Francis Tsai

Presto Studios

Posted by Jeremiah Kauffman, Philip Jong.
First posted on 04 October 2000. Last updated on 05 February 2009.
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Francis Tsai
Francis Tsai is a designer of Myst III: Exile at Presto Studios.
Francis Tsai
Francis Tsai
Francis Tsai
Francis Tsai

All images are courtesy of Susan Weyer, Presto Studios © 2000.

We are privileged to have an exclusive interview with Francis Tsai from Presto Studios. Tsai is a member of the Conceptual Design Team for the upcoming adventure game Myst III: Exile. Following the footstep of Cyan (the original developer of Myst and Riven: The Sequel to Myst), San Diego California-based Presto Studios is attempting to duplicate the success of Cyan with the next chapter in the Myst saga. In this interview, Tsai speaks of his work in Myst III: Exile and the legacy of the famed series.

Check out our exclusive gallery of never before seen online screenshots from Myst III: Exile!

Francis, when and how did you first get involved in Myst III: Exile? How difficult was it to gain permission from Cyan to do this project?

I became involved in the pre-production for EXILE in early 1999. I had just completed the design work for Star Trek: Hidden Evil, and aside from helping to oversee production and bang out some storyboards for the in-game cut scenes, my duties had pretty much tapered off. The EXILE team at that point was very small, more of a pre-production design and writing team of about three or four people. I was brought in with a couple of other conceptual designers to basically start coming up with "blue sky" visualization ideas. By "blue sky" I mean conceptual art with no real limitations or huge backstory or anything like that - this early art was simply meant to inspire different story and gameplay ideas.

Our team was one of just a few chosen to come up with an idea for a game which would take place in the MYST universe. That initial proposal comprised several different story ideas based on events and characters from both the original games as well as the three MYST novels. Most of these concepts did not involve Atrus and Catherine - the intent there was to demonstrate that there were a number of different options we could develop.

What inspired you most strongly from the original MYST when designing EXILE?

My wife Linda and I played MYST together shortly after we got our first PC. At the time, we were just spellbound by the quality of the graphics, the sound and music, and the story. It seemed so realistic and immersive, especially compared to some other games on the market at the time. One of the things we found most striking about the game was the attention to detail. Linda is an architect, and that is my background as well, so we appreciated the effort spent in the design; for example, we appreciated things like realistic looking materials and being able to understand the construction methods of various structures on the islands. On the whole, there was a definite holistic sense of design to the game - it felt like the same mind that laid out the island was the same mind that decided how far apart to space the bolts on a panel.

MYST revolutionized adventure gaming by being the first adventure game to use a completely ray traced environment. What graphical tools are used to create the ages in EXILE?

Our main tools consist of 3DStudio Max, FormZ, ElectricImage, Photoshop and various plug-ins for those packages. In addition we are using a number of compositing and post production packages like AfterFX, Final Cut, and Combustion.

How different will the look of EXILE be from MYST and its sequel RIVEN? Beyond playing the original MYST, how much research was spent on making the world of EXILE authentic? Is there a lot of correspondence between you and MYST's original production team at Cyan?

Hopefully the quality of the graphics and attention to detail in EXILE will match the level of that in MYST and RIVEN. We studied the imagery from MYST and RIVEN quite a bit, trying to get a feel for what kinds of aesthetic, architectural, or cultural influences make the "MYST look-and-feel" so recognizable. We read the three MYST novels and got several copies of the "From Myst to Riven" art book to have on hand for reference for the different art teams.

I know that our writer and producer have been in constant contact with Cyan representatives, ensuring that the worlds we're creating would mesh correctly with what they had already established or would establish in the future. We were also very fortunate to have a designer on the team who might be described as a rabid MYST and RIVEN fan, who - as fate would have it - is now working with Cyan on their "next big thing."

What is your design philosophy in integrating puzzles into the surrealistic world of EXILE? What kind of puzzles will we expect from EXILE?

First and foremost, we wanted to create an immersive environment where the player feels as if he or she has been transported to another world. In the interests of that, we tried to make the puzzles fit as naturally into the world as possible, and not appear to simply be arbitrary puzzles randomly placed in the environment. For instance, a lot of the puzzles actually involve machines or equipment that would have been fairly straightforward to operate, but due to certain circumstances have become compromised. It's then up to the player to come up with a workaround which will make the equipment operate as originally intended. Aside from that, I can't really say too much more without giving away crucial information.

Is there a lot of pressure on you in making sure that EXILE lives up to the standards of the MYST series set by Cyan?

Yes, but that kind of pressure is actually a good thing. We're well aware of the responsibility we have in giving the story and characters the treatment that they deserve. So far the reaction we've gotten from the established fan base has been very encouraging. In particular, feedback from the Rivenguild site has been positive and helpful as well. The hardcore fans have analyzed the screenshots and concept art and come up with countless theories regarding storyline, puzzles and characters — it's been very insightful.

What would you say are the major advantages of working with pure 3D? Do you regret not being able to take advantage of the abstraction which only 2D allows?

Among other things, working in 3D allows us to design a space and then choose a camera angle which works best in terms of drama and gameplay. I don't think you could really get away with not doing a game like this in 3D. 2D offers a lot more freedom in terms of composing shots and creating scenes which would be impossible in reality, but you run the risk of creating something which doesn't look entirely real or convincing. We do rely on 2D somewhat, especially for adding post effects or "editing" renders when it's not feasible to re-render a scene for a minor texture error or something of that nature.

It is known EXILE is divided into five ages. Which age are you responsible? What is your design philosophy behind your particular age?

I was the designer for the Age which is being referred to by fans as the "Canyon Age." In addition, I was one of three designers working on "Another" Age. I can't say too much about that particular Age just yet.

For the Canyon Age, aesthetically I wanted to create a hot, dry desert-like world, with an overall mood of isolation and abandonment. One reason for that decision was to contrast with some of the other Ages, which represent different climates or times of day; also, it was in keeping with the "Exile" theme of the game.

A lot of the sense of the surreal in MYST (at least for me) came from seeing objects and architecture that were somehow both familiar and strange at the same time. For the "Canyon Age," once I determined that the overall look and climate would be sort of arid and bright, I tried to come up with a palette of colors and materials which would complement that. In terms of design, I initially looked at a lot of imagery from the 30s and 40s, especially the "Streamline" school of design and art deco architecture. I collected a lot of imagery of Hoover Dam, which initially provided me with some great inspiration. Many of my early sketches have a very definite influence from that era of design. I ended up expanding on that a bit and incorporated a lot of art nouveau, adding some sweeping curves and detailing and other organic forms. Regardless of the detailing, I wanted the machinery and architecture to look as if they could have been taken from some period in history, rather than appearing to be some sort of futuristic technology. This is another aspect of the aesthetic design of MYST and RIVEN which appealed to me - all the objects and architecture appear to be somewhat familiar, like you've seen pieces of it somewhere before. My natural tendency is to design somewhat techy and sci-fi, so at first it was a real effort to "stay in character." I have to thank our creative director Phil Saunders for helping to rein me in sometimes.

How do you maintain an overall coherent feel between your age and the other ages in EXILE?

We didn't necessarily attempt to make the look and feel of each of the Ages relate to each other visually; in fact, we tried to make each Age unique thematically and aesthetically. The Ages are meant to convey different motifs, are conceived with different material and color palettes, and convey different lighting and times of day. The Ages are connected more through the story and through character arcs rather than through their aesthetic design.

What has been the biggest hurdle so far in designing EXILE?

The biggest hurdles so far have mostly been technological in nature. There is a certain point in 3DStudio Max where the sheer number of polygons starts to cause some problems. In addition, we are depending quite a bit on textures and custom shaders to give objects that final layer of realism. Sometimes the software does things in ways you don't expect or can't predict, so we've had to come up with a lot of interesting ways to work around some of the technology problems.

What particular aspect of your experience working on EXILE has been most enjoyable? What aspect has been most frustrating?

I would have to say that working with a team of very talented artists who are creating these worlds based on my designs is one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. In my previous career in architecture, I had many opportunities to see design work being realized. However, in that profession there are so many factors affecting the final outcome of a design project that it's rare to see something come to fruition in exactly the way you originally conceived it. With this project, the images on the screen are very close in appearance to the design comps, which is a testament to the artists' abilities.

The frustrating thing is probably not having enough time to develop certain areas to a higher level of detail. I used an iterative design process, which means I tried as many different variations on a design as possible given the time frame, adding or removing and refining elements each time. There are certain areas where, due to timing, I sort of had to go with the initial idea, and didn't spend as much time exploring different directions which might have resulted in more interesting visuals or gameplay.

The North American market has not been kind to adventure game publishers these past few years. Many now hail EXILE as the last saviour for the adventure genre. Which aspects of EXILE do you think will gain the most popularity among both newbie and veteran adventurers?

I'm a bit biased, but I think that EXILE's strong points are also the things that make a good adventure game in general. Things like a strong story, realistic, multi-dimensional characters, well integrated story and gameplay, and great visuals. I think veteran adventure gamers will appreciate the effort we have put into making the story and gameplay fit naturally with each other.

Because we're not making a traditional real-time action game, we have much more leeway in terms of putting a lot of our efforts into making the visuals as realistic as possible. I think this eye candy factor is important in catching the attention of those people who normally don't play action games, or who are intimidated by the technical expertise required to play those games. Hopefully, if these new players have a good experience in playing this game, they will be encouraged to try other games.

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