GDC 2013: Myst creator Robyn Miller on lying about budgets, poverty and technical limitations

Myst co-creator Robyn Miller gave a charming talk about the difficult process of making his classic game at GDC 2013, while also speaking on the subject of game development on the breadline and the importance of designing games for yourself.

In 1991 Robyn and Rand Miller had been making children’s puzzle games for four years as Cyan Worlds, when they were inspired to make a puzzle game for adults. That’s history now, but back then it was more than adventurous, as the pair found out when they pitched it to Activision. “They told us to stick to children’s games. We were eating rice and beans and government cheese. That was our diet. That was the end of our career in gaming.”

As we know now, it wasn’t. The Japanese firm Sunsoft independently pitched Cyan Worlds an adult puzzle game. Sunsoft asked for a budget, and the Millers… made something up. “We came up with the original amount we thought it would cost, doubled it, and added some more.” said Miller. “We actually spent more than that. It never occurred to us to go back and ask for more.” The budget was $265,000.

Sunsoft specified that the game needed to work on the new consoles, such as the Sega Saturn, which had a small memory buffer and no hard drive buffer. This extreme limitation meant that the world was cut up, into ages. Sunsoft made few demands beyond that, so the brothers set about making a game for themselves. “No fans. No demographics. No sales projections. No outside expectations. No second guessing,” said Miller. “We designed a world for us, explored it as we were designing. It did well because we made it for ourselves.” The name was decided over a thirty-second phone call, as derived from The Mysterious Island.

Inspired by Zork, D&D, the Narnia books and, of course, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, the Millers decided on a game with a non-linear story, believable characters and advanced graphics – which, back then, were hand-drawn. They playtested the game in a D&D fashion before programming anything, sitting around and talking their way through the worlds.

At this point, Robyn had only played one game – Zork II, a text adventure. Starting in Photoshop and moving onto Stratovision, they started drawing the island as a grayscale map, before laying textures over it. At a resolution of 544 x 333, it took 2-14 hours to render each scene – and they had to hide everything on the island that the player couldn’t directly see.

The single-speed CD-ROM was a similar technical limitation, being slow enough that they had to lay the data for each island out as a track, with locations linearly placed so there wasn’t much jumping around. By this point, Brøderbund had come on board to distribute the game in the West and insisted the game needed music. “We were not real keen” recalled Miller. “There were not a lot of games with music around at the time. A soundtrack is false and breaks the spirit of believability… music doesn’t play in the real world.” The Millers used music only produced by radios and instruments within the world, so-called diagetic music. It worked so well, they wrote a soundtrack.

The game’s puzzles were fiendishly difficult, but entirely logical; everything to complete them was located in the world, avoiding the arbitrary object-matching of other contemporary puzzle games. Well, most of them. The Bathysphere puzzle is notorious. “That was our worst puzzle,” admitted Miller. “Originally, it was this huge labyrithine maze… we failed on that one totally.”

The brothers’ expectations were very low, caused partially by mixed feedback from Brøderbund’s focus groups. “We thought that this might sell, like, a hundred thousand copies. We might get to make a second one!” said Miller. Of course, the game was eventually a huge success, partly due to the Miller’s extensive testing with non-gamers. After two years of development, it was released and went on to sell six million copies – the biggest selling game until The Sims came along. As we found out during the talk, many developers were inspired to make games by Myst – Fez creator Phil Fish amongst them, who took a year to complete the Myst sequel Riven, and started his career making black and white Myst clones.

The brothers no longer work together. Rand is theoretically still in charge of Cyan Worlds. Robyn Miller has moved into movie-making since the Myst series ended. His next film, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, is a documentary about vampirism and will be released this summer.

sssss