Rand Miller – 30 Years of Cyan Worlds (Part 1) interview
In April of 1987, brothers Rand and Robyn founded a small game development studio. It’s probably safe to say that not even in their wildest dreams would they imagine becoming industry superstars just a few years later, releasing a game that would sell more than six million copies. Of course, the brothers in question are the Millers, the game is Myst, and Cyan the studio behind it. While Robyn left to pursue other interests, and the company went on to experience other rises, falls, and rises again, Cyan and Rand Miller are still going strong three decades after the studio’s humble founding, most recently having released the critically acclaimed Obduction in 2016. To celebrate 30 years of Cyan Worlds, I caught up with Rand on Skype for an in-depth discussion of the company’s past, present and future. As it turned out, there was so much to talk about that we’ve decided to split the interview into two parts. In the first installment, Rand takes us back to the early days as he reminisces about how a pop cultural phenomenon was born.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Rand. It’s a pleasure to welcome you back to Adventure Gamers to celebrate Cyan Worlds’ 30th anniversary. That’s very impressive – congratulations!
Rand Miller: Hi Ingmar. It’s amazing, thank you so much! It’s dates like this that make me realize just how long I’ve been in this industry. It’s amazing to have been doing this for 30 years. I never thought, back before we started, that I’d even get to make games for a living. It has its ups and downs, but, boy... it’s been great for 30 years!
Ingmar: What were you doing before you got into the game industry, and how did you turn into a developer?
An unusually camera-shy Rand Miller
Rand: I actually got into games at a fairly young age. When I was in junior high, a family friend took me to a computer center at a university nearby, and I played my first computer game. As soon as I played it, I was hooked. It was like magic: here was a computer responding to my commands. You know, it was just a terminal, but I was hooked. Of course, at the time I didn’t think you could do that for a living. But you could program, so I went into programming, took a couple of years of college, and then got a job at a bank, doing programming in data processing. I worked there for ten years, and while I was doing this, my brother and I got started in our spare time. Easy enough hours at the bank would allow me to experiment with certain things on the side as well. Then in many ways full circle, I fulfilled my dream of making computer games for a living, which is something I never thought would happen.
Ingmar: Your first game, The Manhole, was released for Macintosh in 1988. It’s interesting to look at it today. It’s a game for children, but you can find elements in there that you can also find in Myst. You took things further later on, of course, but it’s not an entirely different thing.
Rand: Yes, I absolutely agree! I think that probably the most revolutionary thing we did was The Manhole, and this may seem weird to anyone who knows it. We were thinking a bit differently for that product; it kind of set the stage for what we would do. The Manhole was kind of revolutionary, and from there everything was evolutionary, and you’re absolutely right! When I look at the early Manhole scenes… you know, there’s a ship that looks remarkably similar to the ship off at the dock in Myst, and the way you wonder around… The Manhole set our direction, and I think we just spent years trying to hold that and maybe get better at what we were doing.
Ingmar: When you started outlining the concept for your first game, what did your early ideas look like, and what were you trying to accomplish with The Manhole?
Hmmm... this ship from The Manhole (Masterpiece Edition) looks familiar
Rand: Well, it’s interesting. I think with The Manhole in particular, it was much broader strokes; I don’t think we ever laid anything out. There was a new platform called HyperCard on the Mac, and I just had my first daughter. In my mind, children’s software was severely lacking. It cost a lot of money, and there was little or no work of imagination in it. So I wrote a letter to my brother and said, “we should try to do children’s software that’s unique and takes advantage of what HyperCard would do.” In my mind, it was more like an interactive book, where you’d click on things, and they’d become alive, and where you’d experiment with each page, and then you’d turn the page to go on with the story.
I presented that to Robyn a couple of times because he is an incredibly talented artist and musician. He drew a manhole – we had little or no planning – and then he drew a fire hydrant in the background, and thought of it as kind of a first page in the book. Then he drew the next picture with the manhole cover moved off, and the vine coming up out, and then another picture looking up the vine. And very quickly, there was no desire to turn the page because this was not just a page in the book, it was a world that started to define itself. In the early days, with The Manhole in particular, it was very eclectic, because one thing would lead to another just based on whatever whim might come to mind for Robyn. I would get these pictures, put them together, and try to add some additional interactivity to them, but it was kind of a brain dump of imaginative areas to a certain extent. (both laugh)
Yeah, it all worked and tied together, and we made a small version of it first called The Fire Hydrant, which fit on one floppy disk. But then we quickly realized that the fun of this space was when it became larger, when there was more area to explore, and it started to feel more real. It was really strange at the time, but we made the world much bigger onto five floppy disks. The Manhole required a hard drive to play, and that was somewhat extraordinary for the time, as hard drives were just starting. But anyway, it was a nice start, and I’m very thankful it set us on this unique path.
Ingmar: Showing The Manhole to your daughter for the first time must have been a very special moment.
Printed pages of all the images in The Manhole
Rand: Oh yeah! She was two or three at the time. I don’t even know if she remembers; it would be interesting for me to talk with her about it. I was amazed by how quickly she picked up the mouse on the Macintosh, and she was immediately mapping on the screen, and drawing, and clicking. So, you had this world that started making sounds, and I think we even at some point recorded her voice when we needed to get the voice stuff in. It was very satisfying making The Manhole, and I have to say that I think what we ended up with was to a certain extent what we were looking for.
I belonged to a computer club at the time, and I took The Manhole to the club, thinking it was a children’s game, but the adults were enamored with it. Robyn and I both realized, I think, that any good children’s book or movie or TV show is good enough that it’s also evocative to adults as well. So, I think it was at that point when we realized, “hey, this worked out well; we did something good for a start!” Like I said, it was all an experiment, and not very well documented ahead of time (laughs), but it was a great way to get things going.
Ingmar: The next project, Cosmic Osmo, was released in 1989. What comes to your mind when you look back on it?
Rand: Probably a good way of looking at it is, at least from a production point of view, if Manhole is Myst, then Cosmic Osmo is Riven. (laughs) I think we had learned enough with The Manhole, and had enough of a budget and motivation, that we thought, “oh, we can do this much better! We can do something that’s much more cohesive, has little bits of story in it, and has much more interesting interactive elements, because we’ve learned how to do that more, and we could weave them together in a better, more deliberate way.” Cosmic Osmo for that reason holds a special place in our hearts, because it was a labor of love. It was taking everything that we had learned, and experimented with, and making something special for us. Especially the extended version, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds beyond the Mackrel, just felt big, and magical, and it felt like you could just go on forever, and it wrapped around on itself in really intriguing ways, and it would surprise you sometimes with the interactivity.
Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel
I remember some of the interesting stuff was you had your hand cursor on the screen you would click with, and in several locations we decided we could play with that, and we would actually animate your hand as if you had moved it to the spot. I remember, maybe when it was hot, your cursor hand would just go off on its own without you moving because we heated it up. I love those. I think those were some of my favorites, where it was kind of unexpected. A lot of fun activities and things to put together in Cosmic Osmo. It stands out, I think, as one of our favorites!
Ingmar At the time you were working on ideas for an older audience called The Gray Summons. You pitched it to Activision in 1990, and I’ve heard Robyn stating they told you to “keep doing games for children!”, which must have been a great motivation. (both laugh) What did your ideas for The Gray Summons look like, and how much of Myst was in there already?
Rand: There was very little of Myst in that game, other than the fact that Robyn and I looked at it as a world for an older audience. We thought we had taken on enough in Cosmic Osmo that we could build an even more cohesive story, something that as you got into it, you realized you were playing a part in. Cosmic Osmo, as much as it was well thought-out, and well designed, it was still whimsical enough to feel very eclectic. Gray Summons was our attempt to say, “wait a minute, we can make it feel as if you’re going into another world for a reason.”
A younger Robyn and Rand Miller, more than 20 years ago
We didn’t get very far along that path, but I think it set us on a mindset, and we knew that we would eventually get back to that. Gray Summons was gonna be hand-drawn because at the time we presented it, there weren’t really the tools to do pre-rendered graphics on home computers, so Robyn was gonna draw all of them individually. It would have been interesting, but it’s probably good that it didn’t take off, and it served us well to wait a little longer, and to get better at what we were doing.
Ingmar: Fortunately, not too long went by until someone asked you to go in that direction. In 1991, you were contacted by the Japanese company Sunsoft, and were asked if you wanted to make a game for an older audience for them. How did that whole thing come about?
Rand: Oh boy, I tell you what: Software industry is difficult, and making games is very difficult. Even as Robyn and I were having some success, kind of bootstrapping this little company of ours, we were working with Activision, and they declared bankruptcy, so for Cosmic Osmo they just didn’t send royalty checks because, you know, they were going through some legal process. With all that was going on, we always knew that moving forward there were two things we wanted to do. One was something slightly more educational, and the other was something for an older audience. When Gray Summons didn’t work out, we changed publishers, and did Spelunx with Brøderbund.
Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo
It was a smaller project, but it was also a good way to stretch our abilities a little more. It had some interesting aspects to it, some customizable areas that you could explore down in caves. But anyway, all that is just to say that we were evolving further and further, and then at some point we were contacted by Sunsoft, which was a Japanese company that had seen The Manhole, and I think Cosmic Osmo as well. They had been trying to get in touch with us for years, but our publisher – I think it was Activision at the time – refused to give them our information. (laughs) Anyway, they managed to look it up on their own, and to find us, and we started a very long, and very wonderful relationship with them.
It was kind of interesting because Robyn and I were ready to do something for an older audience, but we also knew it was going to be more expensive, and weren’t sure exactly what it was. Multimedia was the buzz word of the day, and CD-ROMs were just on the edge of starting to roll out, and people were starting to put content on CD-ROMs. It was interesting for us to look at this new technology, and it felt the same when we looked at other new technologies… we looked at hard disks for The Manhole and even color for Spelunx; we were always trying to make our worlds more interesting. With the CD-ROM, it meant that our worlds could be larger.
I specifically remember Sunsoft saying, “we want you to make something for an older audience. This is gonna be good, right? As good as The 7th Guest, right?” Everybody knew about The 7th Guest; that was the hot title coming out. Robyn and I looked at it, and we said, “whoa, it’ll be different, but sure! It’ll be what we do, though. It won’t be like what they’re doing; we’ll just expand on what we do!” So, we wrote them this proposal – fairly unprofessional and very short. (laughs) It had lots of maps in it, and there wasn’t a lot of description. We gave them the budget, and, you know, they hedged a little with the budget, and we said, “well, we’re just gonna take that much!” Well, it ended up taking twice as much, but long story short: we started designing and building it.
For many years, the best-selling PC game of all time
I remember one day having a conversation about, you know, “this is a game for an older audience – should we stray from what we do, and make it so that you die, and have to start over?” We decided not to, and we realized that if you didn’t start over, we had to add other kinds of friction, and the world would have to be very large, because – without starting over – you had to give people plenty of gameplay for their money to make them satisfied. So, all those things kind of congealed into what became Myst. It was a grand undertaking for us with, it was very heady times, and we always designed it thinking that it would appeal to a broad audience, younger teenagers all the way up to an older audience. But we were shocked by the sales, and that it reached such a broad audience. We were dreaming about sales of 100,000 units – that would have been a big hit in the day. We would have been very satisfied to get that number, and then we started getting millions, which is hard to fathom.
Ingmar: One thing I’ll always remember is how Myst starts: that short intro sequence which puts you into the game world directly, enhancing this feeling of, “what the heck is going on here? Where am I? What am I doing here?” Was there much discussion about how the game would start?
Rand: There was some discussion, and I think from our point of view, we never wanted to give very much information. We wanted it to feel like… like basically you had just found this book. Early on in our discussion, I think, we were going to define it as you found it in an old book store in Europe. There was more detail, and then we just got away from that. That wasn’t the important part, the important part was you – not a character but you – found this book, touched it, and then this portal took you to this other place. We made the whole game without the intro sequence, and then we discussed what the intro would be.
We had started coming up with some storylines of what came before Myst as we were designing the game, but it was very little detail. But we knew, by the time that we were getting towards the end, that the art of writing would be a part of this; this father being trapped, and he had this book that somehow ended up in the player’s hands. So we wrote this vague statement that was not meant to inform. We always thought that cinematics were very artificial motivators, that people didn’t really get motivated by a big long cinematic opening or a cutscene opening. They just wanted to get into the game, and so we kept it very vague and short, knowing that it would give us the possibility of getting to where the book came from later. But that wasn’t the important part of the story; the important part was getting onto the dock, and getting into the story.
Ingmar: Another thing I remember fondly is also related to that feeling of, “what’s going on here? Why is this puzzle here? Why can’t I solve it? Is it even a puzzle?” After I started exploring, putting more and more pieces together, there was an immense feeling of satisfaction when I was able to solve puzzles because I started to understand how certain things were connected.
Rand: Yeah, different people are satisfied and entertained in various ways, but there is something about problem-solving that’s innate to human nature. No matter where we come from or what our background is, when there’s a problem that seems vast and we start to unravel it, get the pieces of it, and when we put them together, and solve the problem… I think we have evolved in a way that’s given us this necessary pleasure response to that because the people who do that are the ones that, basically, make humanity move forward in grand ways. So we’re kind of playing on that problem-solving pleasure response. I’d love to say that we planned all that, but I think we were just going on instinct, and experimenting with everything we had learned on the previous projects.
There were some things we were deciding that we felt like, “this is good, this feels like people might like it!” We played it even as a D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] version early on with a couple of people, and as we got places built, we would play with other people, and watch what they did, and we were getting great responses. People were talking about the very thing you just mentioned, that feeling of achievement and satisfaction of having figured out something that you initially thought was unsolvable. You had no idea how those things would fit together, but if you pursued them a bit, and had a little patience, you could do it. To this day, those are still the puzzles we go for. I love the ones especially where you solve it and not only do you get a sense of satisfaction, but also a revelation of information, and you realize, “oh, I see how the world works now, and this will serve me moving forward, too.” Those are great moments, and we would love to do more of them, but they’re also the hardest to achieve as well.
A D&D dungeon from Rand Miller was later incorporated into Myst's Mechanical Age
Ingmar: Another thing that always fascinated me about Myst is that it was created by world-building brothers who created a game containing world-building brothers…
Rand: (laughs) It’s so funny looking back because, honestly – and Robyn may remember differently – but as much as it was parallel, I don’t think we realized it at the time. In fact, when we started Myst it wasn’t even going to be books, and they weren’t going to be making worlds, and it was just going to be portals to other places, but the story kind of wrote itself as we went on. And I think the reason there were two brothers is because we knew with our budget we weren’t going to be able to hire actors, so it would be us who would play those characters. So, a lot of things kind of dribbled out of that, but there were a lot of things in Myst that started to almost be a parallel to the real world. The fact that you write these books, and then we developed this whole system of how they would write these books, and that was almost like what we felt we were doing: we were making these worlds, and we started to love how all that stuff fell into place.
Ingmar: Something that’s very interesting about the success of Myst is that it happened in different waves; it wasn’t an overnight thing. Please guide us through that process.
It was no small feat to fine-tune Myst, as this list of testing notes from Cyan can attest
Rand: Sure! The Macintosh version came out first because that’s the one we had worked on. Brøderbund was the publisher of the PC version, so when the Mac version was released, Brøderbund was working on the PC version. The Macintosh version came out, and there wasn’t a huge Macintosh base but nevertheless, the response was good. We got a chance to start seeing the response online. It was funny because we had dial-up modems at the time, and we were curious, so Robyn would go into AOL, and I would go into CompuServe, and we would go into the gamer forums there to see what people were thinking of Myst. Generally, the response was very positive, there were these great remarks, people saying “this is a unique thing” or “this is really different”, and it was great for us because it was satisfying to see that some people were getting what we had made, and it wasn’t falling flat.
But this also opened the opportunity for us to discuss things with the critics as well. There were a few people who were saying: “I don’t get this, I don’t see what it is”, and we would hold an open discussion with them and say, “hey, I’m one of the creators. What is it that you’re not getting? Can we talk about it?” You know, we were honestly trying to figure things out, thinking, “maybe we can do this better or learn something from it.” It had a great response because people online realized that the creators were paying attention. Those people who had only tried it briefly or thought, “well, I don’t really get this,” I think they were motivated to give it another shot, and a lot of times they would change their minds.
I think the initial response was a really nice wave of positive feedback. Myst was a slow burner. It was not well advertised, but it just kept selling, getting bigger and bigger, little by little, and it started to branch out of the normal channels that computer games were sold; you know, the computer stores, and the Hastings in the United States or some places you would go to buy your computer games, and it started being in more general media outlets.
Ingmar: I remember reading that one of the earlier reviews was in Rolling Stone magazine.
Love it or hate it: the
Rand: Yeah, that was crazy for my brother and I. I mean, that just doesn’t happen! It was amazing, and we were blown away and humbled by all the response, but I think it had a little bit of a backlash. I think gamers at the time felt like they were an elite group. Like I said, 100,000 units would have been a great number for us at the time, but then Myst started branching out into a much larger group of people, and started hitting the mainstream. I think gamers felt a little like they were losing control of the niche, and something was bringing the masses into this cool little club that they had. As anybody knows when that happens, you build up a little bit of resentment or the inner circle starts to push back a bit. It happens with music, it happens with movies. Especially now with the internet, when you think you’re onto something special, it’s kind of cool when it’s a small group that only you know about, but as it becomes larger it doesn’t feel so elite anymore, so people leave it behind. But to be honest with you, the wave was so large that I think it minimized any kind of a backlash from the gamers. As we all know now, the game industry was basically being created; it was becoming what we know today instead of a niche group.
Ingmar: There are probably very few games that have had a parody made about them; I’m not even sure if there are any others besides Myst. That’s quite a compliment, I’d say. How did you feel when Pyst was released in 1996?
Rand: (laughs) Oh my goodness! First of all, it was exactly what you said. We were like, “wait a minute, somebody is making a parody of our game?” We couldn’t believe it – it was hilarious! Honestly, though, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, there were two things that drove me crazy. The first thing was how small it was. I think there were 10 images or something like that, and I was like, “WHAT??? They only have 10 images, and they’re charging this amount of money for it? How can they do that???” The second thing was: “And HOW did they get [actor] John Goodman to do this???”
Ingmar: That’s why they only had 10 images!
Rand: (laughs) They spent all the money on John Goodman… (keeps on laughing). It was funny that the parody actually had a much better actor than what we had in the real game – that always struck me as so strange! But, yeah, we loved it! We have a copy of it to this day in our vault. You know, it’s one of these things that we stashed away as reminders of all those years.
So ended our discussion of Cyan’s early years, but stay tuned for part two of our interview with Rand, covering the time from Riven to present day, plus a peek at what's ahead!