The Ending is Not Yet Written: A Conversation with Rand Millerby Celia Pearce
Celia Pearce: The Myst story has been told a lot, but please give a brief recap. Prior to Myst you made Manhole, which was self-published if I understand correctly. What inspired you to make Myst? What was going on with the games at the time that made you feel compelled to create something new?
Rand Miller: My brother Robyn and I started with The Manhole. It was inspired by the second rate nature of children's software at the time. Our thought was that good children's software would be like a good children's book and appeal to adults as well. The original idea was for it to be an interactive storybook - but as it turned out we never actually got to the second page. The first page turned into a world to be explored. I think The Manhole was probably more of our revolutionary product - we just evolved our products to a greater or lesser extent from there. We started out publishing The Manhole ourselves, but ended up with a publisher.
CP: Any specific influences on Myst that you care to talk about?
RM: I think Robyn and I were both raised with a real love to explore - both in the real world and the fantastic world of literature, art, and film. So building a place that felt like a little of both was very natural.
CP: Myst was also self-published, correct? How did Brøderbund come into the picture?
RM: Myst was partially funded by Japanese partners (Sunsoft) in return for the console rights. The PC and Mac rights were retained by us. As a result Myst was mostly finished when we shopped it around to various publishers. We had published another children's world with Brøderbund and so of course they were on our short list. As it turned out they were the most excited about the product and that's what we were looking for.
CP: What inspired you to make a multiplayer game in the Myst world?
RM: Uru was a fairly easy evolution from my point of view - it was the idea of using broadband to provide worlds to explore that never ended - they just kept growing and maturing in both real estate and story. And of course you could explore alone or share the journey in a controlled multiplayer environment.[i]
CP: How was Uru different from the other Myst games? How was it different from other multiplayer online games? Did you play any other MMOGs? If so, what did you like/dislike about them?
RM: We were determined to differentiate Uru from other online games by using content as the draw - instead of simply relying on a repetitive treadmill style leveling approach, which is common in almost every other MMOG. Many of us had played other MMOGs and were impressed with the technology, but we felt that a viable future of online entertainment would look more like traditional media - where the audience would be enticed to return because of what was new, not simply to achieve a new rank by repetitive gameplay.
Uru was designed for real-time 3D, which meant we moved away from the slideshow presentation of Myst and Riven. That resulted in a much richer environment, but unfortunately also required a much more complex interface. The simple click-to-move element of Myst would go away.
Also, because of the multiplayer aspect, Uru would require an avatar - a representation of yourself in the game. But Myst was always about being yourself in the worlds, so we carried that into Uru as well - even with the name itself - to indicate it was not a role-playing game. The story evolved to a point where the history of Myst merged with here-and-now - resulting in a very intriguing juxtaposition of Myst-like ages with traffic cones and aloha shirts.
CP: According to the wikipedia entry on Uru, the game took more than five years and $12 million dollars to make. Is that correct? How long did it take and how many people worked on it?
RM: That's as good a guess as any. I prefer not to actually go back and add it all up at this point. ☺ I will say that we ended up with a team of the most talented people I've ever worked with doing amazing things. Many of the design decisions were incredibly innovative - features that no one had ever thought of, let alone implemented in a product. I'm still very proud of what we accomplished with a relatively small budget compared to some of the MMOG numbers lately.
CP: Please give a brief description of the ARG you designed to promote Uru and some of the player responses to it.
RM: We wanted to start some interesting aspects of Uru before the launch, and the nature of Uru was that the story was actually happening. So we blurred the lines between the game and the real world, and designed some "physical" puzzles that would enhance the story and build up to the introduction. There was everything from a billboard in Carlsbad New Mexico, to a phone booth in Oregon, to a public fountain in Texas, to several buried metal artifacts in rather obscure locations. The finale was an actual face-to-face meeting with a character who played a key role in Uru history.
CP: How did it come about that Uru was released as both a single- and multiplayer game?
Our publishing partner for Uru was originally Ubisoft. Fairly late in the game (no pun intended) they decided take us up on an early design idea that allowed for a complete off-line boxed version, with the added ability to click a button and progress to full online play. Hindsight would indicate that their reasons for this move were not the same as ours. We thought it was an ingenious way to lower the barrier to entry for people who hadn't played an online game. Ubisoft evidently thought it was a good way to recoup their small portion of the development costs.
CP: What was your original vision for the episodic model that Uru was meant to introduce?
RM: The plan was simple. If people were paying a monthly subscription they would need one major release of content each month - a new age or world. Below that monthly threshold various amounts of smaller content would be released so that every day a player would be enticed to play Uru to see what was new. In our minds we were competing with TV - not other MMOGs.
CP: Why do you think the original Uru closed? I know there are a lot of theories, but I’d love to hear your own ideas, at least those you are liberty to talk about.
RM: I think it was simply lack of commitment and cold feet by the publisher. Because Uru was a very different type of online entertainment we were convinced we needed a year of uptime to really test the waters and grow the idea. We were setting up pipelines of content unlike any in the software industry - ready to produce story and worlds at an intense rate. Meanwhile Ubisoft was watching The Sims Online's lack of overwhelming success and instead of a year commitment they pulled the plug before we even launched. Ubisoft closed down their online offices, and ended their other online titles soon after that.
It would have been nice to pick up the pieces and do it ourselves at that point, but we were completely spent - and it would have meant paying for and managing servers that we had been relying of Ubisoft to do.
CP: What was your response to all the post-Uru fan-created content in Second Life, There.com and other virtual worlds and game engines?
RM: I can't help but be overwhelmed by it. It's amazing how innovative people are with the tools they're given - and to have our fans honor Uru by building tributes to it is humbling.
CP: How did Until Uru, the player-run Uru server network that launched in 2005, come about?
RM: Until Uru was simply an attempt to keep Uru alive, even though we didn't have the resources ourselves to do it. We made some changes that allowed the fans to run their own servers.
CP: How did the game’s re-release as Myst Online: Uru Live through the GameTap network come about?
RM: GameTap was created by a friend of ours Blake Lewin, and as a collection of classic games, it seemed like a great home for Uru. It was a big step for them to move into the online realm, but a very logical one for them and us.
CP: How was it similar or different from your original vision? Did anything you learned in the intervening period between the first closure and the GameTap opening change your ideas about the game and how it should work?
RM: Well it was a much smaller budget, and we had to adjust to that as best as we could. Subscribers were paying monthly for a GameTap subscription so we felt like we still needed to add something substantial on a monthly basis, but our budget for content was a fraction of what we had planned.
But the GameTap period of Uru (Myst Online) allowed us to test many of the content and story elements that we had always planned. There was one story arc in particular that had been set up even during the beta phase with Ubisoft that culminated with the death of a young girl as the online community watched in dismay. We had to execute the story on a shoestring budget, but we were able to prove the point that story in an online game could be just as engaging - and in this case even more engaging than traditional media. It was a very special time for us - and regardless of Uru's fate, we felt very validated.
CP: What was your response to the closure of Myst Online?
RM: Sad but understandable. Uru was designed to have large amounts of content as part of the draw. By reducing the content release it was like charging someone monthly for ABC television and giving them a game-show episode once a month, and an episode of Lost every few months. It's likely that they'll loose interest.
CP: I know there are some plans underway to release Uru to the fans to develop content for. Is this still in the cards? How do you envision this working? What do you think are the future of Uru and its community going forward? Any idea of a timeframe for this?
RM: The Myst mythology revolves around the art of writing books that link to amazing places. For years the culture that developed this art held it close, restricting it to only the most elite. But when that culture died the art of writing had the chance to be reborn - opened to the masses. Some of the early results from the new writers were dangerous, and not as spectacular as the old masters, but the new writers have the advantage of writing without the constraints. That's how we feel. We can't wait to put the art in the hands of the new writers and be surprised by what the future holds.
A couple of weeks after this interview was conducted, Cyan set up an Uru server in their Spokane Washington Office. The response was so overwhelming that it crashed the servers; however, within a week, players donated enough money to purchase a new server.