Finding Inspiration in Mechner’s Journals

I Started reading Jordan Mechner’s development journals on the making of Prince of Persia, just after he released the source code of the original game on github.

Jordan Mechner is a game industry pioneer – he created and coded Karateka in the early 80s for the Apple II as a one man team and made it to #1 selling title, using revolutionary techniques to achieve realistic character animation and cinematic story telling. He later on continued to create Prince of Persia using the same techniques and found even greater success.

As a gamer and developer who grew up in the 80s, I got to play the original Karateka on the Apple II and the even better porting if it on the Commodore 64. It was definitely one of the best 8-bit arcade games ever made. For anyone too young to remember, those were the days with no internet, only floppy disks (or cassette tapes) as the common storage device, and crude development tools.

In those days, programming was a craft. For nearly a decade, a program had to fit into less that 64K of RAM and use so called ‘Hi Res’ graphics with only 16 colors (or even less if you used an Apple II) for any compelling visual. Most coding was done with 6502 assembly language (that’s machine code) –  can’t get any hard core than that.  What more can I say, I just love the 80s 🙂

Reading Mechner’s journals, you get a glimpse at the creative process including small daily details and challenges that game developers were facing in those days. Not surprisingly, most are still true today.

I specially liked this entry that describes how he creates the animation frames for the character:

April 29, 1986

[…] I still think this can work. The key is not to clean up the frames too much. The figure will be tiny and messy and look like crap… but I have faith that, when the frames are run in sequence at 15 fps, it’ll create an illusion of life that’s more amazing than anything that’s ever been seen on an Apple II screen. The little guy will be wiggling and jittering like a Ralph Bakshi rotoscope job… but he’ll be alive. He’ll be this little shimmering beacon of life in the static Apple-graphics Persian world I’ll build for him to run around in.

This is a fascinating read – check it out the page for The Making of Prince of Persia – with its funny video trailer showing the actual video footage with the gameplay scenes.

This book is a great source of inspiration for any creative person. You feel the excitement all the way through. Imo, this is a must read for any aspiring game developer, and I highly recommend it.