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79.2 - Winter 2005
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> Winter 2005 > Where are they now?

Jordan Mechner CC '85
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By Sheli Sadanand

Jordan Mechner tuns video games from hobby into career.
Jordan Mechner tuns video games from hobby into career. (Credit: Jordan Mechner)

For many college students, gaming with friends can be a relaxing study break—or an addictive form of procrastination. The variety and quality of games available to us now would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. Today’s gaming world harbors a diverse array of video and computer games, thanks in part to Yale alumnus Jordan Mechner (CC ’85), developer of the classic multi-platform game—Prince of Persia.

With a passion for film, Mechner took many film studies courses and joined the Yale Film Society during his undergraduate years. These experiences exposed him to the technique of cross-cutting between the hero and the heroine used in many silent films from the 1920s and 1930s. Mechner was only a college junior when he sent his first creation, Karateka, on a floppy disk to Brøderbund Software. Set in the unusual locale of feudal Japan, the computer game was so well received by Brøderbund that the company published it in 1984 and hired Mechner for an internship during the summer between his junior and senior years. Despite his early success, computer science at Yale was hardly a breeze for the game creator. Mechner recalls, “Some of my computer classes were so hard that I almost dropped my computer game project. I had to distinguish between computer programming for coursework versus for games.”

After graduating from Yale in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Mechner created another game. “I wanted to top Karateka and so I chose another unusual setting in medieval Persia,” he explains. Mechner’s new game, Prince of Persia, was designed as a platform game, in which the player climbs various platforms and ledges while fighting off enemies to collect desired objects. In Prince of Persia, the Prince must escape from prison and rescue the Sultan’s daughter from the clutches of the evil vizier.

With a distinct storyline, complicated tasks, and a time limit, Prince of Persia stood apart from contemporary games of the 1980s. What particularly distinguished the game was its unprecedented smooth animation, which Mechner achieved by studying films he made of his brother running, jumping, and performing other movements allowed for characters in the game. Mechner used a rotoscope to hand-trace individual frames of live-action motion. By recording these traces in his computer, Mechner adjusted the frames to look like the various characters in the game.

Not surprisingly, Prince of Persia won both critical acclaim and a large, devoted fan following its release by Brøderbund in 1989. To Mechner, the success of his game is due in large part to his being at the right place at the right time: “I think the state of video games in the 1980s was comparable to that of films in the 1920s and 1930s, and there was the opportunity for one person to create something of high quality.” The original version of Prince of Persia has been followed by many sequels. The latest sequel, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, will be released by Ubisoft in December of 2005. Mechner hails the collaborative effort of many creative people in creating video games today—an experience very different from his own dorm room projects at Yale. At the same time, however, Mechner laments, “The video game industry has really become such a mass market industry that nowadays, budget and time constraints can really put a brake on creativity.”

Last year, Mechner combined his interests in both film and video games, licensing the film rights for Prince of Persia to Jerry Bruckheimer. He is currently working as a screenwriter for this live-action film project. “There has been no great movie based on a video game yet, but it is going to be done,” he vows.

With his success in both the film and video game industries, Mechner emphasizes the importance of human interaction in occupations. “Whatever your career, the most important thing is not the results, but the human relationships you develop with the people you work.” He urges students interested in creating video games to maintain open minds and remember that there is not one path but rather many opportunities to become involved in the business.

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