Jordan Mechner is an unlikely games developer. He’s the creator of a much-loved games franchise – the Prince of Perisa series, which is still an industry staple years after its debut – but also the man overseeing its transfer to Hollywood. Following his talk at GDC China, we caught up with him to find out more about his work…
Would you think it is fair to say that Prince of Persia has thrived off its versatility, and ability to be 'refreshed'? If so, is a reluctance to reinvent an IP the biggest thing holding back owners of major properties?
Reinventing an IP is a bit like steering between Scylla and Charybdis. If you stick too closely to what's worked before, it gets stale; if you deviate from it too much, you might confuse and possibly split your fan base.
Between those two risks, I'm personally inclined to lean toward the second, because it's more interesting.
But you're right; looking back at the variety of POP games over the past twenty years, not to mention the graphic novel and upcoming movie, I'm amazed at the range of difference. Yet somehow, they're all still recognizably POP.
There seems to be something about the core idea of POP that is unusually resilient and enduring. Maybe because it's rooted in the tales of the Arabian Nights, which are stories that have been told and retold over thousands of years, with narrators often changing the details to suit their tastes.
You've said that some of Ubisoft's takes on Prince of Persia weren't to your liking - how do you approach those difficult conversations when you have to tell a development team they've done the wrong thing with an IP?
To be clear, the only Ubisoft POP title I've worked on is Sands of Time.
It's not my role to critique titles I wasn't involved with; if I do, it's as a gamer expressing my personal tastes. In the big picture, I'm glad that Ubisoft has been fairly bold about experimenting with new directions. As I said, I think the franchise can take it.
Which of the skills you accrued as a games designer were transferable over to the world of film? Which skills weren't?
Film screenwriting is a very particular writing craft that requires its own apprenticeship and an approach to storytelling that's very different from game design, one that’s almost diametrically opposed.
There's some carryover of skills between the two, but it's very limited, and often dangerously deceptive.
Game and film writing look similar enough from the outside that it's easy to conclude that just because someone's good at one, they'll be good at the other, when in fact under their surface-proficiency they're making basic, beginner-type errors.
So the ability to execute an idea does not carry over. What does carry over is, basically, everything else. Screenwriters don't just write, and game designers don't just design; they also need to be able to communicate ideas verbally, to work effectively within a team, to be able to see the forest and the trees at the same time, to maintain enthusiasm and focus on a project through months and years of development, to improvise in the face of setbacks.
And, always, remembering that the purpose of all the hard work and craft is to create a world that an audience will want to live in for a while, whether it's a game or movie.
Is there anything games need to learn from film? And vice versa?
Studio blockbuster movies and studio blockbuster video games have learned so much from each other in the last few years, they're in danger of becoming practically indistinguishable.
As a gamer and as a moviegoer, I sometimes feel like I'm seeing the same trailer over and over.
I think the richest exchange of ideas and innovation in the next few years won't come from the big studio franchises (games and movies), but from independent games and films that are made for lower budgets and distributed through different channels.
Are you ever tempted to get heavily involved in games development again - or is the call of Hollywood too alluring?
There are actually three art forms I love; film, games, and graphic novels. They all have their own special siren call, games included. What I'd like best is to be able to keep creating in all three media for years to come.
Finally, it'd be remiss not to ask about GDC China - what has attracted you to speaking at the event? Broadly, what's the overall message of the talk?
A big attraction was Shanghai itself. I'm happy GDC has given me the chance to discover this fascinating city for the first time.
My talk is simply the story of one IP, Prince of Persia, which is celebrating its 20th birthday this month. It's both a personal story, and one that reflects the phenomenal growth and changes in the videogame industry over the past two decades.