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GDC 2013: Robyn Miller’s Myst Postmortem

GDC 2013: Myst Post Mortem
GDC 2013: Myst Post Mortem

Robyn Miller took the stage at GDC in a baseball cap and hoodie, looking a bit like a celebrity who didn’t want to be recognized. “I never would have expected that twenty years ago, when we made Myst, anybody would be interested in it twenty years later,” he started. “This is pretty incredible.” A few slides into his talk, he realized he hadn’t introduced himself: “I should say—Rand Miller, my brother, and I’m Robyn Miller—we were the guys who made Myst.” He seemed surprised when the audience broke out in cheers.

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Robyn and Rand Miller, twenty years ago. “I don’t know where we got the idea for two brothers. It had to be subconscious on some level,” Robyn joked of Myst’s storyline.

Part of GDC’s ongoing Classic Game Postmortem series, Miller’s talk detailed the creation of Cyan Worlds’ 1993 sensation. The story began about five years earlier, when Rand suggested they team up to create an interactive storybook using Hypercard. At first, Robyn wasn’t really interested—in fact, he didn’t even have a computer. Rand sent him a copy of Hypercard to try out on the computer in their parents’ basement. “I started drawing a manhole cover—that was the first part of the story—and I continued drawing a linear story. I drew the manhole cover open, and I just continued drawing, sequentially, this storybook,” Miller said. “But I got to this vine growing out of the manhole, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point. I didn’t know if I wanted to go up the vine or down into the manhole. And from there, the medium itself became nonlinear. It’s as if the medium was calling out to be nonlinear. It was not something that we really invented at that point in time or were trying to do, it just happened on its own.”

This early attempt became The Manhole, which the brothers’ new company Cyan released in 1988. From there they continued making similar kids’ games, all with the same qualities: black and white graphics, point-and-click controls, and a first-person point of view with the player serving as the in-game protagonist as if transported into this new world. “You didn’t have an avatar. You were the person in that world wandering around,” Miller said. “[The games] also had this quality of everything being explorable. We realized as we watched people play that people would see a door and they would definitely want to go through that door, but if people saw something like a forest in the distance, they wanted to go through that forest. No matter what it was—a drawer, anything—they wanted to be able to explore the entire world. They didn’t want any boundaries to that world, so we attempted as much as possible to create no boundaries.”

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A screenshot from The Manhole

Around 1990, after releasing five products for children, they wanted to make one of these worlds for adults. They came up with an idea for a “goal-oriented fantasy adventure” named The Grey Summons, a “totally textless environment” that would convey information via the player’s natural senses. It would have real-time animation, digitized sound and dialogue, and “no mindless ‘shoot and kill’; this world must be navigated by cleverness and tact.” They pitched it to Activision, who told them to stick to children’s games. “We were not doing very well at that point in time. I’m not exaggerating, we were eating rice and beans and government cheese, and that was our diet. We were probably very healthy,” Robyn joked, “but this was potentially the end of our career in gaming.” Soon after this, their luck changed when a Japanese publisher, Sunsoft, approached the Millers about making a game for an older audience that Sunsoft would bring to consoles, and Cyan could release for computers. “It blew our minds,” Robyn said. “We were on board totally, we just had no idea what to do.”

As they’d pitched in The Grey Summons, they knew they wanted to create a world that could be freely explored, a non-linear story with believable characters, more advanced graphics than their previous games, some sort of puzzles, and an ethical choice between right and wrong that the player would have to make. Beyond this, they hadn’t yet come up with any of the ideas that would become Myst, but they had some thoughts about how playing the game should feel. Their other brother had played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons growing up, and Rand and Robyn had observed firsthand the creativity and fun that emerged when a really good dungeon master was leading the story. “In fact, Rand created his own dungeon at one point in time, and what he threw out was rolling to create your characters, rolling for dexterity, rolling for strength,” Miller explained. “He said, ‘You guys are going to play this and just be yourselves, use your own intelligence, just observe within this universe.’ And in fact he never used dice at all, he just told people what they saw, within that universe.” The storytelling and sense of adventure that resulted was what they wanted to achieve in their new game.

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Rand Miller’s D&D dungeon. “When we were creating Myst, we got to the last age we were designing, the Mechanical Age, and we used this as a part of the design,” Robyn Miller said.

Zork was another inspiration—both brothers had played it, and liked how it presented a non-linear world to explore. (When asked by an audience member about the third-person adventure games of Sierra and LucasArts, Miller admitted that Rand may have played them, but these games weren’t on his radar.) C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia inspired Myst’s otherworldly portals, and the works of Jules Verne inspired the “mysterious” island itself, as well as the old, leather-bound books that appear in Myst Island’s library. Star Wars was another influence: “The myth behind that universe was deeply inspirational.”

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“This one is not arbitrary at all,” Miller said of the Channelwood Age’s pump house puzzle. “Maybe it doesn’t feel like a puzzle, it just feels like you’re trying to power stuff on the island.”

The Millers knew going into preproduction that they wanted Myst to have puzzles, but they didn’t want the puzzles to be arbitrary. “We had an idea that most people don’t like puzzles. Gamers love puzzles but we weren’t creating Myst for gamers. We were creating the game for, essentially, non-gamers,” Miller said, noting that a good puzzle shouldn’t feel like a puzzle. They wanted Myst’s puzzles to feel familiar and not arbitrary—like part of the world, something players could figure out with observation and basic common sense. He admitted that not all of Myst’s puzzles achieved this: “We made some really bad puzzles in Myst; there’s one or two that just suck… But we also made some good ones, and to a certain extent I think Myst works because of that.”

Robyn and Rand designed the game without having to consider sales projections or cater to outside expectations. “We just had a ton of fun. We didn’t have to second guess any of our choices,” Miller said. “We got to explore the world as we were designing, which was fantastic. I think it was a rare experience. We were literally just creating this world for ourselves, and I think that was one of the reasons Myst did well.” With the design completed, they proposed Myst to Sunsoft, who loved it. The Millers asked for a $265k budget: “We came up with what we thought it would cost, doubled it, and added a bunch more.” (They ended up exceeding this, but Miller said later in the talk that it never occurred to them to ask Sunsoft for more money.)

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Pages from the Myst proposal Cyan sent to Sunsoft

Before jumping in on development, they playtested the game in a D&D fashion, with the “dungeon master” narrating scenes like: “You are standing at one end of a wooden dock. To your right, the mast of a sunken ship sticks out of the water. At the opposite end of the dock, a stone staircase rises to the top of a hillock, at the top of which rests a gigantic gear. A few steps away, at the base of the stairs, rests a contraption—about waist-high—you don’t know what it is. What do you do?” In this way, they were able to fine-tune the gameplay before getting too far into development.

The Millers wanted Myst to have “advanced graphics” compared to their kids’ games, but figuring out exactly what that meant took some time. “We thought we would probably be hand-drawing the graphics, so Myst for a while was going to be all hand-drawn. It was intimidating to think, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this game with really advanced graphics but we’re going to have to draw it all,’” Robyn said. “I spent time in Photoshop in the beginning, and I got really scared thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have we gotten ourselves into? I can’t draw this stuff, this is going to look crappy.’” Then he turned to StrataVision 3D, which he’d dabbled with for some of Cyan’s kids’ games. (“It was a very simple program, very easy to learn.”) First he created grayscale extrusion maps, then color maps, and finally something that looked like Myst Island. “Once I created a single island, then we knew we could make a 3D world. From that point on, we were home free and we knew the world was going to look very, very different and cinematic.”

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Early prototypes of Myst Island, created in StrataVision 3D

The orientation of Myst’s islands was driven by technical requirements. Sunsoft intended to release Myst for game consoles, and in those days, consoles had no hard drive buffer and a very small memory buffer. These limitations prompted the design of Myst’s discrete Ages, which could each be loaded separately. The islands’ layout, in turn, drove the game’s design, with Myst Island serving as a central location that players returned to after visiting each distinct Age to collect a red or blue page. “Our plot was set up basically like the islands were set up, a very simple style of plot… It was something that we could fit in our minds very easily,” Miller said, adding that the sequel, Riven, had a plot “so complex we could never keep it straight. I think as the developers of Riven, it made it frustrating to work on. It also wasn’t contained and you couldn’t just sit there and imagine the story from beginning to end as you had experienced it. Looking back, in hindsight, I think [the simple plot] was another reason that Myst was successful.”

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Robyn and Rand had no particular backstory in mind for how the player ended up in Myst. “We really strongly felt that the protagonist, or YOU, was just whoever was playing the game,” Robyn said. “It’s funny because I know other stories have evolved, people have said The Stranger or something? I don’t even know what that means.”

They were fully committed to making the player the protagonist, without any backstory, and to nonlinear exploration, but during development these design elements interfered with their attempts to develop believable non-player characters. “Any characters you meet, they communicate to you and you don’t get to communicate to them. You’re in a nonlinear world. At any point in time when this person is talking to you, you can just walk away. It totally breaks the spell of believability,” Robyn said. “So we thought we needed to design around these limits. In terms of a one-way communication with whatever characters you come across—them speaking in this monologue style—we tried to feature it as much as possible with a one-way device of some sort. In terms of a nonlinear world, again we tried to feature that problem with some sort of location-based device.”

Their solution was to trap the game’s brothers, Sirrus and Achenar, inside linking books in Myst Island’s library. “With them in these books, a barrier existed naturally between you and these characters. It was okay for you to walk away from them because there was almost a screen or a plate of glass between you and them, and they were fading in and out all the time. If you had come across [these books] in the real world, it would be okay to walk away from them. It felt more believable in that respect,” Robyn explained. The ethical dilemma they had anticipated from the beginning of the project developed into the player’s decision to free one or the other brother from his linking book. But this turned out not to be enough: “We realized at a certain point in time that we needed this other sort of character at the ending. People needed something more.” Realizing that their father’s presence would make the decision more complex, they added Atrus to the end of the game.

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“In terms of this whole ethical decision aspect of the game, and the emotional provocation, I think it had that, but I’m not sure if we really succeeded as much as we wanted to,” Miller says of the player’s choice between the “good” and “evil” brothers.

For much of its development, Myst was very a quiet game—literally, as it had no background music. “There weren’t a lot of video games out with music at that point,” Miller recalled. They liked the idea of “diegetic” music that figured into the gameplay somehow (for example, in a previous game they had a sequence where you walk into a radio station, program the radio, then go to another location that has a radio and hear the music you programmed). But they thought a full soundtrack would seem false and pull people out of the environment, because music doesn’t play in the real world. When Broderbund, their publisher for the PC and Mac versions, suggested adding music, “We decided to try it to show them how wrong they were.” They tested some music in Myst and, realizing that it actually worked well, quickly wrote a full soundtrack that was recorded in the evenings over a two-week period.

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Thanks to Hypercard’s flexibility, the Millers were able to observe when playtesters stumbled, such as by clicking outside the boundary of a hotspot, and fix these problems on the fly.

With the game nearing completion, Robyn and Rand playtested it extensively, watching and taking notes while pairs of players explored Myst together. The game didn’t really have a target audience; they wanted a wide range of people to be able to play and enjoy it, so much of their testing was done with people who didn’t typically play games. “We always did it with two people, because two people would talk to one another. Whenever we would sit one person in front of the game they would just play [until they found a mistake], but we would sit two people down so they could talk to one another, and then we could hear whatever they didn’t like or did like,” Miller said. These playtests were crucial in refining Myst’s interface, or lack thereof: “We wanted the game to be accessible to everyone, and if they clicked something that didn’t work, that was our problem. That was something we had done wrong.”

Playtesting also exposed problems with the story. The game didn’t start off with an “inciting incident,” which left players uncertain how to proceed. To address this, the Millers added the note from Atrus to Catherine at the beginning, which tipped people off to check out the fore-chamber by the dock, where Atrus conveyed a message that kicked off the player’s quest. None of this was in the original design. “Before this was added, people didn’t know what to do. This kind of playtesting, where Rand and I were directly involved for long, long periods of time, really gave us a lot of vital information.”

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An (exaggerated) example of how Myst's data is contained on the CD-ROM

When it came time to prepare the game for emerging CD-ROM technology, Myst’s compartmentalized islands came in handy once again. “A single-speed CD-ROM is really, really slow. We were dealing with slow enough speeds that we had to carefully lay out the islands by hand onto the disc,” Miller said. In addition, all the shots and animations along a path would be grouped together in one place on the CD-ROM: “If we hadn’t done that, the speed of the CD-ROM wouldn’t have been able to pull from the drive fast enough to play the game.”

Myst’s development took two years altogether. Before its 1993 release, Broderbund did two rounds of focus group testing. Perhaps foreshadowing the polarizing position Myst would go on to take among adventure game fans, the first group hated it. “It was really discouraging,” said Miller. “And then they brought group two in, and man, this group—they loved it. And I think that was the first time Rand and I got this sense that, ‘Wow, this might sell, like, 100,000 copies. Maybe we’ll make our money back!’”

Twenty years later, Myst has sold 9 million copies and counting.

To see Robyn Miller’s talk in its entirety, visit Gamasutra.


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Community Comments

Latest comments (6 total)

Two words: “Myst Postmortem.” Thank you for ruining my day early. :-p

Seriously, though, this is a fantastic article, and really eye-opening. I’ve been a fan of Myst since my childhood. On my old 3DO I’d alternate between Myst and Doom. This might seem jarring, but for me, as a starry-eyed kid experiencing the wonders of CD-ROM media for the first time, it was pure magic. I adored every second of both games, at it was that experience that set me on a long and winding path through videogame history. They’re the reason I adore both shooters and adventure games. :-)

Despite the depressing header pic, my love for Myst is still alive and well to this day. Thanks for bringing us insight into the creation of one of the finest games ever made.

Apr 25, 2013

I enjoyed your article very much, Emily.  Getting glimpses into the development process from the germ of an idea to the fully realized game world I inhabited for many happy (and sometimes frustrating) hours is fascinating to me.

Apr 23, 2013

Postmortems do typically include a list of “what went right” and “what went wrong” with an eye toward “What could we do better next time?” In this case, however, it’s an article based on a talk from GDC, the title of the talk was “Myst Postmortem,” and the content of the talk is what’s covered in the article.

This is actually a common format for GDC’s Classic Game Postmortems. They sometimes do address things that went wrong, but as these games are usually decades old the talks are generally more about memories of the game’s development itself, without as much focus on “how we could have improved it” as a postmortem right after the fact might have. (At least, that’s been true of the ones I’ve attended.)

Apr 19, 2013

Bonsai: Its not just a name, its a type of article which outlines the pros and cons of the development. Its common in every industry.

Apr 19, 2013

“Postmortem” is not how I would describe Myst…..it is still alive for those of us who lived the experience and yearn for more.  Great article Emily.

(and I know it’s the name of the GDC’s Classic Game Series)

Apr 19, 2013

I’m sorry, but where is the post mortem? This is just a collection of tidbits about the development of Myst. Not uninteresting, but there’s not a single sentence from the brothers on what they’d do differently in retrospective, or what they think worked well and why.

Apr 19, 2013
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