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Jordan Mechner: VR Won’t Replace Games

by Bennett Voyles

May 21, 2018

Photo of a video gamer. According to Jordan Mechner, virtual reality will not replace videogames.

Over the past 40 years, video games have grown into an enormous multi-billion dollar entertainment medium. In this three-part series, we look first at the videogame industry and where it may be heading; second, we talk to veteran game designer Jordan Mechner about the changes he has seen in the industry since the Eighties and his vision of gaming’s future; and finally, in the third section, we examine the growth of serious games—videogames designed with an educational or therapeutic purpose—and their potential to change society.

Part 2: Q&A with Jordan Mechner, Game design pioneer

Few people have had the opportunity to watch the rise of video games as an economic and cultural force quite as closely as Jordan Mechner, who began making video games while in high school in the 1970s, had his first hit, Karateka, in 1984, while he was still in college, and later went on to create the Prince of Persia franchise, which to date has sold over 20 million copies. In a wide-ranging interview over Skype from his office in Montpellier, France, Mechner, who is also a successful screenwriter and graphic novelist, talked about the evolution of game design and where games might head next.

You started making games back in the 1970s. What was that like?

When I started making games in 1978, it was all new. Before that there was pinball, and then suddenly there were standup video arcade machines with Space Invaders.

How did you learn to program?

We didn’t have the Internet, so exchanging knowledge was a matter of word of mouth, getting tips from other people. When I met somebody else that was into computers and could tell me stuff, that was very exciting. There were book and magazines, but it was hard to stay on the cutting edge. New stuff was always being figured out.

I was lucky to be in the New York area, where there was a concentration of knowledgeable people. IBM had the Thomas J. Watson Research Center close to my hometown, with an evening once a week where they would let high school kids come in and use their computers. When I was 14, I saved up my money, bought an Apple II computer, and from then on I could program at home.

Today, colleges offer degrees in game design. Obviously, that wasn’t on offer then. Did you study computer science? 

Yale had a computer science department, and I took a couple of classes, but I didn’t get a degree in computer science. I was more interested in studying other disciplines like film and art history. Programming was a means to an end. I saw games as an entertainment medium. I also liked drawing comics, and animation, screenwriting, and storytelling.

What did you major in?

I actually majored in psychology.

Did that broad background prepare you well for game design or would you have preferred something more focused?

I think what served me best as a game creator and storyteller was a broad cultural grounding. It’s a strength to have knowledge of a field that other people don’t know; in my case it was film – film editing, animation, storytelling, history, and an interest in other cultures – that I brought to my early games.

It might sound funny to say, because the graphics were so primitive, but the fantasy of Karateka, which took place in feudal Japan, kind of filtered the films of Kurosawa and wood block prints of Hokusai through my teenage imagination. Later, Prince of Persia was inspired by the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. Even though the stories were very simple, they came from a deep cultural well that I think gave them more interest than a generic setting would have.

Martial arts action game Karateka is Mechner’s first published game. He created it while attending Yale University.

What do you think of focusing exclusively on game design?

I think a risk of specializing too narrowly when you’re young is that you’ll end up thinking like everybody else. If you just study how to make games, that teaches you how to make games that are like a lot of other people’s games.

What did you do next?

Right out of college I moved to California and I made my next game, called Prince of Persia, on the Apple II at Brøderbund, who had published Karateka. I had the benefit of being able to exchange knowledge with their programmers. It was still very much the Wild West at that time.

Your first two games, you built yourself, and then suddenly, that couldn’t be done anymore. For your third game, didn’t you have a studio with a staff of 60?

In the early 90s I made a game called The Last Express. It’s set on the Orient Express in 1914. A train is crossing Europe three days before the outbreak of World War I. Compared to my first games, which were one-person productions, The Last Express required building a studio. Team sizes have grown pretty consistently all through the years – along with everything else.

The video game The Last Express was designed by Mencher and published in 1997 for PC.

I guess the industry has grown a lot.

The games industry hasn’t grown so much as exploded. Games aren’t just one thing anymore. Today, thousands of games are being created every year, ranging from what we call the AAA titles–which are the equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster productions, with large teams and budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars–to games made by one person, or by two or three people, using tools that are available to anybody. That’s something that was possible in the 80s when I started, and now it’s again possible. Games are a huge universe of possibilities, and new hybrids are constantly being created.

Do you see any consistent direction, in terms of genre?

Genres go in and out of fashion. Every time a particular game has a huge success, it inspires a whole wave of imitators. The latest example is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which started as a modification to an existing game, but became so popular that every publisher is trying to imitate it.

And it’s not like older genres go away. The audience for them may become smaller for a while, but that just means they’re awaiting an innovation that will make them relevant again. To take an example from film, Westerns fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s. Hollywood concluded, “People don’t want Westerns anymore.” Then along came Clint Eastwood with Unforgiven.

How about the audience?

The industry as a whole is adapting to the demographic changes in the gaming public. When I started, the stereotypical gamer was male, age 18 to 30. That first generation of gamers is now entering their 60s and 70s. So you have everyone from small children to their grandparents who have grown up playing games. Half of the gaming audience is female. AAA games are still skewed toward this stereotypical 18-to-30 male gamer, but that represents an ever smaller slice of the full gaming public.

At 54, you’re not quite in the geezer-gamer demographic yet, but have your gaming habits changed?

I don’t have 40 or 100 hours a week to play games like I did in high school on summer vacation. Nothing against massive AAA open-world games that offer 200 hours of game play, but the games I personally appreciate now are games that are simple enough, and short enough, that in five to fifteen hours I can have a satisfying experience with memorable moments and emotional impact that stay with me. Some recent small games that gave me that kind of satisfaction were Journey from Sony, and Inside. Those were downloadable console games, with beautiful graphics and great production values, but they’re short experiences. As a gamer, that fits my lifestyle now.

For a long time, the business press has looked at video games mostly as a story of ever-improving technology that is heading toward a sort of virtual reality nirvana. That doesn’t sound like your view.

Technology is a tool. We’re talking about art. When photography was invented, did charcoal sketches and oil painting go away? A photo-realistic painting is not inherently better than a sketch by Picasso of just a few lines.

We’re now at a moment with virtual reality that’s analogous to where computer games were in the early 80s. If you look at today’s VR headsets and try to judge the defects and potential of the technology, remember that you’re looking at the Apple II.

Ten years from now, virtual reality—or to be more accurate, augmented reality—will be woven into our daily lives. We won’t be carrying around little touchscreens and pulling them out every thirty seconds any more. We’ll be wearing a device, probably glasses, that lets us interface with the world around us, and personalize and enhance our experience of it, in new ways. Which will include playing games, and experiencing interactive stories and other kinds of entertainment that are still evolving, as well as social interaction, and the next evolution of today’s social media, email and video chat.

Right now, you and I are talking on Skype. Five years from now, we’d have this conversation in AR, and you’d feel like I was right there in your living room. Or to be playful, we could decide to do it in a virtual recreation of a Yale dining hall 30 years ago. Or on the planet Hoth.

Virtual reality is not going to replace real life, or replace games. It’s a technology that has the potential to be integrated into everything. But there are still going to be moments when you just want to play a game of chess with a chessboard and wooden pieces. Or a side-scrolling Mario game from the 1980s, because it’s a childhood memory. In the same way we still listen to classical music that was composed in the 19th century, or a scratchy old record of Leadbelly singing a blues song. We’ve got better fidelity. It doesn’t mean the old stuff goes away.

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