Karateka Fan Letter from John Romero

When I was 17 years old and dreaming of a career making games, my role models — the people who created the games I admired — were known to me only as names on Apple II title screens. I couldn’t look up their bios, read interviews, or check out their websites, because the internet didn’t exist yet. I didn’t know what they looked like, what countries they lived in, or if their names were even real (“Lord British“?).

There was one way, though. You could send a letter to the publisher (the old way, with postage stamps) and hope that it might get to the game creator who might actually read it.

At 17, I didn’t have the chutzpah to think of that — but another enterprising kid named John Romero did. John informed me of this when we finally met, in an elevator at GDC, years after he’d fulfilled his childhood dreams and become one of the best-known game designers on the planet, thanks to Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.

John’s first words to me were: “I wrote you a letter. In 1985.”

When I got home, I dug it out of storage. Indeed he had. It was one of the first three or four fan letters I ever got — forwarded by Karateka’s publisher Broderbund Software to my Yale Station post office box, where I was a 20-year-old senior in college. John himself was “17 going on 18,” as he was careful to specify in his letter, perhaps figuring the extra year might cause me to take him more seriously.

John assures me that he has my answer in storage somewhere. I don’t remember what I wrote, but you can read his original letter here. Thanks, John!

I couldn’t resist posting this now, because I’ll be seeing John again next week at GDC. We’ll be on a panel with Tim Sweeney (Epic) and young whippersnappers Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) and Notch Persson (Minecraft), moderated by Jane Pinckard, on the topic of “Back to the Garage: The Return of Indie Development.” Hope to see some of you there!

Posted on Mar 1, 2012 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School | 12 comments

Real-Life Prince of Persia

This video by comedy group Karahat is so classic, I just had to repost it. Thanks to Kotaku and many kind people on twitter for alerting me to its existence.

The prince’s foray into real life may not do for parkour what the Real Life Angry Birds commercial did for T-Mobile, but at least he’s out there trying.

I didn’t even realize this video’s true genius until I saw it a second time — so thoroughly has the modern iPhone era of cheap-and-easy digital compositing effects reshaped my expectations. As far as I can tell, its central special effect was created using a technology that was equally available in 1985.

A special booster potion to the first reader who calls it out.

Posted on Feb 22, 2012 in Blog, Old School, Prince of Persia | 8 comments

Silly Behind the Scenes G4 Interview

OK, so this isn’t exactly “behind the scenes of making a game”… it’s more like “behind the scenes of PROMOTING a game.” It’s a video about making a video: yesterday’s G4/Xplay episode announcing my Karateka remake.

Anyone who knows me knows I’d rather spend nine hours straight at the computer than fifteen minutes on-camera, but I’m glad Dave and Earl documented this. I think.

Posted on Feb 16, 2012 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Old School | 1 comment

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Announcing Karateka

One big difference between the movie and video game industries is the way they handle news about upcoming projects.

Movies are announced early, and often. When a writer sells a pitch, when a director is attached, when a role is cast — all of these stages leading up to making the movie are freely reported and commented on. Even though there’s no guarantee when, or if, an actual movie will ever get made. (See Fathom.) And studios are fine with it.

Video game studios, on the other hand, guard their game development plans like military secrets. It’s not just that they don’t want work-in-progress visuals getting out and giving a less-than-ideal impression of the game. Often, they won’t even confirm that a project EXISTS until it’s almost done, with tens of millions of dollars already spent and the end in sight.

A side effect of this is that, when game developers rub elbows at conferences like GDC, if A should ask B in a moment of drunken camaraderie “What are you working on?” the accepted answer is a big cagey grin and a tease: “Nothing I can talk about!” This is true even if B is the lead designer of Mass Metal Destruction 1 and 2 and remains employed by the same studio. It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that, MMD2 having made half a billion dollars the year before, someone has thought of doing a MMD3. But some things are not to be spoken out loud.

So it’s an exquisite frustration particular to game developers that we spend our time talking (and blogging, and being interviewed) about every aspect of our work EXCEPT what we’re actually working on and are most excited to talk about.

And for me, today, it’s an exquisite joy to finally be able to say this in print:

For the past year, I’ve been working with a small team to develop a new, updated remake of Karateka — the game that began my career 27 years ago.

(If you didn’t happen to encounter Karateka in the early 1980s, you can read its backstory here.)

A New Karateka

Eight years is a long time between games, even for me. Since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time shipped in 2003, I’ve been busy writing movies, TV, graphic novels, and other non-game projects. It feels great to be hands-on making a game again, and I can’t wait for you to be able to play it.

It’ll be a downloadable game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, out this year. We’re looking at bringing it to other platforms too. I’ll update with more details in the coming months, as we get closer to release.

How different is the new Karateka from the original? It’s closer than the 2003 POP:SOT was to the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia. But it’s a more radical reinvention than, say, the 2007 XBLA Prince of Persia Classic. The new Karateka is much more than a port; it’s both a remake and a re-imagining of the original game for today’s consoles.

For me as creative director, it’s been an exciting chance to experiment with new gameplay mechanics and ideas that on previous console generations (and on the Apple II) I could only have dreamed about.

Why downloadable and why indie? For a lot of reasons, downloadable just feels right for Karateka. The original was a simple, compact, pick-up-and-play game that didn’t require a lot of tutorial to understand what you had to do. Beating the game was hard, but even little kids could have fun playing it from the first moments. I wanted to honor that simplicity. Jumping from the Atari 400 to a huge triple-A retail console title felt like it would have been too big a leap.

I want to show that a game can be simple fun while also telling a human story in a way that’s emotional, atmospheric, and beautiful. I’ve been encouraged to see gamers embrace downloadable titles like Limbo and Braid — games that stand out because of their design integrity and strong artistic choices, although they were made on modest budgets and don’t represent technological breakthroughs. The industry is changing fast. It’s an exciting time for indie.

And it doesn’t get much more indie than programming a game on a 48K Apple II in my college dorm room, mailing it to a publisher on a 5.25″ floppy disk, and crossing my fingers — which is how Karateka began.

Back to GDC

In a couple of weeks at San Francisco GDC (Game Developers Conference), I’ll be doing a panel with Tim Sweeney (Epic), Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), Notch Persson (Minecraft), and John Romero (Doom) discussing “Back to the Garage: The Return of Indie.” I hope to see some of you there.

After that, it’ll be time to put my head down, get back to work, and get back to not answering questions for the next couple of months.

But now you know at least one of the things I’m working on.

Many thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to comment, or post on twitter or facebook, asking for a new Karateka or sharing your memories of playing the original game. Your encouragement means a lot to me and has helped to get this project off the ground. I truly hope you’ll like the result.

Watch this blog and the Karateka page for updates.

Posted on Feb 15, 2012 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School | 25 comments

It’s a Book!

I’m happy to announce that in response to numerous reader requests, The Making of Prince of Persia is now available in two additional formats: in .epub format, and (drum roll…) paperback!

The paper book comes from CreateSpace, a really cool self-publishing service for authors. Basically, we sent them a print-ready PDF and they did the rest. The book weighs in at 323 pages, and looks and feels like a good-quality trade paperback. We’ve priced it at $16.99 (the difference from the ebook versions reflects the printing cost).

You can purchase the book here.

To anyone who’s previously paid for another version of the ebook and would like to have the .epub version for convenience, let us know and we’ll email it to you. Like the PDF, it’s non-DRMed.

Once the dust has settled, I’ll post (and Aaron, Dave and Danica may guest-post) about the results of our grand ebook/self-publishing experiment, and what we’ve learned. Short answer: It was more work than we anticipated — but now that we know how, the next book should be a lot easier. I think.

Also: For readers curious about who some of the people referred to in the journals are, or what became of them, I’ve posted a “who’s who” of players in the making-of-Prince of Persia saga, here.

Many thanks to everyone who’s read the book and reviewed, posted or tweeted about it. The response has been fantastic, and makes it all worth it.

Posted on Feb 1, 2012 in Blog, Games, Making Games, Old School, Prince of Persia | 7 comments

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A Game Writer’s Perspective on Game Writing

In yesterday’s guest post, Ubisoft director David Footman addressed the question: “What do game companies look for in hiring a writer?”

Today, here’s a writer’s take on the subject. Many thanks to Richard Dansky, David, and the Ubisoft Toronto team for taking the time to share their ideas.

By day, Richard Dansky is the Central Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm, which means that in some way, shape or form, he gets his hands on the storylines and content of most Tom Clancy-themed computer games. By night, he writes the spooky stuff.

The most important thing to look for in a game writer is a game writer. Everything else is secondary. If the writer doesn’t understand that they’re writing for a game — not a movie, or a television show, or a comic book, or a novel or a tabletop RPG or a choose-your-own-adventure book or the underside of a Nantucket Nectar bottle cap — then nothing else matters. Game writing really is something different from any other style in terms of what it demands of the writer – it’s the only place where the writer isn’t telling their story, or the protagonist’s story, but rather the player’s story. Yes, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, whether that’s an avatar they create themselves or an established, iconic character like Sam Fisher, but the fact remains that everything that goes into a game is just possibility until the moment the player interacts with it, and thus creates their own story of what happened.
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Posted on Jan 25, 2012 in Blog, Guest Post, Making Games | 2 comments