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Rand Miller interview

Whenever people talk about adventure games, one topic guaranteed to create rousing debate is Myst. Regardless of where one stands, the impact of Myst and its successors on the genre is undeniable. For its creators, the departure from the status quo began when URU -- a short lived experiment in online 3D gaming -- was produced. However, reaction to that game was mixed at best, and controversy once again reigned supreme. So when Cyan announced a return to its roots with Myst V, many were ecstatic. The excitement was tempered, however, by the surprising news revealed in the game's title, End of Ages. As the name suggests, the conclusion of the Myst series will soon be upon us.

What does all this mean for the future of Myst and the team at Cyan? When Adventure Gamers was given the chance to talk with Rand Miller at E3, we eagerly seized the opportunity. In many ways, the chat provides as many questions as answers. But the results are high energy, good-humored and refreshingly candid. In other words, pure Rand Miller.

LM: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First, I have to ask the question on everyone's mind. Is this really the end of Myst?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We don't have any plans to make any further Myst games, although I don't know what the future holds. The story is tied up in a way that is satisfying from our point of view. It's not about the fireworks and fanfare; it's about the way we do things with Myst. Telling a great story in a subtle, quiet way and having substantial repercussions at the end to tie it all up, and this was a good time to wrap things up. This is a new beginning, really.

LM: Do you have any thoughts as to where you will take that new beginning?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We have a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Starting with a blank slate is refreshing. We will pursue whatever anyone will pay us to do. If they won't pay us to do anything, we won't do anything.

LM: How do you feel about where you are now, with the impact of Myst and its conclusion?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: There are mixed emotions. There always will be when you wrap a long term project up. It has been a big part of our lives together, so this will be difficult.

LM: What is going to happen with Cyan? Will you keep the team together after Myst V?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We are trying. We've got some great and incredibly talented people. This project has been tough, because it's had such a short timeline. We have done a lot of work in a very brief time. But we could do this because the people have been there a long time and they know what they are doing. They work efficiently and are incredibly talented.

LM: Myst in many ways helped create its own sub-genre. What are your thoughts on Myst's impact on games and on you personally? Good times… bad… roller coaster?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Ah, it's a roller coaster! It's good and bad. The first one was absolutely incredible. It was a Cinderella story of the guys building a game in their garage, which was so incredible. I mean, how can that not be a blast! It was also so much work, which can take a lot out of you. But it is always refreshing to sit down in front of a monitor and watch people explore your world. To see them walk through places that started out only in your head and now they can go there as well.

LM: What motivates you when the work becomes so demanding? What do you do on days when you just wonder why you are there?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: I just don't go to work on those days.

*Laughter*

With this one in particular, I was motivated by the challenge. The idea of having the real-time 3D, but being able to explore it the same way you did in the original Myst. That was worth pursuing. That was the one goal that thrilled me. At the beginning we thought it was just a trivial problem. We said, "Oh that'll be easy. That won't be a problem. How can that be hard?" Then when we got into it, and it changed to, "Oh my gosh!" It was anything BUT trivial. I don't know that we perfected it, but we got pretty darn close. Watching people who don't play real-time 3D games being able to sit down with just a mouse and one button and wander through a virtual real-time 3D world is deeply satisfying to us.

LM: What has been the response of testers or the public so far to this new real-time world of Myst?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: It's been pretty good, but it does vary, depending on their backgrounds. The people who tested it; we also tried to make the story a little bit of a dilemma for them. They have these two people here they can interact with. Which do they believe? To make this exploration personal, we have different modes that people play in and it's like a radio dial. Their tastes are as varied as their music.

LM: Can you choose which interface you use, between the mouse or keyboard?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: You have two primary modes of operation. One is as close to Myst as we could get within a real-time 3D environment. The other one is trying hard not to reinvent the wheel and saying, "well, people are familiar with the game; let's use the interface they are most familiar with." We didn't try to build a full mode interface ourselves. That's already been done well. For people who play shooters, they are used to wandering and seeing everything and going anywhere. If you are used to that, we want gamers to feel comfortable. It's a different kind of game but it would be interesting to take everything you learned from there and partake.

LM: Why don't we explore your new world, then. In Myst V, how do you interact with the people or creatures you will meet?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: There are characters and creatures in the game. In Myst games, we were always hesitant to use arbitrary ways to communicate with people. We didn't want dialogue boxes where you click-click, yes and no. In this game, there is a creature you need to communicate with. Well, what better way, especially in a Myst game, than to tie it back into writing or drawing symbolic gestures. So through the course of the game you actually learn symbols that are a rudimentary way to communicate with these creatures. If you draw the symbol on the tablet and then walk away from it, these creatures appear and read the slate or not, depending on what you put on it or how well you communicated with it. If you manage to communicate with them the right way, they will do what you tell them to. In some cases, what they do will affect or change the world.

LM: You learn these symbols in the game and then they will come, read the tablet and they respond according to whether you got the command right or not?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: It isn't about getting it right; it is about communicating. These creatures aren't alien but the language is alien to you. They have a language they understand. You are trying to initiate this contact. If they can understand what you write they go, "Okay, you want me to make it rain." And they will go off and make it rain for you.

They can change the world. Now, that is part of what you learn as you go through this. You will have the interesting feeling of changing the world by writing. It also helps you solve certain puzzles as you go along. For example, the rain is necessary at some point to see something happen.

LM: Can you go anywhere you want in this world?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Sure! We are trying to make this a Myst that everyone can enjoy. Quite frankly, I think a lot of people have dismissed previous Myst games because they weren't real-time 3D, because they felt old, because the technology felt like it was slightly winded. But this excuse is gone. At the same time, we don't want to leave people behind, either. It gets so complicated. My parents enjoyed the first Myst game and can't even play many newer games. Well, why not let them enjoy this as much as any other player?

LM: Would you say that was the greatest challenge? Making the game not just accessible in practice, but making the players see the game as accessible?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Right! That's one of the reasons I think Myst was so intriguing to people, because you were plopped on a dock. You can click and until you hit a wall, why would you stop clicking? It's just click and go, click and go.

The point is you can set people down and they don't have a reason to not keep moving. We also have tried to make it accessible in the plot line. These games have gotten pretty difficult puzzle-wise. A lot of times people were viewing it as a puzzle game versus an adventure game. It is interesting to look at it that way. There are actually two sets of players. One is the people who like to vacation; they just like to explore interesting places. The other ones are the puzzle achievers who like that aspect of the games. Frankly, we left the explorers behind a bit on the previous Myst titles. It is time to go back to them and say, "Let's knock the puzzles down a bit and let the people get to some of these places and explore."

LM: That's good to hear. If you run smack into a puzzle blocking you every time you move, that part of the game is frustrating to many players.

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: There is still this balance -- puzzle people want them to be harder and it's the same thing they said after Myst: it's too easy or it's too hard.

At this point, we are definitely trying to say we have given the puzzle people harder and harder. Now it is time to give explorers a chance to wander this game before they hit a wall. They just want to click and go. These are beautiful places and if people can't get to them, what good does it do to build them?

LM: How difficult is it to balance the wants of the Myst devotees with the rest of the gaming world? I mean, you have a mixed blessing. A near-fanatical group of dedicated fans, but do they put some pressure on you to have your games stay the same; to not evolve too far from their origins in terms of gameplay and style?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: The fan base has been nothing but good for us. They have never hurt us or held us back that I know of. They are critics the same way we are critics. When Richard Watson and I sit down, we try to think of the continuity issues that they're going to find so that the story doesn't have holes. Sometimes we do take some artistic license, because it is allowed in the characters' life experiences. But most of the time we would complain about the same things that they would. So we might push the story a little bit this way and pull back a little here, but they have always been great.

LM: So what are you going to do with these guys when you're finished? You going to have a home for nervous Mysters in withdrawal?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: *Laugh* Well now, who knows what the future will hold. We have some things still going on. There is possibly a fourth book. Who knows what will happen with that. After people play the game and they see the ending, they will realize, "Oh, well, it is an ending, but of course every ending is also a new beginning." It's not like the world is destroyed and blown up.

LM: I am glad you brought up the fourth book. Is it a sure thing?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We have got pieces of it done and have outlines done. But we just don't know. Books are not what we do well, but the story is great.

LM: Are there other people in the game? Besides the Bahro creatures, I mean.

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Yes there are. In real-time 3D, it is very difficult to do live action characters. That's not what we wanted to do. So we built real-time 3D characters. We used motion capture to make their movement as realistic as possible. We built real physics into the clock to make it look like they are moving with the world. It was very difficult to get the kind of emotions and subtleties we wanted from hand animating the bones in the face. So we captured video of the actors' performance while they were in the rig and taped a live performance of their faces. Then we projected this onto the head of the character, which gave us a lot more subtlety to their expressions.

If the actors blinked, we even got that movement. You could do it so the person was totally realistic, but then they would stand out rather than blending in. The point is to make it feel like you are there and he's really there. And he's a person who belongs there and not fully rendered. This way he casts shadows and he blends into the environment.

LM: Now, the player's progress in the game... Is it written down by the game somewhere or automatically recorded?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Instead of making you write down everything in the game, yes, we have a journal as well allowing you to snap photos. Every picture you take is actually a saved game as well. You don't have to use them, though. Frankly, in the game, you don’t need to save at all. You can play through the whole thing without ever using a save. But if you want them, you can make them.

LM: How many levels are in this game?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We have numerous ages and in a lot of ways this game is reminiscent of the first one as much as anything; where the choices you make in the story pull you in a couple of directions. There will be an age that feels like a hub, where you branch into different places. And they are all huge. I mean, it is amazing to me that we built up what we have in such a short amount of time. These are vast levels. Because we pulled back from the puzzles, it makes you want to get through them a little bit faster. I was asked earlier if I play faster through the game because I know it. Actually, when I know the game, I go through it slower. I just enjoy being in the places. I can go sit by the water. There's a place where you can sit by the water and every now and then there will be a bird that dives into the water. If you don't stop and enjoy that place, you'll never see that.

LM: When you are speaking of exploration, interaction comes to mind -- things to do that may not be directly connected to advancing the game. What engages the player along those lines in this game?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: That's always an interesting balance. You put things in just to be interesting and the puzzle people gripe. They will say, "I messed with that thing forever to try and figure out what it was and it wasn’t even important!" Then there is the interactive stuff you can achieve with real-time graphics. Besides the fact that the grass always moves in the breeze, this is a real breeze in a real space. So if I open one window and then open the one on the other side, the breeze blows through and has an effect. And it is persistent. So if I open the windows and I leave and come back, I don't have to wonder whether they will be open.

LM: You do notice it intuitively; it just feels right when you walk around this place.

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: That is exactly right. You don't even have to think about it, but somehow if it didn't work, you start to get bugged out like it's not a real place. Then there is the balance of story in the game. The important thing is that this is a magic show and in a real magic show, sometimes the story all by itself would sound a little bit stupid. "Oh, so you just made an elephant disappear -- now tell me his story." It's like that. There's plenty of entertainment out there on the floor that is story lite. But in adventure gaming, even though the story is integral, I think there are other ways to build story into interactive entertainment than just telling it.

LM: About the music in the game, will Peter Gabriel contribute again?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: No, just Tim Larkin. We have been using him for a long time. He feels as close to this project as anyone, except for myself and Robyn.

LM: Will you have a compilation soundtrack available for this game, like you offered with the others?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: I am sure we will. I don't know what the plans are back at the office, but it would be easy to produce, so yes.

LM: How are you looking on the release date for this fall?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: We are in beta or pre-beta now. Pretty close to trying to get the bulk list down.

LM: Would you see this as a fitting end to this portion of your professional life?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: I am not going to portray this as the best thing since sliced bread. But it is a fitting ending to the story. It's a Myst ending. It is not about the bang as much as the subtleties and the story wrapping up in a way that's effective. So that's a satisfying thing. The bang may be in the way the technology is being used. There are so many features and unique aspects to this that will surprise people. Real-time 3D alone is unique for an "official" Myst game.

LM: Are there days when you miss your time in that garage? Not the setting itself, but the way it was in the beginning, before all the hype and Mystique erupted. Seems like things were so pure for you then.

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: They were. But like anything, there is good and bad. When you are in the garage, you are living from paycheck to paycheck and then not always knowing if the next one will be there. There was something about it, though, because when I was working in the garage, I was working at home. There is something good about that -- being there with your family and then after dinner going back to work. So I was still with my family. They can see what you are doing and are a part of it. There is also something exciting about not knowing what you are doing; not having a clue about what will happen with it all.

LM: There has been a lot of talk and thought about distribution of games, particularly adventure games. Perhaps the standard publisher model isn't working or it needs some adjustment. What are your thoughts on this?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: Frankly, it seems to go the opposite way. You can't have the boxes [consoles] that are on the front cover of the daily magazines coming out with the capabilities they have, and then develop grass roots or smaller stuff for them. You have to throw 20 or 30 million dollars into your development end to establish yourself in a real business sense. But on the other hand, particularly with the internet and such, there's a lot of room for smaller people to produce scaled-down products for a niche market as well. The adventure market in particular is a dilemma, because as much as I like that, I am not sure what all that category encompasses. The economics don't allow for the huge 30 million dollar development costs. So it's not the epics that are in the adventure category. But maybe that's okay. Maybe the independents in that regard will join.

LM: There are scaled down games coming and some are really quite good. But you still want to see a few games at least that are ambitious and try to have a wider reach, and that is what I am wondering if we will still see in the adventure genre sense.

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: I still think there is room for innovation. Whether or not yesterday's adventure category is up for grabs, this is what I call that story-driven category -- where it's not that the story is attached to the gameplay; it is where the gameplay is wrapped around the story, and adventure occurs within that frame. I do think there's a place for that and a way to do that. It is one of the things that a blank slate makes possible. But there are no guarantees on that. It is a risky business. Nobody is going to throw huge amounts of money at it. But maybe some of the smaller stuff will click and when it does, money will gravitate towards it.

LM: Thank you so much for sitting down with us today. Any last words?

[Color=DarkGreen]Rand[/color]: It may feel like an ending… but it never really is. It is always a new beginning as well.


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