Blog > Sketchbooks
Blog > Samak the Ayyar

Summer Reading

This week, I'm excited to share two new book releases.

Samak the Ayyar is a wonderful, thousand-year-old Persian adventure saga that I've had the honor to adapt in its first English-language translation. It's the source material my Prince of Persia games (and movie) always wanted but never had. You can read about the project's origins (and download a free sample chapter) here.

You can order Samak on Amazon, or direct from Columbia University Press, via the store. If you order from the publisher, enter the code CUP20 for a 20% discount.

My other July book release is the third in a trilogy: Year 3 in France, 166 pages of my sketchbook journal from 2018-19, the third year after I moved to France from L.A. for a video game project. Like the first two volumes, it’s a small, high-quality print run from local publisher Tomoe.

I've signed a stack of books, so the first 30 people to order Year 3 from the online store will receive signed copies.

Year 2 has sold out its print run, but you can get signed copies of all three books at Chicago Gamespace, where my sketch art is on exhibit thru August 23. It's a unique space dedicated to video game culture and art, well worth a visit if you're in the Chicago area.

The Chicago show also includes a new print from Year 3: "Les Beatnik Modernes", in a signed and numbered limited edition of 10. It's a sketch I did in May 2019 at a café just up the street. I've missed sketching in cafés, and can't wait to rekindle the habit.

Rassouli in his studio, as we started our collaboration to translate and adapt Samak. (From my sketch journal Year 2 in France.)
Blog > Sketchbooks

Chicago Gamespace

I'm pleased to announce that Chicago Gamespace, the leading Midwest video game museum and art gallery, will host a solo exhibition of my sketch journal and art prints this summer. The exhibition will run from June 4 to August 22, 2021. Artwork will be available for sale in their gallery. Details are at

The show will include a new, yet-to-be-chosen print from my sketch journal. If there's a drawing in Year 1 or Year 2 that speaks to you especially and that you'd like to see as a print, please let me know. Just post a photo of the page on Twitter or Instagram, and tag @jmechner #sketchbook.

In the meantime, a big thank you to everyone who's purchased art prints online. Editions that have sold out won't be reprinted -- that's part of the deal to guarantee that signed/numbered prints won't lose their value.

If you're in the Chicago area between now and June, I encourage you to check out Gamespace's current exhibition: "Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History."

Blog > Sketchbooks

Episode 2, I mean 1

Thanks to all of you who've supported my sketching habit -- on social media, in person, or by purchasing art prints or a copy of Year 2 in France (sold out as of last week). The warm reception you gave that first release has encouraged me to release the prequel: Year 1 in France -- a year of my sketchbook journal starting in July 2016, when I arrived here from L.A.

And yes, it'll be a trilogy. I can say that now that Year 3 has safely wrapped.

As with the first book, this will be a small print run, designed and printed by Gami in Montpellier. Due to pandemic, a bookstore or café signing isn't in the cards this year, but I've signed 30 copies for the first 30 takers. If you'd like one signed, just include the secret code word ESPRESSO in your order (anywhere in the address field, or as your middle name); Gami will remove the extra word before shipping, so as not to confuse the post office. You can order books here.

Blog > Samak the Ayyar

A tale of ancient Persia

I’m excited to share a very special project. It's been my honor to adapt a wonderful, thousand-year-old Persian adventure saga in its first English-language edition -- Samak the Ayyar.

Despite having spent a certain number of the past 30 years delving into Persian culture and lore for video game and film development-related purposes, I'd never heard of Samak (or ayyars) until the day my translator and collaborator Freydoon Rassouli took down a dusty out-of-print volume from his shelf and said: "This is what you've been looking for."

As he began reading to me from its pages, translating on the fly from archaic Persian, shivers ran down my spine. Here was a fantastic adventure set in ninth-century Persia, featuring a treacherous vizier, a star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess, kings, warriors, and an agile trickster hero who scales walls and sneaks into palaces. It was the source material my Prince of Persia games (and movie) had always wanted but never had. But since I don't read Persian (and even most Persians don't read 900-year-old manuscripts), I couldn't read it.

I really, really needed to read that book. So... we wrote it. Samak the Ayyar will be released in paperback this August from Columbia University Press.

What are ayyars? A concept as specific to Persia as ronin and samurai are to Japan, and as universal. Samak is a hero and bandit, a man of the people with the skills of a ninja and the ideals of a knight. You could call him a Persian Robin Hood, but he and his band of male and female ayyars have a unique and compelling spirit all their own. Armed with a dagger, a lasso, and his wits, he accomplishes things even kings can’t.

If you appreciate the 1001 Nights, or classic tales of world folklore, I hope you’ll be as enchanted by Samak’s adventures as I am. You can read more about the book (and pre-order it, once it becomes available in your territory) here.

Blog > The Sands of Time Remake

The Dagger Refilled

Ubisoft has decided to postpone the Sands of Time Remake release date once more, to enable the dev teams to deliver a remake that will meet fans' high expectations.

Personally, I'm glad to see this remake get the extra time and resources. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a very special game for me. I've been touched to hear from gamers and developers who've let me know that it has a place in their hearts too. I know how important this project is to the remake team, and how hard they're working. After 17 years, I'm more than happy to be patient a little longer until I can pick up the controller and play Sands of Time again as if for the first time.

The new release date hasn't been announced yet, but as soon as it is, I'll share it on this channel.

Blog > The Sands of Time Remake

Extra Time

Update: Ubisoft has postponed the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake to March 18, 2021, to give the team additional time to work on and polish the game. Especially given the special challenges of this past year 2020, I welcome this as good news, and have no doubt they've made the right call.

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary

French Edition

France has been home for me the last four years, so it’s a special pleasure to see my Prince of Persia journals published in French. The book is now available from Third Editions, a small French press with a big passion for retro video games.

I didn’t do the translation myself — that would have felt weird, especially since I didn’t speak French when I started the journal in 1985 — but I did hand-write new French margin annotations, this time with an orange pen. (Yes, Third Editions respected the limitations of the Apple II color palette.) I used a silver pen to hand-sign 300 ex-libris, for a boxed limited (and numbered) edition of 300 copies. There really are three editions; Third’s site has the details, so you can choose whichever best suits your collecting style.

If you prefer English, the hardcover illustrated edition from Stripe Press is available from Amazon and shipping internationally.

Both Stripe and Third have put real care and attention to detail into the design and printing of these hardcover editions. I love physical books, so to see my old journals (which started as ball-point in spiral-bound notebooks 30 years ago) complete the round-trip journey back to paper -- ça, ça me fait plaisir.

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary


The Stripe Press edition of my "Making of Prince of Persia" journals is now available as an audiobook. I couldn't have asked for anyone better to play the role of 20-year-old me than the multitalented Yuri Lowenthal -- who voiced the prince in The Sands of Time (and its upcoming remake), and whose acting chops are easily versatile enough to encompass both wall-running and 6502 assembly language programming.

I recorded an introduction. I may never be brave enough to listen to the whole audiobook past the first couple of journal entries, but I hope you will.

Blog > The Sands of Time Remake

Announcing the Sands of Time Remake

For Prince of Persia fans who’ve been waiting patiently for a new game, I’m delighted to finally be able to share this piece of good news: After two years of development at Ubisoft’s Pune and Mumbai studios, a faithful, modern-gen remake of The Sands of Time will be released on January 21, 2021, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

I didn't take an active role in the remake (making The Sands of Time once was enough), but the team kept me in the loop, beginning with their first question two years ago: What things did you and the POP team cut or compromise in the original game that you’d most wish to see added?

Last week, I played a recent build. It gave me tingles. I was relieved to discover that my gameplay reflexes and level-map memories of fifteen years ago are still valid, letting me fluidly navigate a newly-rendered game world that's lush, sensual, and immersive in ways the Montreal team and I could only dream of in 2003.

The remake team aimed to update the experience to meet modern gamers’ expectations, but without bending it so far as to contradict our memories. To my taste, they’ve hit the target. Although rebuilt from the ground up with new assets and engine, the story, gameplay, level design, and dialog are faithful to the original.

Revisiting The Sands of Time

One of my top wish-list items was to remake the cinematics. The script and voice acting were always solid, but the POP team and I had been disappointed by the FMV production values even in 2003. The introductory sequences especially should evoke an epic, populated, sensual, authentically Persian (and Indian) world, so that we feel the distance traveled between the kingdoms, and the devastation wrought by the sands. The India team embraced this mission.

I gave them notes on what I'd like to see, but I didn’t ask to change a word of dialog. My present-day contribution was to put the team in touch with Yuri Lowenthal, a first-class actor and friend since we met in an L.A. recording studio 18 years ago. Somehow, his voice still sounds like he’s 22. Yuri was thrilled to recreate his signature role on a state-of-the-art performance capture sound stage, and to finally hold in his hands an actual (well, wooden and duct-taped) Dagger of Time.

I’ve only played a few levels. I’ll save the full experience for when the game releases in January. I’m excited to play The Sands of Time from start to finish for the first time since I laid down my PS2 playtesting controller seventeen years ago -- exhausted, anxious, hopeful, knowing it was time to ship. I hope you’ll join me.


Why I keep a journal

I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s stories. In my twenties — dreaming of making video games, books, movies — I devoured memoirs and interviews with my role models, hungering for insight on how they’d done it. Published journals were most rare and valuable of all, because they were a raw record of experience: written in the heat of the moment, not shaped and burnished into a smooth narrative with hindsight.

I was 17 when I started keeping my own journal. I kept up the habit, filling dozens of spiral-bound notebooks over the years. I thought I’d never show them to anybody.

The cumulative power of daily practice is well known but still amazes me. Ten years ago, my brother David picked up a ukulele and started strumming. Now he’s a ukulele player. A behavior becomes a routine, a habit, and finally a trait. The things we do every day shape us, literally: We become a guitarist, a smoker, a programmer or athlete or stoner, by doing something for the first time, then keeping it up.

I’m a journal-keeper. With over a hundred notebooks filled since 1982, it’s become part of who I am. I couldn’t have expected or anticipated all the ways my new habit would enrich my life.

Even if we never reread what we write in our journals, the act of writing changes us. It shapes our perceptions and memory. Over time, opening the notebook and picking up the pen becomes like resuming a long-running conversation with a friend. We develop a voice, even though there’s no one on the other end to hear it — or rather, our self is listening.

I decided to publish my own 1980s journals — begun as a Yale college freshman, while I was making my first video games, Karateka and Prince of Persia — when enough years had passed that their value as a time capsule outweighed my embarrassment. I still cringe rereading certain entries, but I’m glad the journals exist. They contain hard-won experience I wish I could have had the benefit of when I was 20.

Keeping a journal has special value for anyone engaged in a creative project. Reading pages written a year ago, or five, or twenty, can help reveal the big arc of our lives, and illuminate the present. Past journal entries remind us of intentions, resolves, lessons forgotten. They bring home how much of our worries, schemes and plans are transient, even quaint in retrospect.

In the four years it took me to make the first Prince of Persia game on the Apple II, my journal did more than record my creative process: it was part of it. I used my notebook as a sounding board — wrestling with design challenges, discarding ideas and sparking new ones in the act of writing. In dark moments I poured out my angst, questioned whether I was on the right path, if the game was even worth finishing. More than once, my journal brought me back from the brink and helped me find the clarity and confidence to continue. Some entries capture the exact moment of illumination when I hit upon a solution I’d been groping toward in the dark. For all the digital and technological advancement of the past half-century, pen and paper may still be the tool that comes closest to being able to record thought.

For every entry that makes me feel smart, there’s a youthful wise reflection like this one: “The games business is drying up. There’s no guarantee there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now.” (July 1985) Or: “I’ve grown middle-aged these last few years. Roland is 23 but he’s still young at heart.” (Written when I was 22.) Rereading such passages is a joy that only journal-keepers know.

The final PC version of Prince of Persia that shipped thirty years ago, in April 1990, is so familiar now it feels inevitable. It’s easy to forget that it was once a fragile thing in flux. My journal reminds me of roads not taken, of how easily things could have turned out differently.

These days, I keep my journal in a Hobonichi Techo — a compact format that reinforces the practice of one page a day, neatly fitting a year into the palm of my hand, a decade in a shoebox. I’ve found poignant solace in this month of confinement, April 2020, flipping back a few dozen pages to see how many of my concerns and decisions of February have been rendered irrelevant, while a few mattered more than I knew.

A journal keeps us honest and tethers us to truth. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist’s first act of resistance to brainwashing is to start secretly keeping a diary — a crime not explicitly forbidden, but punishable by death, because it threatens a totalitarian state’s power to retroactively rewrite history.

Like a yardstick calibrated in millimeters, a journal holds both the detail and the scope of life. Our human condition is to live one moment at a time; we’re never given more than that. Of all the gifts journaling gives us, maybe that’s the greatest: The simple practice of making daily marks on paper, like mental push-ups, can strengthen the part of us that tries to rise above the timeline, to see a pattern and bigger picture — and, paradoxically, also strengthen the part of us that can learn to treasure the present moment.

Originally published in Medium, May 2020.

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary

Second run

Thanks to all the fans who made the 30th anniversary launch of The Making of Prince of Persia a success.

Stripe Press just let me know that the collector's edition is already going into its second print run. I’m delighted that the book has found its way into so many hands, despite the logistical challenges of launching (and shipping!) a physical hardcover in the time of Covid.

The images in this collage came in from all around the world. The generous sentiments you’ve shared about the book and the original game are wonderful to hear.

Some of you have asked how you can get a signed copy. I'm not set up to receive or ship books, but I'll be happy to sign your copy in person if you (or a friend) can make it to an event where I’ll be.

As of now, I’m scheduled to appear at the TGS Toulouse Game Show in France, November 28- 29 (fingers crossed). We also have some online giveaways coming up. I’ll post about upcoming signings and other events on social media.

Here's my journal entry from 30 years ago today.

Game developers, take heart: Four months after Prince of Persia shipped on PC in 1990, 26-year-old me was seething with frustration that the game I’d labored on for four years was a flop. I had no dagger of time to give me a glimpse of the long view, or how much I’d enjoy celebrating this anniversary with you.

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary

Hot off the presses!

The new Stripe Press edition of my "Making of Prince of Persia” journals will be released on April 28, 2020 — 30 years to the month after the first PC release. (I can't tell you the exact date in April 1990 it shipped, because I didn’t write it in my journal. I might have been busy celebrating, or maybe sleeping.)

Update: You can pre-order it now.

Sheets are coming off the presses as I write this. The binding is hardcover, and a pleasure to the touch. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait.

A big thank you to everyone who sent in stories and images for the “Legacy” chapter. Your contributions added up to a full-color, 32-page special section at the end of the book, highlighting moments in the prince’s 30-year (so far) journey since the original game’s release. The whole book clocks in at 336 pages, with work-in-progress sketches, screen shots, and visuals illustrating the stages of the game’s creation.

We’ll be doing a giveaway of 10 signed advance copies, so you can have a chance to win and receive your copy a month before the pub date. I’ll post details on Instagram when the contest opens, on or around March 9.

Note: The paperback first edition of The Making of Prince of Persia will be withdrawn from sale and replaced by the new hardcover edition.

Meanwhile, here's my journal entry from 30 years ago:

Blog > Sketchbooks

A Book and Art Prints

When I was a kid, I spent as much time as I could drawing... until I got my first Apple II. Old interests got swept aside to make way for my new obsession: making games. Over the next three decades of writing, programming, and other activities, I almost forgot that drawing had once been a primary means of self-expression.

It came back to me in 2008. My artist friend (and collaborator on Templar) Alex Puvilland gave me a Moleskine notebook, black Pigma Micron pen, and no eraser. I started sketching people in the street, at cafés and airports, in live-model workshops. (And on the Prince of Persia movie set. There were camels!)

I found the tactile, no-undo, Zen aspect of pen on paper a soul-refreshing break from screen time. Other than showing my sketchbooks to friends and family, and an occasional snap-post on Instagram, I had no plans to take my hobby public. But over time, it became clear to me there was something about the drawings that others found of interest.

Today, after over a decade and 34 Moleskines filled, I'm happy to share with you a year of my no-longer-private sketch journal. It's a little book entitled Year 2 in France -- 164 pages drawn between August 2017 and August 2018, the second year after I moved to France from L.A. (There's some New York, London, and other locations too.) I hope it captures the atmosphere of that year, and of those places.

I've worked closely with Gami, a local fine-art printer here in Montpellier, on a small print run of the book. We've also done limited-edition, signed and numbered giclée prints of selected drawings. When an edition runs out, it won't be reprinted. Prints are available in the store.

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary

Collecting a fan legacy

The Prince of Persia book project is going full steam ahead. I've spent enjoyable hours combing the Strong Museum collection for images to illustrate my old journals, while book designer Tyler Thompson has been developing exciting design concepts.

It felt right to end the book in 1992, when Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame signed out of QA. After that, a decade would go by before I'd be hands-on again in the creation of a Prince of Persia title — joining Ubisoft in Montreal to make PoP: The Sands of Time, then pitching it to Disney/Bruckheimer as a movie.

But a 30th-anniversary collector's edition wouldn't be complete without some kind of acknowledgement of the prince's subsequent adventures. So Stripe and I decided to add a "legacy" chapter: a kind of scrapbook of the prince's odyssey since 1992.

We have mementos of the episodes I was involved in, but what I really want to see are things that aren't in the Strong's collection. Like this fan-made Prince of Persia LEGO, which I love. (If you're the person who created it, I hope you'll read this and submit it for the book.)

We're reaching out to you for submissions. If you feel inspired to share a souvenir of a Prince of Persia-related moment in your life — whether as a gamer, fan, artist, programmer, collector, cosplayer, dev-team member, or other capacity — please send it! We'd like to see photos, art, screen shots, anything that could fit on a book page.

Because time is short, and Stripe's book design staff is small, we ask you to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Send submissions by email to:
  • Image attachments only, ideally 300-600dpi.
  • Please only send images that are yours (photos you took, or something you created). If it was a work for hire or someone else controls the rights, let us know who.
  • The text of the email should include your name, where you live, and explain the context or story of the image, in 1001 words or less.
  • One email per submission.

There's a good chance we'll receive more submissions than we have manpower or bandwidth to acknowledge. Here's the deal:

  • We'll choose a selection to include in the book.
  • If we choose yours, we'll reply, and ask you to sign a release. As a thank-you, we'll send you an autographed copy of the book once it's printed. This courtesy copy is the only compensation we can offer.
  • Submissions that don't fit in the book might get posted on Instagram @pop30anniv, @jmechner, and/or
  • We won't be able to answer follow-up emails, individual messages, or questions. (Especially if they're about when and what the next Prince of Persia game will be. I promise that when I have info to share on that subject, I'll post it.)

Thanks for playing! I'm excited to see what you'll send.

Meanwhile, here's my journal entry from 30 years ago:

Blog > Prince of Persia 30th Anniversary

A 30th anniversary note to Prince of Persia fans

Thirty years ago today, I was at my Apple II, crunching on a six-week deadline to finish Prince of Persia by mid-July to ship in September.

I know this because I wrote it in my journal. If I hadn't, those details would have long since faded from my memory, along with the 6502 hex op codes I once knew by heart.

In 1989, I could never have imagined that Prince of Persia would last this long — much less have foreseen it being ported to a future generation of game consoles from the makers of the Walkman. (Or to the big screen by the producer of Beverly Hills Cop.)

To all of you who've played, watched, and supported PoP over the years — thank you! I've been especially moved by the things you've shared about the ways PoP has touched your lives. Your kind and encouraging words have been an inspiration to me.

Many of you have asked when there will be a new PoP game (or movie, or TV series). If you feel that it's been a long time since the last one, you're not alone. I wish I had a magic dagger to accelerate the process — it would have been poetic to time a major game announcement with this 30th-anniversary year. But I'm only a small part of a bigger picture.

There is one PoP announcement I can make, and am happy to share with you. Stripe Press, an imprint specializing in books about innovation and technological advancement, will publish a hardcover collector's edition of "The Making of Prince of Persia" — my 1980s original game development journals, newly illustrated with notes, sketches, work-in-progress screen shots, and as many visual features as we have the bandwidth to add by our target "gold master" date of September 2019 (30 years after Apple II PoP signed out of Broderbund QA). Oh, and there'll be an audiobook.

What I cherish about books

For me as a kid who dreamed of creating mass entertainment, in the pre-internet days, when you still needed a printing press to make a book and a film lab to make a movie, the Apple II was a game-changer: a technological innovation that empowered every user to innovate. Suddenly, I didn't need adult permission (or funding) to tell a story of adventure that might reach thousands — and ultimately millions — of people.

That direct connection between author and public is still possible today for small indie games — and for books. By contrast, making a major movie or AAA game requires millions of dollars and hundreds of people. It's a thrilling ride, and the rewards can be great, but by nature it's beyond the scope of what one person or even a tight-knit creative team can accomplish alone.

So it felt very much in the magical 8-bit spirit when Stripe's co-founder Patrick Collison emailed me to propose this book, and less than two months later, we're doing it. For me personally, in the midst of longer-term projects whose announcement is still a ways off, it's refreshing to add one whose timeline is reckoned in months rather than years.

In 2012, when the PoP source code disks I thought I'd lost turned up in my dad's closet, I discovered that an incredible retro-gaming fan and archivist community has been keeping the flame of early game development knowledge alive.

The Internet Archive and Strong Museum of Play (which houses work materials and artifacts from my past projects) are already on board to help us make the collector's edition of "The Making of Prince of Persia" as feature-rich as possible.

As we move toward beta, we'll document and share our progress online via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. With luck, we'll be able to bring boxes of printed hardcover books to PAX East in spring 2020 — 30 years after the PC release of Prince of Persia (which is the one most people remember). I hope to see many of you there in person.

Until then, here's a fateful time-capsule post (and photo) from the week PoP went alpha, thirty years ago. Reading it now, the drollest part is that I still thought (as usual) I was about two weeks from the finish line.

And then there's the mullet.

Join the anniversary celebration:


Why I write longhand

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.

Guest article for The Huffington Post, originally published 10th of July, 2013.


20 tips for game designers

  1. Prototype and test key game elements as early as possible.

  1. Build the game in incremental steps — Don't make big design documents.
  2. As you go, continue to strengthen what's strong, and cut what's weak.
  3. Be open to the unexpected — Make the most of emergent properties.
  4. Be prepared to sell your project at every stage along the way.
  1. It's harder to sell an original idea than a sequel.
  2. Bigger teams and budgets mean bigger pressure to stay on schedule.
  3. Don't invest in an overly grandiose development system.
  4. Make sure the player always has a goal (and knows what it is).
  5. Give the player clear and constant feedback as to whether he is getting closer to his goal or further away from it.
  6. The story should support the game play, not overwhelm it.
  7. The moment when the game first becomes playable is the moment of truth. Don't be surprised if isn't as much fun as you expected.
  8. Sometimes a cheap trick is better than an expensive one.
  9. Listen to the voice of criticism — It's always right (you just have to figure out in what way).
  10. Your original vision is not sacred. It's just a rough draft.
  11. Don't be afraid to consider BIG changes.
  12. When you discover what the heart of the game is, protect it to the death.
  13. However much you cut, it still won't be enough.
  14. Put your ego aside.
  15. Nobody knows what will succeed.

These practical tips were first published in 2004, at the time of the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.


Designing story-based games

Eons ago, in 1996, Next Generation magazine asked me for a list of game design tips for narrative games. Here's what I gave them.

Reading it today, some of it feels dated (like the way I refer to the player throughout as "he"), but a lot is as relevant as ever. I especially like #8 and #9.

  1. The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
  2. List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun? (Resist the temptation to embellish. If a cinematic shows the player's character sneak into a compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player's action is "Watch cinematic." Letting the player click to clobber the guard isn't much better.)
  3. The only significant actions are those that affect the player's ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
  4. Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
  1. The player needs a goal at all times, even if it's a mistaken one. If there's nothing specific he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
  2. The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.
  3. Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player's goals. For each event, ask: Does this move the player closer to or further away from a goal, or give him a new goal? If not, it's irrelevant to the game.
  4. The longer the player plays without a break, the more his sense of the reality of the world is built up. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken.
  5. Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
  6. Don't introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
  7. As the player moves through the game, he should have the feeling that he is passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The ideal outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but feeling that there might be another 50% he missed.

Crafting a video game story

In 2001, a small team within Ubisoft's Montreal studio led by producer Yannis Mallat began concept development on the project that would become Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Initially a consultant, I later joined the team as writer and game designer. Being part of this project was a great experience and I'm glad to revisit it for this book.

By its nature, video game writing is inextricably bound up with game design, level design, and the other aspects of production. A film screenplay is a clean, written blueprint that serves as a starting point and reference for the director, actors, and the rest of the creative team. It's also a document that film scholars and critics can later read and discuss as a work distinct from the film itself. Video games have no such blueprint. The game design script created at the start of a production is often quickly rendered obsolete, its functions assumed by new tools created to fit the project's specific needs.

In this chapter I'll try to shed some light on the creative and technical decision-making processes that went into crafting the story and narrative elements of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (POP for short). The team's approach was practical, not literary; our challenge was to find the right story for a mass-market action video game. In the rapidly changing game industry, each project is unique and presents its own demands and opportunities, according to current technology and the nature of the particular game. What works for one game might not work for another.

Storytelling is, of course, just one aspect of game design. For those interested in reading more about the overall production process on POP, I recommend Yannis Mallat's postmortem article (Mallat 2004).

Rule #1: Do it, don't view it.

What kind of story does a video game need?

The traditional way to tell a story in a video game is to create a series of cinematic cutscenes that serve as "rewards" — transitions between gameplay levels. However, the cool way to tell a story in a video game is to eliminate or reduce the canned cutscenes as much as possible, and instead construct the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story will occur within the gameplay itself.

The screenwriting maxim "actions speak louder than words" applies to video games as well as films, but in a different way. Video games, unlike movies, are interactive. Whereas in a film it's better to show than to tell, in a video game it's better to do than to watch. Give the story's best moments to the player, and he'll never forget them. Put them in a cutscene, and he'll yawn.

Philosophically, the POP team was pretty much united in our lack of enthusiasm for cutscenes. If we could have eliminated them altogether, we would have done so with pleasure. On the other hand, our mandate was to make a successful mainstream action-adventure game on a relatively tight budget and schedule. The game concept already called for pushing the envelope in a number of ways; an overambitious approach to storytelling could have sunk the ship.

Continue reading this article in the Electronic Book Review.


The Hollywood trap

New mediums have trouble escaping the shadow of their predecessors. At the turn of the last century, the dominant audiovisual medium was the stage play. So in their quest for mass-market success and artistic legitimacy, early filmmakers strove to be theatrical: They shot scenes as if the cast were onstage, with the cameraman stationed in the audience seventh row center. Today, those early movies seem hoary.

Likewise, the evolution of video-games has been shaped by gamemakers' determination to be cinematic. A typical game features hours of cutscenes (the mini-movies shown at designated moments). Yet for the most part, cutscene-heavy games based on Hollywood mega-productions like The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings have failed to set the industry on fire. The truly seminal, breakthrough hits of the new art form — the Dooms and Zeldas and Metroids and Simses — are original properties.

That may be because movie storytelling and game storytelling follow totally different logics. A great film sequence and a great game sequence may look similar. But videogames are interactive. To appreciate a videogame, you need to play it — an experience that can consume dozens of hours, encompassing moments of joy and anguish so intense that you reminisce about them years later.

In a movie, the story is what the characters do. In a game, the story is what the player does. The actions that count are the player's. Better game storytelling doesn't mean producing higher-quality cinematic cutscenes; it means constructing the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story occur not in the cutscenes but during the gameplay itself. To simply watch a few recorded snippets of game footage as you would a film is to miss the point.

One small example: In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the hero doesn't realize he's gained the power to turn back time until the player discovers that he has a new controller button at his disposal — and uses it to save his life by rewinding a fatal mistake. Had this revelation occurred in a cutscene instead of during active play, it would not have the same impact.

Cinematic cutscenes have their place in videogames. But they are not the engine that moves the story forward. The key moments, emotional highs and lows, surprising twists of a videogame story are played — not watched. If the object is "Shoot every spaceship you see," packing the cinematic cutscenes full of human relationships, dialog, and backstory won't deepen the experience.

As we gamemakers discover new ways to take storytelling out of cutscenes and bring it into gameplay, we're taking the first steps toward a true videogame storytelling language — just as our filmmaking forebears did the first time they cut to a close-up. One day soon, calling a game "cinematic" will be a backhanded compliment, like calling a movie "stagy."

Guest article for Wired, published in April, 2006.