Mark Dobratz

Cyan Worlds

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 26 November 2007. Last updated on 16 July 2012.
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Mark Dobratz
Mark Dobratz is the Producer/Project Manager of Myst Online: Uru Live at Cyan Worlds.

For more information, visit Myst Online: Uru Live.

The story of Uru is a tale of both triumph and heartbreak. Codenamed DIRT and later MUDPIE, creator Rand Miller has initially envisioned the game to be the next evolution in the Myst series for Cyan Worlds. The expectation of Uru to succeed has been high, since Myst is the bestselling adventure game of all time and is widely regarded as the game that has redefined the graphic adventure genre as it appears today. In contrast to previous sequels in the Myst series, Uru is made up of a single-player game called Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and a multi-player online game called Uru Live. Despite its potentials, the original Uru ultimately proves to be a failed experiment. The cancellation of the first Uru Live by Cyan Worlds and its publisher Ubisoft in February 2004 signals the end of an era previously dominated by the developer. Over the next few years, however, Miller has never given up on his dream of restoring Uru. Finally, in May 2006, Cyan Worlds announces a new partnership with publisher GameTap and the revival of the Uru project, under the new name Myst Online: Uru Live.

Still, the story of Uru is a tale best told through the eyes of those who have been involved with the project. Mark Dobratz is such an individual. As a Producer/Project Manager at Cyan Worlds, he has been intimately involved with the development of both Uru and Myst V: End of Ages (the final game of the series). Today, Dobratz is again overseeing the development of Myst Online: Uru Live at Cyan Worlds. We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview him. In the interview, Dobratz speaks of his works at Cyan Worlds, his perspective on the failure of the original Uru Live project, the trials and tribulations to revive a canceled project, what players can expect from the new Myst Online: Uru Live, and what the future holds for Uru and Cyan Worlds.

When and how did you get recruited to Cyan Worlds? What prior experience did you have in game development?

My career in the electronic entertainment industry began in San Diego in 1990, when I took a position as an animator for a not-so-popular Saturday morning cartoon airing on Fox at that time. Even though we would hand-draw each cell of animation, we were using computers and proprietary software to do it; this was my first taste of working as part of a team to create something using computers as the primary tool, and I loved it.

When the show (and my job) was cancelled the following year, one of the other lead animators encouraged me to apply at BlueSky Software, a small, independent company that was developing games exclusively for the Sega Genesis platform. After some undignified begging on my part, they hired me as an animator. It wasn't long before I was given the chance to do character and background art as well, and I also got to work on some of the game designs. I kept my hand in animation, and was involved in rotoscoping and motion capture technology as they became viable for games, including the physical aspects. (If you look closely at the Sega Genesis versions of Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, Dr. Grant and the amazing Spider Man move amazingly like I do...) After a year or two, I evolved into something resembling an art lead.

My eventual downfall as a career computer graphic artist came from my willingness to do whatever was needed for the good of the project. Every project has necessary evils that no artist or programmer wants to have to deal with - things like schedules and budgets and corporate rules and relationships with corporate partners... I soon found myself handling much more of those kinds of things than any kind of art. I was so happy to be of help, I didn't notice that I was supposed to be above that kind of work. In hindsight, I'm sure the development teams were delighted to have found a sucker to unload the mundane business concerns onto, and unload they did.

As time went on I ended up working on sports games more than anything, which I believe is what made me attractive to EA Sports. I finally bit on their casual promptings and joined them in 1997, taking a position that was a lot like what I was doing at BlueSky, which they called a "producer." So I went to Electronic Arts, Canada, to be a "producer" for EA Sports' baseball franchise.

Going from a small company like BlueSky to a company like EA was quite an adjustment. BlueSky had a tight, family feel; EA was a corporate giant where I was just one of thousands. Fortunately, I was surrounded by genuinely brilliant people who patiently tolerated my learning curves. EA Canada was (and I'm sure, still is) a fantastic place to work: we all worked very hard there, had a lot of fun, and were well supported and rewarded.

However, after just a couple years of working with large teams and on every platform imaginable, I realized that as much as I was learning, and as much as I was enjoying my time at Electronic Arts, I felt in my heart that I was better suited for a smaller, more intimate company like the one I had come from. At the top of my known list of small developers was Cyan Worlds, one of the few remaining independent developers who seemed to be doing something a little different, and doing it with real quality. From afar, they looked like the fit I was hoping for, so I approached them (Cyan did not approach me). Interviews and visits confirmed my suspicions, and although I came within a hair of being hired as early as 1999, things didn't work out for me until July of 2002, when I finally came on board as a Producer/Project Manager at Cyan Worlds.

How familiar were you with the Myst series before you started at Cyan Worlds? How were you kept abreast of the long and often convoluted history of the Myst mythology for your job once you were hired?

When Myst first came out on the PC, the company I was with at the time (BlueSky) picked up a copy to study and play. I remember a group of us huddling around a monitor to look at it; half the comments were variations of "wow" and the other half were from people already lost in the experience: "Go that way," or "Try this," or "Do that." We were blown away by its excellence, its simple elegance and the way it pulled you in. I was impressed enough that when Riven came out a few years later, I picked up a copy to play at home. Which I... um, never finished. BUT, I had fun trying for longer than I spend with most games. When I was hired at Cyan, diving into the Myst novels helped, but the story of Myst is so huge that, even as I approach the end of my fifth year here, I am still learning things all the time. Fortunately, most of the original designers of the Myst universe - Rand and Ryan Miller, Rich Watson and Josh Staub - are still at Cyan Worlds, lending their vast knowledge and creativity to Myst Online. This core team is the reason the Myst franchise has such strong continuity.

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and Myst V: End of Ages were both projects with which you were involved. What were your roles in these projects? What was a typical work day for you as a project manager?

I was hired almost exactly when Cyan Worlds had to look outside of itself financially, in what turned out to be the final third or so of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst production. I was hired as a "producer", but that role was already being filled exceptionally by our CTO, Brice Tebbs, so I assumed more of a project manager role. As project manager, one of my primary tasks from the beginning was to keep both Cyan and our new partner (Ubisoft) happy as the business relationship blossomed and began to grow. As you can imagine, that involved a lot of communication and coordination. It also took some diplomacy when trying to reconcile some of the philosophical and practical differences between Cyan Worlds and Ubisoft.

With Brice's departure after Uru: Ages Beyond Myst wrapped up, I stepped into the Producer role for Myst V: End of Ages, which meant doing most of what I was doing before (I was still a technical idiot) but weighing in a little more in the decision-making. (I did get to hand off my Marketing and Localization responsibilities, though, which was a relief for me and a headache for long-time Cyantist Chris Brandkamp.)

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was seen as the next evolution in the Myst series. Soon after the game was released, Ubisoft announced the shutdown of the Uru Live project on which Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was based, citing an insufficient number of paid subscribers. What was the turmoil going on within Cyan Worlds at that time? How did Rand Miller deliver the news of this cancellation to his team within the company?

The boxed version of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (something along the course of development that we agreed with Ubisoft to create) was a smart business decision - for Ubisoft, at the least, and maybe for Cyan, too - but it wasn't our primary goal at Cyan, and it wasn't where our hearts were. At Cyan, we all thought of it as a springboard to Uru Live, but I think at Ubisoft, they were already thinking about how to pull out of the online arena, and the boxed version was an important fallback for them, and more where their hearts really were.

As you can imagine, with years and years of Cyan dollars, sweat and tears invested in Uru Live, its cancellation was devastating. Rand just called everyone together and laid it out there in one of the most somber company meetings we've ever had.

As Rand has alluded to in other interviews, the worst part of it all was that we never even made it out of the Beta phase before the plug was pulled. It didn't feel like Uru Live got a fair shot. But I suppose that if "a fair shot" is what you're looking for - with any MMO - you need to approach it with a far-sighted plan and a certain amount of patience. If everything is riding on hitting a home run on your first swing - as I believe it was with Ubisoft concerning Uru Live - well, that's a tough measure of success, and we certainly didn't hit one out of the park with our first swing; more like a ground ball that found its way through the infield for a single. Good, but not the home run Ubisoft was looking for. (And, to be fair, I'm sure Ubisoft had a different perspective than we did. To Cyan, it was our first at-bat. To Ubisoft, it was late in the game.)

In September 2005, Rand Miller announced the layoff of all but a few key employees of Cyan Worlds. Ironically, the fallout occurred during the time which Myst V: End of Ages was released. How surprised were you initially of the announcement? What prior discussion was held between Rand Miller and the employees on the future of the company while they were still working on Myst V: End of Ages?

I don't think the shutdown caught anyone by surprise. Cyan Worlds has always had a family feel to it, and Rand has always been open and upfront with Cyan's situation and its ongoing odds of success. We knew there were no further plans with the Myst franchise, and we'd been watching new opportunities fail to develop for months, despite our best efforts to get something else going. I think the greatest emotion I personally felt at the time was a keen disappointment. Cyan is such a rare, special place - it seemed wrong that it had to become another casualty of a market that rewards avoiding risk and panders to base motives.

You were among the few employees who never left Cyan Worlds. When did you first hear the news that the Uru Live project had been revived under GameTap as Myst Online: Uru Live? How many, among whose who had previously worked on Uru Live, were invited back to Cyan Worlds to work on this new project?

Literally just a couple days after we had let almost everyone go, Mark DeForest (our CTO) and I flew down to Atlanta with Rand Miller and Tony Fryman to see if we could work something out with Turner. At first it seemed like standing over the open coffin and trying to do CPR at the funeral, but as the meetings progressed we began to realize what a great fit this might be, and by the end of the trip we were confident that, against all odds, we were going to make something good happen. Of course, it took a little longer to get all the details and paperwork sorted out, but that trip was when it became a reality.

Within a couple weeks, everyone who hadn't already taken other jobs was invited to stay at Cyan and keep working on Uru. And of those invited, only two decided to pursue other interests, so we managed to keep all but four who were laid off with the shutdown.

Much of the contents that were originally developed for Uru Live had since been published as expansion packs for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (Uru: To D'ni and Uru: The Path of the Shell) or released to the community for Until Uru. What development assets (such as codes, unreleased contents) from the original Uru Live had been carried over to Myst Online: Uru Live? How much had the previous contractual relationship with Ubisoft for the original Uru Live affected the development of Myst Online: Uru Live with GameTap?

In hindsight, that was unfortunate - pouring all our Uru Live content into the expansion packs. At the time, we thought, better that than just watching it go down the drain. And we truly felt awful, not only for ourselves and our crushed dreams, but for the tens of thousands of fans we had just pulled the rug out from under. I guess we were in a state of mind where we just couldn't imagine Uru Live rising from the ashes.

And now, here we are, with Uru Live having risen from the ashes. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the return of Uru Live would have been better for our fans and easier on us if the content that we put into the expansion packs had instead been reserved for Myst Online: Uru Live. But there's no use crying over spilt Ages.

Ubisoft had no problem letting us bring back Uru Live in its entirety. Everything in the original has returned in Myst Online, with some added little content bonuses and a greatly enhanced network foundation. A few things that were in the pipeline back then and didn't go into the expansion packs have already been released. And I'm happy to say all of the expansion pack content is also on the way, which will be new to many explorers. And we have entirely new Ages that we're sneaking in between the expansion pack Ages, as we iron out the wrinkles of the rebirth.

Why is the decision made to change from a first person perspective that is used in Myst to a third person perspective in Uru?

Myst Online: Uru Live can be played in either third- or first-person perspective (while you're playing, hitting the F1 key toggles between the two perspectives), so anyone who feels more comfortable playing in first-person perspective can easily do that. But there are a few reasons we default to the third-person perspective, which include being able to relate to your avatar and your community, seeing and enjoying how you've customized your character, getting a better sense of the scale of the environment, and freeing the designers to use multiple cameras to help define space, hint at direction and tell story.

What changes from the original Uru Live have been made to the user interface in Myst Online: Uru Live? How will these changes affect how players interact with each other and with the game world?

The basic structure of the interface has remained the same. There were certainly some areas we would have liked to overhaul, and we carefully considered doing so, but in the end we realized that we are a lean team with a lot on our plates, and it seemed best to get it up and running first, and make improvements second. Having gotten it up and going now, we are picking away at improvements, but it's always a balance of optimizations and improvements versus new content versus fixing problems. I know some of the fans don't understand that, but that balance is a real challenge we face every day.

What lessons have been learned from the failure of Uru Live about developing a Massive Multiplayer Online Game? How has the development of Myst Online: Uru Live benefited from these lessons?

Because we never really launched the first time out, our prime learning time never really happened. This was one of the things we lamented most about shutting down the original Uru Live before it had a chance to launch.

But I believe the lessons are coming right now with Myst Online.

For example, our original thinking was that players would be excited to find something new happening in Uru Live every day, even if it was just a small something like a fountain suddenly flowing. But this time around, we've had the chance to put assumptions like that to the test, and learn some things about our theories and our community. In this specific case, it turns out that the little daily changes we thought the entire community would always be find exciting were being lost in the community.

So now we're learning and making adjustments. Some adjustments are small and hardly noticeable, but in the case of the example above, we've made a major adjustment to our content rollout plan. Rather than spread the content changes - mostly little ones - out over the course of a month, we've changed to a more episodic approach, where we condense what used to be a month of activities into one intense week of fast-breaking action. In this way, players can maximize their time in the game, and have a much better idea of when significant story and content will be unveiled. This helps solve the problem we noticed with our original assumption, and gave the marketing team more to work with at the same time. Now the game is better for more people, thanks to what we've had the chance to learn the second time around.

What timeframe does Myst Online: Uru Live take place in the history of the Myst mythology? Will Uru feature any character from earlier games of the series (such as Atrus)?

Time is an elusive concept, especially when creatures like the Bahro exist, who can manipulate time in ways that may be impossible for humans to understand. (Heh!) But what is clear is that the recent effort in the cavern - the recent activity found in Myst Online: Uru Live - is simply a real-time continuation of the events that took place in Uru Live three years ago, which began even further back with the initial discovery of the cavern years before that. So, for all practical purposes, it should be said that Myst Online is current; it takes place now, this day, this month, this year.

And it's quite likely that some Myst characters from the past can still make their presence felt, one way or another, in Myst Online. But, of course, I wouldn't want to give away any surprises....

Some critics argue that online adventure is an oxymoron, since adventure gaming is fundamentally a solitary experience of exploration (despite the fact that players can discuss with each other both online and offline about their experiences). How do you classify the gameplay underlying Myst Online: Uru Live, especially since it bucks many conventions of a Massive Multiplayer Online Game?

Some critics might say that, but, to me, that sounds like someone with very little experience, or a very narrow view of the genre. From what I've observed, adventure games are more collaborative than many other games. As you pointed out in your question, many - and I would argue, most - players of adventure games find ways to share their experiences with each other, and often work together to get through what was designed as a solo adventure. However, I would agree that there are players that don't want a collaborative or multiplayer experience. (Much like my young son, Wil, who insisted for years that he didn't want to eat pizza - until he actually tried a slice...) But the nice thing about Myst Online is that nearly all of it works both ways - it can be played either multiplayer with intense collaboration, or single player with no collaboration. This was a very conscious decision built into the design from the very beginning; to keep true to the original Myst experience, but offer much more for those who want it.

The Myst series is known for its intricate abstract puzzles that are seamlessly integrated into the environment of the D'ni civilization. In Myst Online: Uru Live, how will puzzle solving operate differently online? How will cooperative play be handled if different players can log on and off the game at different times?

I think the only difference in the nature of non-online and online puzzles is that some - actually, a very few - of the online puzzles will require physical multiplayer cooperation to solve. In those cases, just like the real world, you'll have to trust that the players you are working with will do what they need to do to solve the puzzle and not abandon you by logging off. But the puzzles themselves will all still be the usual, integrated, intricate puzzles our fans have come to know and love. (And hate.)

A defining element of gameplay of a Massive Multiplayer Online Game is persistence -- events of the game world will progress in real time even in the absence of the player. What prevents other players from altering the state of an Age (such as by resetting the puzzles within) left behind by a player? If the state of an Age is frozen whenever the player logs off, how will persistence be maintained within the game world that fundamentally defines the unique experience of playing a Massive Multiplayer Online Game?

As mentioned in the previous question, Myst puzzles have been known to get complicated, and therefore usually take time to solve, which makes true persistence critical. In Myst Online, we've had to go to great lengths to preserve the integrity of puzzles and protect progress. (Few MMOs, if any, have attempted the level of persistence we've created for Myst Online.)

For example, if you've spent hours working your way through an Age (by yourself or with friends) but have to stop before you've gotten all the way through, you'll want to find things the way you left them when you come back to that Age, unless the nature of the Age itself reverts or changes things. You don't want to have to regain the ground you've already won just because you had to stop before the finish line. You especially don't want to find that a stranger has come along while you were away and confused or ruined things.

To prevent those kinds of frustrations, we've relied heavily on instancing in Myst Online. Instancing is where we create as many instances of an Age as players who visit that Age. So, essentially, every player gets their own Age instance of every Age they visit, with only a few exceptions (public areas such as the City and some of the Neighborhoods). Then we put the power of access to those owned instances into the hands of the owners themselves. The only way another player can get to your (instance of an) Age is if you invite them. And we've created several ways and levels of invitation to give players even more flexibility and control. So, even though it's been a huge development headache, we've got a system that works really well.

Rand Miller has announced that players will be able to add user generated contents to the Uru universe. To what extent can a player create new contents for the game? How will such contents be shared online? What are the differences between the tools that will be made available to the community and the tools that are used internally by the company to create these contents?

We absolutely want to empower players to create their own content - content that can be shared with the community, from simple T-shirt designs to full-blown Ages. That's our plan, and we're as excited about that as any of our own content plans. But the reality is, the tools to make that possible need to be made more accessible, and are not trivial to produce. However, we're working toward that with baby steps, as time allows, and we will get there some day, hopefully sooner than later.

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