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.Continued on the next page...