A chat with the brains behind Myst

In the late 1980s a pair of brothers, Rand and Robyn Miller, founded a game development studio called Cyan. They created a series of memorable children’s games including The Manhole, Cosmic Osmo and Spelunx, gradually winning critical praise and seeing commercial success for creating non-violent games in which players were encouraged to spend time solving problems rather than reacting with their trigger fingers.

In the early 1990s the brothers — along with artist Chuck Carter and audio engineer Chris Brandkamp — would create one of the most memorable and enduring games in the history of the medium: Myst. Myst combined non-violent, non-aggressive exploration with puzzle solving and beautiful pre-rendered scenes that were a visual feast for the eyes, equally appropriate for kids and adults alike.

In an industry that had already been defined by shoot-em-ups and arcade games of all shapes and sizes, Myst was something very different, and it proved to be very popular, becoming one of the best-selling computer games in history. Myst spawned not just a sequel but an entire series of games: Riven, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, a PC-only game called Uru, and most recently, Myst V: End of Ages, the final game in the Myst series.

End of an era

With the release of Myst V: End of Ages, Cyan Worlds has officially offered the closing chapter of the Myst saga, 13 years after it got started.

“I should preface this by saying that Myst V was the fastest Myst we’ve ever done,” said Cyan co-founder Rand Miller, who reports that it took about a year to create the game.

“Myst V completes the story the way it needed to end,” Miller told MacCentral . “It’s a place we knew we’d go. You plan the broad strokes and not the details.”

While previous Myst games have been referred to derisively by critics as “slide shows” for their node-based navigation systems and still imagery, Myst V breaks out of that once and for all. The entire game is an advanced graphics engine that incorporates real-time environmental details and the ability to freely navigate the environment. And rather than using live-action movies to show actors, the actors’ faces have actually been mapped onto 3D characters. The result is the most technically sophisticated looking Myst game to date.

“The most difficult aspect to this project was having the classic Myst navigation in the real-time engine,” said Miller. While players are free to move about the environment similarly to how they would in a first person shooter, for example, they can also adopt a more “classic” navigation system that uses node-based navigation much like earlier Myst games have. Miller said that the design team compromised on the system after extensive discussions about how it should work.

The story of Myst involves the Art of Writing, a mystical effort that enables the writer to create books that transport their readers to different worlds, or Ages. As players proceed through the games, they discover that the practice of this art has had a horrible effect on the D’ni, a race of people central to the game. Myst V brings the story full-circle, putting in the player’s hands the ultimate fate of the D’ni.

Was it difficult, after working on Myst games for more than a decade, to close that chapter? Miller said no. “You work on it for so long,” he said. “The walls start to close in. It’s nice to clean that up, clear your desk and start on a new project.”

A Mac fan

Myst got its start on the Mac platform, and Miller himself hasn’t strayed. He said that he’s got a house full of Macs.

“When we were developing Uru,” said Miller, referring to the one Myst installment that didn’t make it to the Mac, “I just took a PC home from the office to play it. I refused to spend my hard-earned money [on a PC].”

Miller described the ease with which his Macs have been able to work together. “I’ve had to become an IT guy at home,” he said, thanks to the myriad computer he has. “Just getting the PC on the network was asking for trouble.”

For Miller, there’s a strong synergy between Macs and Myst. A lot of it comes down to aesthetic considerations, he believes — something that Miller believes give Mac users an edge up compared to many other computer users.

“If you’re not going to stop and appreciate the scenery, you’re not going to enjoy Myst,” said Miller. “The same thing applies on the Mac as well.”

What’s more, added Miller, many Mac users have higher expectations of how their software — including games — should look and feel.

“It’s the attention to detail that people appreciate,” said Miller, referring to Apple products. He cites the iPod as an example.

Miller is happy that Cyan Worlds was able to deliver a Mac version of Myst V. While he admits that he would have liked Cyan to spend more time testing the Mac conversion, which was completed by Canadian porting company Beenox, he’s satisfied with the end result.

For Mac users, publisher Ubisoft has created a special “limited edition” version on DVD-ROM, that includes the game in hybrid format for Macs and PCs as well as some other goodies, such as a soundtrack disc, “making of” feature and strategy guide.

Rising from the ashes

Things looked bad for Cyan Worlds in September, shortly after it was announced that Myst V: End of Ages was shipping. Rumors began to circulate that Cyan Worlds would be closing their doors — and soon thereafter it was announced that the rumors were true.

“What a crazy roller coaster we’ve been on,” said Miller. Miller said that with the Myst series finally wrapped up, the company sought publishing partners — and money — to work on new projects.

“One of [the projects] we considered to be very unique. It had a lot of the feel that Myst did when we first did it. I’ll use the word ‘risky,’” Miller told MacCentral. “It’s something that stepped out, what we’ve code-named The Lattice Project.”

The costs of producing an A-list title regularly run into the millions of dollars, and with such large financing on the line, major commercial game publishers are reluctant to invest in anything they don’t see as a sure-fire win. They’re reluctant even when the company is a proven entity like Cyan Worlds.

“There was some good response [from publishers] but publishers are very risk-averse,” Miller explained.

“When it came to closing a deal before we ran out of money, it didn’t happen,” said Miller. “We told everyone what our deadline was, and that if we didn’t have anything then we’d give them enough money to run for a month or two.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, however.

“We still had a few irons in some fires, and one of them seemed to fall into place the next week,” said Miller. Cyan Worlds would keep its doors open after all. “Just about everyone came back, almost all of the key people.”

Miller was unable to discuss any of the specifics behind the deal that has allowed Cyan Worlds to keep its doors open, but hopes to offer more public details within the next month or two. Will the next project run on the Mac?

“There are enough [pro-Mac] people in key places at Cyan that I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” said Miller.

This story, "A chat with the brains behind Myst" was originally published by PCWorld.

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