In 1982 -- the era of Apple II and Commodore 64 -- 17-year-old college freshman and aspiring game designer Jordan Mechner began keeping a private journal. This first volume is a candid account of the personal, creative and technical struggles that led to his breakthrough success with Karateka, which topped bestseller charts in 1985, and planted the seeds of his next game, Prince of Persia.
"Jordan's journals are remarkable. I so wish I had kept a similar record. Reading them transports me back to that place and time. We all knew this was an exciting new industry, but I don't think we had any clue what it was going to turn into during our careers. There were no schools, no books, no theories covering what we were doing. Everyone was just figuring it out on their own. Following Jordan's creative path is a great example of how to go with your own gut instinct. It's also a great inspiration, showing how persistence and determination can lead to unexpected and wonderful results."-Will Wright, game designer, creator of The Sims
"Mechner's journals are a time machine that takes us back to a weirdly familiar era, when ambitious young creators were making strange new video games all by themselves and making up the rules as they went. It is not a retrospective; instead, it is a present-tense diary written by the creator throughout the creation of his most influential work. It is a humbling and inspiring record of what it was like to make one of the best video games of all time. I love these journals."-Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, game designer, creator of Canabalt
"When an industry is brand-new, its innovators are generally so busy creating the future that they rarely have time to document the present. Luckily, Jordan Mechner did. With these journals, we can track the development of Prince of Persia from a few penciled squiggles to a global franchise. For anyone aspiring to create a game -- or any endeavor that takes months and man-hours -- Jordan's journal is sobering and inspiring."-John August, screenwriter of Go, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Three years before Prince of Persia was a gleam in my eye, I was a 17-year-old Yale freshman and avid gamer, trying to balance a college course-load with my aspiration to become a real, published game author… and maybe, someday, a screenwriter.
This is my journal from that time — excerpted so as not to strain the reader’s patience, but otherwise unimproved and untouched by 20/20 hindsight.
JANUARY 27, 1982
History at 9:30, Psych at 1:30. In between I went into town and bought the Monty Python and the Holy Grail soundtrack to send to the Lillies, and this notebook. Discussed the nature of the universe with Ben and Rich until dinner.
About this journal: My basic intention is to write down, at the end of each day, what happened — what I did, thought, felt, and so forth — so I can read it, years from now, and remember what it was like.
I think it’s best if I don’t concern myself overly with style. I’ll only get frustrated and quit. The second pitfall to avoid is using this journal as a kind of valve to let off steam — for example, writing 20 pages one night about how depressed I am. I’ve kept that kind of journal before. Rereading it, I invariably get disgusted and throw the notebook away. If I’m depressed, I’ll just say so and leave it at that. Basically, I want to write what I’ll want to read later. I’ll probably get better at that with practice.
In short, I’m not very concerned with quantity or quality; I just want a reasonable entry for every day of my life, starting now.
FEBRUARY 7, 1982
Qix is a great game. I want to program it for the Apple.
There was an article in Creative Computing about generating pseudo-random numbers — just what I need for Deathbounce!
FEBRUARY 13, 1982
Scott Barnes from Hayden called. Will they ever publish Asteroids? It’s been over a year — fifteen months — since I submitted it and they accepted it.
If they only sell 1,000 copies, I’ll make $4,500 — if they sell 5,000, I’ll make $22,500 — ridiculously high sums of money. Right now I only have $500, counting everything. So why am I not on the phone with them every morning, pushing, pushing?
Oh well. When I finish Deathbounce and sell it, I’ll be rich and then I can stop worrying about money for the next few years.
FEBRUARY 16, 1982
Bought a record for the first time in a long time. Vivaldi’s Seasons.
There’s a Deutsche Gramophon and Philips sale on at Cutler’s. I should buy a few more before the sale ends.
FEBRUARY 18, 1982
I missed all my classes today. Music, Philos, Philos discussion group, Sociology. Shit! What’s the matter with me?
Exchanged Mozart’s piano concertos (warped) for Mozart’s Requiem, Colin Davis conducting. It’s the best performance I’ve heard.
FEBRUARY 22, 1982
This morning I bought the DOS 3.3 upgrade ($60) and upgraded my system. It is now a 3.3 system. In ten minutes I made the Hayden change (changing the ship from a triangle to a V), missing Sociology (sigh), then worked on Deathbounce.
Also, I started a new program — a hi-res, machine language Blockade (I’d done it in lo-res, integer BASIC, a long time ago). I’m considering adding ALF music. (Bolero? Carmina Burana? Marche Slav?)
FEBRUARY 24, 1982
If you took all the hours I’ve spent on coursework outside of classes in the first 7 weeks of this term, it wouldn’t make 8 hours total. That’s, like, one hour per week. And I’ve missed at least half the lectures. It’s ridiculous. I might as well not be taking any courses. What a waste.
FEBRUARY 28, 1982
I decided to add a shield to Deathbounce. You have a certain amount of energy (replenished at the beginning of each new screen as well as with each new ship) which normally recharges slowly; thrusting, fi ring, and shield all use up energy. It should be fun. It’s at least original.
Did my laundry. Th ere’s nothing quite like a basketful of hot crackling clean clothes, carrying it back through the cool winter air.
MARCH 3, 1982
[NY] Last night, walking to Grand Central, I passed a grizzled old salt — not a drunk, just an old, shabby sailor type with a duffel bag. He said “Hey, spare some change for a poor ol’ guy?” in a tone of good-natured humor at his own predicament. I said sorry, and he said “Shucks. OK.”
We were walking side by side. He said: “Y’know, I wish I were your age,” then, like he’d just come to a big decision: “No, hang it all, I don’t. I been through too much. It ain’t easy bein’ young, and that’s the truth.”
It made me kind of curious about what his life had been like.An artist is concerned with what, a scientist with why. We read a scientific paper and say “Hey, that makes sense. Wow!” We read a poem and say “That’s it exactly. That’s just how it is!”
Which will I turn out to be? Education, heredity, everything seems to point toward science. I’ve never really seriously considered the other option. And yet… Being a movie director. Writing novels. Screenplays. That sounds so appealing.
MARCH 7, 1982
[Chappaqua] Spent most of the day playing D&D with David. Worked a little (very little) on Deathbounce.
MARCH 11, 1982
Today I worked out a couple of principles that make arcade games fun.
First, you have to feel in control of your ship/car/man/whatever. So that when you get hit, you say “Oh, shit! I should have thrusted!” (Asteroids) instead of “Oh well, another ship gone. I wonder what hit me?” (Star Castle).
Second, you should be able to control the form of your attacks — in short, have a strategy: Qix, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man. Counter-examples: Space Firebirds, Scramble, Sneakers.
Third, there should be two goals; the primary goal (getting points) should not overlap 100% with the secondary goal (clearing screens). In Pac-Man, for example, you can go for the monsters (points) or the dots (screen); in Asteroids, the saucers or the rocks; in Invaders, the creatures or the mystery ship.
Whereas in Star Castle, you just go for the cannon; in Galaxian, the aliens; in Qix, area.
Interestingly, the only games with all these features are Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Asteroids — the three #1 games.
Anyway, I’m hot to write new games.
Tomorrow: First, send Star Blaster (fka Space Rocks fka Asteroid Blaster fka Asteroid Belt) to Hayden; second, work on ‘Bounce! I’ve got a good thing going here. The Apple is still the #1 computer, arcade games are the #1 sellers, and I’m writing Apple II arcade games; so I should churn ‘em out and make pots of money while I can. This summer I’ll write three or four. I should establish a working relationship with some other publisher (not Hayden): Sirius? Broderbund?
MARCH 13, 1982
Papi’s 85th birthday at the Coopers. One day I’ll be as old as Dad and have a teenage son; then as old as Papi and have a 50-year-old son; then I’ll be dead. Went to Adrian’s, got a whole bunch of new games, printed out Bounce on his MX-80.
MARCH 13, 1982
Feeling a little better, fever is down. Working on Bounce.
Right now I’m making the big conversion from single to dual-page animation. God, what a mess. It was a really bad idea to write it in single and convert at the end. I need a new printout, to go over the code step by step.
MARCH 14, 1982
Played the new games I copied from Adrian: Space Eggs, Falcons, Ring Raiders, Space Warrior, Orbitron, Gobbler, Pulsar II, and especially Sabotage. That’s such a great game — it’s original, fun, and a super programming job. The graphics are clean and colorful and pretty. The explosions are elegant. It’s written by a guy named Mark Allen.
Worked a little on Bounce. I want to:
1) Make it so you can destroy the spike — like the saucers in Asteroids
2) Change spheres and spike to more interesting things
3) Put in good, colorful explosions and sound, like Sabotage. Fuel gauge could be prettier.
MARCH 18, 1982
Went to Greeley and copied more programs from Mrs. Lee, including Prisoner and Reversal. Prisoner is an adventure based on the TV series, which I’d been looking forward to seeing for quite some time. It has some neat touches, but on the whole, I’m disappointed. Also, it won’t run properly on my computer (it needs Applesoft in ROM).
Reversal is an incredibly strong Othello program; it can cream Ben and me without even taking any time to think. It’s by the Spracklens (Sargon).
Last night went to Adrian’s, gave him some games, got one in return (Gran Prix) and a new printout of Bounce. SHIT! It’s been two weeks since I finished Asteroids — it’s in the envelope, ready to send — I’ll mail it tomorrow.
MARCH 19, 1982
Dinner at the Green Tree with Dad and Joe Sucher. Ben was impressed that my dad knew Bobby Fischer and that he and Stuart Margulies had written Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, which Ben had read. Then we went to see Quest for Fire.
MARCH 21, 1982
[New Haven] I’m back. Classes restart tomorrow. I got a ton of mail. All four magazines (HiFi, Chess Life, Creative Computing, and Softalk), both bills (Bursar and Co-Op), assorted junk mail… and a letter from Doug Carlston at Broderbund re: software submission. I like Broderbund. I’ll send them a letter describing Bounce.
Doug’s letter mentioned that they might even pay airfare for programmers to come work with them. WOW!! Out in sunny California… Oh man, I want to so bad… But first, Bounce. Yes, Deathbounce is a great title. I’ll keep it. Deathbounce.
Ohh, reading Softalk’s got me so psyched up! I’ll finish Deathbounce, Broderbund will publish it (I know, I’m counting chickens, but realistically, nobody would reject a hi-res, machine-language, fastaction videogame), then this summer I’ll write one or two or three more. (Revenge? Plague? Destroy Planet Earth?) And next summer… maybe… go to CA and work for them? Dreams, dreams… Oh, I want it so bad!
MARCH 22, 1982
Sent off the letter to Doug Carlston at Broderbund this afternoon; worked on Deathbounce. It’s coming along. Since I don’t have too much coursework this week, I should have dual-page working fine by Sunday. By the way, I missed both History and Psych today. Not good.
Next: Ball and missile explosions; ship explosions; fix up scoring, extra ships, graduated difficulty, etc. Then… TEST, TEST, TEST. And the game will be finished. (Well, maybe one or two more small details: display high score in upper right; sound effects; etc.) Ohh… I can’t wait! (What a silly expression! I don’t have to wait, I just have to do it.)
Started programming a new game tonight (an easy one): the numbermatching game from that guy’s wristwatch at Papi’s birthday party at the Coopers’. It’s so irritating: I can’t get it to work right, it’s so simple, I’ve been over it a hundred times and all the parts work, but the whole doesn’t.
Also, last night falling asleep I thought of a really new game idea: The Ten Plagues. Locusts, boils, frogs, hail. You’re Pharaoh, trying to hold them off. In the end, of course, there’s no way to win, as in any Galaxian-type game.
Considering using the ALF for a soundtrack. The music? Handel’s Plagues, of course! (“He spake the word…”) It’d be quite an ambitious project, even more so than Revenge.