Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Spokane

Beyond the Myst

File
Rand Miller, who created Myst with his brother Robyn, finally has a computer game he can play in Myst III: Exile.

Michael Guilfoil - Staff writer

Seven years ago, two Spokane brothers toiling in a friend's garage created an exciting new virtual world.

They called it Myst.

Computer-game reviewers hailed it as "brilliant," "a masterpiece" and "stunningly beautiful."

Wired magazine compared Rand and Robyn Miller to Dante. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed them "superstars."

The Millers sold a record 6 million copies of Myst, and more than 2 million copies of its sequel, Riven.

Along the way, they built an exotic headquarters in Mead, and their company -- Cyan -- grew to 50 employees.

Robyn left Cyan and Spokane three years ago to pursue other interests. But the company continues to expand. A 10,000-square-foot studio is rising next to its headquarters, and plans include hiring as many as 25 more employees.

Earlier this month, Myst III: Exile arrived in stores nationwide. Newsweek magazine calls it "as big, lush and as hypnotically beautiful as its predecessors." A promotional trailer will appear in movie theaters this summer.

Unlike Myst and Riven, this CD-ROM game was created by San Diego-based Presto Studios under a licensing agreement.

So what's up with Cyan?

We spoke with 42-year-old Rand Miller just as he was leaving town to attend the E3 technology expo in Los Angeles. The conversation covered Myst III, Cyan and the future of computer games. Here's what he told us:


The Spokesman-Review: Back in '94, when Myst was the hottest game around, you and Robyn sounded unconcerned about competition. Robyn said, "We'd like nothing better than something like Myst to come along so we could play it!"

Is Myst III: Exile that game?

Miller: Yeah. Even though we (Cyan) played a part in making sure the continuity was maintained, I purposely kept hands off because I wanted to play it. I've never had an opportunity to jump into a Myst world knowing nothing about the plot or the puzzles.

It's very satisfying. And it gives me a glimpse of why Myst had the effect on people that it did.

S-R: Would you consider Myst III more of a grandchild or a distant cousin of the original game?

Miller: It's a distant cousin.

That's not meant as a criticism. But when we sold the franchise rights for the sequel, we felt someone else had to have creative control, or it would hurt the project.

We agreed on where Presto could go and what they could do, but they still had a lot of freedom.

S-R: Will fans of Myst and Riven feel like Exile is a sequel, or something completely different?

Miller: Exile feels very much like a sequel. It follows

the original characters and the feel of the previous games.

S-R: At one point you envisioned Riven as the conclusion of the Myst story. Is Myst III the final episode?

Miller: It depends on how you define "the story."

All the questions raised in Myst were wrapped up in Riven. But that doesn't mean there aren't other aspects of the characters' lives, or the whole history behind Myst, that wouldn't make interesting stories.

S-R: So will there be a Myst IV?

Miller: I think there will be. A lot of that is dictated by the quality of each iteration. The fact that Myst III was done well makes us seriously consider adding another game to the series.

S-R: What's your favorite part of Myst III?

Miller: I haven't finished yet. I refuse to use the hint book, so I'm grunging my way through it. But already my favorite part is the graphic quality.

It's been interesting looking in the corners to see what kind of grime is there, and checking the stone walls to see if I can see a repeating pattern. They did an amazing job.

S-R: What would you have done differently?

Miller: There's something incredibly satisfying about the "aha" experience when you're playing these games. And the only way you get that is when it's possible for you to truly understand a puzzle before you solve it.

On the other hand, if you randomly flick a few switches and something happens and you don't understand the process, it's wasted effort. There are a few experiences like that in Exile.

S-R: What project are you working on now?

Miller: It's a very natural extension to what we've always done. Our worlds have gradually grown larger and more sophisticated. So the natural inclination is to continue along that growth line.

Even before Riven was released, Robyn and I talked about how broadband Internet might be used to make larger worlds. We don't care how we ship our worlds -- we just want a medium that lets us make them as large as possible.

Broadband gives us the potential to make infinite worlds.

S-R: Does your project have a name?

Miller: The internal code name is "Parable." It reflects how we feel about art.

When people get really good at their craft -- whether they're cabinetmakers or musicians -- they begin to imbue what they do with a sense of truth. That's when they become artists.

And that's what makes a parable different from a story. A story can be very entertaining and fun. A parable has all those things, too, but at the end it reveals a truth that makes you reflect. That's what we're shooting for.

S-R: What have you've learned in the past 10 years?

Miller: Lots of things. But the first thing that comes to mind is that all the success I've enjoyed with Myst and Riven pales in comparison to my relationship with people -- my ability to be there as a friend and support others.

S-R: Unlike other popular computer games, Myst and Riven don't create artificial limits for players, such as how much fuel or how many lives they have left. Why have you chosen a more relaxed pace?

Miller: People love to explore, dig deeper, see what's around the corner. And it's satisfying to do that in ways that aren't so twitchy and frenetic. There's a wonderful sense of achievement when you do that in a deliberate, cerebral manner.

Having said that, we're putting stuff in our next project that involves riding creatures and grabbing things and team competitions. But it continues to be one of our goals to build exploration into every play experience.

S-R: What's the best thing about being the CEO of Cyan?

Miller: Since I'm the boss, I can say I don't want an office. When I had one, it just collected junk anyway.

Instead of an office, I have a laptop computer, and we have a wireless network throughout our headquarters. I can go wherever I want with my computer -- I meet in other people's offices, or sit on the sofa, or go to the new building and I'm still connected.

S-R: Could two guys in a garage today accomplish what you and Robyn did a decade ago?

Miller: Maybe, if they came up with a really unique idea.

But the interactive world has grown a lot since Robyn and I started out. We created Myst on a shoestring budget of $650,000. Riven cost more than $10 million.

We see Parable as having ongoing production potential. That means the budget for the next project is like the worlds themselves -- it never ends.

Michael Guilfoil can be reached at (509) 459-5491 or by e-mail at mikegu@spokesman.com.