(Originally published as a guest article for The Huffington Post.)
As a writer and game designer, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past 30 years trying to do various types of creative work while sitting, standing, or slouching at a computer keyboard (and, more recently, a touchscreen). The power of those devices has grown exponentially, enabling me with a tap or a keystroke to accomplish marvels that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. (“Upload PDF to Dropbox”; “Open Scrivener file.”)
And yet I’ve been increasingly bemused to realize that by real-world measures of productivity — words written, problems solved, good ideas crystallized — my output has not only not multiplied along with the power of my tools, it hasn’t increased one bit.
Not only that: I’ve had for some time the gnawing feeling that my best ideas — the ones that really make a difference — tend to come while I’m walking in the park, or showering after a workout, or talking a problem through with a friend, or writing in a notebook; i.e., almost anywhere but in front of a screen.
For a long time I tried to talk myself out of this. I figured that if my computer time wasn’t maximally productive, it was because I didn’t have the right software, or wasn’t using it right. I tried configuring panels and preferences differently. I created keyboard shortcuts. I downloaded apps to track time I spent using other apps, apps to make it easier to switch between multiple apps. Nothing changed the basic observed fact: There was an inverse relationship between my screen time and my productivity on a given day.
I started mentioning this to people. Cautiously at first. For someone who makes his living by putting stuff on screens, to question the fundamental symbiotic bond of user and machine could seem perverse, even a sort of heresy. But the more I brought it up, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone.
It turns out that some of the most productive and successful people I know still write longhand. Screenwriters write on index cards and big rolls of paper, the way I did in elementary school. One dictates his first drafts out loud and has an assistant transcribe them. Game designers and directors scribble on whiteboards and in notebooks. And some of these people were born after 1980.
For myself, I’ve found that I spend the vast majority of my working computer time staring at the screen in a state of mind that falls somewhere within the gray spectrum from “passive/reactive” to “sporadically/somewhat productive,” and in which a few minutes can stretch unnoticed into a quarter-hour, or a couple of hours, without breaking the seamless self-delusion that because I am at my desk, at my computer, I am therefore working.
It’s so easy to move words and sentences around in Word or Scrivener or Final Draft that it feels like writing, even if what I’m actually doing would rate only a 2 on the scale in which 10 is “getting an idea and writing it down.” Writing down an idea, an actual idea, is something I can do as easily with a fifty-cent ball-point pen as with a thousand-dollar MacBook Air. Only with the ball-point, it’s harder to fool myself. If the page stays blank, I can see it’s blank.
Which is why, after years of making progressively heavier use of more apps and more devices to do things I used to do without any devices at all, I’ve thrown that train into reverse. I now keep my project notes and journals in actual notebooks. I’ve even switched to paper for my “to-do lists,” and cross off action items literally, not figuratively. It’s simpler and I get more done this way.
As much as I love my tricked-out MacBook Air, I try not to begin workdays automatically by lifting its lid, as if to say “I have arrived at work; now tell me what to do”; just as I try not to reach for my iPhone to fill the silence of a solitary moment. Ideally, I want my screen sessions to begin with a conscious choice, a clear intention of why I’m turning to that device at that moment and what I mean to accomplish.
It’s easier said than done. The more I try, the more I realize that what I’m actually doing is fighting an addiction. The Apple II that first enchanted me thirty years ago as a tool to make fun games has evolved, one update and one upgrade at a time, into a multi-tentacled entity so powerful that it takes an ongoing effort of will for me not to be enslaved by it.
Update: Here’s my schedule for San Diego Comic-Con:
- Friday 10:00 – “Graphic Novels: Words & Pictures” Panel in Room 23ABC
- Friday 11:30 – Signing books in Autographing Area (AA09)
- Friday 2:30 – Signing books at First Second Booth (1323)
And if you can’t make it to SDCC, you can still “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, Saturday (July 20) at 10 am Pacific time (1 pm Eastern).
Hope to see you there!
Artists LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland and I had so much fun collaborating on our graphic novel Templar, we hated to stop! So we’ve gone and made another book together: The Making of Templar. And we’re giving it away for free.
As usual for our projects, this one grew to be a little bigger than we expected — but no regrets. The Making of Templar is an 86-page e-book, lavishly illustrated with LeUyen and Alex’s sketches and behind-the-scenes materials, in which we discuss our work process and five-year journey making Templar. Topics include:
- differences between writing for comics and film/video game writing
- character design
- writing and storyboarding action sequences
- historical research
- creative collaboration
You can download the free e-book here. And if you haven’t read Templar yet, never fear; we’ve steered clear of spoilers.
We hope you enjoy The Making of Templar — and Templar, too!
The story of how a book, movie, or video game came to be — any project that takes years and the combined effort of many people — is always intertwined with the stories of other projects that didn’t.
In 2001, when I joined a Ubisoft Montreal team hoping to revive an all-but-dead franchise I’d created in the 1980s, Prince of Persia, we had no guarantee that our efforts would see the light of day. We did our best, and the result was a game you may have heard of or played: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Whereas a game I can guarantee you’ve never played is the next-gen Prince of Persia sequel that team went on to develop. It wasn’t abandoned because it wasn’t good enough; rather, it was so good, Ubisoft decided to make it a new franchise in its own right. Assassin’s Creed was born.
Meanwhile, I’d written the “Prince of Persia” movie for Disney. My first screenplay would be substantially rewritten by others before cameras rolled — but the experience sparked a great friendship, and my next writing project with co-exec producer John August: an hour-long dramatic TV pilot about down-on-their-luck private military contractors who accept questionable missions in a different conflict-ridden corner of the world every week. We got as far as casting our leads (Luke Mably and LL Cool J) before Fox pulled the plug. You’ll never see that pilot (though you can read it on John’s blog).
All that happened in one year, 2005. One project cancelled, two others went on without me. To anyone outside the film or video game industry, such a litany of “might-have-beens” might sound discouraging. But if you do work in the industry, you know that what I’m describing is actually a normal, productive year. Most creative people spend a significant percentage of their careers working on projects that don’t see the light of day, or morph into something completely different by the time they do.
Which is why it’s such a rare miracle when a work reaches completion in a form that not only fulfills the writer’s dreams, but exceeds them.
For this to happen requires luck, timing, a talented and creatively aligned team, and a visionary and committed publisher. It happened with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and now, ten years later, I’m delighted to say it’s happened again. This time not with a video game, but my original graphic novel Templar — out today from First Second Books.
The book is a self-contained romantic action-adventure about the fall of the medieval Knights Templar — 480 pages, full-color, hardcover, illustrated by the husband-and-wife team of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland. If you’re a fan of Prince of Persia, graphic novels, or historical fiction, I hope you’ll check it out.
Here’s how it came to be:
From video games to comics
In 2004, I got an email from Mark Siegel, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s new graphic-novel imprint, First Second, asking if I’d ever considered doing a Prince of Persia graphic novel.
A few minutes into talking, I realized that Mark wasn’t trying to jump on the Ubisoft/Disney bandwagon. Not only was he not aiming at a merchandising tie-in with those bigger-budget efforts, he didn’t know about them. He was remembering the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia he’d played in the 1990s. This was just one of the things about Mark’s approach that charmed me. I said yes.
I couldn’t write it myself — I was still busy writing the Prince of Persia movie and the Fox pilot, and Assassin’s Creed was still Prince of Persia 2 — but, kibitzing from the sidelines as Mark brought together Iranian poet A.B. Sina and husband-and-wife illustrators LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland to create that Prince of Persia graphic novel, I realized three things:
First, I wanted to write a graphic novel. Comics had been my first love as a kid, along with movies (before video games existed). Cartoon art and storytelling had hugely influenced my work in video games, from Karateka to The Last Express. How could I have let three decades slip by without jumping on an opportunity to work in this art form I cared about so much?
Second, I wanted to write a graphic novel for First Second.
Third, I wanted LeUyen and Alex to illustrate it.
Oddly, throughout the year they worked on the Prince of Persia graphic novel, we’d never met. Whether out of reticence to intrude on each other’s creative domains, or because of the crazy pace of production (that book and their first baby both shared the same, non-negotiable delivery date), all our communication was by email, with Mark as intermediary. But I noticed that every single one of their polite and deferential suggestions made the book unquestionably better. They were brilliant artists, this was their first book-length comic as a team, and their mastery was visibly increasing with each new batch of pages. Whoever wrote their next book would be a lucky writer indeed. I wanted to be that writer.
A strange mystique
I’d had the Knights Templar on my mind for at least a decade. I first learned of their amazing backstory doing research for The Last Express — a World War I-era adventure game about the quest for a legendary, possibly cursed, object that never changes hands without staining them with blood. As anyone who reads books, sees movies, or plays video games with any regularity knows, such objects almost always turn out to be part of a Templar conspiracy.
Once Templars are on your radar, you start seeing them everywhere. They pop up in the third acts of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Robin Hood” (the 1938 Errol Flynn version), “The Da Vinci Code,” and in the prologue of “The Maltese Falcon.” As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Everything has something to do with the Templars.”
I became a collector of Templariana. I hatched any number of Templar-conspiracy plotlines — including a screenplay prequel to The Last Express, which I abandoned in 2002 (probably wisely) to focus on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If its MacGuffin bears an uncanny resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not because either Dan Brown or I were aware of each other, but most likely because we’d been independently reading the same pseudo-historical nonsense about the Templars. You can read the first 40 pages here.
A little research is a dangerous thing. A lot of research can be fatal. My enthusiasm for my various Templar conspiracy-theory plot lines was killed by realizing that they weren’t, after all, that original. The world didn’t need another third-act revelation where the hero discovers that the secret he’s been chasing/fleeing is part of a centuries-old Templar plot to uphold/destroy/hide/reveal something or other. (Or so I told myself. The subsequent popular success of “National Treasure” and The Da Vinci Code suggested that the world had, in fact, wanted at least a couple more.)
What really gripped my imagination, and stayed in my mind long after I’d put away all that historical and pseudo-historical research, was the actual history of the Templars and what had happened to them. It was weirder, deeper, more disturbing, and more moving than any of the best-selling riffs on it I’d scarfed down (and I’d scarfed a lot of them). It had the unmistakable ring of truth, of stuff you couldn’t invent. I wanted to read that story.
Which meant I had to write it.
Six years in the making
I pitched Templar first to Mark Siegel, in a café around the corner from First Second and Macmillan’s Flatiron Building headquarters.
Second, I pitched it to LeUyen and Alex, in the kitchen of their San Francisco apartment. They’d just spent two years exhausting themselves to produce a 192-page Prince of Persia book, and had just become new parents to boot, so I knew my chances of convincing them to sign on to an even more ambitious, multi-year book project were slim. But I had to try.
That was six years ago. A lot has happened since. LeUyen and Alex now have two children. Assassin’s Creed has become Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, and — in a historical irony that would not have surprised Umberto Eco — involves a conspiracy tracing its origins to those very same medieval Knights Templar.
As for the Persian prince who originally brought us together, he’s executed a remarkable series of running leaps — from the 8-bit Apple II screen where he began, to new generations of video game consoles, graphic novels, LEGO play sets, and the big screen that inspired his creation. I have no doubt that, being the plucky and resourceful character he is, he’ll find his way through the sandstorm and back into the video game world very soon.
For today, I’m immensely proud and excited to offer you Templar — one of the most rewarding creative collaborations it’s been my privilege to be part of. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Comments are open below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
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
There 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 confidence 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!)
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.
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!