Two weeks ago, my Dad shipped me a box that, to my joy, contained the original Apple II Prince of Persia source code archive I’d stowed away 20 years ago and had given up for lost.
Despite my eagerness to see what’s on those disks, I’ve yet to pop them in a drive. As readers of this site have cautioned me, digital media degrade with age; if the disks are in a fragile state, normal handling could damage them further and even render them unreadable.
In today’s guest post, digital archivist Jason Scott explains why reading 20-year-old floppy disks is trickier than it sounds — and why he’s volunteered to fly from NY to LA on Monday with special equipment to tackle the job himself.
Monday will be an exciting day. Much like opening a long-sealed sarcophagus, I truly have no idea whether we’ll find what we’re hoping for, or just data dust. For anyone who wants to share the suspense, we’ll be live-tweeting our progress. Hashtag: #popsource. (I wanted to use #sourcecode, but it was taken!)
Meanwhile, here’s Jason’s story, offering a glimpse behind the scenes of a profession whose existence I couldn’t have foreseen or imagined when I was making Prince of Persia in the 1980s: Digital archeologist.
I first heard about Prince of Persia in a somewhat strange fashion; a high school friend said that David’s older brother was working on a new game to follow up his big hit Karateka. I asked what it was about, and he said it was something about Persian princes and acrobatics. I left it at that, but I knew it’d be great, if Karateka was any indication.
I went to Horace Greeley High School after Jordan, and knew his brother, David, who graduated the same year as me. David was the motion model for Prince of Persia. Jordan was this talented figure somewhere out in the fog of the real world, who was making actual, sold-everywhere games with a company I really liked and respected (Broderbund), and was basically living the dream I hoped to live one day: game developer.
(My own dream was fulfilled — I did work for a short time at Psygnosis, makers of Wipeout, as a tech support phone monkey, and another year stint at a startup game studio, before moving on to other places in the computer world.)
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I moved away from jobs like system administration and backup-watcher into the world of computer history and documentary filmmaking, where I am now. As one of the Adjunct archivists of the Internet Archive, I seek out new collections of data and help preserve current ones — anything from digitized books and audio to long-forgotten shareware CD-ROMs and obscure information files uploaded years ago. It’s a great time, and most importantly, it affords me the flexibility to travel when I’m needed somewhere.
So this was why, when Jordan announced he’d gotten back the Prince of Persia disks he had in his own collection, a lot of friends of mine started linking me to the article and saying “Well?” It was a perfect fit. I had seen Jordan for a few moments after his recent appearance at GDC, so it made sense to have us talk about my coming in to oversee the retrieval of data from the disks. What a nice journey — from hearing the game was being worked on in my youth to helping make sure Jordan’s work lasts for future generations!
Pulling data off dead media in the present day is both easier than it ever has been, and as frustrating as ever. Continue Reading
David Anaxagoras, who’s ably assisted me behind the scenes these past three years, is stepping down as jordanmechner.com’s website administrator/consultant. In today’s guest post, David says goodbye, and readies the torch for his successor.
If after reading David’s job description and requirements below, you think it might be up your alley, please write to us at email@example.com.
David — Many thanks for your kind words and your diligent work. I know many readers will join me in wishing you best of luck in your adventures still to come.
I’d like to take a moment to say goodbye and introduce myself. You might know me as Jordan’s web site administrator, but it’s more likely you don’t know me at all. I keep a low profile. I move, ninja-like, through the mechnerspace, nipping and tucking bits of code, mercilessly slaying spammers, conjuring solutions from PHP and destroying them when they no longer suit our needs.
For three years I have done this, and now I am about to take my leave. Continue Reading
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.
David from San Francisco asks:
I’ve always leaned toward writing and storytelling, so I was wondering what companies look for in hiring for those positions. I have an idea of what’s in an artist’s portfolio, but what does a writer’s portfolio look like?
Since I’ve never actually hired a video game writer (other than myself), I passed this question on to David Footman, Scripted Events Director for Ubisoft Toronto. David generously took a break from making the next Splinter Cell to offer his advice in today’s guest post.
Disclaimer: While I agree with almost all David says, I don’t share his belief that familiarity with the teachings of Robert McKee (or Syd Field, or Bob Truby…) is an indicator of a writer’s skill or craftsmanship. I say this although I’ve taken their courses, bought their books, and (almost) always came away feeling I’d gotten my money’s worth.
I’ll add my two cents on screenwriting gurus later — but first, here’s David, with a game director’s perspective on what he looks for in a game writer:
I think there are two “schools” when it comes to scripted event direction in video games. People who move into this role from animation or art direction backgrounds make up the first school. The second school have a background in TV and film. I come from TV and film, and this informs my choices and processes in games. Creating the story for a AAA game needs two types of writers — an experienced game writer, and an experienced screenplay writer.
Writing for games is different from any other genre. The interactive nature of the story demands that the writer fully understand the term “Gamer Experience.” In the last five years, I’ve heard this term come up in game story discussions more and more. It’s a powerful concept, and once understood, it not only changes the way a writer approaches narrative, but the gamer experience can change depending on the genre of game you’re working on.
In today’s guest post, Yuri Lowenthal (who voiced the Prince in 2003′s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) talks about the special challenges of voice acting, as opposed to acting on camera.
When Yuri, Joanna Wasick and I came together in a sound studio for the first day of voice recording on POP:SOT, we didn’t have animations, animatics, or even concept art yet. While the POP team was bringing the world and characters of the game to life on screen, two actors first needed to make them real in their imaginations. The Prince and Farah began as voices in darkness.
I cherish voice recording as a special, thrilling, and terrifying moment in game production. Having experienced it from a writer-director’s point of view, I asked Yuri for an actor’s perspective on the process.
Yuri Lowenthal is an actor who lives and works in Los Angeles. You may have heard/seen him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Afro Samurai, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Ben 10. He is married to actress Tara Platt and easily stalked at @YuriLowenthal. And if you’re nice he’ll tell you the exciting story about the time he met Jake Gyllenhaal.
People often ask me: “What’s harder? Voice acting or real acting?” I’ve heard it so many times that I hardly get offended anymore. Almost hardly. I mean, I get it; the person speaking is really trying to say: “What kind of acting is more difficult, the kind where we just end up hearing your voice, or the kind where we end up seeing your face?”
Well, let’s break it down:
For on-camera acting, I generally get the script in advance, time to talk with the director about the character and what his or her vision is for the project, maybe do a little research, put on a costume, work with some props, walk around the set, rehearse with other actors, and take time to break down the script so that I can bring you, the viewer, the best performance I am capable of.
For voice acting, I generally show up the morning of the recording, am handed a script, and after about 5 minutes (if I’m lucky) of discussion with the director (or sometimes writer) about the project, we get down to business so that I can bring you, the viewer/listener/gamer, the best performance I am capable of. Will my performance be judged less harshly because I didn’t have the niceties that an on-camera or theatrical situation can afford? Absolutely not. Continue Reading
Today’s guest post comes from KlickTock founder Matthew Hall, creator of Doodle Find and Little Things.
I can identify with Matt’s feeling that he came to the industry too late — that the “golden age of the bedroom coder” had passed him by. That’s exactly how I felt in 1982, when I’d had my Apple II for four years — since age 14 — and still hadn’t managed to get a game published. While other programmers produced hits like Space Eggs and Alien Rain, I could feel the window of opportunity closing, and kicked myself for having taken so long to get my act together.
As Matt and I can both attest, the brass ring comes around more than once.
I met Jordan at GDC earlier this year. I’d recently attended his postmortem of Prince of Persia and ran into him in the halls. We talked about developing games at that time and our own game development histories. However, given Jordan is quite famous and you probably have never heard of me before — what went wrong?
I am only a few years younger than Jordan. Just like he received his first computer, an Apple II in 1978, I received my Commodore 64 in 1983. I programmed games throughout my childhood, but by the time I was able to produce a professional quality game — the golden age of the bedroom coder was over. My 8-bit heroes had moved onto 16-bit and found themselves struggling. The industry had passed to the hands of those with big cheques and bigger teams.
Instead of producing a hit title in my bedroom — as I was always hoping to — I developed homebrew titles for the newly released Game Boy Advance. Nintendo would never allow garage developers like myself access to their development kits, so I used one of the many “flash-kit” solutions available on the black market. As an unlicensed developer I had to release all my titles for free; hardly untold riches! Regardless, I am proud of my titles even if only a handful of people were ever able to enjoy them.
My portfolio of titles and expertise in new hardware allowed me to get a professional game development job. But after 8 years of doing thankless work-for-hire, I eventually came to the conclusion that I had to leave my paid jobs and strike out on my own if I ever wanted to make a game I was truly proud of. I left my job just as the App Store was launching, though I had no idea it was going to change my life.
Little Things was released a year later. Though it was initially a failure on PC, it was featured by Apple as the iPad App of the Week and I’ve had similar chart-topping success with my other iOS games.
Finally the games industry had come full circle, once again empowering a lone developer with a stable platform, low cost of entry, excellent engines and tools available on the market, and a direct line to customers hungry for more games.
So I have a few pieces of advice for those with a passion for games and a notebook full of game ideas: Continue Reading