Joystiq interviews Rand Miller of Cyan Worlds [update 1]

Myst Online: Uru Live will let thousands of players convene in Myst ages to solve puzzles. Touting the persistence of the world as a major feature -- light switches and doors stay how you leave them -- Cyan Worlds thinks the collaborative nature of Myst will make a unique Massively Multiplayer Online game.

Two years ago, Uru Live was canceled just before its initial launch under Ubisoft. Now, after developing it for a total of six years, Cyan Worlds is working with its new publisher, GameTap, to prepare the game for a "holiday" release. Uru Live will be offered as part of the monthly $10 GameTap subscription for the U.S. audience, but GameTap will release Uru Live as a stand-alone subscription in other parts of the world. (GameTap is not yet offered outside of the U.S.)

We recently spoke with Myst co-creator Rand Miller, while Producer, Mark "Moke" Dobratz demonstrated the game. They talked about how Uru Live supports the collaborative sensibility of Myst players, how the game will let you have individual experiences within its MMO structure, and plans to let users build their own ages.

[Update 1: Fixed ship-date error.] The Myst series has been about immersing a single player at one time. How have you tuned that to a wide audience at a single time?

Rand Miller: You're falling right into our trap [laughs]. No, this is one of the things that we've talked about as part of demoing. Interestingly enough, even though Myst is thought of as a solitary experience in the world, we've found that it's not really.

Most people who played Myst played it as part of a community, it was just out of the game. They would call their friends, they'd talk about it in school, they'd talk about it in work, you know, "Hey I got to that age. ..." They'd find someone else who was playing and touch base with them to expand the experience. And there were a few that were solitary, but we found these middle grounds -- even people sitting in front of the screen together playing. So it's just natural to connect and build the sharing experience into the game itself.

Now with that said, we also didn't think that a massively multiplayer online experience was what Myst players wanted at all. They didn't want thousands of people traipsing through their experience and turning their switches on when they wanted them off, and closing their doors when they wanted them open. So we have gone to great extremes, great lengths, to build our engine technology to provide hierarchies of a personal experience. We think it's one of the highlights of what we've got -- what we designed in the whole Uru experience.

The very first [example of a personal experience in the MMO] is where we're at right now. It's an age that's sitting in the clouds. Are you familiar with Myst mythology and all that?


So this is an age that's much like a Myst age -- in fact it's almost reminiscent of Myst Island -- but this is one that you own. This is your real estate in the game. Everybody gets an instance of this, and as you go through the game, it begins to shape and form and grow, and conform to reflect where you've been and what you've done and what you've seen. Say for instance there's an age in one of the first episodic gameplay structures that we go through that we find a page that's rather mysterious. And when you pick it up and put it into this age book, it suddenly begins to rain in this age. So you suddenly have the control like, "Oh, I want it to rain now in my age. I like that."

You have the potential for inviting people in one-at-a-time -- they can't just show up -- and what you experience is this is your trophy shelf. This is where people come in and go, "Hey, how'd you make it rain in here? No way! Show me how you did that." And you can take them on the journey then, and show them where that piece was or how you achieved that. But instead of a trophy on a shelf, it's something that's a little more personal to you. So beyond that, we actually expand this whole idea of exploring on a personal level in an MMO to other [areas] as well.

We go from the personal age into our little hut, which is just another little space here. You'll notice that we have a library shelf in here. Well, the most valuable things in Myst mythology are books, because that's your transportation, that's how you get from place to place. Well what if when you went to another age, you just didn't go there once again and see thousands of people trashing the place, you went there and it became your instance of that age? When you went there, you got that book on your shelf as your version of that age. It was a place you could share with other people, but it still was your space; it was just the way you left it, and no strangers are going to be there unless you know.

[The age] becomes yet again another trophy. "These are the places I've been and they're just the way I left them, and can I go show you what I found that you may not have found? You may not have explored and found this detail that I found in mine." Instead of what we think of as inventory, it feels like, I am getting ownership of some stuff, I'm customizing it, it's becoming mine.

The place we're in right now by the way, to get back onto your point, is the second tier of that personal experience. This is what's called the Neighborhood. It feels like it's part of the city and and a very specific spot in our Myst mythology -- in this ancient cavern that we're rediscovering. [The Neighborhood] is an instance that I share with whoever I want, just like you would a neighborhood.

Anybody who wants to can have a new Neighborhood and can share it with people of like-mindedness. Families can have a Neighborhood. People who like the same thing ... We have a group of greeters who like to greet people who've formed a neighborhood. You can have it either public or private. If you have it private, it's just going to be you guys who can meet here. And you can shape it a bit. You have some ability to customize it and make it yours.

And then from there, the community goes outward, and we finally reach what essentially is the massively multiplayer aspect of this -- which to me mimics real life -- which is the City; it's this place that I walk down the street and I see strangers, and I don't know who they are. I may ask them who they are, and they may completely ignore me cause it's like, "Whoa, who are you? You're weird." But also, there's some action that takes place there. Some of the things that are going to happen are going to happen there. And we use it for that aspect as well.

So how many people will you be interacting with on these different levels?

Rand Miller: On the personal age --

--It's whoever you control.

Rand Miller: You'll invite one or two people, well one person at a time really, it's your home. You can invite more people, but it's still very personal space.

The Neighborhood itself can be 150 people, 200 people if you want it to be. You can have a Neighborhood that's just you if you're a loner and you really don't want to be with people.

The City you can't control. It's only one instance, and everybody goes to the same instance, to the best of our ability that's what will happen. In fact, this is the City. ... It's this giant, underground cavern that's been deserted for 200 years.

Essentially the story behind Uru is all of the mythology of Myst, we've brought right into your face and said this is current day; we've discovered the connection underground in an archeological find where Earth is connected to this whole mythology. And that's why you see traffic cones, and that's why you see a girl in tennis shoes and a t-shirt.

This is now, this is really happening right now underground, and you can go see this restoration of this underground city. So as we wander around, there's a tent that's been set up by this restoration council that you're helping. They have rules. They block off certain sections of it and say, "No, no, that's not safe yet." They're restoring this. You hear generators and people working in certain buildings that are scheduled to open up.

So is that how you control the content that gets added?

Rand Miller: That's one way.

In addition, they find books every now that then link to whole new worlds. The most powerful part in all of this is, I think other people look at online as let's let people communicate with each other. We're looking at online as yeah, people communicate with each other -- that's just natural, people will form communities. But we have this constant connection to the content. Instead of just releasing content once, we have constant ability to shape that content and all make it new and fresh and changing and exciting. Whether it's a new age that has new puzzles to solve, whether it's a new age that even seeds competitive gameplay, or whether we're actually playing the storyline, we have a multi-year story-arc that will play out through all these sets and places and actually people that we've introduced into the world itself.

It becomes a very, almost new -- well this term is used too much -- but "new media" platform where the storyline starts to be something that's both soap-opera and a game, and an interesting way of how that all combines on its own.

We've had really cool experiences along that line as well.

Will you have actors playing some of the characters?

Rand Miller: Yes. That's the stuff that's been almost the most exciting because you're never sure where that line blurs. In the previous beta that we had a couple years ago, we actually started to blur that line on purpose. We would have some of our actors recruit people and say, "I need your help. I need you to go get other people to do this." And the people who we recruited, it's like, you can have a t-shirt if you join in with me.

And this [player] got so involved in this that at this point, he has a permanent spot in the game. His name is Brian, and in one of the journals that the actors wrote, Brian's name is there as helping, as that part of the history that will live forever. So there's an ability to become part of the story and actually shape it. We have our small story arcs. We have a lot of details upfront and we know where it's going, but a lot of it is actually dependant on what people will do.

What's your schedule for releasing new content?

Rand Miller: That's a good one. A decent sized release every month. If you're going to be paying the bill every month, you're going to want something new every month. So we would love to release a huge age every month, but that's too much to bite off right now.

Basically [we'll release] something big enough that we can to tease you with it, and you don't want to miss it every month. But beyond that, we're going to make changes every day. There are little things: little switches that we'll throw on and off, little story elements, little content elements go that will happen on a daily, large ones on a weekly, and big ones on a monthly [basis]. Where our self-contained episodes will probably be almost like a quarter-based thing.

We'd like nothing more than to have huge budgets and large numbers of subscribers where every time somebody comes in they're like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh it's bigger and bigger!" But the intriguing thing to us is that we're constantly adding content. You realize what that means to a game that two years from now when a person comes in for the first time? We've collected all that. Nothing goes to waste. It's all set aside in some mechanisms we have so we can serve all that gameplay to new people.

That's just pretty exciting. It's like we can show the video, putting it another way, we can show the video when it's first-run, if you're there where you're living it. But we can also put it on the shelf, and people who are new can see the history that led up to this and can experience it as well.

One of the things that we associate with these mutiplayer games is the ability to customize your own world. Can you explain that in more detial? Will there be ways to build structures or change your appearance?

Rand Miller: We've got pretty stout avatar customization stuff. It was actually probably some of the best when we announced it, and it continues to be petty interesting stuff. You know -- facial shape and hair and clothing -- and you have complete control to add to that. A lot of [games] are doing that, and we're doing that as well.

So you start and make it look like you, or what you want to look like, or what you don't want to look like. Whatever. [Mark Dobratz] wants to look like a girl named Alison, well there you go. [Laughs.]

Beyond that, we have smaller ways to customize our space, which I mentioned before: almost predefined ways to add rain or plant a tree in our age, or even change the shape of the island and add more real estate so it grows as my experience grows. So beyond that, and this is forward looking, we've already started plans to allow people to do much more customization, but that stuff's going to be very complicated to begin with. ...

I should get into the mythology just a bit because the idea behind Myst is people writing books that link to their own ages. Our goal in this is to let people do that very thing. We want people to build their own age, to write their own ages. It's a very complex thing to do. It was in the mythology and it is right now, but that's the path that we're taking.

Explain how players will build ages. How far along are you to making that happen?

Rand Miller: Well to begin with, we want to give people the same tools we have. We've got a lot of expertise and experience, so our ages can get pretty sophisticated, but it doesn't mean that we can't make those same tools available to some people.

We're always amazed at what our fans are able to accomplish, frankly, and by making those tools available, I think we'll be even more surprised. We've held back on that because we want to make sure we've got the final version of the engine, so we're not switching those tools up on people so they don't lose their work. But that'll be the first step. Essentially what we're creating in the mythology of all this is a writer's guild.

People can learn to write ages using the tools, and they'll write ages and become better and better at it. And then we even want a guild that facilitates that, that lets them explore their own ages and keep them somewhat separate from ours but with ways to get to them.

But eventually while they're doing that, we want to improve the tools as well, so you don't have to be quite so sophisticated to build the worlds. And later on down the line, it's much easier to say, "I can take this piece of this world, and this one of this one, and this one of this one, and make my own space that feels much more personalized." And that's the stuff that we'll work on as well.

When will people be able to start building ages?

Rand Miller: Some of it is resource-based. We would like to release those tools after the first six months -- and there are pieces of that that are already being put in place behind the scenes. We're trying to set up some structures with people, and there are some fans that already kind of know about that.

Yeah, that's a very exciting aspect of all of this.

Mark Dobratz: There might be some smaller pieces we can put in place before that, too, clothing design, or something a little simpler that's a little more straightforward for people who have bright ideas to bring to the game.

The Myst technology has traditionally seemed to interest gamers, and the gameplay has seemed to attract the non-gamers. How will this balance play out in Uru Live?

Rand Miller: It's kind of weird looking back, because when Myst first launched, we had a huge gamer following. You know when we launched, my brother and I were in the forums chatting with all of the gamers who were into it, so it was kind of cool. It was unique, it was different, it felt fresh.

So we feel like we've got our roots with gamers, but as the technology changed, it changed without us. We stayed with the slideshow kind of format and went about as far as you could go with that, as far as making that feel real, but the technology-oriented gamers moved on to real-time.

I feel like making the move to real-time is one step in bringing people who weren't interested back into it. Myst was a little bit before real-time, but because the images were so striking, it had its own appeal technologically. But now that we've moved back to real-time -- albeit we're not doing a first-person shooter -- we're using real-time to do some pretty striking, out-there kind of places that provide an alternative to the frenetic pace [of shooters].

I see this in my own family. I've mentioned this a few times, but I have a few daughters who play Halo -- both my youngest daughters play Halo. The youngest one in particular, you know, they beat the guys at Halo. So she likes that pace da-da-da-dum -- they love to play it.

When she got into Uru, she called her friends and they go in, and she spends hours and hours exploring. It's not that she likes one over the other, it's like, "Hey, this is a whole different feeling." She's getting this real sense of satisfaction instead of by killing things, it's by opening that next door and revealing, like, "Oh, my gosh, this is awesome."

And I don't think one precludes the other. I think people are entertained in a lot of ways and this one has been left behind for a while. But we're going to be surprised at how many people cross over from hard-core first-person shooters who just would enjoy exploring in a technologically advanced MMO like this.

What is the balance between that sense of exploration and community interaction?

[Uru] is not just about exploring with no reason in mind -- pretty places that I don't really have anything to do. When you start the game now, you have one of two paths you can take. One is -- the introduction is very clear on this -- take the path that starts the journey in the desert, and it's a very Myst-like environment. It's a very Myst-like experience where you're going to get ages and explore those ages. I think we've toned down the puzzles a bit because we get tired of the hard ones just as much as everybody did. [Laughs.]

Or, I take the second path. ... Join the community. There's a community just waiting for you. Go to your Neighborhood, go to your City, and depending on what you're intrigued by, you're going to go one way or the other.

It's interesting because people have come in and said, "Aw, I'm going to the community," or, "No way, I'm going to the desert." Frankly, I would go to the desert. I want a lone experience for a while. I'm going to feel out of place in an MMO. Like, am I doing something wrong, can I talk to people? Just let me go figure out how to move my guy around and explore a bit first. I'd go right to the desert and start exploring.

And then at some point -- any time you want -- you can jump over to the community and ask a question and then go back on your journey, or even invite someone to help you on your journey. But we wanted that path to be very clear because we think there's two groups -- at least two groups -- two main groups who've been very intrigued by the myth. One is the community who's been around for so long and supported us so much. We wanted to make it clear that you can go that way, and they'll bring you right in and show you what to do. And the other is the puzzle achievers who are like, "Cool, show me the spaces and beautiful places, and let me try and figure this out."

It's a different direction but frankly for an MMO, I think people might be ready for a little bit of a different direction. We don't want to compete with World of Warcraft. They've done a great job. We're playing [the other MMOs]. I've played Dark Age of Camelot or World of Warcraft. That's fun if you're doing them, but at some level, that online connection can mean something else, and we want to pursue that avenue.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.