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Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner is still in the game

April 25, 2011|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Jordan Mechners video game evolved into the 2010 movie "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Critics found it "bland," "silly" and "pointless."
Jordan Mechners video game evolved into the 2010 movie "Prince of… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Creator of the Prince of Persia video game franchise and graphic novels. Mechner, a scriptwriter, was an executive producer of the 2010 movie "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," which was based on a story he wrote.

Early influences: Inspired by his boyhood love of swashbuckler films, which featured heroic sword fights and derring-do by the likes of Errol Flynn, Mechner, now 46 and living in Los Angeles, was still in college at Yale University in the early 1980s when he got the idea to create a video game that would have the same fluid action sequences.

Take One: Mechner programmed his first game, Karateka, during his sophomore and junior years at Yale. Published by Broderbund Software Inc. for the Apple IIe computer, sales of the game paid off Mechner's college loans.

Take Two: Work on Prince of Persia started in the fall of 1986, after Mechner graduated from college. Using a VHS camera, he filmed his younger brother jumping, running and climbing walls in the parking lot of the Readers Digest offices in Chappaqua, N.Y., near where he grew up. He played the movies on a VCR and took pictures of every third frame, using the player's freeze-frame function. After developing the photos, he darkened the shadows and brightened the light areas of each picture using a black Sharpie pen and Wite-Out. The pictures, once digitized, became the basis for the animation in the first Prince of Persia game.

Interlude: In 1986, Mechner moved to San Rafael, Calif., to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a scriptwriter. "I saw what [film writer and producer] Chris Columbus was doing with 'Gremlins,' and I wanted his life," Mechner said.

He wrote a script about children exploring caves in 1987 and, after getting good feedback from agents, took a hiatus from his game to try to sell his script to movie producers. After eight months of pitching and coming up short, Mechner concluded that the movie critic Pauline Kael was right when she said Hollywood is the only place one can die of encouragement.

Take Three: Mechner dived back into Prince of Persia and focused on creating the type of thrilling, death-defying scenes for his game that he found so satisfying in movies. "I wanted to make it so that if you missed your jump, you could still grab onto something and save yourself at the last moment," Mechner said. Two years later, in September 1989, his game finally shipped for the Apple IIe.

Take Four: Critics loved the game, but it was a commercial flop. Fewer people were buying games for the Apple IIe, which was starting to lose market share to computers that ran on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. A re-release of the game for Windows-based computers in 1990 sold just 10,000 copies and was promptly pulled off shelves.

Denouement: As an afterthought, the game was released for the new Apple Mac in May 1992. Sales took off as the Mac gained in popularity. The game ended up selling 2 million copies worldwide for the Mac. A franchise was born.

Postscript: The Prince of Persia series, which was picked up by Ubisoft Entertainment in 2001, went on to sell 12 million additional copies.

The movie: Although the film grossed $335 million at the box office worldwide, critics slammed it as "bland," "silly" and "pointless." Mechner's response: "The original story had more of a plot and less action," which is ironic considering that the games on which the movie was based were just the opposite.

Bonus content: When Mechner watched "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 1981, he was mesmerized by the scene in which Indiana Jones is betrayed by Satipo, a jungle guide played by Alfred Molina. Jones narrowly escaped by rolling under a closing gate. Inspired by that scene, Mechner labored over the years to bring the same visceral feeling to his games. Two decades later, Molina had a starring role in the Prince of Persia movie.

alex.pham@latimes.com

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