make the cut, so I present these unfiltered for your reading pleasure. – David L. Craddock
I've talked to so many people in the games industry, but Jordan Mechner will always stand out from the crowd. He's a hero of mine, not only because his games—namely Prince of Persia—had a huge impact on my childhood, but because he's articulate, thoughtful, and curious. We talked about all sorts of topics when I interviewed him for Break Out, my book about the making of seminal Apple II games. That interview is presented below.
David L. Craddock: How did you discover computers?
Jordan Mechner: I was in high school in Chappaqua, New York. I had a friend, Ken Knox, who was a senior. He got the first Apple II I'd ever seen, so I used to go over to his house after school and play with it. I started programming, and I just really wanted one of my own. I saved up money for about a year. Once I got an Apple at home, that became my obsession. I was at the keyboard every spare moment.
Craddock: What fascinated you about programming?
Mechner: This was 1978, so the idea of programming was really new. I had a group of friends, and a couple of them were older. They were going into a discipline called electrical engineering, and they took me along to something called the Explorer's Program at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center at IBM, which was nearby. It was something they did one evening a week. They would open up their campus and allow groups of high school students to come in, supervised, and spend a couple of hours programming on their computers. These were terminals, before personal computers. There were [mainframes programmable using] APL and teletype machines. That was my exposure to programming.
In our high school, we had a PDP-11. It was a mainframe the school administration used to track report cards, attendance, and things like that. We were allowed to use that in a computer class, but again, it was very limited. It was a teletype. I knew BASIC and a little bit of APL. To have access to a computer was a precious thing that only happened once, or sometimes a couple of times a week. So my friend having a computer in his house, that he could program whenever he wanted—that just seemed like unimaginable riches to me. There was no end to how much I could do or how good I could get if I had that much computer time.
I remember there were other personal computers that were around on that time. There was the TRS-80, the Commodore PET. There was something called the Compucolor. Before buying my first Apple II, I remember looking at computer magazines and weighing the alternatives. I could only get one. I think it's pretty lucky that I bought the Apple II instead of the Compucolor. [laughs] Had I done Karateka for the Compucolor, my game design career might have ended right there.
Craddock: How would you describe the impact of the Apple II's ability to be upgraded? To allow users to pop off the top and add other peripherals?
Mechner: This was just a year away from the time before when, if you wanted a computer, you had to make it yourself. Wozniak designed the Apple I so that you could build it yourself. It was Steve Jobs who had the idea of actually manufacturing and selling pre-made computers. That was a big step toward computers becoming a consumer device.
My friend Ken was a hobbyist. He'd been getting computer boards and soldering them together—things I didn't know how to do. I was 14 years old. I wasn't an aspiring electrical engineer; I didn't have those skills. I was a cartoonist, a storyteller. I was thinking about being a writer or a filmmaker, so I saw computers as a means to an end. What excited me about them was that I could actually make little animations, little interactive stories. But the technical aspects? I learned what I needed to in order to keep the thing working.
One example was that the Apple II had 4 K of memory in the beginning. To go up to 16 K, you had to go to a computer store, buy the chips, pop off the hood, and switch out the chips yourself. A few years later when floppy disk drives came out, you had to pop off the top, insert the cards, and these were controllers where the pins could bend very easily. You were always trying to get new peripherals and swap them out. There was something called the Versawriter, which was a couple of potentiometers hooked together using the Apple II's paddle inputs. That allowed you to kind of trace things. It was a really rudimentary graphics tablet, but that's what I used to trace the frames of Karateka.
All of these things were devices would people would make and sell, or put together themselves. I think the fact that the Apple II was such an open platform encouraged that and made it possible.
Craddock: How did your interest in programming lead to designing games?
Mechner: Video games at that time were coin-op games: Asteroids, Space Invaders. Playing games at home in and of itself was new for me. The predecessor of video games had been pinball machines. It took a while for me to realize that games had the potential to tell stories as well. They were fun because of audio-visual elements: playing Space Invaders, you feel suspense. The aliens are attacking you! They had that dramatic element. But the game that opened up storytelling possibilities in my imagination was Broderbund's Choplifter.
That was 1982. By then I was a freshman in college. That was the first game I'd seen where there were little people running around. They would wave to you. If you squashed them by accident, they would die and you'd feel bad. If your helicopter was full and you flew away, you saw them running around forlornly in the desert. That was a human interest I hadn't seen before. The game ended not by saying 'Game Over,' but 'The End.' I thought, Wow. This is really a story. It went beyond the three-lives, wracking-up-points paradigm that most coin-op games had at that time.
That was a big inspiration for me doing Karateka: doing a game that would have a romantic interest and try to evoke emotions, as well as the player trying to win.
Craddock: Karateka is known as your first commercial success, but what games did you make before that?
Mechner: It was a process of evolution. I started programming in BASIC, but I quickly saw that the games that impressed me the most were done in assembly language. Space Invaders, and Apple Invaders later on, were on cassettes at that time, and the smooth animations and high-resolution graphics—I had no idea how to program something like that in BASIC.
So I pored through Steve Wozniak's Red Book that came with the computer. It had little snippets of assembly code. An assembler was built into the computer. That was another thing that really made the Apple II accessible. You didn't have to install anything; you just turned on the machine and you were in the assembler. I was able to start experimenting with machine code. I could look at the examples in the Red Book, and I could also hit Reset while playing Apple Invaders and look at the code, disassemble it, try to figure out what these lines meant.
In the beginning, it was just a lot of instructions I didn't understand. I had no idea what did what or how any of it worked. But gradually, over a couple of years, I did start to learn the rudiments of assembly language programming. I could write my own fast graphics routines and did more ambitious games. I did some games that were in BASIC, but called assembly subroutines for parts that needed to go really fast—putting graphics on the screen and that sort of thing. Eventually I got to the point of writing games that were entirely in assembler.
My most ambitious project up until then was Asteroids in 1980. That was a clone of the coin-op game. I was a senior in high school, and I probably spent a year programming that. I wanted to do for Asteroids what Apple Invaders had done for Space Invaders: clone a popular coin-op game, submit it to a publisher, and sell it on floppy disk. I knew Apple Invaders had been tremendously successful and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, I thought, Well, Asteroids could do the same. I was pinning my hopes on that.
I actually sold that game to Hayden Book Company, the publisher of Sargon, which was the best chess program for the Apple II. I was really optimistic; I thought it was going to make my career. But the timing, unfortunately, wasn't great. After accepting Asteroids, Hayden got a letter from Atari's lawyers telling them, in effect, 'Game Over. You can no longer publish rip-offs of our arcade games. We will sue you.' Although my game was finished, and it was technically very good, Hayden decided not to publish it. I was very disappointed.
Craddock: How did you course-correct, so to speak, and continue designing?
Mechner: From there, I put my efforts into programming a game that was a lot like Asteroids, but different enough to be considered original. It was called Deathbounce. It was a combination of Asteroids and billiards. Instead of shooting rocks in space, you're shooting these bouncing, colored balls. That was the game I sent to Broderbund, my favorite publisher, during my freshman year of college.
I got a phone call from Doug Carlston, the president of Broderbund at that time. He was very kind. He encouraged me and gave me feedback. He said, 'Look, this is a very well-programmed, but sort of old-fashioned game. It's very 1981. This year, people seem to really respond to games that have more human interest and cute, animated characters. I'm going to send you a copy of our game Choplifter, which is our current bestseller, so you can kind of see where things are going.'
He did send me a copy of it, along with a joystick to play it with—which he asked me to send back when I was done using it because it belonged to their QA department. [laughs] I played Choplifter and was totally blown away by it. It really changed my thinking, and led me to spend the next couple of years programming Karateka.
Craddock: The first thing I noticed about Karateka—and Prince of Persia—was the smoothness of the characters' animations. You didn't see that degree of fluidity in those days. How did that become your focus?
Mechner: There were a lot of inspirations. I was a freshman in college and taking history of film classes. I was learning about the early days of silent film, and I was really struck by the idea that video games were so much like film had been a hundred years earlier: a new technology that so far was only being put to crude uses. Most of the video games in 1982 were like the Kinetoscope at the turn of the century. You'd put in a nickel and get to see a little movie and that was it. Feature films, with color and sound and all those things we take for granted now—the equivalent of video games was, I figured, somewhere in the future. But the potential was there.
Another inspiration was Walt Disney, who had started with cartoons at a time when cartoons were looked down on. The Oswald rabbit and Mickey Mouse black-and-whites were designed to make people laugh. The idea of a feature film like Snow White was still somewhere in the future. I wanted to move video games into the future by doing something more ambitious. The principles of Disney animation were really inspirational—trying to make characters more realistic, their movements more fluid in ways that would not just suggest movement and humor, but actually convey emotion. That sort of set the bar for what I hoped video games would one day reach.
For Karateka, I thought, Let's take something simple, like karate fighting. I filmed my mom's karate teacher doing different karate moves and then rotoscoped those frames to try and create the illusion of movement. Really, my main goal was to have movement that was a fluid and more convincing representation of karate than most games had at that time. That, to me, seemed pretty doable. A lot of games would just alternate between one, two, or three key frames, so you really had to imagine the movements. It was programmer-[created] art, and not really animation. I wasn't a trained animator. I couldn't do Disney-quality animation. But by filming and rotoscoping, I could at least get a pretty convincing silhouette.
Craddock: Did you have experience in animation that helped?
Mechner: I'm still not a trained animator, although I could draw okay. At the time I could at least do a drawing that looked okay to me. If I did a series of drawings and animated them, it immediately looked terrible. I knew there was so much to it that I didn't have. But by looking at filmed footage, that gave me the answers. I don't really understand the physics of why an arm or a leg moves a certain way when you're throwing a punch or a high kick, or how your arms swing when you're running. If I try to fake it, it looks fake. But if I could film it, it would look perfect.
For rotoscoping, I just trusted what was on the film, even if there was something that was counterintuitive. In Prince of Persia, when the character does a running turn, he kind of skids [to a stop] and throws his arm over his head to catch his balance—that's something I could have never figured out that people do that. But because I videotaped my brother, that's what he did, so that's what I had the character do as well.
Craddock: As expandable as the Apple II was, it didn't seem like the type of the machine capable of producing such fluid graphics. What hurdles did you have to jump?
Mechner: The Apple II had no video-in jack, so all of this had to be kind of jerry-rigged. For Karateka, I used the Versawriter, which was these two potentiometers hooked together that let you trace a frame. I shot Super 8 film projected on a wall, traced the frames with tracing paper, and then used the Versawriter to trace the outline of the frames. That would cause a rough outline to appear on the screen.
The next step was to take that rough outline and turn it into a shape that I could save in memory, and then call it and blast it onto the screen at the appropriate moment in the game with graphics routines that were fast enough to let me do that at eight frames a second. I had to write all those software tools, debug them and get them working, and I needed to shoot the film and create the actual frames.
That's why it took a couple of years to make even a simple game like Karateka: I was sort of alternating between art, animation, coding, game design—all the aspects of development that, today, you have a team working on in parallel. I had to do those things sequentially.
Craddock: Prince of Persia, which came later, was predicated on acrobatics for exploration and swordplay for combat. What fascinated you about using martial arts in Karateka?
Mechner: I was juggling a lot of different game ideas at that time. Hand-to-hand fighting appealed to me because it gave me the chance to have two rather large, human-looking characters that could take up a good chunk of the screen. If you had a little character only eight pixels high, there was only so much you could do with it. But if you had a character that was 40 or 50 pixels high, then you could really show emotions. You could have a princess able to convey emotions: she could look dejected as she walks across the screen and throws herself down in despair.
In order to do that, the gameplay had to be really simple. Fighting just seemed like something that worked. There were other games that had fighting. There was a game called Swashbuckler by Paul Stephenson that had Karateka-sized characters, but with sword fighting. I really enjoyed that game; I got into the fantasy of it, the setting of the pirate ship. But that wasn't real animation. Again, it was key frames: one frame would be you standing in your ready stance, and in the next your sword was fully extended. Your imagination had to fill in the rest.
I thought, A game with Swashbuckler-sized characters and smooth animation—that could be great.
Craddock: Today, players expect games to have phonebook-sized scripts that are 100% voice-acted. I'm sure the technology of the time precluded that, but the use of silent cutscenes in Karateka seemed intentional. Was that the case?
Mechner: That's an area where I was really inspired by silent film and Disney animation. Those films did that so well. Looking at D. W. Griffith's early films like Way Down East, when a character communicated despair or fear, those emotions would be big. They didn't have sound, so the actors really pantomimed it. They were so exaggerated that they were almost like animated characters.
Those films showed that you could tell a story without having to use words. And of course, on the Apple II, we couldn't use words even if we wanted to. The speaker wasn't capable of anything more than beeps and buzzes.
Craddock: Prince of Persia let players save progression. Karateka did not. Why was that?
Mechner: It was a creative decision in Karateka, and, again, it was a reaction to the standard coin-op-game paradigm of, you have three lives, and if you get 10,000 points you get an extra life. I saw that as a cliché that I wanted to break. I thought, Let's make this story realistic. What's realistic is that if you die, it's the end.
This was something that in 1984, nobody questioned. It seemed like a level of difficulty that players would accept. It certainly made playing the game take longer. If you just respawned every time you lost a fight in Karateka, you'd be finished a half hour after you started. That's not much gameplay for 40 bucks.
But, again, I think that's something that was just part of the game design. The challenge of Karateka is to get from the start to the end without dying once. That's something that might take 20 minutes to do once you've mastered it, but it probably took a week or two of playing the game and getting killed before you reached that point of mastery.
Craddock: Karateka seemed very experimental in many ways, intentional in others. I noticed that Mariko would kill players in a single blow if they appeared before her in a fighting stance. Was that a bug, or was that purposeful?
Mechner: In that game, you only had one life. I think a lot of people were traumatized by, over days or weeks, finally getting to the point where they could get through the game without losing a single fight, only to lose it all at the end. That was one my first attempts to take an existing gameplay mechanic and extend it to its logical conclusion. You already had the choice between standing up, which let you run fast, and dropping into a fighting stance, which meant you were protected but could only advance slowly.
Because the object of the game is to get as far as you can and reach the palace as soon as possible to save the princess and win the game, you can get there fastest by running flat out, but that's risky because you might get hit. Players developed the habit of dropping into a fighting stance when they approached a new, unknown area, and then standing and running when it was safe.
Just thinking logically, if you were a princess who had been stuck in a cell, and then suddenly the door is kicked down and somebody wearing a gi approaches you in a fighting stance, what would you do? You'd defend yourself. Those human moments that make sense are kind of what I look for. That was what I looked for then. We're so used to all the clichés of the genre, but when you see a moment of recognizable human behavior, even today, like in a big summer blockbuster movie—you see something that's human and makes you laugh, and you think, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I would do in that situation.' It's refreshing.
I remember in the first Avengers movie, you've got a city being destroyed, and there's one moment where Bruce Banner says to Tony Stark, Iron Man, 'If you didn't have that suit, who would you be?' And Tony Stark says, 'A billionaire playboy genius.' And you laugh because it's human.
Karateka takes place in medieval Japan. People are fighting. You've got a guy who's standing here guarding a gate. That's his job: to stand in front of the portcullis and guard it all day long. One day a guy climbs up the cliff to face him. What's he going to do? If you just walk toward him and bow, he's going to bow back. He's only going to start fighting you if you drop into a fighting stance and start fighting him. Little things like that let you believe in [the guard] a little more as a human being. You also believe in yourself a little more, and the whole situation becomes easier to engage in. It's a very rudimentary thing, but even in today's games, that for me is what makes them fun to play.
The things that connect us to a game as a player are things that we do, events that we cause. Things that make us say: 'Wow. I did that.' It doesn't matter how much exposition you put into a cinematic sequence, or how beautifully animated it is; you're just sitting back and watching it. It doesn't really count within the context of a game. But anything that happens on-screen that you initiated or provoked—that means something, because we did it.
Craddock: What sort of schedule were you holding down while making Karateka?
Mechner: I was carrying a full course load at the time. I would alternate between bursts of work on the game and then realizing I'd fallen far behind in classes, to desperately trying to catch up, to berating myself for not having gotten anything done on the game. That went on for a couple of years.
Craddock: Did Broderbund accept Karateka right away?
Mechner: Two years went by between my submitting Deathbounce and submitting Karateka. This was from 1982 to 1984. The industry had grown. Doug had gone from being one of only a few people at Broderbund and handling all submissions himself, to being president of the company, which by then was a pretty big job.
I completely disappeared; from his point of view, I was just some college student, and nobody probably expected to hear from me. I didn't keep him posted. I just submitted the finished disk. I put it in an envelope and sent it to Broderbund, and also to Electronic Arts. Or maybe I just sent them a query letter.
Broderbund did respond. I immediately got a call back from someone at Broderbund saying, 'Yes, great, we're interested. Let's make a deal. And also, would you be able to come out here for a few months and polish up the game? We'd like to add a few more levels and change a couple of things.' To which I said: 'Yes. Oh my god. Yes.'
Being a kid on the east coast, to go to Broderbund in California, where I'd never been, and be in an office with real programmers, in the software industry, working on a game that was actually going to get published—that was a dream come true, instead of working in my dorm room or in my parents' basement working on something that I thought was great but having no external validation of that. It was exciting.
I went the summer of '84. That was the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I spent it at Broderbund. That opened my eyes in lots of ways. I met Doug, his brother Gary; there was Danny Gorlin, the author of Choplifter. I was star struck meeting him. These were names I'd only seen on the title screens of their Apple II games, and I was getting to meet them in the flesh, and actually getting to talk to them about programming and making games. I learned all sorts of tips and tricks; in Chappaqua, New York, there was no one I could talk to about this stuff.
I was in my senior year in college. I actually got the call from Broderbund letting me know the good news. I didn't really believe it until I went to a newsstand and bought that issue of Billboard. I guess Broderbund knew a couple of weeks before the issue had hit the stands, and had been watching it get to number 27 on the chart, which was pretty exciting in itself.
Craddock: How did Prince of Persia stem from Karateka's success? What made it the natural next game to make?
Mechner: I got one piece of advice both from Doug [Carlston] and from my dad, which was really influential. They were entrepreneurs. At this time in my life, all of my friends were thinking in terms of, 'What kind of job can I get? Who can I get to hire me, and how are they going to pay me?'
The strong message I got from my dad, and seconded by Doug when I met him, was it's much better to start your own company and be independent. Don't get a job. Don't be hired. As soon as you do that, you're turning over your work—ownership and creative control—to your employer. So don't do that unless you need to; unless security is the most important thing to you.
Security wasn't important. When I got out of college I was 20 years old and really fortunate that I already had royalties coming in from Karateka. I was able to pay off my student loans, and my life wasn't expensive. I didn't even have a car. My only expenses were things like clothes, food, and buying gadgets for my Apple computer. So it just made sense: rather than asking one's permission to do Prince of Persia, I just started doing it.
The arrangement I made with Broderbund for Prince of Persia was that I would make the game, and they would give me an office so I had a desk to sit at. That was really valuable to me because it was a community. I felt—and they also felt—that the game would benefit from that creative exchange of ideas. It's a lot more energizing and motivating than trying to get yourself to work on something when you're sitting at home alone every day. Our deal was that when the game was done, they could look at it, and if they liked it, they could publish it and I'd get a royalty, as I did on Karateka.