Rand Miller – 30 Years of Cyan Worlds (Part 2) interview
In the first part of my Skype interview with Rand Miller, the legendary game designer talked about the highs and lows that Cyan experienced during the company’s early years, leading to the enormous success story of Myst. There was far more to come after that, however, and this time around Rand takes us through the additional ups and downs encountered between the development of Riven and present day. And while a 30-year anniversary is certainly a great reason to celebrate such an illustrious history, as you’re about to find out, it seems as if the story of Cyan Worlds is far from being over!
Ingmar Böke: What were the most important lessons the development of Myst taught you when it came to the impact on developing the sequel Riven, as well as the updated versions of Myst that followed throughout the years?
Rand Miller: In every product we made, we learned lessons. Myst again felt like an experiment for us, and Robyn would agree with that, we both talked about that; we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were just continuing to evolve our craft that we had worked on. This time it did feel, though, that we had reached some kind of an interesting level, a plateau that pushed it somewhere else with Myst. I think what we started looking at was a lot of things that we did right, but we were still young, and still experimenting, so I think we jumped right into Riven without really dissecting at that point what was good, and what was bad.
We just said, “well, we did it with Myst, let’s jump in and start drawing the maps for Riven”. We knew approximately where the story went, and we started design on it very quickly. So, I think after Riven is when I personally feel like I learned some lessons with regard to game design. It was funny because people asked us what the puzzles were gonna be like in Riven, and we said that the two critiques we heard on Myst were that the puzzles were too easy, and that the puzzles were too hard, so we told everybody that we would fix that in Riven. (both laugh)
Ingmar: Pretty ambitious!
Riven's puzzles got harder... boy, did they get harder!
Rand: (still laughing) It was! I think the way we looked at it, though, was with Riven we were going to start easier with the puzzles; we were going to try to get people immersed easier, and try not to put too much friction at the beginning. But then – towards the end – we were going to ramp it up, and we were going to give you some big challenges. I think after Riven we realized there were some pretty difficult ones at the end there; the fire marble puzzle was definitely a biggie as far as people telling me, “yeah, I got all the way through, but didn’t get that one” or, “that was the only one I had to get a hint on.” So, we learned from that, you know, you’ve got to balance.
I think there were a couple of things we did that, looking back, now I like what we did in Myst better than Riven, and that was that we separated the worlds out in Myst very distinctly, and made them very self-contained, so that you didn’t feel like you had to go to another world to complete this world. You just knew, “I have to find a page, and I have to find a book home.” You knew your goals, they were defined well, you did it, and you got on with the next world, and I think that was wonderful. I think it worked well, I think it set up Myst for some very satisfying experiences as far as gameplay friction goes. Riven did disperse things, where you might feel like you’ve got to go to a completely other island – at one point you even did with where the trap and where the frog was.
To be honest with you, making these adventure-type games is very difficult because – we’ve learned this lesson, too – we don’t have a game mechanism. Adventure game makers don’t have a game mechanism they can just plug in again. You can’t just say, “oh well, we’ll use the clocktower puzzle, and we’ll just give it another skin.” You can’t just do that – unlike, say, a shooter. We all know what you do in a first-person shooter: You have a weapon, you kill a bad guy, you increase your weapon rate, so you can kill a bigger bad guy. It’s not a bad game mechanism, it’s a great game mechanism, but it means that at least for somebody designing a shooter they have that part done. We have to be creative with every step along the way. It would be great for us if we could say, “hey, Myst worked really well, the way we put all those puzzles into the worlds worked well, let’s just do that again,” but you can’t do that – you have to be fresh, and you have to be unique. It’s a real challenge, and I think it’s why this particular genre is hard at every step along the way!
Ingmar: I still remember being a teenager, reading a German magazine called PC Joker, which had a very positive review of Riven sometime in 1997. Until this day, I remember looking at the screenshots in that magazine over and over again, thinking, “I’ve never seen something like this before!” The visuals simply blew me away. The funny thing is… when I look at the game in 2017, it still looks great!
Riven set an even higher bar with its photo-realism than its acclaimed predecessor
Rand: (laughs) Yeah! Honestly, I think Riven was definitely a hard threshold to beat with regard to pre-rendered images. What we were going for with Riven was photo-realism. We were taking all of the resources that Myst gave us, and we bought the equipment that Hollywood used, and we bought the software that Hollywood used, we used everything we could to make those images as convincing as we could. Once you get to photo-realism, it’s hard to get past that, so I think they hold up. To this day, you look back and think, “wow, that looks like a real place!”, and that’s hard to beat.
So the only place to go after that is, “well, ok… what if they’re not still pictures anymore?” You know, we had stayed away from real-time 3D up to that point because it was not able to do the kind of quality we wanted, but that was the direction – at least from my point of view; Robyn went on with his own stuff – but in my mind it was like, “whoa, I can make the worlds even more real now because real-time is starting to approach.” I mean, there were other tricks as well, but yeah, it’s interesting, I feel the same way about Riven when you look back at those pictures. We have some hanging in our office, and wow, these are still gorgeous!
Ingmar: You worked on Riven for quite a few years, and it was a huge project. It’s no secret the development was quite stressful. Please tell us a bit about that aspect. I guess when you finished Riven you probably felt like, “I’ll never do another game in my whole life!”
Rand: (laughs) Yes! To the best of our best knowledge it felt like what it must feel like for a woman to give birth. When we finished the game, people asked us, “hey, are you gonna do another one?” It’s probably not the best time to ask a woman if she’s gonna have another baby immediately after she just had one. (both laugh) She might need some time to forget about the pain. But yes, it was grueling, Riven was intense! And it was an internal pressure; we were setting the bar high for ourselves, and we had plenty of resources to push hard, so it was long hours, a huge team, lots of expenses for renders and equipment that didn’t work, models that were too complex and had to be broken down, movies that weren’t rendering a certain frame… the logistics were crazy, and there were many people who were part of that team who would tell you it was very intense pulling that off. When we were done, it was a good time to take a breath after that!
Ingmar: Another difference between the development of Myst and Riven is that – due to the success of Myst – there was a lot of external interest in the development of the sequel. There also was a huge marketing campaign. How did you feel about all of that?
Rand: It was interesting, and my life is still that way to a certain extent. I have a fairly normal life in Spokane, Washington, and we’re not in any kind of a major metropolitan area. We have a great city here, so I live a normal life, but when I went to PAX East in Boston, there’s people who know Myst, and they know me, and it always seems odd when they’re interested, and they want to talk about it. I love it, though. It’s intriguing, and it’s enough of a diversion from my everyday life that it feels exciting. I think there were parts of that with Riven that felt the same way. It was exciting to have magazines ask us these questions, wanting to know what we were doing, and how it was gonna work.
I think the most frustrating aspect of it was – and this is the most frustrating aspect to this day – our worlds are like treasure maps that give up their secrets very reluctantly. That’s part of the game, and we don’t want you to see those treasures before it’s time, but marketing, magazines, and nowadays with the internet… they all feed off those secrets. Even for Riven I remember clearly the marketing department for the publisher saying, “you know, we need 50 still images of Riven,” and Robyn and I looked at each other going, “Noooo! What in the world??? This is not that type of game!” We had to negotiate with them over how many images they were allowed to have, and we tried our best to keep a real lid on those. No sooner than we would give them 10 images that they would give out to various press people as an exclusive, they would come back a week or two later, saying, “ok, we need 10 more!” and we were like, “wait!!!” (both laugh) It happens to this day, you know, and it’s the necessary evil. It’s just harder with our games because we do want to tease people, we do want them to see what they’ll be able to look at, but we don’t want to give away our secrets. Yeah, so it’s a balance, and it started with Riven. It was the first time we had ever experienced that.
Ingmar: Please give us an idea of Riven’s budget numbers – also in comparison to the numbers of Myst.
Cyan is nestled in the scenic woods of Washington
Rand: Well, I’ll give you general numbers because the specifics were lost over the years. Myst probably ended up being under a million, probably $700,000, $800,000, something like that. That’s pretty specific, I guess. I remember because Sunsoft didn’t give us enough, and so we just found another way to get money, and spent our own money on the other parts that needed to be done. But then, of course, Myst’s success filled our coffers, and there were millions of dollars. Now, with all that said, I think one thing people don’t realize is that the publisher got 85% of proceeds, and we got 15%. It sold millions of copies, but the publisher made the most of the money. I’m not complaining; we certainly got plenty. We got enough to build ourselves a building [the Cyan Worlds headquarters], and we got ourselves enough to buy a house, and I think I paid off my first car sometime around there, but mostly we put the money back into the company, and into Riven. We bought SGI servers because that’s what Hollywood was using, we bought Softimage Software because that’s what Hollywood was using, and we knew what they [DreamWorks] were using to make Jurassic Park, and we were gonna use the same equipment to do Riven because to us it was every bit as important being realistic as that was. So, to answer your question, the budget for Riven was probably somewhere between 5 and 10 million. That’s a really rough estimate because, honestly, Ingmar, I don’t know if we have ever gone back and added it all up. We just kind of put it in the bank, and spent it on Riven for a large part.
Ingmar: In any case, it was a lot!
Rand: It was a lot! These days, it’s not a lot, but back then, it was certainly the most that people would spend on a game. I have to say it’s good and bad having that kind of luxury because it’s amazing how much your perspective on what you’re making is controlled by your resources. Myst was a shoestring budget, so we had to work with that, and we did what we did with that shoestring budget, and it was good for that. Riven had a massive budget, but at some point there’s diminishing returns. You know, a screw-head can only be so realistic, and at some point you don’t want to work on it anymore. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but it definitely gave us the opportunity to really focus on details that we had never been able to focus on before.
Ingmar: It is well known that Robyn let the company after you did Riven. What kind of impact did that have on the company and yourself?
Rand: You know, I don’t know if it had a huge impact, given the fact that I was the one who kind of always wanted to make games, and Robyn was someone who was very talented in a lot of different ways. You know, he liked to write music, books, stories, and he created artworks. It seemed natural for him to want to expand his boundaries a bit. So, he just went into all those different areas. He did an album, he started writing a book – I don’t think it ever came out, but it was good for him because it was something he wanted to do – he did a film… so he’s done all those things over the years that were part of his creative fever. And I got to essentially take the next step in what I considered to be my evolution of making games as well, and I think it worked out. You know, working closely with your brother… working closely with anyone, is not easy, and there’s friction points that you have, and Robyn and I certainly had our friction points over the years. Riven was so intense that it kind of amped those up a bit, but some of the stories that I heard about those issues afterwards were definitely exaggerated, and we continued to chat over the years.
Ingmar: Before we have a closer look at the next huge project you were about to tackle, I’d like to talk about Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation for a moment. Since both games were not developed by Cyan Worlds, was it difficult to watch someone else work on the franchise?
Presto's Myst III: Exile
Rand: You know, we had always said that we would not do another Myst. The story was told, Riven kind of wrapped it up, and it was good. We moved onto what we considered not to be Myst, but its larger universe, and what we were taking on as a company was a large, large project. Interestingly, where we found ourselves at one point was, “this is our passion, we want this large, massive world that’s going to continue forever, and it’s going to take a lot of funding.” Then, suddenly, a publisher comes to us and says, “hey, someone wants to do a Myst game. It’s Presto Studios, they’ve got a great idea for it, and we’ll pay you to license those rights.” That’s very tantalizing because in order to fulfill what my passion was, I need resources, and if somebody wants to do a good job with my other stuff, that may help me to get done what I’d like to do. So we decided, “ok, we said we would never do this, but let’s take a look to see what they think the story would be, and make sure it doesn’t infringe on anything in the larger story, so that it’s just a little side-story.” And I think that, honestly, the way we looked at it was that in our minds – and I don’t think this is true – it’s been in this category of fan-fiction, and it wasn’t necessarily canon to us. We were kind of going, “yeah, it will fit in as a side-story, it doesn’t really affect our main story, it’s not gonna hurt anything, so we should let that happen!”
As we went on, Exile was wonderful; it pushed the technology in ways that were intriguing, you could look in any direction, the animations were good, it felt like it was a really nice step, and I think we felt like it was successful in continuing the Myst story but not trampling on any portions that we thought we wanted to hold close. But it also provided us resources to continue our large development, which was very exciting. So, yeah, it worked out – despite our initial response, which was kind of a heady and artistic thing like, “No, you can’t touch our work!” In the end, I think a lot of the work that was done was done well, and worked for all of us.
Ingmar: Let’s move on to the aforementioned large project of yours now: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, aka Myst Online. I know it’s a very long story; please try to at least give us a summary, though.
Rand: Sure! I’m trying to encapsulate it because, boy, it’s a huge story! I love the story, actually, because as much as it was a failure, it was a grand success, and I think that’s how we look at it. So, what we decided after Riven – and after taking a breath – was that we looked at it again as, “where does this thing evolve? How do we make more of these worlds?” In my mind, it felt like we were making these worlds, but were just adding them a little at a time. Riven had taken six years to add in a few more of those worlds. Suddenly, the internet was a thing, and rather than looking at it as a way for millions of people to play at the same time, we started looking at it as a way that we could deliver content.
The commercial version of Myst Online, known as Uru: Ages Beyond Myst
What if there was this place you could go on the internet – and this wasn’t for modems, this was for the broadband that was coming – it was a place that you could go to, and there would be new things every night. It would be like what television is. Every night you come home, and you want to see something new, you turn on the channel, there’s a new show on every night, and you don’t want to see a re-run, and you don’t want to wait six years for the next thing. That was the design inspiration for Myst Online. I will just call it that for now; it had many names over the years, but we’ll just call it Myst Online.
What if we built an engine that allowed us to share this journey that we were taking? We would build all the infrastructure, so that it was easy to share, easy to constrain it, so that you didn’t have masses of people intruding, pulling switches, and opening doors in your world, and yet you can meet a person and play with somebody from across the world, and explore a world. In addition to that there were two other what we thought were really innovative aspects to it. One is the thing that I mentioned already; the worlds would never end. Every time you came back in, things would be different. I think we looked at it as every month there would be a large new world to explore, but we looked beyond that as well; every week there would be interesting things that changed, every day there would be stories that would go on.
Cyan's Myst Online Team (2003)
The third thing that was really intriguing to us – and I still think is a really amazing aspect of this whole idea – is the fact that it all happened in real-time. There were actors that were playing roles, and at any time anybody who played this game might run across an actor, and get information from them. We built a lot of equity in these actors, and we built up the stories of these people, and they would play through the worlds just like the players, and they would walk through the cities just like the players. You might come across them on their way to a meeting somewhere; they might become trapped, and become part of a storyline or they would inform you when a new world might be coming out. And it just sounded so amazing that this was all happening in this underground world beneath our feet, and that was Myst Online!
Now, with all that said, I’ll try to quickly summarize what happened. We spent millions of dollars designing all the technology that goes with that, and the worlds and places that go with that, and furthermore, planning ahead for the worlds, building those worlds, so that they could be rolled out quickly. Once we launched, we had to have a lot of content in the pipeline, ready to roll in, and we had all that going, we had all of that set up. It was a grand plan, and I’m so proud of what we did. To this day, it’s one of the grand achievements I have done, which is ironic because so few people know about it because it was cancelled, basically, before it got a chance to start.
So, without going into details, we kind of teamed up with Ubisoft at some point. We had a couple of companies that wanted it, but Ubisoft was someone we had worked with, and they kind of – in many ways – gave us a gentlemen’s agreement. There were some contractual things as well, but the agreement said, “let’s give this some time, let’s see what happens. This is an experiment, let’s run this thing for a year, and see if we’re onto something.” As anybody who knows our company knows, we had a beta, and we had signed up a lot of people in there; we were growing, and optimizing the servers, and Ubisoft kind of got out of the online market. They pulled out the other products as well as our product, and kind of shut down their online division, and we were in a very tenuous position at that point because we had spent everything we had up to that point to get us to the brink. We were counting on those subscription revenues to start coming in to start paying the bills, and then, suddenly, that was not going to happen.
A pared-down version of Myst Online is still accessible today
Anyway, that was sad for us, but I think part of any kind of success in life is just dealing with what’s considered to be the failures – the things that drop you down to your knees. Well, you know, you’ve got to get up again! It’s just like what we talked about earlier; it’s like the puzzles in Myst where you feel like, “no way! I don’t even understand any of this!”, but then you start to see a way out, and you’re like, “let’s try this!” So, we sold off all the pieces of Myst Online to make expansion packs, and we sold off the version just on the shelf where people could play it. It wasn’t our grand vision, but people got to play it. Later on, we got the rights back for the online stuff, and we put it up in various incarnations, so that – at least – we could continue to experiment. I think we succeeded in proving some very real aspects of it, and to this day, I’m still excited about somebody – if it’s not us, but somebody else – doing these because I think there is something very magical about having these kinds of online real world places that people would flock to. So, that’s my summary. Sorry for the length of time, but it was a large part of our lives and our resources!
Ingmar: That’s perfectly alright. After all, it is not only an important part of Cyan Worlds’ story, but also a very fascinating project. I must say I appreciate you got up again, and decided to move forward.
Rand: It was one of the lowest points, but it led to some learning experience, and I think any failure that you can learn from isn’t so much of a failure.
Ingmar: It’s easy to tell that you’re very proud of Myst Online. I guess this is much better than having to say to yourself, “oh my gosh, what the heck have we been doing for all those years?”
Rand: Yeah. In fact, one of the reasons we kept the server going for Myst Online, and still do to this day, is we’re still very proud of it. It works, it’s functioning. It’s not what it was meant to be; it was meant to be changing, and dynamic, and alive, but it’s still fun to go in there, and see the vastness that we were able to create. It’s just a huge area with so much to do, and so many aspects that we were able to put together that I just love the fact that we can keep it going, and we’ve got a fan community that contributes to it to keep it alive.
Ingmar: Actually, Myst V: End of Ages is a part of the Myst Online story as well.
Rand: Right. I mentioned the pipeline we needed for Myst Online; we had planned well over a year’s worth of content, so when Myst Online was shut down, Ubisoft said, “well, make two expansion packs for this”, and so we did. We still had more content, and this is probably the hardest part of all of this journey… we had so much of the story planned years ahead of time, and so much in development. After the two expansion packs, we were still in a very bad way. We needed money to keep people employed, and I’m sure that we had laid off people already, and we don’t like doing that. We’re a very people-orientated company, so we like to be on good terms with our employees, and treat them well. We were trying to stay alive, and so we went back to Ubisoft and asked, “we’ve got more content, do you want us to do another Myst version? They said, “yes, you’ll work for hire; we want you to make the game!”, so we said, “ok!”
Unpublished parts of Myst Online were integrated into Myst V: End of Ages
Then we went back to the drawing board, took the places that were all gonna be a part of Myst Online, and tried to start retrofitting those into a storyline. Anybody who has played Myst V: End of Ages realized it kind of feels like one half of one thing, and one half of another thing, and there’s a very good reason for that, because that’s what it is! We tried to make it feel more like it was Myst, but it was all part of the Myst Online lore. It was Isha, and it was all the things going on in the caverns, so you end up going to beautiful places in the caverns, and eventually we wrapped the story around it. I think it has a good story, but nevertheless, it’s hard to make a game like that where you’re taking disjointed pieces and make them feel perfectly cohesive. I’m proud of what we did, but there’s always this sadness to it of taking all of that wonderful work that we had so many good plans for, and having to kind of shove it into a different-shaped hole.
Ingmar: We did an interview about Obduction and its development last year, so we’ll skip that part this time. How are things at Cyan Worlds now that the game has been out for a while? I know you have launched Obduction for Vive, Oculus, and the Mac very recently.
Rand: We have! It’s a good time at Cyan. We love Obduction, and we love what we were able to do. In a lot of ways, honestly, it feels a lot more like doing Myst than it does doing Riven. We were a small team, it was not a big budget; the Kickstarter budget made us work very smartly and very scrappy, and we’re a family at work. I mean, I love the people at work; they’re friends, we get along good, they work so hard, and they’re the most amazingly talented people, and we were so relieved when Obduction got good reviews because I think it meant, “okay, we can bootstrap ourselves, and we can turn this possibly into the next thing.” And we got excited about VR as well because all of us love the idea of being in another world, and VR helps with that. That’s how we’re looking at it: let’s use the success of Obduction… I mean, it hasn’t been a monetary success; we don’t market well, so a lot of people don’t know about it yet, but as long as people say, “it’s great, I feel the same as I did with Myst,” we’ve done enough that we can continue, I think. And we’ve got a few ideas for other amazing worlds for VR – not just one, but many new projects and places.
Ingmar: Are you thinking of Myst, Obduction or perhaps entirely different things?
Three decades' worth of memories are safely stashed in "The Vault"
Rand: It’s all those things. After Obduction, we realized that maybe we didn’t want to just come up with one project that we would pour everything into, but that we would start by laying out a platter of projects – as many as ten that we have written down, and they’re very diverse. Some are small, some are large, some are more linear, some are more non-linear, some are more room-scaled, some are less room-scaled, but they’re all VR-related! Honestly, doing Myst in VR is one of those ten because in our minds that’s just a no-brainer at some point. Now, we want to make sure we’re motivated for that; we want to make sure that we do that right because if we do Myst in VR, we want it to feel special. So that’s one of them, but then there are others that are ideas, narratives, and intellectual properties that nobody knows about – the things that only we discussed [internally], and we got excited about. The one that’s missing right now is – and it’s probably for a good reason – we’re not thinking about a follow-up to Obduction. It had a good ending, and a good beginning; it told a good story. We’d love to get into more details with that – probably in a more linear way – but I think we all feel like that’s not maybe the next move at this point.
Ingmar: Do you have a rough idea of when fans of Cyan can expect an official announcement of the next project?
Rand: (laughs) I wish I knew because I’m not even sure which ones will bubble up to the top. I mean, we’re small enough that we can’t work on all of these at the same time, so what we’re doing is we’re working on one a little bit, working on another one a little bit, and see which ones bubble up, which ones start to tease us, which ones start to make an impression on us as something that would be interesting. Since the company actually has a VR product out there, it’s possible that we might get some funding help from partners. We could take a lot of projects to partners, and say, “hey, which one do you like?”, so it’s possible they might have some input into that as well. So I think time will tell; I have not a clue. It remains to be seen how long it will take for us to get those projects to a state where we’re ready to reveal them.
Ingmar: Thirty years has been a long time, but it’s great to hear that there are seemingly still a lot of things ahead for Cyan Worlds!
Robyn and Rand, still going strong 30 years later
Rand: Yeah, I’m looking forward to another thirty years of this! (both laugh) I often joke with my wife about retirement. I think the biggest joke we have is that if I retired, I would be sitting at home – probably, you know, reading the paper or reading the iPad – and I’d turn to her and say, “I’m kind of bored, I think I want to make a game!” (both laugh)
Ingmar: Sounds good to me! Rand, we’ve been talking for 80 minutes now; thank you very much for taking so much time for this 30th anniversary interview. Much appreciated!
Rand: My pleasure! I’m glad you’re interested, and, you know, the history is interesting to me. I love the fact that maybe there’s a few people that are interested. I’ve got to say it feels like I’m definitely one of the older guys in this industry at this point. It was fun being at PAX East and South because I’ve got gray hair, and there’s not a lot of people with gray hair in this industry. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of younger people who are making games or indie games, and they know Myst, and they know what we did, and a lot of them were inspired by it. Regardless of what I do from this point forward, creativity is always inspired by something else, so watching how that kind of spreads out is so satisfying, and I’m just grateful to be a part of it!