Saving the Princess for Bus Money
The Making of Prince of Persia, and Ready Player One
We might look back on October 28th, 2021 as one of the key dates of this decade. It was a slow news day; I’m not talking about PETA asking baseball to rename the “bullpen” to the “arm barn.” I mean Facebook changing its name to Meta, or, more specifically, why it’s changing its name. While I’m here for sweet baby rays memes and Mark’s expanding forehead destroying the space-time continuum, it’s worth spending some time thinking seriously about Meta and the “metaverse,” where in the future our digital avatars interact with virtual worlds via VR/AR.
Calling the construction of a detailed simulation to simultaneously accommodate a significant portion of humanity herculean is an understatement, even if Hercules spotted Atlas for a brief rest. But if anyone can do it, it’s Meta. Facebook and Instagram are two of the greatest money-making machines of all time, even as they fight off regulators and bad press from all sides. Zuckerberg & team can allocate the resulting cash as they wish. Meta announced it will spend $10bn annually in R&D within their “Reality Labs” business, which is aimed at building out core infrastructure for the metaverse. To put $10bn into context, this is more than any carmaker spends on cars other than Toyota and Volkswagen.
It’s unlikely an outside force could change Meta’s strategy. Zuckerberg has sole voting control of the company; nobody else is going to accumulate a stake in Meta and launch a shareholder activist campaign. Any regulations that come out of the current handwringing about the negative impacts of social media may make a dent in the cash flow gusher by forcing the company to spend even more on compliance and monitoring. Less well understood is that regulations likely make it harder for new entrants to challenge Meta’s position, extending the duration of its annual profits further into the future. The upshot: I believe the chances we build a metaverse are materially higher today than I did on October 27th.
How did we get here? And what might a future with a metaverse be like?
Let’s start with some history. Chris Dixon coined the phrase “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.” The toys, in the case of the metaverse, are video games — it’s where we got used to manipulating avatars around in virtual environments. There are plenty of histories of the video game industry, but pioneering game designer Jordan Mechner’s book The Making of Prince of Persia, re-published by Stripe Press in 2020, is unique.
The main content is a series of Mechner’s personal journals from 1985–1993. But he’s supplemented these with lots of images, clips from emails, and his own additional context added 20 years later as scribbled notes in the margins. I’ll admit to being a little confused when I first picked up the book — I’d never heard of Mechner before, and thought the Prince of Persia was just an average action film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, perfect for killing a few hours on a plane.
But Mechner turns out to be a fascinating guy, who designed and built some of the most popular video games in the late 1980s. The first journal starts as he graduates college, already having published Karateka, a fighting video game which reached #1 on the Billboard charts in 1985. The journals give you a sense of how much the video game market has grown over the last four decades – Mechner mentions early in the journals that he had received only $75k in royalties as the sole designer of Karateka. Game developers in the mid–late 1980s were worried that the industry was in permanent decline. One of Mechner’s trusted friends in the industry advised him to become a screenwriter (!) as that was a job with more security and long-term prospects.
Part 1 of the book follows Mechner’s ups and downs as he labors to program The Prince of Persia video game using some innovative animation techniques. The objective is to defeat enemies and evade traps in order to save the princess from the evil advisor to the emperor in less than an hour.
The journals are a good look at some of the ebbs and flows of creative work; sometimes Mechner is very productive, but there are some weeks where he produces almost nothing of value. It’s also a classic example of how everything takes longer than you think — Mechner believes the game will take him a year to program, according to a journal entry from July 1986. In reality, the game was finally released on October 3rd, 1989. Mechner explores some of the basic principles of video game design – how to make the game fun and pull the player through the frustrations of screwing up and dying. Different musical cues and pacing help the player build momentum with small wins, while new features and elements keep the game’s twelve levels interesting.
Video games today take enormous teams sometimes a decade or more to build and require infamous “crunches” to get the final product delivered. Mechner programmed Prince of Persia by himself over 1–2 years. The journals are littered with examples of collaboration informing crucial design choices, but the creative work was done by an individual. The industry was nascent; a guy with a video camera could produce revolutionary advances in graphics and animation. Today, metaverse development requires a $10B annual budget and is likely decades away.
Part 2 of the book follows the period immediately after The Prince of Persia is released. Despite great reviews, the game struggled to take off — in the first nine months after its release it sold only 9,500 copies. In August 1992, it sold 7,500. By the end of the book, Mechner is complaining about how rich he is and how he should stop being miserly and spend his new wealth. Mechner advised Broderbund, the developer he worked with on Prince of Persia, on the programming of the sequel, and 10 years later in 2002 worked with Ubisoft to update the game for PS2 and Xbox.
Prince of Persia became the basis for Assassin’s Creed, a hugely popular video game series which has sold more than 155 million units over the last 14 years. The latest Assassin’s Creed editions are open worlds to explore Ancient Greece and Egypt and are on the cutting edge of what is possible in a single-player game. We’ve come a long way towards simulating other worlds since Prince of Persia’s groundbreaking animation. The Making of Prince of Persia is a window onto the history of video game development, and through Assassin’s Creed take the reader to the modern day.
Into the OASIS
Conceptualizing a continuous metaverse, where millions can simultaneously interact requires a new introduction for Book Parings: fiction. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel depicts a dystopian 2044, where climate change, war, and resource scarcity have made the OASIS, a digital virtual reality/MMORPG the workplace and escape of much of humanity. The owner and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, who is a thinly disguised Steve Jobs figure, has died and left ownership and control of the OASIS to whoever can solve his esoteric 1980s pop culture inspired puzzles. Halliday started out programing best-selling video games mostly on his own in the 1980s — he’s Jordan Mechner, if Mechner founded a massive social network instead of pursuing screenwriting.
The best parts of the book are Cline’s description of the OASIS and its impact on society — the rest is a fun beach read, especially for those who nerd out on pop culture references. The OASIS is home to virtual schools, businesses, shopping, and everyday life, all set in a space which also contains worlds inspired by Star Wars, Star Trick, Firefly, Dune, Lord of the Rings, and a host of other science fiction settings and universes.
The OASIS allows for a certain egalitarianism — when you can design your own avatar, you can pick your identity, so racial/ethnic/gender distinctions become less relevant. But there are questions of equity and access which get limited treatment; while the OASIS is ostensibly free, many people can’t afford the equipment needed to access the OASIS, similar to how a quarter of US citizens still don’t have access to home internet today. Employees of big corporations operate in an indentured servitude similar to that described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. The OASIS monetizes via items purchasable with in-game currency, and taxes on transportation. Our hero starts out too poor and his character too weak to travel to any other world than his school planet. To raise funds and get stronger, he has to hitch rides to other planets with his wealthier friends. Does using an avatar in the metaverse just re-inscribe the cost of moving around in physical space?
In a period where climate change and a severe energy crisis have ripped apart the physical world, one of the few places where power is consistent is Columbus, Ohio, home to the OASIS’s servers and a constellation of other firms who co-locate to get as fast an OASIS uplink as possible. I genuinely fear this outcome — instead of working to solve the problems of the physical world, a metaverse might allow us to withdraw to a virtual world and dedicate remaining scarce resources to extending the period of escape. This is easy for me to say — as a well-off white dude, the real world is a pretty great place! For many, the metaverse could provide opportunities the physical world never would. But I worry about the tradeoffs. Cline does, too — in the end, having finished the quest, Wade walks out and meets some his friends in the real world for the first time.
Conclusion: Time to Prepare
The metaverse is probably more of an incremental technology rather than a massive leap in how humanity interacts. While Prince of Persia traces the development of game design and simulation software, the supporting hardware has advanced in parallel.
We have been spending more and more time getting closer and closer to our screens ever since Apple popularized the personal computer. Laptops and mobile phones meant we could take our screens to more places. AR and VR rigs are the next step, placing us inside the internet as opposed to just viewing it via screens.
The metaverse could be a powerful tool for exploration and further reduce the barriers between people based on distance and the random luck of where we were born. But I worry about the impact it may have on daily life. Each computing platform means more time spent in front of a screen and in virtual reality instead of the real world. Today’s social media apps are enough to envelop us in a bubble of like-minded folks, if we aren’t careful. How powerful might our filters be if we literally live and breathe a virtual reality of our own choosing? The reflection the metaverse holds up to the human condition may be as warped as a magnifying mirror viewed at the wrong distance.
Zuckerberg’s address notes that he doesn’t want the metaverse to result in more screen time, but in the better use of the time we already spend. I very much doubt this is the case. There are entire bodies of literature on the ethics of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. The ethics of the metaverse is equally deserving of attention. Though I have no desire to follow the Chinese example and impose governmental regulations on screen time, we need to start to think more seriously about how to balance the real and virtual worlds, especially when the virtual worlds offer so many opportunities for promise and misuse.
Prince of Persia:
Read Part 1, which gets into all the nuts and bolts of Prince of Persia’s game design and the highs and lows of difficult creative work.
Skim Part 2 for the entries where Mechner mentions Prince of Persia’s reaction, but skip the rest. I didn’t find his sections on becoming a screenwriter or living in various international locations compelling or interesting.
Read the last few pages, where Mechner fans from around the globe talk about the impact Prince of Persia had on them; for a total outsider like me, this section put into context why the game and the book really matter.
Ready Player One:
This is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, a beach read. There are long, long expositions and descriptions of 1980’s culture which can fall flat for many. It’s much harder to read/skim/skip in the way I believe everyone should when approaching nonfiction, but the most interesting parts of OAISIS description are in the first half of the book, particularly Chapter 5 which has the biography of James Halliday and his company Gregarious Simulation Systems.
 I tend to disagree with the view that all this name change and long-term strategy talk is just a distraction to shift focus from the investigations into FB’s platform rules and misinformation and creating self-confidence issues in teens.
 Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, published in 1998, is the source of the term Metaverse. The novel includes a virtual world similar to ours, where digital avatars roam the virtual landscape, own property, and conduct business and pleasure. The metaverse isn’t actually the main focus of the novel, though it plays a major role as a setting; like most of Stephenson’s work, Snowcrash goes down the rabbit hole on many disciplines, with the key plot point surrounding the virality of the Sumerian language and a retelling of the Tower of Babel parable. The tone is schlocky and irreverent; the main characters’ names are Hiro Protagonist and Yours Truly.
 This may seem counter-intuitive, but more regulation means more costs to ensure compliance, and incumbents who already have massive scale can spread those costs over the most users. For more, here’s a good article on Ben Thompson’s blog Stratechery:
 Then I learn doing research for this piece that it grossed $335m at the global box office. Apparently a lot of folks liked it!
 Mechner notes he came up with the idea for Prince of Persia six years before Disney released Aladdin; the concepts are very, very similar.
 This stands for massively multi-player online role-playing game – lots of people playing as characters in a virtual world. Hi mom.
 If by some chance Jordan Mechner ever reads this piece, you definitely seem way less awkward and weird than James Halliday. Please don’t be offended!
 I think it might be better as an audiobook, which is how I read the book.
 Information access on the internet today is a good analog. While free distribution and user-generated content have made more knowledge accessible for free than any other time in human history, a lot of the good stuff, particularly in the sciences, is paywalled. See the debate over Sci-Hub, for instance, for more.