Before Prince of Persia was a best-selling video game franchise and a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, it was an Apple II computer game created and programmed by one person, Jordan Mechner. Mechner’s candid journals from the time capture his journey from his parents’ basement to the forefront of the fast-growing 1980s video game industry… and the creative, technical and personal struggles that brought the prince into being and ultimately into the homes of millions of people worldwide.
"The book is a fascinating look back at the realm of personal computing and gaming in the Reagan era; anybody who grew up in that time will probably get a warm fuzzy feeling at the mere mention of the original Mac, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari, the NES. But this isn't a nostalgia piece: along the way, we also get Mechner's intriguing theories on story as they apply to video games, and the journal entries provide an illuminating look at his solutions to problems that popped up as he crafted the narrative and game mechanics of PRINCE OF PERSIA. All in all, this is a must-read for old school video game aficionados, current game developers and anybody in a creative profession who's looking for a little inspiration."-Jason Nutt
"A great and thrilling documentation of how Prince of Persia came into being. Or almost didn't come at all. Again, absolutely recommended for anyone interested in game development or the history of computer games."-Ondřej Sýkora
"This is the personal journals of a twenty-something genius while he single-handed created one of the most artistic video games of all time. ...Had this been written as a hindsight autobiography, I suspect the tone would have been quite different. In hindsight, it would have seemed clear that he was striving toward artistic greatness, that it was his destiny to mark his mark on the world through the Prince of Persia. But reading his writing about how he felt in the moment reveals how anyone striving for greatness often feels: stressed out, confused, and uncertain about whether this thing will be worth it in the end."-Adam Wiggins
It was the start of a journey that would see my shape-shifting prince transform into a modern video game hero, LEGO minifigure, and even Jake Gyllenhaal in a summer blockbuster movie. But in 1985, he existed only as a few scribbles on a yellow-lined pad. In my old journals I recorded his birth pangs.
Rereading these notebooks twenty years later, reliving the creative, technical and personal struggles that brought the prince into being, I thought others might find them of interest. So I began posting daily entries on my website at jordanmechner.com, as a “developer diary from the past.”
The response has been more than I hoped for. The old journals seem to resonate not only with game developers, but with writers, artists and creators of all stripes, some of whom weren’t born yet in 1985.
Here it is—the first “Making of” Prince of Persia. I hope you enjoy it.
Note: In the interest of accurately portraying the ups and downs of this period of my life, over twenty years ago, I’ve resisted the temptation to edit out statements that today I find embarrassing, cringe-inducing, or flat-out wrong. Please understand that the journal entries reflect my state of mind when I wrote them, not what I think now.
May 6, 1985
[New Haven] Picked up my Mac from Technical Services; they’d run it for a few hours without crashing, so they just packed it back up again. On the way back I bought a surge suppressor at the Coop. Hope that takes care of the problem.
Wrote my two-page Psych paper. Now there’s just one lone Music exam between me and the rest of my life. I practiced by trying to transcribe the beginning of Raiders. It’s hard, even with Music Shop to test my work out on.
Dad called. Billboard’s top-ranked program for this week is, indeed, Karateka. That’s Step Two in my convincing myself of this. Step Three will be when I see it for myself.
May 7, 1985 I’m done.
I’m done with Yale.
The music exam was pretty tough — I blew the dictations — but, hey, I did my best. I might get a B in the course. After the exam I spoke to Dwight and Tom, in a whisper because a lot of people were still writing. They wanted to know what I’d be doing next year.
“Write computer games,” I whispered.
I bought Billboard. Karateka is indeed number one. Me and Madonna. Yow.
May 10, 1985
Dinner with Bill Holt at Whistler’s. He brought me up to date on what everybody at Broderbund is doing. He also asked me about my summer plans. I said I was thinking about doing another game. He said Gary would love to have me back.
So, I figure I’ll fly up there around the middle of July, stay with somebody for a while, see if I can get a new project lined up. I’ll call Gary on Monday and tell him.
Note: call — not write. Gary — not Ed. Writing to Ed hasn’t worked for me too well in the past. He’s a Busy Man. I have a feeling they don’t use letters much out there, anyway.
Bill suggested I ask Gary, not Ed, to pick up the tab. “If your dad ever disowns you,” Bill said, “I think Gary would adopt you.”
I’m psyched to Return to Marin.
Lunch with Jeff Kleeman. Afterwards, he came over and I recorded the score to Vertigo for him. I’ll look him up in L.A. this summer. Also, jogging this morning, I ran into Mike Saltzman and Eve Maremont.
May 14, 1985
Stopping by the post office after jogging, I found the letter from Ed I’ve been waiting for for nearly two months. I was amazed at how happy it made me. It didn’t say much — basically, just “sure, come on out” — but it lifted a weight off my chest, one I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. I am going out there in July. And I’m seriously looking forward to it.
The issue of who pays hasn’t yet been addressed, but I think they’ll probably agree to pay for my ticket. If not (don’t tell them this), I’ll go anyway.
Dad had a useful insight on my upcoming negotiations with Broderbund. My position should be: I don’t need an advance, or a salary, or a guarantee that they’ll publish the program when it’s finished. I’ll take all the risk. I just want the highest royalty rate I can get. And the pressure to negotiate the contract should come from them, not from me.
May 17, 1985
Breakfast at Naples with Dwight Andrews. We talked about computer music.
A pleasant surprise: Got my first royalty check for Karateka, for $2117. 2000 units sold in April. The advance is now paid off.
May 24, 1985
The Baccalaureate address was pretty good. Giamatti always brings a lump to my throat when he does his routine about a liberal arts education and learning for learning’s sake.
The Class Day exercises boasted a very funny routine by a pair of senior stand-up comics, and a good speech by Paul Tsongas. The thrust of it was that one should maintain perspective as one strives to Get Ahead in life; material gains are empty; nobody wishes on their deathbed that they had spent more time on their business.
Friday must have been ninety degrees, but like a fool I wore a jacket and tie under the heavy black gown. Boy, was I sweating. The procession to Old Campus was a very big deal; we took a rather circuitous route through the New Haven Green, where we stopped and waited in a long line while the band and the President’s party paraded by. We doffed our caps to Giamatti as he passed. Ward, Larry, and Dominic whistled Elgar and Sousa marches to keep from getting bored. Larry had fun with the parasol he’d brought along.
Our parents snapped picture after picture as we passed. We smiled and basked and kept moving. It all seemed unreal. Filled with an ocean of chairs, packed with people, approached by an unusual route through gates that had always been locked, the Old Campus felt like no place I’d ever been.
Once we got in our seats, we were graduated almost before we knew it. A hymn, a prayer, and then, suddenly, one-thousand-some-odd “IN NUMBER,” we were graduated “as designated by the Dean.” And it was over.
June 4, 1985
[New York] I turned 21 today.
Irv Bauer dropped by. We chatted for a couple of minutes. He congratulated me on being a boy wonder and asked me what I had in the works. I told him I was writing a screenplay.“It’s a hard business,” he said. Then he said: “I’m going to give you a gift.” He thereupon recommended James Agee’s two books On Film. I thanked him profusely. I guess I’m supposed to buy the books myself.
I saw Aviva off (to Australia via LaGuardia) and went to see Jules and Jim.
June 5, 1985
A cold, drizzling day. I was a little grouchy, I guess because I’m feeling confused and indecisive about my future. Kay from Broderbund called and told me it’ll be OK for me to stay at Dane’s place. I booked a flight to L.A. and S.F. on July 5th. So everything’s set. Except –
Do I really want to write another game? Can I do that and write screenplays at the same time? Can I write screenplays at all?
I played the Gremlins soundtrack to evoke last summer and get me psyched about movies. It worked. Tomorrow I’ll write something.
The Commodore version of Karateka must be out, because I got a copy in the mail. Shrink-packed and everything.
June 15, 1985
Chris Columbus must be a happy guy. Steven Spielberg latched onto him and now Chris is cranking out fun movies one after another. I loved Gremlins. I liked Goonies. A lot.