In 1993 Cyan released what would go on to be the biggest-selling PC game of all time for nearly a decade. By 2005 the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Now Cyan is back and it's swinging for the fences harder than it has in ages with Obduction, the crowdfunded spiritual successor to its record-setting first-person puzzler Myst.
As the Obduction Kickstarter campaign was fond of reminding people, Cyan's CEO, co-founder and Myst co-director Rand Miller is still in charge. What a lot of people don't realise is that Miller never left. Neither did Cyan, for that matter, despite serious financial woes nearly killing the company off 11 years ago.
So where was he? Where did the money go? How did the developer of one of history's most popular computer games fade into relative obscurity?
To understand Cyan's troubled history I spoke to Rand Miller on Skype last Wednesday, the very day the studio launched Obduction. His story is a tragic one of ambition, bum luck, and a woeful miscalculation of where the gaming zeitgeist was heading. At a distance it may seem like Cyan withdrew from society after Myst's sequel, Riven, but really the opposite is true: Cyan didn't leave the world, the world left Cyan. Like Myst island itself, it became an enigmatic hotbed of creativity languishing away in an isolated retreat. Away from the city. Away from the industry. Away from the limelight.
It's strange to think back on now, given how much the world has changed in 23 years, but there was a time when Myst was the game. It appealed to puzzle fans and technology enthusiasts the way one would expect of any early 90s graphic adventure game, but it drew in a much larger audience beyond that scope.
Myst didn't look like other games back then. Not only did it eschew combat, platforming or any competitive element, it didn't even resemble other adventure games. It traded traditional forms of navigation for a static art style that was almost photo-realistic (or as close as could be attained in those days) and it did away with genre conventions like inventory puzzles, dialogue trees, or a typically told sci-fi or fantasy narrative that front-loads the player with flavour text.
Myst was quiet. Peaceful. Elegant. As such, it drew attention from an audience otherwise uninterested in video games in those games. Artists, academics and grandparents alike all looked to Myst as a sophisticated piece of media. Suddenly gaming - or at least Myst-playing - was no longer considered a guilty pleasure, but rather a worthwhile academic pursuit.
This was never part of the plan for Cyan. According to Miller, Myst was merely an experiment in making traditional adventure games a little more accessible.
"We were trying to make something that would appeal to people who didn't necessarily always play games," Miller tells me. "We wanted the interface to be really intuitive and easy. You would just sit in front of it and there was a mouse and one button and there weren't a lot of menus on the screen and there weren't a lot of keyboard commands. We wanted everything to kind of fade away so you could be lost in this world. So we thought that might appeal to a broader group, but our 'broader group' meant that we were thinking 'oh, maybe we'll sell 100,000.' The reality was that it was a lot more than that."
Indeed Myst sold upwards of 6m units. Today, combined with its sequel Riven, that number stands at over 12m. "I can't even comprehend those numbers. It's bizarre," Miller says.
Despite Myst's somewhat avant-garde reputation at the time, Miller considered the game more of a playful toy box than a piece of high art.
"We were not looking for sophisticated gaming," Miller says. "I knew we were trying to make something interesting, because we'd basically done kids' games up to that point. So in our mind it was like, 'well this is going to be for an older audience so it does need a certain level of sophistication,' but we certainly weren't thinking artsy-fartsy or something.
"It was all kind of an experiment to improve what we were doing," he adds. "So if it resonated with a larger audience, or an audience that wasn't used to video games, it was probably because we weren't necessarily just trying to fit into a mold, maybe. It made me think at the time, because it started selling so well, 'wait a minute, maybe video games are only really appealing to a niche group and there is a larger group of people that will play video games."
He wasn't wrong, though aside from Myst and its 2002 record-setting successor The Sims, the big boom of games being sold to "non-gamers" wouldn't follow for nearly two decades with the mobile market.
Yet despite Myst's critical and commercial success, the popular product saw a bit of backlash within gamer communities. Some considered it "not a real game" as it didn't have combat. Others were fans of more traditional adventure fare like The Secret of Monkey Island and Space Quest, a genre that declined greatly by the late 90s. Myst quietly became mainstream and that painted a target on its back.
"These were interesting times," Miller recalls. "It seemed like at first Myst was accepted well. It's not like it was super marketed and everybody knew about it. It was this real sloper. It started selling and it was selling well.
"The more popular it became, the more it started getting dissed by people [who] I think originally didn't mind it so much, but then started thinking of it as more mainstream. 'Oh, this is so mainstream. Oh, this is going to ruin my Monkey Island.' I think you see that in a lot of industries as well. People love to be tribal and they love to feel like they're onto something small and interesting, and when it gets too mainstream there is always a bit of backlash by some people."
But haters gonna hate. A vocal minority of critics could take out their contrarian Myst-dissing opinions all they wanted online, but the simple truth was Myst - and later Riven - sold like gangbusters.
So clearly, with a record-selling title under its belt and a successful sequel, surely Cyan must have been rolling in money, right?
Not exactly, as it turns out - though it wasn't exactly starving. Miller says that Myst's publisher, Broderbund, was entitled to 85 per cent of the game's revenue. Back then self-publishing wasn't an option. Publishers paid developers to make games. Publishers handled the brick and mortar distribution. Publishers kept the lion's share of the revenue. That's just how things were circa 1993.
"It's nice not to have to live with that model anymore. These are much better days," Miller says, referring to Kickstarter, the mobile market, and the ability to self publish on console (to which Miller says Cyan has had "encouraging talks" regarding console ports of Obduction).
Even so, 15 percent of the eight figures Myst made was still a pretty penny and it funded the development and of a fancy new headquarters in Spokane, Washington along with keeping the studio afloat for several years as it developed Riven and then embarked on its most ambitious - and ultimately tragic - project, Uru.
You see, after Riven Cyan didn't want to keep making traditional Myst games. It felt like the series had run its course "After Riven we didn't actually think that there would be more Mysts that would fall under that same serial storyline," Miller recalls. That being said, he was impressed by a pitch from third-party French studio Presto for its idea of a sequel - a game that would go on to become Myst 3: Exile. "They had done an amazing mock-up of what they were going to do and we thought 'oh man, if they're going to do this good of a version then we don't have to worry."
As for Cyan, it wanted to stretch its wings into the exciting world of online entertainment. "We went right on to doing something that we thought was much more aggressive and forward-looking, which was the online version," Miller tells me. "We said 'if people like these games and like going to other worlds we should just supply new worlds for them on a regular basis via broadband. That seemed like a logical, fun thing to do. So we went down that path."
This was the path of Uru, the ill-fated massively multiplayer Myst spin-off. That may sound oxymoronic as a pitch - as Myst was an incredibly isolating pristine puzzle experience - but hearing Miller describe it today, Uru still sounds progressive and exciting. Revolutionary even.
So how would a massively multiplayer puzzle game even work, you ask? The full concept is complex enough for its own article, but here's the gist: Remember those live-action murder mystery scenarios we'd always see in 90s sitcoms (typically set in a haunted house or train)? Well Uru was going to be the MMO version of that where real people would mingle with fictional characters and it would never be clear who was a player and who was an NPC.
All this would happen in real-time in an ever-expanding series of linked fantasy worlds and the tenuous line between fact and fiction would get further enmeshed as real players would be given tasks making them unknowingly part of the plot.
Instead of paying for specific DLC the way we do now, Uru players would pay a subscription fee and new content would be sneakily introduced and spread socially. For example, you might find a book in-game that warps you to a whole new island full of puzzles and cryptic story details. You'd then be able to share access to it with friends and family. In short, players would unlock new content through engaging with the community and/or running into NPCs milling about.
By today's standards this could be perceived as consumer hostile - as you could potentially pay for a subscription and still not see much of the new content unless you're active enough in the community - but in theory it offers a sense of surprise that simply doesn't exist under the current model where we transparently trade legal tender for known add-ons.
"We thought of it more like broadcast television where people sit down in their living room to see a new show every night. So why don't we provide a new place to go every night? The whole idea seemed natural to us," Miller says of the ambitious project.
To get an idea of just how gargantuan an undertaking Uru was, Miller says he ordered "an assembly line of teams" to develop new worlds to introduce to this persistent universe while Cyan would have a whole year's worth of content in the can to consistently stay ahead of the audience.
"You've got to have a large studio and people working on the next episode with writers and characters and designs and puzzle people," Miller says. "We were trying to work a year ahead into content for what would be released on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. It was very aggressive."
There was only one problem: Cyan was developing Uru for Ubisoft, a then smallish publisher pushing online as the new frontier of gaming, when Ubisoft decided to move away from online gaming and shut down Miller's dream of an always online serialised story.
"Just when we were ready to launch - we had 40,000 beta testers and a really exciting chance to kind of get started - they pulled the plug. They just said 'no, we're not gonna do online', and they shut down The Matrix Online and they closed the online office and they pulled Myst Online as well," Miller laments.
"I'm sure something had to do with Myst Online as well, but I think we had done everything we could right. We'd done some incredibly innovative things. To this day I kind of chalk it up to one of those crazy businesses wrong place/wrong time things that we just can't control. But I'm still incredibly proud of what we did."
The Uru project eventually found a new home in 2007 on GameTap, but by then the damage was done. Gametap shut down the title the following year due to lack of subscribers and Miller's vision of an MMO mystery adventure never set the world on fire the way the seemingly more modest Myst did.
Still, Miller has some fond memories of Uru's one year live. He recounts one story of a particularly moving episode transpiring within this painstakingly crafted universe.
"At one point a character in-game, who many thought was a real person, was killed as part of the ongoing storyline. She was trapped under some rubble," Miller recalls. "People held a vigil and gathered all around the city where she was trapped. It was an amazing experience. I really do think it has a lot of potential."
"At some point somebody will do a game like this. I have no doubt. And it will be epic. It will be epic and it will change things. But I'd like to think that at least we had a start in that."
Looking back at the Uru debacle, it may seem obvious that the project was too ambitious - or at least hard to market - for its own good, but the world was a very different place back in the late 90s when Miller and co. dreamed this up. After all, Myst sold better than Doom. Back in those days Miller reasonably thought that adventure games would became the dominant genre of video games (at least on computers).
So why did shooters become more popular than games about exploration, story and puzzle-solving? Here's Miller's thoughts on the matter:
"I think some of it has to do with return on investment. I think that there was a trend toward first-person shooters. Myst came out the same time as Doom did. There were a couple of branches there. And then [with] the Doom branch the mechanism was kind of known and easy to reproduce: You shoot things. The mechanics were well known. You shoot something, you get what it has, you get a bigger thing to shoot something else.
"That's an awesome achievement and an experience that I think is really cool. But you can knead that and mine that into a newer technology maybe a little bit easier than the branch we had come down. Because you can attach a different story to it and skin it a little differently, and it's still intriguing and fun to get a new thing that has the updated graphics to shoot scarier things or more interesting things or bloodier things or whatever.
"But it felt like after Myst and even Riven, it was hard to do another one of these games, because we can't just repeat the same mechanics. Everyone says that it's a puzzle game, but we can't just take the same puzzles that Myst or Riven had and say 'oh, we can just skin these differently. We can just put a different story or skin on this and people will play this.' That's not the nature of what this genre is. It requires this weird balance between the story, the environment and the puzzles they all have to support each other and feel like part of the game and natural and interesting and pull you in. It's hard and I'm not sure there was a good return on investment frankly for big publishing studios to put that kind of money into it."
And so Miller's vision never came to pass. Ubisoft shuttering Uru left the project in shambles. To stay alive during this devastating period, Cyan had to adapt all its hard work into standalone project for Ubisoft just to pay the bills.
"When Ubisoft shut it down they basically said 'hey, um, we're gonna shut all this down. So you know all that work that you've got for the next year and the year after that? We don't you just turn that into an expansion pack for the boxed game of Uru (a single-player offshoot), which we were selling, and then another expansion pack for the boxed game, and then Myst 5? Why don't you give us an additional three products out of all that work you've been planning for the world?' It kind of killed us to have to do that, because it wasn't ever meant for that. It was planned for something much bigger. But you do what you have to do, then you move on. So we did it. Yep," Miller laments.
After Myst 5's release Cyan was in dire straits. Staff was let go then rehired and the studio was only surviving through contract work and ports of its older titles on new platforms like IOS and Android. A new version of Myst was released on Steam.
"We finished up Myst 5 as contract work for Ubisoft because the way things panned out and then it was just a matter of trying to stay alive," Miller says. "We got some gigs selling some of the older stuff and trying to put stuff online. We converted our stuff to mobile apps, which kind of saved us a lot with people leaving and we were getting getting smaller and smaller.
"And then the mobile market came up and allowed us to at least keep some of our key people. And that allowed us to think, gave us some breathing room. The mobile market was keeping us alive, then we realised there was potential now with Kickstarter to maybe consider something larger. And that's where the seeds of Obduction started to take root."
Indeed things have changed now. Miller's dream of adventure games being the dominant genre never came to fruition, but in an age of successful exploration and/or puzzle games like The Witness, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and Firewatch, there's finally demand, albeit a niche one, for the sort of games that once made Cyan a star. Now these projects are easier to fund. Now developers can self-publish and keep the lion's share of their product's revenue. Now the world is ready for a new Cyan game in the style of its greatest hit.
So how does Miller feel about Cyan's big comeback title?
"I gotta say, it's been a good day," Miller tells me mere hours after Obduction's launch. "It's been just shy of three years. You start out the morning of shipping not knowing how the reviews are going to be and it's like 'oh good! It's a good day. Yay!'"