Saturday, May 12, 2012

NYU Game Center Lecture: Jordan Mechner

Jordan Mechner, creator of Karateka and Prince of Persia, gave a talk at NYU about his creative process and his ambition to tell stories in any medium.

  • Jordan's hometown is New York, but this is the first time he is actually speaking here. He is currently working on a Karateka remake for the XBLA and PSN platforms.
  • Jordan's first game was a direct copy of Asteroids, but was rejected by Atari in an act to prevent clones. His second game was Death Bounce, a game that involves avoiding bouncing balls, but was also rejected because it wasn't what the publisher was looking for.
  • Choplifter for the Apple II was a very influential game for him. He was inspired by its story. When the player finished the game, it said "The End" instead of "Game Over." The characters had so much emotions when they run happily towards the chopper or when they wave for help as the helicopter flies up without them.
  • Inspired by Choplifter, Jordan made Karateka, a side-scrolling fighting game released on the Apple II computers. The game told the story of a karate warrior attempting to rescue the princess in a castle fortress. Home consoles can tell stories, whereas arcades were more focused on getting the players to pump in quarters.
  • Jordan's goal was to make games that tell stories.
  • For Prince of Persia, Jordan videotaped his brother David and created rotoscoped animations for the protagonist. He spent four years making the game. The process of rotoscope animation was very complicated and arduous.
  • His concept for Prince of Persia was to make Lode Runner with more visceral animations where the characters felt like they had actual weight and physics.
  • He developed his own tools to play frames, his own image editor before Photoshop even existed, and his own level editor.
  • His friend, Tomi Pierce, saw Prince of Persia while in development. She said Karateka was fun because you had a goal and you fought your way towards it, whereas Prince of Persia was all struggle and no conflict. She said that the game needed combat and enemies. Jordan argued that Prince of Persia was not about conflict; it was about cleverness, agility, and puzzle solving. In addition, the protagonist was designed with all these realistic animations to make him a likable and connectable hero. He did not want to go against that by giving him a sword.
  • During playtesting of Prince of Persia, many people praised the animation, but they did the one thing that every game developer fears; they put down the controller and started talking about something else. Jordan realized that he needed to listen to his friend and add combat.
  • At this point, he couldn't add combat because he had used all the memory on the protagonist's animation and could not add a second character to the game. But he figured out he can include a "shadow version" of the protagonist, reusing all the same sprites and without taking up any additional memory.
  • At the end of the game, you fight against the shadow man as the last boss. Every time you attack the shadow man, you lose health yourself. The only way to win is by putting away the sword and running straight towards the shadow man, thus causing him to run straight towards you. You and the shadow man collide, reuniting the two into one person and replenishing all your health. This moment was one of Jordan's greatest achievements in game storytelling and he was only able to come to it because of the technical constraints of the project.
  • in Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, he writes about the creative process and how the best ideas come from constraints. This was true for Jordan since the memory constraints led to his climatic ending.
  • Jordan decided to go to NYU film school after Prince of Persia. He used his game as a film reel to apply, claiming that games are the next evolution in cinematic storytelling. He was rejected.
  • He was intent on going to film school so he had already moved back to NY. He did an intensive one year film program and did a short film in Cuba. Then he went to Europe, learned some foreign languages, and made more short films.
  • He didn't return to games for a while because he didn't have any ideas. In 1993, his friend Tomi inspired him to make The Last Express. He also got inspiration from Deadline by Infocom, a real-time, murder mystery, text adventure game set in a mansion.
  • The Last Express was a real-time, murder mystery set on a train. The train is a perfect place to tell a story because it has finite rooms and finite characters.
  • The Last Express also had four years of development and was released as a CD-ROM game for the PC and Mac. It was not a commercial success. Jordan had used his royalties from his pervious games on The Last Express and ended up broke at the time of its release.
  • Ubisoft Montreal revived Prince of Persia with The Sands of Time in 2003 with a team of 100 people.
  • Jordan wrote the script to the Prince of Persia movie. He cut up a trailer using footage from The Sands of Time game to pitch it to Jerry Bruckheimer.
  • Before writing the screenplay for the movie, he knew the story of the game didn't work for the movie. A story can't work for both mediums. A game story is about what's fun and building the plot around the interactive elements. It was okay for the prince to kill a bunch of zombies in one secluded location, but the movie was going to have live people and many different locations like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
  • Jordan is now working on stories for all kinds of mediums including games, films, and graphic novels.
Conversation with Frank Lantz
  • Frank asks what's the difference between movies and games? Are games in their primitive form being that most are designed around violence? Chris Hecker had said that blowing up spaceships in movies is extremely hard to do, but showing people talking to each other is easy, whereas games are the complete opposite. Jordan says that movies are about showing and games are about doing. Games have to be fun and compelling first, then layer a story on top of those mechanics. Movies originate from the story.
  • Adventure game as a genre is about talking and not combat. Journey is an adventure game in essence, but it deepens involvement without any talking. The Last Express was an adventure game with talking, but the mechanic was basically "press button to talk." There were no dialogue trees.
  • Creative design influences others and fuels our games in the next generation. It's harder to be innovative in a triple-A game because they're so expensive that you second guess every decision and end up playing it safe. In a one-person-developed game, you can do anything you want even if others say it sucks.
  • Jordan went from making games by himself to making games in a big team to Hollywood. In many ways, these processes are similar. Writing a script is like programming a game with limited memory capacity. You have to fit your story in 120 pages. You have to optimize your scenes, sometimes compressing two scenes into one to save the production $100,000.
  • Frank argues that the Prince of Persia film was successful because the script was written by the original creator of the series. Jordan says that even though the movie made a profit, it was still too expensive to make and that's why we won't see a sequel. Resident Evil movies, however, are much cheaper to make and they always make their money back.
  • Jordan had a recent adventure to find the original Prince of Persia source code. He couldn't find it anywhere. It turned out it was living in a box at this dad's house. His dad shipped it back to him and now the code is up on Github.
  • Jordan doesn't write code anymore. He didn't learn C, but knows a little APL.
  • Programming is key to making a game. It's the only way to try things out and learn what works. Would you make a movie if you never want to touch a camera?
  • Coding, editing, meetings, and screen writing are all the same skill to him because it makes him feel tired in the same way. The only skill that relaxes him is sketching and drawing. Jordan wonders what artists do to unwind.
  • Jordan always liked drawing by didn't know animation. He resorted to rotoscoping for that.
  • He enjoys writing graphic novels because the process is so intimate. It's just the author, artist, and editor working on the project. He doesn't have to think about budgets. If he wanted to write a scene with 100 men in a sand dune, the movie producer would come back and tell him to rewrite it because it would cost too much to film. In a graphic novel, however, the budget doesn't matter.
  • Jordan is currently playing Journey and Spelltower.
  • Jordan's advice for academia is to not harden the curriculum too much and leverage all tools. Give people a chance to practice their own principles rather than pigeon-holing them into a discipline.
Question and Answer
  • Are there any stories that interest him that are not ancient or set in the past? Jordan is currently writing a movie that takes place in the present time. He usually enjoys the past more because he loves researching time periods.
  • Why remake The Last Express if it was a commercial failure? He is rereleasing it on iOS. He thinks it works well on the device and provides a deep, immersive experience that's missing on iOS now. The handheld provides a more intimate relationship with the player.
  • The success of the Prince of Persia film is in between Hunger Games and John Carter. John Carter's failure made executives to avoid the Mars settings for the next couple of years.
  • Once games moved into full-motion video and rendered movies, it took a giant step backwards. The more simpler the visual representation is, the more universal it is. Refer to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for this phenomenon. More pixels doesn't make a game more emotive; it just gives us better tools. However, we'll eventually get used to it like how movies got used to sounds. When sounds were first introduced, it also made movies less emotive because the actors couldn't move in the ways they were used to in fear of making unexpected noise.
  • Do his games provide social contexts, in terms of tying to current events like 9/11? Thankfully, his stories are set in the past.
  • Jordan tells the story of how platforming, combat, and story all affected each other. Prince of Persia started with a technical challenge of how to rewind. The team then started testing how to capture the fluidity and flow of the classic game. The game in its early stages had moments of combat alternating with moments of platforming without much interaction between the two. When multiple enemies were introduced to the engine, it finally tied the platforming mechanics with the combat. It allowed acrobatics to enter the combat with the prince jumping off enemies' heads. If the parkour was fun, then why have the game take place in a palace with pre-built staircases and bridges? So the team added a cataclysm at the beginning of the game to destroy the entire palace and create rifts in the architecture, causing the prince to have to leap from poles and run on walls to get through a collapsed bridge. The cataclysm also became a story point for the prince to undo, giving that he had the dagger and the sands of time.
  • Game design and storytelling is just problem solving. You have to reverse engineer story and mechanics.
  • Jordan was not involved with subsequent Ubisoft Prince of Persia games. Warrior Within went back to the shadow man idea from the classic and The Two Thrones used the "too goth" theme from the second game as fodder and a jumping off point for its story.
  • Prince of Persia games were always gutsy and innovative with its mechanics, even Gameloft's version.
  • What does Jordan think about Prince of Persia's imitators such as Assassin's Creed and Uncharted? Prince of Persia itself is an imitator of Lode Runner. Then Tomb Raider was Prince of Persia with a girl in 3D. Then Sands of Time was just Tomb Raider with a dude.
  • What advice does Jordan have when pitching a movie to Bruckheimer? If they ask if you want something to drink, say a bottle of water. Don't ask for anything complicated like a Diet Pepsi because that makes you seem needy. Also, don't reject the offer because that makes you seem like you don't welcome their generosity.

No comments: