Karateka

Jordan created and programmed his first hit game, Karateka, as a Yale undergraduate. A 1980s classic and #1 bestseller, Karateka was one of the first games to blend fluid animation with cinematic storytelling. Karateka is now available for modern game consoles and mobile devices.

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

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

Still Life with Apple

I finally read Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s great memoir this week — prompted by the tsunami of media commentary on the resignation of Steve Jobs (you know, the other guy). It got me thinking about what an incredible impact stuff made or sold by those two Steves has had on my life over the past three decades.

1978


I was a sophomore in high school when I bought my first Apple II. It cost $1200 at the Computerland of Fairfield, Connecticut — my life savings, including all my loot from years of drawing caricatures at community fairs, plus a loan from my kid sister.

I remember opening the box, lifting the computer out of those custom-molded foam packing pieces. The tactile thrill of owning an Apple began before I’d even plugged the thing in. I knew it was going to change my life.

I hooked it up to an old TV and a cassette recorder, and I was up and running.

1979

Weekends and after school (and sometimes instead of school), I progressed from typing in BASIC game program listings from the red book that had come with the Apple (Breakout was the best), to inventing my own games — first in BASIC, then in 6502 machine code, using the built-in mini-assembler. I pored through the red book, trying to understand its secrets.

As soon as I could afford it, I increased the Apple’s 16K of RAM by adding another row of chips, and then another. Each enhancement unlocked new capabilities: hi-res graphics, then two-page hi-res. Newer, more sophisticated games like Apple Invader (a pixel-perfect copy of the coin-op Space Invaders, programmed by the mysterious M. Hata) pushed the machine’s limits beyond what I’d imagined possible. I realized the games I’d programmed so far hadn’t scratched the surface of what it could do.

1981

I brought my Apple to college. Tricked out with a dot-matrix printer, 5 1/4″ floppy disk drive, lower-case adapter chip, and new word-processing software that could hold up to four pages in memory, it replaced a portable Smith-Corona typewriter as my go-to device for writing papers. I was the only kid in my dorm who had such an awesome system. I used it to earn extra cash typing other people’s papers for a buck a page.

Between classes (and instead of them), I used it to make a game called Karateka.

1985

The Karateka royalties bought me a brand-new 512K Macintosh computer, through a special student-discount arrangement Apple had with Yale.

Macs started popping up all around campus that year. It was still unusual for a student to actually own one — the only other guy I knew who had one was David Pogue, down the hall — but anyone could use the ones in the computer rooms, and a lot of people did.

The Mac had a tiny, but amazingly high-resolution screen, with a mouse-driven graphical interface that gave it a totally different vibe from other computers. It was a device that even non-techies felt comfortable using. And it could hold 100 pages of text in memory. The Mac changed playing games and typing papers on computers from a fringe activity into part of mainstream college life.

1985

I loved my Mac. It was a shiny new toy — good to write papers on, fun to show off to friends — but I didn’t consider it a machine for serious programming. I wasn’t enough of an engineer to pop the hood and figure out how it worked and what all the chips did, the way I’d done with the Apple II. It was too sophisticated.

Besides, the installed user base of Macs in 1985 was miniscule compared to the Apple II. As a game programmer, it didn’t make business sense for me to switch.

So my new Mac took its place alongside my main working system — which I’d by then upgraded to a newer Apple IIe with 64K of RAM, two disk drives, color monitor and joystick. That was the computer I used to program Prince of Persia.

1989

I hadn’t anticipated that, due to my combination of obsessive perfectionism and occasionally dilatory work habits, Prince of Persia would take me four years to finish. By the time I was done, the Apple II was obsolete.

Ironically, it was the Mac version that saved my new game from oblivion. While the Apple market was dying, the rise of desktop publishing had created a new market of Mac owners hungry for games to play on their high-resolution color screens. They embraced Prince of Persia and made it a hit.

Thanks, Woz. Thanks, Steve. If I’d gone for the Commodore PET or Compucolor II in 1978, my programming career wouldn’t have been nearly so charmed.

2011

Today, like almost everyone I know, my daily life is inextricably bound up with Apple products. I’m typing this in a cafĂ© on a MacBook Air, with an iPad and iPhone in my shoulder bag, and more Macs and iProducts on view at the tables around me than I can count.

Devices that in ten years will seem as quaint as my 1978 Apple II does now.

But oh, man, it was a thing of beauty.

Posted on Aug 27, 2011 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Old School, Prince of Persia, Sketchbook | 9 comments

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Electronic Arts submission letter

Been finding all kinds of cool stuff in my garage archives, which my assistant Aaron is helping me finally get organized, digitized and 21st century-compatible.

Like this submission form I filled out to submit my game Karateka to Electronic Arts back in 1984, when I was a junior at Yale.

I’d almost forgotten I’d sent Karateka to EA as well as Broderbund. It boggles my mind to think of the ways my life might have been different if they’d said yes.

Posted on Apr 4, 2011 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Old School | 5 comments

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GDC 2011: The wheel turns

Nearly everyone I spoke to at GDC 2011 in San Francisco agreed that it was one of the most energizing GDCs of recent years.

I loved the “Classic Game Post-Mortems,” a series of one-hour talks in which game designers spoke about the making of their early games: Eric Chahi on Another World (aka Out of This World), Peter Molyneux on Populous, John Romero and Tom Hall on Doom, Mark Cerny on Marble Madness, Toru Iwatani on Pac-Man were fascinating, inspiring, and touching to hear. (I gave a talk about making Prince of Persia, and really appreciated the generous response.)

But what really grabbed me was the energy and excitement surrounding indie games, especially on new platforms like mobile phones, iOS, Facebook, XBLA and PSN. More than in any previous year, I was reminded of the Apple II zeitgeist of the early eighties. It feels like we’ve come full circle, as an industry, to that time when a tiny team with few resources but talent, creativity and elbow grease has the potential to produce the next hugely influential mega-hit.

And I’m pretty sure I just met some of them in San Francisco.

Posted on Mar 16, 2011 in Blog, Games, Karateka, Making Games, Prince of Persia | 2 comments

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