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Online Escape 

by Marty Demarest


There are two buildings in a clearing in the woods north of Spokane. A young man glides through the cavernous space of one of the buildings on a scooter. Nearby, the outline of a body is sprawled across the middle of the cement floor behind an open cubicle, which is clean, though not tidy. In the other building, the smell of garlic hangs in the air (from "a farewell lunch"). From outside, the effect is more of a ski lodge for twentysomethings than the headquarters of a company that changed computer gaming -- some would say even the computer hardware industry.


When Cyan Worlds released Myst in 1995, it quickly became a phenomenon. This quiet, non-violent game in which players moved through a mysterious, abandoned world, solving puzzles and trying to understand what happened in the game's spaces, quickly caught the imagination of millions of people. Myst became one of the best-selling computer games of all time. It had better graphics than most people had ever seen, thanks in no small part to a handy means of storing information -- the CD-ROM. Suddenly, people found themselves upgrading their computer just to play a video game in which "winning" and "losing" weren't as important as exploration and puzzle-solving.


Now, after a sequel (developed in-house) and a third game (developed elsewhere), Cyan Worlds has decided to take Myst forward another step. Rand Miller, who along with his brother Robyn created Myst and Myst 2, released the latest in the series, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst just before Christmas. And this time, along with the patented gameplay, Miller decided to take Uru online as well.


"After Myst and the sequel Riven, it was kind of our intent to spin off, rather than do a sequel to the Myst series," explains Rand Miller. "We've got this rich history with Myst that we wanted to draw on, but it was comfortable to take some steps away from that -- to separate ourselves from the easy sequel."


Uru takes up on the feel and gameplay of Myst (see "Inside Uru," next page), but it also offers players the chance to play the game online, alone or with friends, and to download new puzzles and environments on a regular basis. The decision to make Uru an online game was something that Miller says fit Cyan World's past experience with game design.


"Oddly enough, with Myst, even though it was a single-player experience, we found that people actually did play it together. They would talk to their friends after school or after work or sit in front of the computer as couples and decide what to do. So moving it to a multi-player [game] seemed very natural."


At the time of Myst's release, the Internet was still achieving stability, and a method of making money online still hadn't been effectively developed. Now, Cyan Worlds feels that the necessary technology is in place.


"This had been in the back of our minds for years," Miller points out. "Right after Myst, we talked about how when we press our worlds onto a CD or DVD, no matter how big the medium is, it dies a little. The worlds can't continue to grow. You lose their connection with them. And the appeal of the Internet, particularly broadband, means that we can continue to pump worlds down the pipeline, and you could continue to receive them as if you have a CD that never ended."


Hence Uru's online gameplay. And if it takes off, like the other Myst games did, Cyan Worlds will experience one of the healthy effects the Internet has had on the gaming industry: growth. Since releasing Myst, Cyan Worlds has expanded, from a handful of employees working out of a strip mall, to the relaxed, creative campus that now houses approximately 50 local employees. Miller hopes that if Uru's online component is successful, they'll be able to continue the company's expansion.


"There are a certain number of subscribers, that if we get those, we'll have enough to cover our expenses, and continue to build content for them. If we get a lot more than that, we get funding and maybe we'll add to our coffers. But there's some kind of minimum that people expect to get -- some kind of substantial, interesting world every month. If you're going to pay somewhere around $10-$15 per month, you'd expect to get something pretty darn interesting and substantial every month, and that's how we're looking at it. People will find themselves in this amazing, rich universe that's on their desktop. And it will just keep growing."





Inside Uru, A Review -- It seemed unfair to review Uru: Ages Beyond Myst when the game was first released before the holidays, mainly because Cyan Worlds was still ramping up implementation of the game's online components. But now, after having been given a chance to explore the online "ages," it's safe to examine the game as a whole.


The first thing that dedicated Myst fans will notice is that almost everything that made the first game so compelling has been preserved. The worlds that you explore are still somewhere between a not-long-ago abandoned civilization and a working, weathered environment. As you travel through the areas in the game, it's as though you've stumbled into the public and private places of a group of people who just went on vacation.


Why they'd vacation away from these places is beyond me. The images in Uru are more spectacular than anything in the Myst series thus far. Appreciating the sights is even easier thanks to Uru's uncluttered interface: There are no "health bars" and complex meters to block your view.


What you do see plenty of in Uru is your character, which is new for a Myst game. Since a large part of Uru is the online game, you start off by designing a character who will represent you through your adventures. The process is simple enough, and most players should be able to achieve something that looks like what they want.


But this change isn't just for looks; it also affects the type of puzzles you'll encounter in Uru. Gone is the exclusively "point and click" interface of previous Myst games. This time around, some puzzles require you to interact with your environment -- nudging items and even occasionally jumping. For players who dread action games, however, this is kept to a minimum. The bulk of the puzzles still rely on logic.


The same goes for the online game, although it still seems to be sparsely populated. You can make friends online while maintaining your own private "space," which allows for both social and solitary gamers. This is a good thing, because if Cyan Worlds continues developing the online game with the care of the offline game, many people will want to take advantage of the new content, even if they don't want to chat and socialize.


It's nice to see how this series has evolved. In Uru, there isn't a single moment that failed to feel true to the original vibe of Myst. Things are still slow and mysterious. And given the direction of most other video games -- which are all about speed and action -- Uru would stand out as a refined and original title even without the game's exquisite images.





Publication date: 1/08/04

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