The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner

This book follows the author of the hit 90s computer game Prince of Persia through the game’s development, release, and several years after. The book consists of diary entries that author Jordan Mechner wrote during that time, with margin notes and accompanying photos and sketches Mechner added for publication.

I played Prince of Persia as a child, so it was a nostalgic treat to revisit details of the game I hadn’t thought about in years. It was also interesting looking back on that time when computer games were so personal. There was no “hype” around a particular computer game because there were no channels for hype to reach me. I didn’t know how to use the web, and I only had one other friend who played computer games. I didn’t know which games were hits or which were flops; I just knew which games I enjoyed.

The feature that most stuck with me about Prince of Persia was the realism of the protagonist’s physical movements. Reading this book, it seems that this is the same feature that captivated everyone else. It’s a unique feeling to find out 30 years later that you’re in agreement with everyone else.

The book presents a romantic view of software development. In the 80s and 90s, game developers were more like auteurs, controlling every aspect of a game: code, graphics, music, box art, sales copy. It’s fun to get a peek inside Mechner’s thought process in creating his games and reading about his conversations with other top developers about design techniques.I was surprised to see how important plot was to everyone, as they often treated the storyline as the game’s foundation. It presents an interesting contrast to Masters of Doom, which described id Software’s development process as basically, “John Carmack figured out a new awesome thing he can do with computer graphics, so let’s build a game around it.”

It’s also interesting as a social time capsule. During game development, “a group of irate women” at the company collectively raise complaints about the game’s cover art, which featured a menacing Middle Eastern man violently grabbing the wrist of a busty princess. The response from the men is sort of like, “Ugh, these concerns are so annoying.” One of the men in upper management sends out a condescending email explaining why women are wrong to be offended, and then… that’s it. The matter is settled, and it’s never addressed again. Later, they celebrate the brilliance of their box art.

The book is also a lesson in enjoying the present. Throughout Mechner’s journals, he achieves monumental success in the computer gaming world. Top game critics and designers hail him as one of the greatest game designers before he’s even 25, but he struggles to enjoy it because his true dream is to be a screenwriter. There are so many victories he fails to appreciate because he was focused on outdoing himself on his next project.

The first half of the book focuses on the software development parts of his life. The second half of the book is more about him struggling to break into the film industry and working on student films, so that wasn’t as engaging for me. Overall, though, it’s a fun read and a unique perspective.

What I Liked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Reading journal entries provides a fascinating, unfiltered view into a person’s life.
  • The Stripe version includes margin notes where the author provides context, present reflections, and trivia about people involved.
  • It’s impressive how eloquent he is in what he expected to be his private journal.
    • If I kept a journal from my twenties, it would be far less succinct or profound.

What I Disliked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Certain parts are a little hard to follow.
    • Because it’s just verbatim journal entries, the author often omits context about who people are or what’s happening. The Stripe edition has margin notes, but I wish there were a bit more.
  • Lots of content dedicated to Mechner’s unsuccessful attempts to break into the film industry that I could have done without.

Key Takeaways ๐Ÿ”—︎

Stripe has a publishing house? ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • At first, I thought it was strange that another company was called “Stripe.” When I realize it was the same Stripe I knew, I was even more surprised to learn that they publish books sometimes.
  • They have several interesting-looking titles.

Prince of Persia Trivia ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Broderbund, the game’s publisher, offered Mechner no advance or salary on Prince of Persia, instead putting his entire compensation in a 15% royalty.
    • This was an odd deal because Broderbund had no skin in the game during development.
    • Broderbund gave Mechner office space at their headquarters but mostly left him to his own devices for the first year of the game’s development.
    • In retrospect, Mechner feels stupid for working with Broderbund.
  • The animation was so revolutionarily lifelike because he recorded his younger performing the movements and then painstakingly traced the frames.
  • The princess animations were based on Tina LaDeau, the teenage daughter of a Broderbund manager.
  • Mechner originally intended to ship the level editor with the game so that players could design their own Prince of Persia levels after completing the official game.
    • He pulled it at the last minute over concerns about disk space and cheapening the experience of the official levels.
  • Mechner’s father, an accomplished research psychologist and amateur musician, composed the music for the game.
  • Prince of Persia was almost a commercial flop due to inadequate support from Broderbund’s marketing department.
    • Despite glowing reviews from critics and players, Prince of Persia sold poorly for almost a full year after release.
    • Broderbund’s marketing department constantly clashed with Mechner and withheld investment in the game.
      • [Ed: Marketing was a female-dominated department, so I wonder if this was fallout from female employees’ concerns about the game’s cover art.]
    • Sales finally turned around after personnel changes in the marketing department brought people who supported the game.

Early computer game development ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Game developers in the 80s and 90s were like one-person bands. They often did all the programming, graphics, and music.
  • Before making a new game, video game designers first had to build their own custom tools for making each game from scratch.
  • Video games were so constrained by the tiny amount of RAM available at the time.
    • During Prince of Persia’s development, he has no RAM available for new enemy character animations, so he gets the idea to make an enemy by XOR’ing the protagonist’s animations and calling him Shadowman.
  • Video games were such a slog!
    • He spends two years writing all the code in a vacuum, and then there’s another year of quality assurance, bugfixing, and marketing.
  • Porting games to different platforms was a major undertaking.
    • They had to hire contractors for months of work to rewrite Prince of Persia for a new platform, taking into account the new system’s unique graphics capabilities and resource constraints.
    • Developers who write the port were offered royalties of 5-10%, not that far from what the author himself earned.
  • Software engineering practices were so much messier back in the day.
    • The author continued adding pet features to the game close to release, sometimes introducing severe bugs in the process and forcing QA to restart late into the testing process.

Play theory ๐Ÿ”—︎

While diagnosing problems with Prince of Persia, Mechner surveys the popular games at the time (Asteroids, Pac-Man, Karateka, Lode Runner) and identifies commonalities that he thinks made them successful.

  1. A glance at the screen is all you need to identify how much progress you’ve made.
  2. On the path to your ultimate goal, there are smaller setbacks and successes.
    • e.g., clearing a difficult area in Pac-Man
  3. The player controls the pace and chooses when they want to progress into a high tension part of the game.