Rand Miller – 30 Years of Cyan Worlds (Part 2) 

Rand Miller – 30

In the first part of my Skype interview with Rand Miller, the legendary game designer talked about the highs and lows that Cyan experienced during the company’s early years, leading to the enormous success story of Myst. There was far more to come after that, however, and this time around Rand takes us through the additional ups and downs encountered between the development of Riven and present day. And while a 30-year anniversary is certainly a great reason to celebrate such an illustrious history, as you’re about to find out, it seems as if the story of Cyan Worlds is far from being over!

Ingmar Böke: What were the most important lessons the development of Myst taught you when it came to the impact on developing the sequel Riven, as well as the updated versions of Myst that followed throughout the years?

Rand Miller: In every product we made, we learned lessons. Myst again felt like an experiment for us, and Robyn would agree with that, we both talked about that; we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were just continuing to evolve our craft that we had worked on. This time it did feel, though, that we had reached some kind of an interesting level, a plateau that pushed it somewhere else with Myst. I think what we started looking at was a lot of things that we did right, but we were still young, and still experimenting, so I think we jumped right into Riven without really dissecting at that point what was good, and what was bad.

We just said, “well, we did it with Myst, let’s jump in and start drawing the maps for Riven”. We knew approximately where the story went, and we started design on it very quickly. So, I think after Riven is when I personally feel like I learned some lessons with regard to game design. It was funny because people asked us what the puzzles were gonna be like in Riven, and we said that the two critiques we heard on Myst were that the puzzles were too easy, and that the puzzles were too hard, so we told everybody that we would fix that in Riven. (both laugh)

Ingmar: Pretty ambitious!

Rand Miller – 30
Riven’s puzzles got harder… boy, did they get harder!

Rand: (still laughing) It was! I think the way we looked at it, though, was with Riven we were going to start easier with the puzzles; we were going to try to get people immersed easier, and try not to put too much friction at the beginning. But then – towards the end – we were going to ramp it up, and we were going to give you some big challenges. I think after Riven we realized there were some pretty difficult ones at the end there; the fire marble puzzle was definitely a biggie as far as people telling me, “yeah, I got all the way through, but didn’t get that one” or, “that was the only one I had to get a hint on.” So, we learned from that, you know, you’ve got to balance.

I think there were a couple of things we did that, looking back, now I like what we did in Myst better than Riven, and that was that we separated the worlds out in Myst very distinctly, and made them very self-contained, so that you didn’t feel like you had to go to another world to complete this world. You just knew, “I have to find a page, and I have to find a book home.” You knew your goals, they were defined well, you did it, and you got on with the next world, and I think that was wonderful. I think it worked well, I think it set up Myst for some very satisfying experiences as far as gameplay friction goes. Riven did disperse things, where you might feel like you’ve got to go to a completely other island – at one point you even did with where the trap and where the frog was.

To be honest with you, making these adventure-type games is very difficult because – we’ve learned this lesson, too – we don’t have a game mechanism. Adventure game makers don’t have a game mechanism they can just plug in again. You can’t just say, “oh well, we’ll use the clocktower puzzle, and we’ll just give it another skin.” You can’t just do that – unlike, say, a shooter. We all know what you do in a first-person shooter: You have a weapon, you kill a bad guy, you increase your weapon rate, so you can kill a bigger bad guy. It’s not a bad game mechanism, it’s a great game mechanism, but it means that at least for somebody designing a shooter they have that part done. We have to be creative with every step along the way. It would be great for us if we could say, “hey, Myst worked really well, the way we put all those puzzles into the worlds worked well, let’s just do that again,” but you can’t do that – you have to be fresh, and you have to be unique. It’s a real challenge, and I think it’s why this particular genre is hard at every step along the way!

Ingmar: I still remember being a teenager, reading a German magazine called PC Joker, which had a very positive review of Riven sometime in 1997. Until this day, I remember looking at the screenshots in that magazine over and over again, thinking, “I’ve never seen something like this before!” The visuals simply blew me away. The funny thing is… when I look at the game in 2017, it still looks great!

Rand Miller – 30
Riven set an even higher bar with its photo-realism than its acclaimed predecessor

Rand: (laughs) Yeah! Honestly, I think Riven was definitely a hard threshold to beat with regard to pre-rendered images. What we were going for with Riven was photo-realism. We were taking all of the resources that Myst gave us, and we bought the equipment that Hollywood used, and we bought the software that Hollywood used, we used everything we could to make those images as convincing as we could. Once you get to photo-realism, it’s hard to get past that, so I think they hold up. To this day, you look back and think, “wow, that looks like a real place!”, and that’s hard to beat.

So the only place to go after that is, “well, ok… what if they’re not still pictures anymore?” You know, we had stayed away from real-time 3D up to that point because it was not able to do the kind of quality we wanted, but that was the direction – at least from my point of view; Robyn went on with his own stuff – but in my mind it was like, “whoa, I can make the worlds even more real now because real-time is starting to approach.” I mean, there were other tricks as well, but yeah, it’s interesting, I feel the same way about Riven when you look back at those pictures. We have some hanging in our office, and wow, these are still gorgeous!

Ingmar: You worked on Riven for quite a few years, and it was a huge project. It’s no secret the development was quite stressful. Please tell us a bit about that aspect. I guess when you finished Riven you probably felt like, “I’ll never do another game in my whole life!”

Rand: (laughs) Yes! To the best of our best knowledge it felt like what it must feel like for a woman to give birth. When we finished the game, people asked us, “hey, are you gonna do another one?” It’s probably not the best time to ask a woman if she’s gonna have another baby immediately after she just had one. (both laugh) She might need some time to forget about the pain. But yes, it was grueling, Riven was intense! And it was an internal pressure; we were setting the bar high for ourselves, and we had plenty of resources to push hard, so it was long hours, a huge team, lots of expenses for renders and equipment that didn’t work, models that were too complex and had to be broken down, movies that weren’t rendering a certain frame… the logistics were crazy, and there were many people who were part of that team who would tell you it was very intense pulling that off. When we were done, it was a good time to take a breath after that!

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