I’m a manager trying to organise a busy team. Why are you trying to make me read about a video game?
But seriously, we really do think you should read about a video game. We’ll explain.
One of the core principles of this blog is that managers can learn most from the stories of others rather than being given abstract advice on ‘vision’ and ‘leadership’. Of course to do that, you need people to tell their stories, and to tell them authentically and truthfully. People tend not to do that about their life at work.
Work can be messy, unglamorous and stressful. Moreover, it’s often in the messiest, most unglamorous and stressful moments that we learn the most. These are also the episodes we typically don’t reveal to others. And even if we might want to, they’re not the stories that get book publishers hot under the collar. ‘All Hands on Deck: 3 Years of Powerpoint in Investment Banking’. ‘Shortcuts to Success: a Consultant’s Life in Excel’. ‘That’s the Ticket: A Product Manager Reveals their Backlog’. Not coming to a bookshelf near you anytime soon.
Which brings us to Jordan Mechner. One of the rare examples where we do get a glimpse of the stresses and strains of someone trying to create their best work. And not just anyone. Mechner was the designer of the Prince of Persia video game in the late 1980s which subsequently went on to sell millions of copies.
Fortunately for us, whilst he was creating the game from 1985-1993, he kept a journal. Portions are available on his website but they recently gained a wider audience when they were published in hardback form in 2020 by Stripe Press, complete with illustrations.
Because they’re journals, and were never intended for a wider audience, they give a rare, unvarnished view of some of the highs and lows of creative work. For video game designers and other creatives, we expect there’s a close sympathy with the journey Mechner goes on. For managers, it’s a reminder of the creative, technical and personal pressures that everyone experiences at work, and how you can help people through them (and how you can’t).
We’d encourage you to read it in full. But in the meantime, we’ve pulled out some insights which we think you’ll find useful. As we said, it’s Mechner’s voice that’s the powerful thing here. So this article mainly comprises quotes from him, with some limited commentary from our side.
“Prince of Persia was the first computer game I ever fell in love with. Thirty years on, we are very lucky to have this window into its creative process. Mechner's journey is a universal one for anyone creating something brand new” Mike Krieger, Instagram Co-Founder
"Oddly enough, this makes me more psyched to do the new game. It reminded me why I’m good at this – of what I can do that others can’t, or won’t."
"It’s a great game. It’s the best I can do. After three years of work, I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If I had to make it better, I don’t know where I’d start. I’ve given it everything I have."
"God, I’m restless; I want everything to start happening now. I want to fast-forward through the next five months of grueling work and just be there."
"The meeting erased any doubts I might have had about Brian’s effectiveness as a product manager. This is what I needed all along: someone to push me. He blows Ed out of the water. Anyway, I’m revved up to work on POP [Prince of Persia]"
"What makes a game fun? Tension/release, tension/release. Prince of Persia has neither. It’s like going on a 25-mile hike. Every now and then, you get to step over a log or cross a stream. Big deal. Running, jumping, and climbing, no matter how beautifully animated, hold your attention for maybe the first three screens. Then you start to wonder: when is something going to happen?"
21 November 1988
“I’m very happy with how things are going. With combat, this will be one of the greatest games of all time.”
1 December 1988 (less than a fortnight later)
‘I’ve been thinking more and more that I need some kind of major life change. I’ve never felt so restless.’
1 July 1989
"The Apple II is a piece of shit. Kyle’s sound routines are a piece of shit. His user interface is a piece of shit. The music we play on the CD player for inspiration sounds fucking awesome."
6 July 1989
"This music is great. It’s terrific. It’s everything I’d hoped for. It gives the game a whole new dimension. I’m incredibly thrilled, actually."
Throughout most of his time building Prince of Persia, Mechner felt a tension between his work on video games and wanting to be a screenwriter.
"Everyone says POP will be a huge hit. Everyone. I can’t walk from one building to the next without someone stopping me to tell me how great it is. This product has both grass-roots and top-down support. All I have to do is finish it. The urge to go to my Mac and work on the new screenplay is overpowering."
"The other thing is, I liked them. Lately I’d been starting to feel jaded about this whole enterprise – “Oh well, it’s just a computer game” – but watching Chris and Stu, I realized: These guys love games."
"Bill surprised me. He offered 8%, to go up to 10% after 30,000 units have been sold. It’s such a fair offer, it practically restored my faith in Broderbund [the company Mechner worked for] singlehandedly."
"Level design is a creative process, like screenwriting: you can’t just sit down and put in ten hours at a stretch, you need time in between to let your ideas work themselves out."
"Thank God for this game. It’s the only area in my life where I feel sure that my efforts are doing good, not harm. It’s good, and it’s mine, and thousands of people are going to be glad it exists. How many things can you say that about?"
Latricia and Dianne, respectively, hold my fate in their hands. And neither of them knows anything about computer games, or has any idea what makes this one special."
"I couldn’t bear to continue. I knew he was just repeating what Ann had told him. Prince has no better champion than Brian. He’s been fighting for a year. He’s powerless, that’s all."
"Eight exhausting hours of meetings at Broderbund, pushing Prince 2 on all fronts. But it’s easy, with the wind at my back. The powers-that-be have given this project the coveted “Group 1 Priority” and suddenly no one can say no to me."
"In San Francisco I felt like I was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. Here, I feel like I’m part of something that’s strong enough to hold me in place. Each new link I forge makes my world stronger and more real, and as the net grows, the possibilities multiply."
And at other times:
“Practically everybody I know treats me like a guest celebrity. Of course it’s my own fault. I feel so damn alone sometimes, I feel like I could just float away into the stratosphere and everybody would stand there looking up at me and not one would haul me back down to earth. No ropes.”
"It really is a different world, doing a sequel. All the people who were no help at all on the original are now overflowing with enthusiasm, because it’s familiar, it’s a proven quantity."
"Somehow, I’ve acquired that magic quality, credibility."