The world of video game development is infamously brutal, grinding up some of the most successful game creators to dust. But not Cyan. The small Spokane indie-game developer entered into the computer game business in 1988 with The Manhole, a point-and-click game with a graphical palette limited to only two shades, black and white. Just five years later, the company created Myst, a gorgeous 3D adventure game that became one of the most influential computer games of all time. And on Tuesday, Cyan launched a Kickstarter campaign for Firmament, their first game to be designed from the ground up for virtual reality headsets.
The Inlander talked to Myst's creator, Rand Miller, about his decades-long quest to immerse gamers in virtual worlds. Here are a few selections, edited for length and clarity.
INLANDER: Cyan has outlasted countless other developers, including big names like LucasArts and Sierra. How have you guys been able to survive?
MILLER: We're scrappy. I think a lot of it has to do with the Myst momentum. That was huge. It opened doors, and at least makes people pick up our phone calls. The other thing was just luck.
After Myst and Riven, we started working on a really huge massive multiplayer game. But it didn't work. We had to shrink in size. We're clinging on barely by the skin of our teeth, and then the iPhone comes out. We said, "You know what? Our game would work on the iPhone." It's touch. Our original icon on Myst was this.
[Rand Miller holds up his palm.]
We're actually removing a layer of abstraction on the phone and the iPad. So we started converting: It just was the right place at the right time, to dribble some more money in and keep us alive a little longer.
Why take the risk on VR?
There are more VR headsets that can play our game now than there were computers that could play Myst when we did that.
Ultimately, it's about this magic. When you put a VR headset on, it's an order of magnitude different from looking at a flat screen. I mean I remember going from a black-and-white monitor to color and it just blows your mind. We've taken every bit of innovation that's come out and said, "Well, how can we make our worlds better?" And VR feels like that.
The Myst games had the hand icon that you used to turn wheels and pull levers. To what extent do you see VR as a natural fit? What were the challenges?
With Firmament, we are intent on making your hand a part of the game. Can we really map hands so that it becomes intuitive? Oh my gosh it was incredibly difficult. You'd think it would be like point-and-raise hand.
No. Those simple things in a virtual world? People are inhibited or they don't lift their fingers far enough or they don't wave enough.
But we got it to work. We finally overcame it. But it took months where I thought we would have it within a week. You know, fine-tuning angles of fingers.
How has what you love about game development changed over the last three decades?
It's the same thing, oddly enough: The psychology. There is something so intriguing about making people feel like they have free will, and yet knowing where this leads.
The most enjoyable part of this is sitting behind people's back, and watching people play the game when they get to key moments. Their whole worldview of this place starts to blow up in their head. And they're like, "OH MAN..." ♦