Robyn Miller

Posted by Rich Douglas.
First posted on 10 December 2012. Last updated on 10 December 2012.
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Robyn Miller
"I am standing in the white corridors of my very powerful and menacing spaceship... I'm in deep thought, considering the best strategy for absolute world domination." - Robyn Miller, co-creator of Myst.

About the author

Rich Douglas has worked professionally in the video game industry since 2003 as a composer and a sound designer. He has previously worked at Id Software and THQ. His major work includes Evochron Mercenary from StarWraith 3D Games. Recently, he has been brought on to score indie games projects Lifeless Planet and Takedown that have been successfully funded on Kickstarter. At present, he works as a freelance composer and writes in a blog about the reorchestration of Sierra adventure game music. He currently lives in Dallas, Texas.

For more information, visit Rich Douglas.

Only a handful of game developers can claim that they have released a game which has not only been a critical success but which has come to be known as one of the most influential and bestselling computer games of all time. To adventure game fans, Robyn Miller is a game developer who can definitely be counted to be among these elite and select few.

In 1987, he and his brother Rand Miller cofounded Cyan (later known as Cyan Productions and then Cyan Worlds). After releasing several adventure games for children, the company achieved both commercial and critical success when it released Myst in 1993. Myst heralded a new era in graphic adventure games and established a new standard in multimedia game production. Not only did Miller work on the design of Myst, he also starred in the game as Sirrus and composed an extremely memorable and haunting score for the game. After the release of Riven: The Sequel to Myst in 1997, Miller left the company to pursue other interests outside of the video game industry. In 2005, he released an album under Ambo titled 1000 Years and 1 Day. More recently, he and his wife started a film production company, Zoo Break Gun Club, and had just finished filming their first indie film project called The Immortal Augustus Gladstone.

We are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to interview Robyn Miller. In the interview, Miller speaks of the fond memories he has on the development of Myst, his endeavors after leaving Cyan, his current film projects with Zoo Break Gun Club, and what lies in the future for him, if any, in the video game industry.

What musical education background and training did you have prior to working on Myst with Rand?

Not Much. While going to high school in East Texas, I took a year of classical piano from a inspiring older woman – Mrs Holder. She was brilliant; during that time I would practice about 4 - 6 hours a day. I was determined to learn. And I read a lot of music theory.

Which musicians have been most inspirational to you? Why?

I'm not sure I can come up with a list of musician who are most inspiring. I like so many musicians... and I enjoy so many different styles of music: anything from rap to opera. Any of that, done well, can be provoking.

What was your main inspiration for the score in Myst? Almost all of the cues in the game are extremely haunting and memorable. What synthesizers did you to synthesize the sound for the game's score?

Great question, but I don't remember a musical inspiration for Myst -- it's been a long time and I just don't remember. I do remember sitting in front of the game, or a particular area of the game, and waiting for something to come to me. In that respect, the visuals of the game were the the main inspiration.

As to your other question... we were very limited. All sounds, effects and mixing were accomplished on one synthesizer: the Proteus MPS+.

In the original Myst, you played the role of Sirrus while Rand played the role of Achenar (in addition to Atrus). Why did you and your brother cast yourselves into the game? How was the decision made on who would play which character?

From concept design through pre-visualization (there wasn't much of it) through to the production, Myst was extremely low-budget, much like the Indy games of today. In every respect, we cut corners and made things work. We had to. When it came to the roles of Sirrus and Achenar, etc... we didn't have a lot of time or money, so we had to be creative with what we had on hand. As far as the roles of the brothers went, we didn't have a lot of choices so Rand and I were the obvious choice to play those roles.

What were your favorite soundtracks from Myst or Riven: The Sequel to Myst? Why?

Whew! Honestly... I haven't listened to either for so long I really don't know.

Myst was the best selling game for over a decade. Looking back, what was the game's greatest appeal that made it so popular? For how many years was the game in development? What memories did you have about the game's development that were particularly memorable?

The most enjoyable part of creating the game was designing it. It's probably the most enjoyable part of any project; it was particularly enjoyable with Myst. I think it took about two months. Rand and I sat around in a room, outlining the entire world -- mapping it out -- designing the puzzles -- writing the story -- designing the backstory -- sketching the various devices. This kind of thing is a blast and we had a lot of fun. I still have the original sketches and there's some interesting things in there. For example, the books weren't always books. And at one early point in our design the player returned keys instead of pages.

Once we finally finished the design and we had something halfway playable, we "play-tested" the thing, dungeons and dragons style with our newly hired team. We walked them through it... "You are standing on a dock... in front of you is the mast of a ship coming up out of the water...". This was also incredibly satisfying, because it proved that our design worked. It was just plain fun.

After pre-production we went into production which, on Myst, lasted around two years.

As far as what made Myst so popular... there's a couple of things. Firstly, I think the graphics of the game were a bit different from some other games at the time and this caught some people's attention.

Secondly, and I think, more importantly, we attempted to create an interface that was practically invisible. This was something most players should have taken for granted. I feel it's why Myst was able to attract a non-gamer audience, which ended up being vast majority of our audience.

Who was responsible for the sound design in Myst? It was rumored that early unreleased builds of Myst did not include a musical score. At what stage of the game's development did this plan change?

Chris Brandkamp did the sound design.

We had a finished version of Myst without music, but it still needed something. Either more intense sound design – where the sound more ambiently flavored the atmosphere of an environment, much like music... or it needed music. We had neither of these.

At our publisher's request, we tried music and it improved the environment immensely.

In hindsight, I've come to feel that great sound design might sometimes be a better solution. Specifically, I would have preferred this solution on Myst and Riven.

In 2005, you released an album titled 1000 Years and 1 Day. The album was notable for a cool, hybrid sound. What was the inspiration for the album? How long did you and Keith Moore worked on the album?

We worked on it way too long! We should be punished! Hybrid is a great way to describe it... the project was a lot more challenging than I realized. But fun as well.

In 2008, an OverClocked ReMixer rearranged several cues from the Myst score. To what extent are you open to fan remixes of your music? How does it make you feel as a composer to see your creative work being transformed without your input?

I love fan remixes. I'm not sure I've ever heard any.

Since leaving Cyan, you have pursued a number of entertainment projects unrelated to video games. You are currently directing and producing films under your production company Zoo Break Gun Club. Which has been your favorite project to date? What are your current projects? What is The Immortal Augustus Gladstone?

The Augustus film is my debut film project (drumroll please). It's very low budget independent project; in that respect it reminds me of working on Myst. And I love that about this! I love finding a less expensive way to do something cool; I know I'm more creative that way. And I think I haven't had this much fun since Myst... the creative energy is similar, though the project is not so similar.

The film is a half-fiction/half-documentary about a guy who believes he's immortal. The edit is complete and I'm just now finishing up with the soundtrack, which I feel very good about. We'll be submitting the film to festivals this year.

The adventure game genre has been on a decline since the early days of Cyan. What are your thoughts on the current state of the game industry? How must the adventure game genre evolve to survive?

The entertainment industry is slow to keep up -- and they're entrenched in a old system -- maybe a dying system, and they clinging to that model -- doing everything they can to keep it breathing -- but inevitably the old way of selling entertainment will disappear... for video games, films, music, etc....

All in all I don't think any of this is bad. Instead it's a phenomenal opportunity for small game developers. We're at a point when indy game developers can create a great game and, with relatively little effort, distribute it directly to users, completely bypassing the 'industry'. 15 years ago, something like this would have been unheard of. So I'm very hopeful about games in general. Just take a look at a game like Minecraft... or Fez... and you can easily see that astounding games are being created and distributed, sans traditional-game-industry.

What can we look forward from you over the next 5 years?

My wife, Mischa Jakupcak, and I have recently started a production company, Zoo Break Gun Club. We have a few film projects now in development and, five years from now, I hope we will have brought a few more of these projects to the screen, including one science fiction story that I'm particularly excited about.

As far as games, I can't see myself ever creating an adventure game per se. I have begun designing a game of sorts -- maybe more like a play-set -- that I hope will someday see the light of day because I think it's pretty damn cool and incredibly flexible. It's a matter of finding the time.

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