Jordan Mechner swaps triple-A for Indie

Jordan Mechner swaps triple-A for Indie
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

February 15th 2012 at 3:00PM

Develop speaks to the Prince of Persia creator on why he has gone back to his development roots with Karateka

Having led the Ubisoft published triple-A re-make of his Apple II title back in 2003, Jordan Mechner has returned to the development scene and has decided to go indie for his latest title, fighting game Karateka.

A re-imagination of his first ever game, Mechner is working with a small team to develop the game for PSN and XBLA, due for release later this year.

Mechner tells Develop why he has swapped triple-A to go indie, and what made him return to games development.

It has been a while since you worked on development of a game, at least publically, why is this, and why come back now?
The last game I had a direct hand in was Sands of Time in 2003, so yes; it's been a while! I went straight from that to writing the screenplay for the Prince of Persia movie, then to other movie and TV projects, and I wrote a couple of graphic novels.

I hadn't deliberately planned to stay away from games so long; it just worked out that way.

I like to divide my time working in different media. For me, whether I'm doing TV or film, a book or graphic novel, or a game, the challenge is to create a world in which a story and characters come alive. That's what drew me into games, back in the early Apple II days.

I was excited by the idea that a game could tell a story and I wanted to explore that. I tried to push the narrative element further in The Last Express and in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Each medium has its own special strengths. Not every movie or graphic novel should become a trans-media franchise.

When I thought about bringing back Karateka, I felt first and very clearly that it wanted to be a game. And that now was the right time to do it.

Why have you decided to go indie for your new project, Karateka? You obviously had a lot of success in triple-A with the Prince of Persia series.
It was just a feeling I had, but it was a strong feeling. The original Karateka was such a simple, linear game. Even little kids could instantly understand the story and what they had to do, pick up the controller and start playing.

I wanted to recapture that simplicity. Expanding Karateka into a huge retail console title didn't necessarily seem like the right way to honor what was most special about it.

Also, having just come off the Disney/Bruckheimer Prince of Persia movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and a cast of thousands – the sheer scale of that production and the huge corporate financial considerations involved – I was kind of in the mood for something a little more 'guerrilla' where the whole team could fit into one room.

And I saw something happening in the games industry as a whole, factors that were combining to create a very favorable climate for indie, to a degree I hadn't seen since the 1980s. 

Games like Braid, Limbo, and World of Goo, that are works of art with great design integrity – but by conventional standards, idiosyncratic and hard to put in a box – it was encouraging to see them getting the success and recognition they deserve as downloadable games on XBLA.

At GDC last year, I gave a postmortem talk about the "Making of" the first Prince of Persia – it was part of a series of creators talking about the making of their early games, Doom and Another World and Pac-Man – and I was really struck by how indie just seemed to be in the zeitgeist.

Young designers like Adam Saltsman with Canabalt were doing what I'd done in the 80s, programming a game at home over the weekend and sending it out into the world, and these games were having an impact.  There was an almost electric excitement that I hadn't felt at GDC in years.

I was amazed and humbled by how many people talked to me about Karateka, how they'd played it as a kid and what it meant to them, 25 years later.

After all these years, they still remembered the hawk and how brutally unfair it was when you died and got sent all the way back to the beginning.

Karateka really seems to have a special place in gamers' memories. All of these things, for me, pointed to doing a new indie Karateka.

Does it bring you back to when you started out in development, creating Karateka for the Apple II?
I programmed the original Karateka in my dorm room at college on a 48K Apple II. My dad wrote out the music score longhand and I entered the note values in hexadecimal. It doesn't get much more indie than that.

A lot of things have been reminding me of the 1980s lately. I don't know if it's nostalgia or just the cyclical nature of things, but something about those early Apple II days seems really appealing today.

On a more somber note, Steve Jobs' recent death brought it home, how brief these little mini-eras really are and how quickly they end. 1984 was the year both Karateka and the Macintosh were released.

I worked on Karateka through college, telling myself I could make a game that would be good enough to get published and that it might be a hit.

The day it became real was the day I opened Billboard magazine and there was Karateka at #1. Madonna had the number one album that week and Broderbund had the number one game. At that moment I knew I'd be able to pay back my student loans. 

Do you feel indie development allows more creative freedom than large studio development?
They both offer freedom in different ways. With a triple-A game like Skyrim or Assassin's Creed or Modern Warfare, you're harnessing the creative talents of hundreds of people – or in the case of a big studio movie like Prince of Persia, thousands.

You're given resources to push the limits of technology and craft to surpass what has been done previously.

But the flip side is that you are constrained to deliver a product that market research suggests will appeal to millions, or tens of millions, of people. And that second-guessing can be frustrating.

As an indie developer it's the opposite. You are severely constrained in terms of resources, but within those limits you're free to make something individual, even totally crazy, that maybe no one else will like. It's not marketing driven, because there is no marketing. 

Games like Limbo, Braid, World of Goo and Minecraft didn't come out of a studio development process. Market research doesn't tell you that Xbox Live subscribers are asking for a black-and-white game about a little kid with a big head and glowing eyes who can't talk.

Did you consider taking the game to a big development studio like Ubisoft?
We did talk to publishers early on. We came close to going that way, but it would have meant giving up creative control. And I had a very specific idea for how I wanted to do Karateka that was a bit unusual and not easy to explain.

It's hard to describe something that doesn't exist yet; everyone pictures it in a different way, and publishers aren't set up in a way that encourages leaps of faith.

Finally it just seemed easiest to make the game independently and let it speak for itself. Dave Taylor and Keith Boesky were strong proponents of how this could work and they helped make it happen. I was lucky to have backing from angel investors who trusted me, so we just went ahead and make it. 

Why have you strayed away from triple-A? Would you consider going back to triple-A development for your next project or is the process of large scale games development unappealing?
I don't mean to be unfaithful, it's just that I love them all. Triple-A games, indie games, movies, graphic novels. I had a great experience working with Ubisoft on Sands of Time, and I would certainly do it again given the right team and the right project.

Do you think the indie scene and small development teams are where the industry is headed? Or is triple-A still king?
The industry isn't moving in one direction so much as the market is getting really broad and complex. Most of the planet now plays games on one platform or another, so there's a huge range of genres and different business models, all of which are valid.

For a publisher who's willing to go all out, make a big bet, market the hell out of it and ship a triple-A game that delivers on the expectations, like Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty – the potential rewards are bigger than they have ever been. But only a few titles can hit that level.

We're in an exciting time, when it feels like the next game-changing crazy breakout hit could really come from anywhere. It could be social, mobile, hardcore, it could be on Xbox 360 or Android or facebook.

At the same time, there's plenty of solid niches where enough people are playing different kinds of games to give designers the opportunity and incentive to experiment. It's an uncertain time for business but a great time for creativity.

Why have you gone back to Karateka? Why not a brand new IP?
Karateka was a labor of love. It's my first game that was published while I was still in college, the one that made Prince of Persia and my whole career after it possible.

And unlike Prince of Persia, it's never had a remake or a sequel. It's stayed pure, in a way. So it's really appealing to have the chance to go back and revisit that initial impulse.

Could you explain to us what kind of game will Karateka be? How different will it be in concept from the original?
Karateka is a remake and re-imagining of the original game, updated with the sound and graphics capability of today, plus a few new gameplay twists.

It's a story-driven game that's based on fighting, but it's not a brawler like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. It's a compact, atmospheric, beautiful game that tells a simple story in a straightforward way that anyone can pick up and start playing immediately, without having to read a screenful of instructions.

The feudal Japan setting, atmosphere and characters are inspired by Kurosawa, 1970s Bruce Lee movies, vintage Disney animation and Hokusai woodblock prints – all the same influences I drew on for the original.

I'm happy to say that we've been able to surpass the first game in certain ways.

For example, the Apple II could only play one note at a time, and I had to freeze the animation while the music was playing. That's one aspect of the good old days I don't miss.

Will it be just you or a small team? How long has the game been in development for?
The team is small and includes some amazing talents. We're about a year in. We've taken our time and kept it tight.

When can we expect to see Karateka and what platforms will it be released on?
It'll be out this year as a downloadable title for Xbox 360 and PS3.