Revisiting The Shadow and the Flame

Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was released for PCs in 1993 — three years after the prince’s original Apple II debut, and a full decade before his leap to 21st-century consoles with PoP: The Sands of Time. I’ve posted a lot about my work process on the other PoPs, but almost nothing about this one.

To jog my memory, I dug out of my archives the game design “bible” I created for the PoP2 dev team in 1991. It’s a curious artifact of that era; you can download the PDF (19MB) if you’re interested.

Why I hate bibles, and made one anyway

POP2 sliding wallThere was no “bible” for the original PoP. That game evolved over four years in an organic process of improvisation, trial and error. The level design — the balance of action, exploration and combat that gave the game its particular flavor — came together only in the final few months. I had the liberty to do it that way because I was game designer, animator, and programmer, working on my own with no fixed timetable or budget.

Writing a detailed 200-page bible, then handing it to a team and saying “Make this” is the complete opposite way to start a project, and it’s almost always a terrible idea. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But that’s how PoP2 was made. It worked because of a peculiar combination of reasons:

  • I’d already made PoP1. The idea for PoP2 was to basically make PoP 1.5: keep the existing PoP1 code, animation, and gameplay, add souped-up graphics, a few new twists, traps and enemies, and build twelve new levels. Designing the entire game on paper was possible because it was just similar enough to the original that everyone could easily imagine how it would look, sound and feel to play.
  • I was 3,000 miles away. The team was in California, and I was living in New York, about to move to Paris. In those pre-internet days, communication was by fax and long-distance phone calls, with game builds and data sent on floppy disks in DHL envelopes. I knew I wouldn’t be on site often enough to permit fast iteration and tight feedback loops. So it made sense to spell everything out ahead of time.
  • We had a budget. Broderbund was a conservative studio and PoP2 was the biggest internal game project they’d ever done. They were already nervous about doing such a graphics-intensive project, and wouldn’t have signed off on it without a design document that gave them confidencehorse that the cost estimates were solid.
  • The team actually followed the bible. If the on-site team had included a creative director, my bible would have been obsolete by month two. Games evolve so quickly that any design that gets put on paper is usually out of date by the time anyone reads it. This is why making a detailed bible is usually a waste of time. PoP2 was the rare situation where the studio and team were united in wanting to faithfully execute the design I gave them — and I was safely off-site where there was less danger I might get inspired to improve it.

For all these reasons, it made sense to have a bible. It’s interesting to read it now and see how it compares to the final game. There were cuts and trims, for the usual budget/schedule reasons (the blow-by-blow story of the game development is in the second volume of my old journals) — but I’m most struck by how much was kept, and how faithfully it was executed.

The Shadow and the Flame burns again

To the many readers who have posted asking for a version of The Shadow and The Flame to play on mobile devices, I’m happy to report that Ubisoft has just announced a modern “remastered” version for smartphones and tablets.

The mobile Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame will feature updated graphics, sound, and touch controls in the spirit of Prince of Persia Classic, rather than a direct port of the original like 2010’s Prince of Persia Retro. Here’s a link to the trailer. For myself, I’m looking forward to trying to beat the game again, twenty years later.

Questions & Answers (Spoiler Alert!)

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Posted on Apr 11, 2013 in Blog, Games, Making Games, Old School, Prince of Persia | 51 comments

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Announcing Templar


I’m excited to announce that my original graphic novel Templar will be published in July in its entirety as a 480-page, full-color hardcover from First Second. (Book one of the saga was previously published in 2010 as an individual paperback, Solomon’s Thieves.)

It’s a hefty tome. Artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland have outdone themselves, evoking 14th-century Paris with all the action, humor, and depth a writer could hope for. I’m immensely proud of this book, and I can’t wait for you to discover it.

Templar will ship on July 9, 2013. You can pre-order it from Amazon here.

Watch the Templar facebook page for updates about book events and other news.

Posted on Jan 20, 2013 in Blog, Comics, Templar | 2 comments

Karateka in the App Store

I’m happy to announce that for the first time since 1984, Karateka is once again available for state-of-the-art Apple devices. You can download it for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch in the App Store. (Karateka requires iPhone 4S or newer, iPad 2 or newer, or 5th generation iPod Touch.)

And if you don’t have an iOS device, the new remake is also out on Sony Playstation, Xbox 360, and PC. Don’t forget to punch the hawk!

Posted on Dec 20, 2012 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Old School | 10 comments

Making and Remaking Karateka

Update: Karateka is now available in the App Store and for Sony Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam.

The modern remake of Karateka (out today on Steam) has given me a great reason to dig into my archives and revisit the long-ago era when I developed the original Karateka on a 48K Apple II.

If you’re interested in making games, you may enjoy this series of short videos about the creative and technical process of making Karateka, then (1982) and now (2012). Each episode focuses on a different aspect of production: Inspiration, Animation, Sound and Music, and Gameplay. They’re posted below.

The game industry has changed a lot in thirty years. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. For readers interested in delving deeper into the old days, check out the rest of this post below the videos.

Episode 1: Inspiration

Episode 2: Animation

Episode 3: Sound and Music

Episode 4: Gameplay

From My Old Journals

When I started the first Karateka, in 1982, I was a 17-year-old Yale freshman and avid gamer, trying to balance a college courseload with my aspiration to become a published game author. Karateka made that dream a reality. It launched my career and paved the way for my next game, Prince of Persia.

That same year (1982), I started keeping a private journal — a habit I’d keep up for the next decade, as readers of The Making of Prince of Persia (1985-1993) will know. More surprisingly, I never got around to destroying it. And now it’s in the distant-enough past that, rereading it, I’m able to laugh rather than cringe (OK, so maybe it’s a bit of both).

As a time-capsule record of that early Apple II era, and a window into the maniacal brain of a teenager obsessed with “breaking in” to making games and/or movies, it may be of interest to others. So here it is (as DRM-free pdf, epub, and Amazon Kindle ebook, with print edition to follow): Volume One of my old journals, The Making of Karateka.

And, of course, I hope readers will check out the new Karateka.

Posted on Dec 3, 2012 in Blog, Featured, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School | 16 comments

Karateka is Back!

I’m excited to announce that my new remake of Karateka — the game I’ve been working on with a small, independent team for the past 18+ months — is now available on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360. (Versions for PlayStation 3, Steam, and Apple iOS are coming soon.)

Here’s our official launch trailer — written and directed by Adam Lisagor, who infused the trailer with his nostalgic memories of playing Karateka at age six on an Apple II:

I’ll post more in coming weeks about the process of making Karateka, then and now: in 1982-84 as a college student on a 48K Apple II, and in 2011-12, as creative director of a bigger (but still small) team using modern game development tools. It’s a great excuse to dig into my archives and uncover old-school souvenirs like this one.

My goal in remaking Karateka was to recapture the simplicity of the original in a compact, reasonably priced (under US$10) downloadable game, with gameplay so straightforward that players of all ages could immediately grasp it and start having fun right away — while enjoying a dramatic human story.

I hope readers will give the new game a try. I’d love to hear your reactions, whether you played the original Karateka in the 1980s or are encountering it now for the first time. Send me a tweet (@jmechner on twitter), post your comment below, or (if you have a question of general interest that you’d like to see answered on the site) email me.

The Karateka website has up-to-date information on game availability on the various platforms. And don’t forget to punch the hawk!

Posted on Nov 7, 2012 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School | 9 comments

The Last Express Arrives on iOS

Update: The Last Express has just been released for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch! Check it out in the App store.

I tested the final version yesterday on a long transatlantic flight (Frankfurt-LAX, with headphones), and it’s my new favorite way to play it. Next to playing on an actual train, that is.

Here’s the trailer:

Posted on Sep 24, 2012 in Blog, Games, Last Express, Old School | 23 comments