Rand Miller

Cyan Worlds

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 01 November 2007. Last updated on 09 October 2012.
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Rand Miller
Rand Miller is the co-founder of Cyan Worlds and co-creator of Myst.

For more information, visit Myst Online: Uru Live.

All images are courtesy of Mark Dobratz, Cyan Worlds © 2007.

As a game developer, Rand Miller is in a league of his own. Bestowing such honor on Miller is no exaggeration, since his works have fundamentally changed how adventure games are defined today. Born in 1959, Miller worked as a programmer in a bank in Texas before co-founding Cyan in 1987 with his brother Robyn to develop computer games. In 1991, they released the graphic adventure game Myst. Not only has Myst forever redefined the adventure genre, it is also among the bestselling games (adventure or otherwise) of all time. The game has since spawned 4 sequels (Riven: The Sequel to Myst, Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Myst V: End of Ages), 2 remakes (Myst: Masterpiece Edition, realMyst), and a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (Uru Live, now known Myst Online: Uru Live) that includes a standalone (Uru: Ages Beyond Myst) and 2 expansion packs (Uru: To D'ni, Uru: The Path of the Shell). Derivative works based on Myst have even been made into novels and comic books.

Today, Miller is the CEO of Cyan Worlds (formerly known as Cyan), located on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington, US. We are extremely privileged to have this interview with the legendary game designer. In the interview, Miller speaks of the mystery behind the Myst mythology, the turbulent history of Cyan, the resurrection of Uru, and what the future holds for him.

Check out our exclusive photo of Miller!

What was the origin of the name Myst? What influence had the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien (whom you said to have inspired you) on Myst?

The name Myst was simply a working title that came from Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. Robyn had been reading it, and the name was so perfect once we blurted it out. One of those rare moments where you know something is right.

Lewis and Tolkien were an influence on both of us only insofar as providing the seed idea of what it meant to build a deeper fantasy world. Worlds that had history and depth, and even possibly a certain amount of meaning. They certainly weren't the only inspiration, but they were some of the earliest.

In what ways did Myst differ from other adventure games of that era? When did you first realize that Myst would be a game that would essentially redefine the genre of graphic adventure games and even create its own subgenre?

There were a couple primary elements that we thought separated Myst from other adventure games. First was the attempt on our part to make it feel like a real place. We were fairly certain that the interface and game-play should be simple and intuitive enough to fade into the background. You should not have to be distracted with interface elements, and the game-play had to be built to support that. So no inventory, no on-screen arrows or menus, no points or timers - just the world. Second was the idea to step away from dying. We felt that dying was simply a brute force level of game-play friction to keep players from completing games too quickly. Myst would be large enough that we wouldn't have to depend on starting over to provide gaming value.

As for redefining the genre. I think we simply refined it, or evolved it. We simply changed a few parameters based on some instincts we had and they worked out. But we expected that others would look at what we changed and see what worked (and what didn't) and further refine the genre.

The Myst mythology was often praised by critics for its deep spiritual and philosophical undertones, including the notation of a creator with god like power able to write Linking Books to Ages and alter events within these worlds through the player. How had your own personal faith and religious belief as a Christian affected the stories portrayed in Myst and its sequels (with examples)?

Robyn and I went into the Myst design and production with the best of intentions. We believed that real art has an aspect to it that somehow attempts to communicate truth. It's not about a hammer or doctrine, it's about truth and a whisper - for those with ears to hear. We've both been surprised through the years where those inspirational whispers have come from.

With that said, the rigors of production and reality of budgets tend to dampen the best of intentions. And so Myst has bits of underlying spiritual and philosophical ideas, but any kind of truth that might have been whispered is pretty quiet. So Robyn and I looked at it as practice and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the interactive medium - whether it could be art. Those discussions continue.

There had been 2 remakes of the original Myst -- Myst: Masterpiece Edition and realMyst. What led you to decide that it was the right time to remake Myst? In retrospect, what elements of your original vision of Myst were still missing from these remakes?

Nothing was missing, and everything was missing. Myst was what it was supposed to be - it worked, and we felt like its content was good (to hijack a rather god-like phrase). But Myst was two parts - the content and the delivery. The delivery has something to do with technology and we all know that technology isn't static. So when the technology could support bigger images and more colors and clearer sound, well we did what comes naturally - we changed the delivery. And when the technology supported moving real-time 3D - we changed the delivery.

We'd like to think that each of those delivery improvements made Myst better, but they also changed it in unanticipated ways. Moving to 3D was a huge leap, with some remarkable results, but there were some not-so-remarkable results as well. Everything is a learning process.

What was the reason behind your brother Robyn's abrupt departure from Cyan after Riven: The Sequel to Myst? How had his departure affected you personally and changed the creative process during the development of subsequent sequels in the Myst series?

It had something to do with the aforementioned continuing debate over deeper interactive storytelling. Robyn has so many talents and interests, and rather than trying to express himself while defining a new interactive medium, he felt much more comfortable and somewhat relieved in moving on to expressing himself in some tried and true mediums that he was very skilled in - such as writing and music.

Robyn's departure left holes in our company. The way a company deals with holes is to try and fill them. It just so happens that filling the holes that Robyn left required a few people. We pulled from people who had worked closely with Robyn for some holes, and we found completely new people to fill others, and I tried to plug a couple of them. Big shoes!

Personally, Robyn and I worked pretty well together. A creative team that revolves around two brothers who get along is a pretty good thing. Creative design involves throwing almost everything away to find the jewels, and brothers are very free in their criticism without getting feelings hurt. So the design process (which I continue to be involved in) went through lots of iterations over the years to get to a good mix of creative pruners, which includes another Miller brother, Ryan.

Why was the development of Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation outsourced to Presto Studios and Ubisoft Montreal Studios respectively? Looking back, what stylistic differences between these developers in their interpretation of the Myst universe did you find most dissimilar to your own?

Really only one reason - motivation. We had moved on as a company to all things Uru.

From my point of view the most dissimilar items revolved around the game-play. I think with Riven we moved more and more toward trying to make the friction (puzzles) feel like part of the world - like it was there for a reason, and there was a story behind it. We may have even done that to a fault, in many people's opinion. So in III and IV I don't think the designers felt as compelled to imbue the frictional objects and environments with quite the depth that we had at our disposal with Riven. That's not a critique, just a personal observation.

A defining element of the Myst series of games was the abstract cryptic puzzles that were a challenge even for expert adventure gamers. Which puzzle from the entire series would you consider to be the most difficult? How had the puzzle designs evolved over the different games of the series?

The most difficult was the final marble puzzle in Riven. Our goal for Riven was to start with less friction and end with some tough stuff. We even remarked at the time that we had made Riven easier and harder than Myst. But there were some tough mental leaps to be made to put everything together for that final puzzle.

I think after doing both Myst and Riven we came to realize that the compartmentalized puzzle solving of Myst's distinct ages was a good thing. People like to know what the goals are, but beyond that they want to know the boundaries for achieving those goals. In Myst when an Age was completed there was a huge benefit to being able to mentally check it off the list. Riven mixed up the "Ages" in small, but irritating, ways - because once you realize that you require something from another "Age" the nice security of the boundaries goes out the window.

We tried to apply that lesson as we moved forward, but we forgot it a couple more times. (chuckle)

You had repeatedly said that you disliked playing the role of Atrus. Why did you feel that you were not fitted for the role? During filming, what were your most memorable or embarrassing outtakes as Atrus?

Good actors have to be remarkably uninhibited. I'm not. I love talking and interfacing with people, one on one or huge groups. But I find it hard to fake that communication with a camera. It makes me very uncomfortable. So even though I'm sure I have the amazing skills of a master thespian, I'm just not uninhibited enough to let them out. (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

The most memorable was during the filming of Myst III. I had to scream at one point - in response to the fire all around me. Yikes. Just try to get a convincing scream from a lousy, inhibited, non-actor. Michel Kripalani from Presto was directing, and he was very patient, but that whole experience still makes me chuckle and cringe.

The development of Uru Live had undoubtedly been the most challenging and heartbreaking experience for you and your company. In retrospect, what would you attribute to be the biggest failure leading to the eventual cancellation of Uru Live? How had this experience changed you as a game developer and as a business person?

I think the biggest failure was running out of money, and thus running out of time, and thus losing control of our own destiny. No matter what promises are made or common goals are agreed upon, whoever pays the bills has the final say. I'm not saying that Uru would have been amazingly successful; I'm just saying we might have gotten far enough along to at least know whether is was successful or not - and learned from it.

The smartest way to run a business is to use other people's money, but the most satisfying way to run a business is with your own. The years that Robyn and I grew Cyan little by little, using money from one project to apply to the next, were very satisfying. By the way, I'm not implying that you shouldn't do business by using other people's money - just make sure you know that it won't be quite as satisfying.

But in the end, work is about taking care of life first, and being satisfied second. If you're one of the rare cases where those things align - consider yourself very fortunate.

The recent launch of Myst Online: Uru Live, under a partnership with GameTap, is seen as a welcomed resurrection of the Uru Live franchise. From the perspective of a gamer, what will be the biggest difference in the gameplay experience? From the perspective of a developer, what will be greatest change in how contents are created and delivered in Uru as an online experience?

From a gamer's perspective we're trying to bring back Uru intact, the way we had planned. So it's as much of our vision as we can get in.

From a developer's perspective we're having to work creatively. The Uru expansion packs were nearly a year's worth of amazing Uru content that for all intents and purposes got used up in the blink of an eye. So we've had to reconfigure our design and production with a much smaller, but more experienced team to build new content. It's challenging to say the least. The key to Uru's success is our ability to keep satisfying new content flowing. We're doing our best to make that happen, and at least now that we're up and running, this time we're learning at every step along the way.

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