Deep dive with Myst co-creator Rand Miller: The full interview
By Hayden Dingman
PCWorldNov 15, 2013 1:03 am PST
I recently sat down to talk—at length—with Rand Miller, co-creator of Myst and head of development studio Cyan Worlds. Below you’ll find 6,000 or so words on everything from his new game, Obduction, to exploring New Mexico, motion sickness, the Oculus Rift, Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness, the death of first-person adventure games, and more.
The tape clicks on just as Miller begins to talk about how even swingsets make him motion-sick these days.
RAND MILLER (RM): …a swingset. You know, this old fashioned kids swingset, and I start to get nauseous and it’s like “Come on, what is going on, how can this be?”
That’s gotta be pretty bad for a videogame dev.
RM: [Laughs] Or maybe it helps me consider aaaalll audiences.
So now you’re getting this easy-going audience in there and you’re like “Eh, you won’t be sick if I’m not sick. You’ll be fine.”
RM: Exactly. Well, okay, I’ll tell you a little funny thing. I’m personally answering a bunch of the Kickstarter questions and I actually just answered probably less than fifteen minutes ago a question where someone said, “My wife gets sick using 3D dynamic games. I do fine but she gets sick. Are you going to address that in Obduction? And I said, “Crazy thing, I get sick too so we’ve got a few ideas for at least helping a little with that.”
That’s my dad’s main problem too. My dad played a lot of 2D games back in the day but now he’ll only watch me play them and after about half an hour or forty minutes he’s like “I’ll be back,” and then he walks off to try and settle his stomach.
RM: Exactly, sounds familiar. Or just move back far enough. If I’m back far enough, it’s okay.
So it’s a field of view type of thing?
RM: Right. And I actually did okay with the Oculus. We had it working with RealMyst, this version of Myst that we’re updating, and we hooked it up and you’re able to wander through Myst Island. It was actually pretty cool; I did not go to the bathroom and throw up afterwards.
Are you releasing that to the public? Is there going to be a way for me to play RealMyst on the Oculus soon?
RM: Hopefully. I don’t have any announcement yet, but obviously it’s something we want to do. It takes a little bit of work to make sure you’ve covered your bases for the Oculus Rift, but the timing’s perfect because we have this update we’re doing and Oculus is looking for cool stuff, so we’re working on that. Whatever sees the light of day, I’m not sure, but we’re definitely trying.
What’s going in to the update?
RM: We just freshened it for the 20th anniversary. We’ve been working on it for a while. We don’t want to mess with Myst that much, Myst is a classic. But RealMyst? It’s technology driven and it was kind of showing its age with the old engine and the old textures and stuff. We’re updating that with a lot of new stuff and a day/night cycle and a few other bells and whistles that are kind of fun.
Is there any plan to go back and update Riven at any point?
RM: Riven’s tricky. That’s the same thing, we don’t want to touch the classic version of Riven either. It’s so classic and good, and building it in real-time 3D at this point is a little…it’s a lot to bite off, I’ll put it that way. Right now we don’t have any plans. There’s kind of a crowd…
RM: Right, fan project. They’re attempting to do that with Riven and we’re trying to support them but it’s a big job and money-wise we don’t have the resources to do it and I’m not sure how big the audience would be for that, so we’ll see what the fans can do.
You raised a third of your Kickstarter goal in less than a day. What would you be doing if Kickstarter didn’t exist?
RM: Honestly I think we’d be concentrating on smaller projects. The thing that’s been keeping us alive is a lot of our legacy products and the mobile market. And the mobile market not just as a platform for development but as a platform for publishing as well. It’s frankly spoiled us because we bit our teeth with the publisher model and it’s good if you get a good publisher.
We had our Broderbund days and that was a pretty good publisher as far as that goes, but we also had horror stories with a few other ones. Anyway, long story short, the whole idea of being in control of your destiny and publishing yourself and being able to do things this way is a breath of fresh air even if they’re not as big of projects as a publisher might fund, they’re more efficient because the publisher can sometimes delay a project. They’ll say, “Can you guys do this?” or “Can you guys change this?” or “Can you put more guns in it?” or something like that.
Do you think Cyan would’ve eventually buckled to publishers or tried to find a publisher that supported you more?
RM: At this point, I don’t really think so. Not, at least, the traditional way. I think we would’ve just stuck with the smaller things and tried to build ourselves up by the bootstraps. It’s almost like what we did when my brother and I started the company. We started with small projects and then took the money from those and put it back into larger ones and back into larger ones. Frankly that’s what allowed us to do Myst. We didn’t have necessarily a publisher that was interested at the time. We had a Japanese company and we actually took it to several publishers and they said, “Eh, I don’t get this. I don’t think we want this.”
So in many ways it was that bootstrapping that allowed us to do Myst. It’s a lot of work and you don’t build mansions and buy yachts with that, but it’s really satisfying to control your own destiny.
How does the million you’re asking for on Kickstarter compare to the budgets of Myst and Riven?
RM: It’s between them. We actually got about $250,000 from a Japanese company for Myst…I think it was $250,000. It may have been more than that. It may have been closer to $400,000. And then we actually funded the other half ourselves—another $400 or $500,000 ourselves. So it was actually under a million for Myst.
Riven was…Yeah, [Obduction] is between the two but it’s definitely closer to the Myst budget. Riven was a lot higher and I don’t even know the final number because we were basking in the Myst royalty checks at that point. They’d come in and we’d spend them basically on Riven at that point. It was probably several million.
You’ve mentioned there were a number of larger projects you were kicking around at Cyan and pitching around to publishers. Is Obduction one of those ideas that was floating around for a while or was it something new just for the Kickstarter?
RM: It’s an interesting story. I think Obduction started right after. In fact, Obduction was one of the first ideas we had for a non-Myst game after Robyn left—went one direction and I went another direction, it was “What are we going to do?” In the back of my mind was this Obduction idea but it had a lot of possible paths in its implementation. Over the years we’ve tried a few of those, fleshed out a few of those options, and some of them have been more satisfying, some of them less satisfying. And we actually tweaked some of them just to entice publishers and those didn’t feel right.
Anyway, when it came time to the Kickstarter, it was like, “Well let’s go back to its roots. What we wanted Obduction to be at the beginning.” Kickstarter’s what allowed us to go back to the source.
So no rolling of ideas together? This is pretty much what you originally set out to do?
RM: Yeah! Now, like any of the ideas we do here we start with a seed idea and we have a group of people who churn on it. It’s not a one-man design thing. Even when Robyn and I were designing it was good to have the people to play off of because you get that opinion, you feed it through the filter and you get great ideas. You know how that works. You play stuff of people and they give you a seed for another little trail you can go down. So even though we jumped back to the source idea for Obduction, just the team we’ve got now working on this has already gone down some new paths and it’s already evolved into its own really unique flow. It’s got a different feel from even the source it started at.
Is there anything you’d point to as an inspiration for Obduction? Any films, books, etc?
RM: Hard to point to one in particular, but it’s the same thing that inspired Myst to a certain extent. It has to do with going to interesting places. For heaven’s sake, I just explored New Mexico and it’s the same feeling I have exploring New Mexico that drives me to want to explore or build these places to explore that are really strange and unique and they feel real but they’re so odd and strange you’re just not sure where they came from.
So New Mexico I can most of the time explain where things come from. In Obduction? It’ll be a little more complex to fill in those blanks.
But the inspiration comes from that. I love science fiction. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, so it’s a natural leap to take the idea of being abducted, wondering how you got to a particular place—and frankly, I love that idea. That idea’s been around forever. The idea of being abducted. And it just lends itself so well to interactive. What would you do? What do you do if you’re abducted? If you’re not watching it in movies—if you’re actually the one who’s abducted.
The Kickstarter page is pretty light on story details. How are you balancing that with the need to make a pitch, talk to press, the fact that you’re opening up development to backers and show them what’s going on in Cyan’s office—how do you balance that with wanting people to not know anything going into the story?
RM: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s not an easy balance and honestly we had the same problem with Myst. Trying to pitch Myst to people is non-trivial because you go into the game and you set it down in front of them and they click around and say, “Okay, what’s it about?” and you go, “Well, I can’t really give you too much information. You just have to explore because if I give you too much information you’re ruining your exploration.”
We have the same problem, but we realize we’ll have to feed some stuff out. Even with the Kickstarter, we realize that we may be withholding information from our development, from the design, that other people would be able to put out there and we’re a little concerned that we get dinged for it or people will think, “Oh, they don’t have anything.” Like the Rock Paper Shotgun stuff—“Oh, they’ve got nothing.”
There’s always that risk, but we also want the experience to be gained when people play it, so we decided to take the risk, hold our cards a little bit closer than maybe most Kickstarter games do, and see how public responded. So far it’s been great. I think people understand the kind of entertainment we do, and they realize it’ll be a better experience for them if they don’t know.
Now with that said, I think we don’t have the all privilege of Myst or Riven. With Myst we did it on our own and nobody knew about it so we didn’t have to reveal very much. With Riven it was completely paid for, so we didn’t have to reveal very much. So we will have to figure out where that line is and we’re going to be trying very hard to keep people satisfied with little teases and at the same time not give away too much. And I hope we come away on the right side of that.
Going into the game itself: how do you balance an emergent story with the fear players are going to miss something, especially in the current state of games where games hold your hand more than when Myst originally came out?
RM: I think it has to do with—without getting into all the details—I think it has to do with psychological spaces. I think Myst did one of the best jobs with that with the psychological spaces it was divided into. It felt like when you went to explore an Age, you were pretty reassured that the puzzles and the story and the elements in that age were contained there and your mind could kind of block off the other places you’ve been or the other places you’ve seen or even the main Myst Island and you could just explore that area. Pick up all the story there, feel like you had it done, solve the puzzles there, get the pages there, and then lock it up and let it go.
I think that’s a huge, huge element. You give people areas that have a lot of story in them, and as they’re solving it, as they’re wandering around that controlled area, the story reveals itself and you let them out so they don’t feel like they have to come back there. It’s done. That one’s wrapped up. I think that works great with story as well.
I assume since this is built in UE4 it’s a 3D free-roam game.
RM: Right. That’ll be the primary method. I mean…yeah. That’ll be the primary method. We also have some fun things. We may try and embrace a larger audience with a few other ways to explore that aren’t the free-roam method.
That’s what you mean by the intuitive and transparent interface on the Kickstarter page?
RM: Yeah. I mean, this is non-trivial stuff, but it’s interesting. For example, in the latest version of RealMyst we actually went into every—and by the way, this is kind of driven because we’re paying homage to the original Myst—we went into the real-time 3D version models and mapped every location from the original Myst that there was a shot. We put a node in there, and so you can play the new RealMyst version exactly the way you played the original Myst but it’s all in real-time so you flow from place to place and when you turn around it’s in real-time 3D and everything is dynamic like it should be.
It’s kind of the best of both worlds in a lot of ways. It’s very inclusive, then. Most gamers are going to play in free-roam, but I can sit my mom in front of it like she was able to play Myst because it’s so simple. Here’s a mouse. Point. Click. Oh there you go. She can play a real-time version of RealMyst now, which is kind of satisfying.
Does that change the way you design puzzles in Obduction? Knowing that there’s a free-roam version and—I don’t want to read too much into what you’re saying—but a more static point-and-click version?
RM: It could change them a bit but for the most part we’re going to be designing for the free roam. I think the point-and-click version will be things we’ll have to adjust. We’re going to be designing all of it and everything we’ve thought about is going to be taking full advantage of the real-time 3D so we don’t want to cripple it or compromise it by constraints that are tied truly to the point-and-click version. There’s lot of ways around—we’re finding this with other stuff we’ve done—there are ways around the puzzles even if they’re designed for free-roam.
In Myst and Riven it was important that you were basically on your own for those games. You occasionally have interactions with the blue pages and red pages or a few characters, but it was fairly lonely. On the Kickstarter page for Obduction there’s concept art of another woman; is Obduction going to be more like Myst and Riven where there’s an empty environment we’re exploring, or are there people we’re interacting with?
RM: I think we should expect something more like Myst and Riven. I also think with a real-time 3D environment we have a little more ability to populate it. The plans are—there are some characters in there. I just want people to feel like they did in Myst and Riven. It’s going to feel like it’s their adventure, and they’ll run across people every now and then. The biggest problem, frankly—and this is something my brother and I discovered even when we were doing Myst—characters in games can be notoriously spell breaking. In the end, it’s really hard to interact with a non-real character. You can’t really have a conversation with them and you can’t really discuss the weather and ask them how their kids are. You just can’t do those things, so it has to be very controlled in order to try and be realistic, and we’re designing with that in mind.
Are we going to see more FMV? Will we see you creeping around the environment, or are there going to be 3D models?
RM: Everything will be 3D models as far as what our plans are right now. That doesn’t mean there won’t be animated textures that are captured and done in different ways, we’re still trying to lock down how we want to do certain things, so. It won’t be full-motion video probably on top of things. Well, I say that, but I don’t want to lock out anything at this point. We’ve got plans, and by the time it comes to do that we want to make sure we’re doing it the best way possible.
Is Obduction a prototype yet or mostly concept art and plans?
RM: It’s concept art and plans.
Why not make another Myst game? Is there a reason?
RM: Yeah, you know, we had big discussions about this when we were talking about Kickstarter. It’s been a long time finalizing all this. The early discussions we started down a Myst path doing another Myst game and in some ways I just…I came to one of the meetings and I just said, “Guys, I don’t think I can do this.” And the reason is the very thing that gives you the rich history of story for Myst also starts to press in. The sides start to close in when you’re doing a new design and new development. You try to push back on those walls closing in, and with Myst in particular they don’t give very well. There’s the canon you have to watch for, and there’s the fans that know the story and they’re not going to be forgiving if you break lots of rules. It felt smothering.
When we switched gears and said let’s just start from a blank slate, from the white paper on the table, and we brought up the Obduction idea, it’s like the air cleared. The fog was gone, the walls opened back up, and it felt like the right thing to do.
Will we see any Myst/Obduction same-world crossovers?
RM: It’s two different worlds, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with it. Not necessarily in an official way. We’ve always kind of crossed our worlds. Even in the kids games we had references to Myst and we had some references to the kids games in Myst itself, like the Osmoian Age I think at one point was mentioned in one of the journals. So we would love to do our little Easter eggs but I don’t think anything in an official form.
How big is Cyan these days?
RM: We’ve got about fifteen people here these days and a lot of people—frankly, a lot of people watching the Kickstarter hoping they’ll be getting a call pretty quick.
Is this a reassembling of the dream team thing? Are you trying to bring back people who worked on old Cyan projects?
RM: Yeah, sure! I’ve worked with so many amazing people, it’s crazy, and we’re on good terms with everybody I know of. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed working with so many people. We’ve tried to lay off people carefully, tried to make sure they found other stuff gradually, our size goes up and down like any company. But we really have stayed on great terms, and I think—well, I know there’s a lot of people who want to come back, and I think there’s even more. I’m not sure that we’d even be able to hire all the people who would want to come back for this project.
How many of the original Myst/Riven team is still around in that fifteen?
RM: We’ve got…let’s see, if you include me there’s one…two…three…Three of us who actually worked on—well, four…Let’s see, let me keep going here. Yeah, four of us who worked on Myst and Riven.
And how big was Cyan at its peak?
RM: Let’s see, at the end of Myst we had six people. And I think in the peak of Riven, towards the very end, we were probably between thirty and forty.
At IndieCade you mentioned there was a point where you stopped knowing everyone in the company. Was that the peak at Riven?
RM: Yeah, when it starts getting close to forty it gets complicated. We’ve done some other things as well where we’ve gotten bigger, where we had fifty or more when we were doing the Myst Online stuff, and it feels so inefficient. It feels like I don’t know people, it’s complicated, communications start to break down, I’m not sure how efficient actually building things is, people don’t have enough ownership. It’s much more satisfying with a smaller team. I didn’t mind Riven as much, getting into 30 and 40, but much above that starts to feel not right. Let’s face it, with the tools we’ve got I think we can do some incredibly amazing things with a group of people that’s between what we had for Myst and Riven.
I don’t know how much you actually play games still. Do you play games these days?
RM: On occasion.
It seems like we’re going through a first-person adventure Renaissance. Have you gotten to play anything—I’m thinking of Gone Home in particular. That game seems to embody a lot of what Cyan espouses, where you were just wandering around a house exploring a space.
RM: No, I haven’t! There’s a few games I’ve looked at—frankly, the games I’ve looked at [laughs] have mostly been FPSes and I just drool at the landscapes. I wish there wasn’t the fiction of the bad guys for me to kill so I could wander around and explore a little more. But Gone Home, I actually hadn’t heard of Gone Home, so I’ll check that out!
How about Jonathan Blow’s The Witness? He’s come out in interviews and said it was sort of inspired by Myst.
RM: Oh yeah. I’m honored. He’s a genius with his design, so I’m excited to give it a shot. I love his work, and honestly I don’t know what to expect. I’ve heard the same thing, that it was kind of inspired, but I’ve seen screenshots with some of the puzzle-based stuff so it’ll be fun for me to plunge in. It’s always fun for me to jump into something that people says is inspired by Myst and explore.
Why do you think the first-person adventure genre never took off? Obviously there’s a niche that is still excited for this, so what happened?
RM: Yeah I—boy, I do not know. I’m sure we could postulate, but it feels like—to be honest with you, I really did think that the success of Myst would drive publishers to put a lot more money than we had put into Myst into other games that explored other areas.
I just thought it would happen. Not that it would dry up any of the other genres; there’s plenty of movie genres and television genres. It just felt like Myst was one of those pivot points that would add a branch to the tree of interactive. And it felt like that whole branch just withered, to a certain extent. There’s still people who hold onto it, but it feels very much like it’s just an indie path.
So I just don’t know; I don’t know whether it was just easy money to go down the already thicker paths, so why take the risk on something big because it was going to take more and more money to do better and better adventure-style games, and maybe it was just risky money.
Do you think any of it has to do with the fact that we call them “video games.” Do you think the term alienates people who are looking for something with a high skill-ceiling?
RM: I don’t think that term necessarily alienates people. We just throw that in the box and I don’t think people even think about the term. Technically it’s not exactly accurate, but I think some of the best selling games that we call video games didn’t fit into that—I’m thinking of The Sims or Myst—those don’t fit in, necessarily, in “video games” but the public seems to be okay thinking of them in that way. I just don’t know; it’s confusing and I bet there are some people who’ve written some great doctoral theses on how this all works but I just can’t figure it out!
Maybe it’s just a timing thing. Maybe the fact is that we’ve got a generation that grew up with FPS games and they’re maybe growing a little bit weary.
They’d like something a little deeper and a little more interesting, they’re tired of shooting people because the only thing that changes is the person they shoot and how much blood and guts and what it looks like. There seems to be a little of a—at least from my buzz meter, from my email meter—a little bit of a pushback that says “Boy, I sure would like to see the technology make a really interesting place I could explore and not have to worry about killing everything first.” Not saying one goes away, but maybe it just needed time to run down the path a little further before they come back and try another one.
So maybe this’ll be the time where the first-person adventure game takes off and we get our little Renaissance?
RM: That’d be alright with me. I’d love to see some—there’s some really big projects where people are doing some amazing stuff. I’d like playing them.
Back at IndieCade you talked a lot about Hypercard and Hypercard development. If you were starting off making games today, obviously Hypercard is not really an option these days, do you have any idea what software you’d end up coming in on?
RM: Oh man. I think it would depend on what we were doing, but if I was giving advice to somebody? It feels like these days if you want to get started Unity is a good one to start on just because even if you’re not making a 3D game having that experience in a 3D environment is kind of what you need to know.
We’ve done even some 2D games, some little mobile games, in the Unity engine and even though they’re 2D having that 3D environment is great experience. It gives you options you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s not easy—I don’t know that kids can get started, though kids are always smarter than I think they are. It seems like a good place to start. At least it gives you a start for where to go from there. You can branch off into more powerful things and I think the learning curve helps if you’ve got your feet on the ground in a 3D engine.
Do you think you and Robin were lucky because at the time Hypercard was such an easy option where you guys could get in there and start doing things with minimal programming knowledge? Because Unity, as you said, is not really an easy engine still. There’s a barrier you have to get over before you start making stuff.
RM: To a certain extent, yeah, I think we were lucky—well, I think we were very lucky on a lot of different levels. Right place. Right time. But in a lot of ways—I think I touched on this at IndieCade—some of being successful is just building within your constraints. Knowing your constraints well and building within them.
We see that all the time, and I think it’s exemplified in, like, Minecraft. We’re blown away by what people do in Minecraft but really it’s limited and people just learn and design within the limitations and it’s downright amazing. I think as humans that’s what creativity is good at. You learn what the limitations of your paintbrush are and the colors of your paint are, and if you only have two colors sometimes it’s amazing what people can do. So you can sit there and complain or be worried that you have too many colors or you need more colors or “Boy, if I only had another paintbrush” but really if you know what your limitations are and you keep that in mind you can make a masterpiece.
There’s a lot of people who struggle with, “Boy, if I only,” and the fact is sometimes a pencil and paper is a good way to start. You don’t need more than that. Do the best you can with your pencil and paper and then see where you can go from there.
I noticed on the Kickstarter page there’s a boxed copy you can get if you meet a certain tier. Why the boxed copy, and are we getting a return to “feelies” in this? Obviously a boxed copy of a game today is very different from a boxed copy of a game twenty years ago.
RM: It has more to do with Kickstarter than anything. It feels like there are people who would love to have the atoms rather than bits, so we want to make something that in some ways feels like a collectible thing and is only for the Kickstarter. We don’t plan on putting boxed copies on a shelf anywhere.
This is probably a unique to Kickstarter—definitely a unique to Kickstarter thing. I think people have responded well. It’s interesting because if you do the tier that has the boxed copy, you get the downloadable version as well. I think people probably look at it like, “I’ll just take the boxed copy and put it on my shelf as a cool artifact, and I’ll just download and play the download version.” That’s kind of cool. That tactile or feeling of value you get by having the actual atoms, that’s real value.
Are we going to see any non-game tie-ins to Obduction? Will we get three Obduction books?
RM: I don’t think so. There’ll be some tactile things, but I don’t think we have any novels or comic books associated with it at this point.
Oculus Rift support is being considered for a stretch goal on this?
RM: Definitely. There’s a lot of questions you have to ask yourself with Oculus Rift. We want to make sure we do it well, and we want to make sure we understand the requirements and we design it so we’re driving framerates right on the Oculus Rift and not compromising design on the main version as well, so we’re going over all those little details to make sure we think out things correctly. We haven’t gone into any of this lightly. We’ve thought out so many of these options, and it’d be easy to just go “Oh, let’s throw a stretch goal in there for Oculus Rift,” but we’ve been doing all this stuff long enough that all those little butterfly wings have plenty of effect on the other side of the world here.
I assume you’ve scoped out everything.
RM: Let’s put it this way: we’ve got lots of stretch goals lined up. We’re not sure at this point that we’ve got the order lined up correctly. We’re seeing how things go, we’re listening to people’s feedback to see—it was interesting, even with the questions, to see which ones we were getting the most of, which ones we were getting fewer of, and that’ll drive us to a certain extent. We don’t want to just throw the stretch goals up without seeing what people are commenting.
Any examples of what people have been asking about most?
RM: Yeah, Linux. That’s probably the biggest by far is people want a Linux version and we want a Linux version. The biggest issue right now with Linux is Unreal Engine 4, just not knowing for sure where they’re coming down on it. They would like to do Linux but they’re not committing to it yet so that’s a “wait and see.”
Well I hope the Kickstarter goes well.
RM: Yup, we’re hoping it goes good too. So far so good. We had no idea what to expect, and I think the word around here is regardless of the outcome, as much as we would love it to go great guns and give us way more than we need, it has been really satisfying and gratifying—and humbling—to see the comments. We kind of sit here in the great inland Pacific Northwest and a lot of times I think we’re not sure if people even have fond memories of Myst that much. That alone has been really, really encouraging and energizing to see that we got so much support and kind comments from people. That’s been really cool.