One of the downsides to con season for press is when your site has a specific focus and you get all the PR invites from every game studio at a certain con on a mass mailing, regardless of whether the games in question are an MMO. However, once in a great while, you get an invite to interview a legend in the industry whose games are generally outside your scope and you have to figure out a way to make it work because it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Thus I bring to you an interview with Cyan Worlds co-founder and creator of the Myst series, Rand Miller.
Miller is one of those people that Myst players will likely recognize if they saw him, because he also starred as the story-driving Atrus in most of the series at a time well before they had the budget to hire proper actors. As a fan of voice actors in general and despite the overall susurrus of noise on the PAX East show floor, I got a few chills when I was passing by their booth and heard that voice as he was demonstrating their latest game Obduction to a surprisingly small queue of interested players. Myst and Miller’s role in its creation has been one of the quiet success stories of the game industry ever since the first one launched in 1993 and exploded off the shelves, remaining the highest-selling video game until 2002. However, I will note that it’s the first time I’ve interviewed a game developer who had their own action figure.
Now I know what you’re thinking… Myst is a single-player game, it has nothing to do with an MMO, and you’d be mostly correct. However, as you’ll see, most of our discussion was about game design philosophy with regards to VR and multiplayer VR, since Cyan was at PAX East showing off Obduction with an Oculus Rift and Touch hooked up.
What surprised me right off the bat was Miller revealing that while their games are mostly single-player, they (Cyan) don’t look at them that way, because they’d heard so many stories in the Myst days and even then at PAX about players playing with friends or family members. Even while the game itself would allow one player to drive, he said, it was still often a cooperative endeavor shared with others. Miller added that one of the stretch goals of their Obduction Kickstarter was to create a Roadtrip mode, where you can partner up with someone over the internet and one of you is playing the game, the other is spectating and offering advice, and you can switch out at any time.
Miller also spoke about the limited success of Myst Online, which was Cyan’s attempt at creating a proper MMO and had puzzles that required multiple players to complete. Cyan still runs that service quietly in the back, he said, and that the cool thing about it was that it still allowed for that social aspect of gameplay. He said that one of their thoughts on multiplayer games and how they wanted to design was to focus on the notion that people wanted to matter. Even someone who isn’t directly playing but has a hint or help to offer someone who is playing, Miller continued, would feel like they mattered to that person.
We then discussed their current game of Obduction and the overall game’s style. Miller said this game had a whole new team of artists, but acknowledged that there was a lot of homages going on to the art style of the Myst games, but that the newer team members also put their own fingerprints on Obduction. The new game, much like Myst and Riven, features the soundtrack work of Rand’s brother Robyn Miller, who has also done work on feature films as well.
Miller acknowledged that they’re working on some new ideas at Cyan Worlds, all of them VR-related. He said that multiplayer in VR is a bit weird because you have to represent people abstractly but still make them relatable. He felt there were companies out there who were researching the exact amount of fidelity an avatar would have to have to allow another player to recognize it as the first player. He added that it was an intriguing thing to consider but commented that because VR required so much horsepower right now, it was hard to create photorealistic avatars. Part of what was important, he felt, was not only seeing a character, but also seeing the emotion on their face. We also discussed how having greater representation within games would possibly lead to a larger market share due to more players finding or being able to create someone like themselves in a game. He acknowledged that without the social aspects of VR and gaming, there will be some people out there who will simply stop participating in general, and that it was still a problem for game design to address. He believed that VR and gaming can help people with social anxiety or similar issues to still be able to make connections without leaving their comfort zone or safe spaces.
We finally turned our attention to Obduction itself and how it had been created with VR in mind. Miller said that they learned some lessons about the sense of space when building in VR, realizing that objects appeared differently in VR versus on your regular flatscreen, so they had to make accommodations for this new information. In all, the interview was delightful, because I got to see how one of the more philosophical game designers out there was looking at games more as social experiences rather than just games. It seemed to me that Miller was far more interested in letting players connect on an emotional level and designing an experience around that rather than getting the next big hit out the door. It was certainly refreshing to see a developer working on how to push the envelope and be forward-thinking in game design, including notions of how to expand on puzzle games to allow for there to be proper MMOs in the genre.
Myst Online is still available as a completely free-to-play open-source MMO experience over on mystonline.com, and Obduction is now available via Steam.