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Myst Will Persist: How Uru Got Its Groove Back

June 29, 2006
 

Rand Miller and his brother, Robyn, created Myst at their company Cyan way back in 1993, after a series of legendary Mac-specific Hypercard-using games that did playful, wonderful things with storytelling. As for the multi-format converted Myst iself, the title was legendary for its size, graphics, and mind-bending puzzles, as well as its use of the then-emerging CD-ROM drive, and the Myst series soon telescoped to a total of over 12 million sales.

Since the original game, the game has spawned many successors, most recently Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and Myst V: End Of Ages. Up until recently Miller's company, Cyan Worlds, was hard at work on an online version of the game, known as Uru Live, an extension to Uru itself, before the online portion of the game was cancelled by Ubisoft, Cyan's former publisher. But at E3, Turner Broadcasting's GameTap 'all you can eat' online gaming service announced that it would begin publishing the title later this year, as part of GameTap's monthly subscription fee of $10.

Following this announcement, Gamasutra had a chance to chat with Rand Miller about Uru Live, the history of Myst, and a whole host of other fascinating topics.

Gamasutra: Myst and Manhole were done in Hypercard. Development has come a long way since then. How have you adapted to this changing development environment?

Rand Miller: I get better people than me to do it [laughs]. It's fun enough being an OK programmer, which I guess is what I am, and being able to get your hands on the things and see your vision come to pass, but it's also satisfying getting others involved, bringing more talented people in as you improve your engine or your core technologies. There are certain frustrations to it, where it's interesting to go back in and get your hands on the code, but I gotta admit it's also amazing to watch it take shape with the talented people I've got around me. It's less hands on with the actual bits and bytes, but I'm still watching everything grow a little bit at a time.

All we set out to do was build alternate places, even in those early Manhole days. They were archaic by today's standards, but we still wanted it to feel like a place. The technology has become much more sophisticated, it's nice to embrace it.


A familiar sight from the original Myst.

GS: How do you keep the puzzles fresh?

RM: I think as far as the design goes, sometimes the puzzles are the most difficult part. It's not because they're hard to come up with, it's just hard to come up with something unique. We have a few people who are good at thinking out of the box. Especially when doing the puzzles, that's a really useful tool. You can take an existing challenge or look at the world around you and just adapt it.

Even so, at some point we start running into things that are similar to what we've done before, and we just try to tweak the environment enough and change some of the parameters so that it still feels fresh.

GS: This style of gameplay has faltered recently. You're the only ones still making them on a large scale. Why is that?

RM: It's hard to say. I think a lot of it is that the technology improved a lot faster than this genre did, ourselves included. There's a large group of people who are really interested in seeing what their machines will do. That's what gamers love. When Myst came out, it felt like we were pushing things. Even though they were slideshow graphics, the graphics were pretty out there for a computer game. There were lots of them, and it felt big and unique. As we were continuing to do pre-rendered stuff, other people were pushing realtime 3D. And realtime 3D feels more advanced, and you get more return on your investment with realtime 3D than what we were getting with pre-rendered.

So when Riven came out, the pictures were phenomenal. It was as photo realistic as you can get with still pictures, but it was still reminiscent of Myst. On the other hand, when things are moving around on the screen in realtime, that's hard to ignore, that's flashier, that's fun, and that attracts a core group of people, and beyond a core group of people who want to do the most with their equipment.

To me Tomb Raider was very close to an adventure game. I had to shoot the dogs and some bad guys, and after that I had to solve some puzzles to go to the next stage. But it was done in realtime 3D and I think that works. I think people respond to that. The combination of flash and exploration is a good thing.

GS: How does that translate into Uru Live?

RM: Well, we've embraced the realtime 3D. Probably a little later than most people, but we also had a pretty high bar to live up to. People expect some pretty phenomenal graphics from us. And we had to make sure we could do that. Unfortunately, I think there's some taint to the genre. I think it's not dead, in fact I think there's a big opportunity in this genre for someone to come out with something that blows everybody away and makes them realize that, in fact, there is a large group of people who like this kind of thing.

With Myst we sold... what was it... 8 million copies or something. Those people like wandering around in a world involving puzzles and not dying. So somewhere out there is a big audience of people who'd enjoy that if you get the right combination of people again.

GS: How did you guys get in touch with Blake Lewin at GameTap?

RM: We've known him for a while. Long before we had any business dealings, he started calling us, and he liked Myst and was working at Turner and thought that maybe we could get involved. I think that he saw something in Myst: the story element there that isn't kind of an add-on. It's the core component of our entertainment, and he being in a linear field and dealing with trying to expand that...

That was a number of years ago and we've tried to have some projects together at various times but just haven't. But at this point everything worked out pretty well. I think it's a great fit for GameTap and it's a healthy shot in the arm for us to really get Uru Live out there.

 


The Uru Live log-in screen, in its Ubisoft-published days.

 

GS: It seems strange that the games which originally required a new medium, CD and DVD, are now going to be streamed on the Internet.

RM: I think it's a testament to the internet. Even when we were designing Uru originally, though, that's what we had in mind. We always thought that the essence of Uru was people love to explore and the fault in the one-off games is you get to explore until it stops. Well, what if it didn't stop? What if the worlds continued? So our plan for Uru was always that, to continue to stream those ages those pieces on a regular basis so that your adventure never ended.

GS: So that means you've got an endless development cycle here!

RM: Yeah, exactly. To me, this is what Uru Live will live or die on. That's both the exciting part and the risky part, and in the end that's why Uru Live was canceled. We look at online gaming different from everyone else does. What people want is content. You can fool yourself and provide substitute stuff for them to do, but you'll end up getting what we consider to be a niche market. I'm not saying we're going to solve this problem, but inevitably, what people want is new stuff all the time.

That's why we give them cable and satellite TV, and that's why the internet is so popular, because it's just full of stuff. And the question is, can we provide enough stuff in an online game so that every time someone comes back in they wonder, "what's new now?" And are they willing to pay a monthly fee for that?

GS: Have you got stuff planned out way in advance?

RM: I think that the discussions we've had must be really similar to the discussions with early television. I can imagine somebody sitting in a board room with a few guys smoking cigars and he says, "I know we got people watching TV, but what if we create enough new TV so that there's three hours of new TV every night?" And you can extrapolate from there. People must have thought they were crazy. I'm not presumptuous enough to think we've got it all figured out, but I don't think we're the first ones to have to do something like that. So, yes, we are planning ahead.

When Uru Live was canceled, we had a huge amount of development in progress that was ready to be rolled out. Some pretty substantial stuff was going to be rolled out every month, and smaller things on a daily basis were going to happen. And it just kinda got shut down, and we turned that stuff into expansion packs and kinda gave it away. We've had to regroup and look at things in a new way to build the content that will be really satisfying.

GS: Cyan has always seemed like a bit of an outside to the games industry. What's it like dealing with the industry like that?

RM: It's a good industry. It's a tough industry, there's no doubt about it. There's a lot of big execs making a lot of money and a lot of people in the trenches hacking away working a lot of long hours. It's not quite expected, but it turns up a bunch of dough for somebody. The interesting thing is just watching it go through cycles of innovation and stagnation. And I think the price of development tends to stagnate things. If I was a publisher, I'd have to clamp down on things that feel too risky. Being an outsider, I think we're in and out.

When Myst came out, it was definitely the gamers that made it successful. I remember when it came out, being online Robyn and I both, checking the gamer forums when Myst came out, and those people were avid gamers who were enjoying it. I think when something become mainstream, they feel less special to the core group, and like I said, we probably didn't keep up with innovation that was the most interesting to the core gamer crowd.

But even some of the reviews for Myst 5, from a gamer perspective, Uru and Myst 5 were pretty satisfying. We were getting some pretty hardcore gamers who were responding well to what we had done technologically and to where we had taken things. So that was kinda nice to be reconsidered by that crowd. But I think everyone's focus right now is getting mainstream, hitting mainstream players, and not necessarily a gamer crowd.


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