Friday, May 11, 2018

Even more Myst Kickstarter stuff

A couple more things happened this week. I know, I know, I promise my next post won't be Myst-related! But for now...
On Wednesday, Cyan announced a stretch goal. But it's not pegged at a dollar level. Rather, they want to hit 3750 backers at the "Writers" tier. That's the $250 level, where you get the metal inkwell and pen (modelled after the one in Gehn's office in Riven). That tier now also includes the three old Myst novels and additional Riven design documents. If they hit the 3750 mark, they'll throw in the Uru soundtrack for all backers, plus some bonus tracks.
When they posted that, they had 1875 backers at that level; they're aiming to double that. Fans seem to be into it. In the past two days, the KS has gotten 450 new backers (or upgrades) to that level, and about $125K in new donations -- an impressive spike.
(They were also featured on the Kickstarter home page for a day, which certainly helped.)
They're asking for another 1400-ish high-tier backers, which is ambitious. But I'm tempted. (I didn't buy in at that level originally, but for design documents...) I'm also tempted to start speculating on the economics behind the move. Maybe the inkwell has a higher minimum order than they expected? Or the fancy box has a higher per-unit cost, so they're trying to make it up with the inkwell money? I'm just juggling ideas here, I have no way to tell.

We have a little more solid info, because Rand Miller did a live ask-me-anything session yesterday. I've transcribed a few of his comments here.
On the Kickstarter:
We are higher than we thought we would be. Granted, we started with a kind of a barebones amount.
We are on the plus side. Not as much as you guys think we are, but we are definitely on the plus side.
We don't make a lot of money on these things... we do make some money, yes, but we try to keep the prices [of physical rewards] low as well.
On getting the rights to release Myst 3 and 4:
We have a good relationship with everyone we've worked with over the years, and it's just a matter of getting people's attention [at UbiSoft, etc.] It's a big deal for us but it's not a big deal for them. [...] It's not free, but luckily we've paid that bill with our Kickstarter. That was our goal... the original amount [$250k] we put in there, we would not have paid that bill.
(Together with the comments above, this indicates that the whole KS is on a pretty thin margin. Remember that they talked about not breaking even until the $500k mark. The Myst 3/4 rights are clearly the "hump" they were trying to get over.)
On not updating the old games to add new localizations or other new material:
We're dealing with versions of the software that are very hard to modify. We're trying to wrap them in real efficient ways, make them play well, and be transparent to you guys when you play them. But what that means is that we can't go back in and edit the assets.
On future Myst games:
"Will there be other Myst stuff?" The answer to that is yes. But again, it has to do with my age and grey hair and how long I live. [...]
(This is Rand's slightly morbid-humor allusion to the fact that the company has limited resources; they have to focus on the next project. They can't think about games they might do in the far future.)
We have to try to plan based on how successful our last project was. Obduction was great, but it took a lot out of us, and it didn't quite pay back what we needed it to. So we've had to pull back and let the natural ebb and flow take place.
(That refers to the layoffs they had a couple of months ago.)
On Firmament:
"Will you release the Firmament demo publically?" No. The Firmament demo was a mixture of us proving some concepts for ourself. [visually, performance, interface...] It was really difficult, much harder than we thought, but it turned out really cool. But it's a small snippet and it's not ready for public release.

Rand's session had a lot more information, particularly about material they've found in their archives. Watch the whole thing. I'll just mention a couple of interesting details.
They have a lot of the original production files from Myst, albeit in ancient versions of Strata3D which take a lot of effort to bring up on modern machines. But they have almost none of the original files from Riven. All of that work was done on SGI workstations, and is now buried on storage media which they can't access at all.
And a cute one: as everyone knows, Robyn and Rand Miller played the parts of Sirrus and Achenar in the original Myst. It turns out that for Atrus, Sirrus and Achenar's father, they originally filmed their own father Ron Miller! But it turned out that the senior Miller wasn't all that natural on camera -- he was a pastor, and was better at declamation than at acting. So they redid that part with Rand in dad-makeup.

UPDATE, May 18th: Rand Miller followup AMA!
Rand did another KS Q&A session. Unfortunately, something went goofy with the stream page. You can still watch the recording, but the progress bar isn't calibrated, so you can't skip around arbitrarily. So my quotes are imprecise -- sorry, I couldn't check them.
Bits I scribbled down:
The video test of Ron Miller (Rand's father), is now up on Youtube. Just a few clips of it, but you can tell that it wasn't the right stuff. Heh.
On easter eggs:
All of the games have easter eggs. [...] The original RealMyst has a Pong game in it.
On a remastered Cosmic Osmo: Rand noted that they started work on a color version, but it was never completed.
We had some artists colorizing Osmo in really meticulous and detailed way. [...] We love Osmo. We'd love to remaster that somehow.
Do they have the full publication rights for Myst 3 and 4, or just for this collection?
We have the rights to continue selling them. Which is great, that's what was missing. The timing was perfect for this collection.
Encyclopedias of D'ni language and culture: maybe.
Back in the day, for Uru, we wrote reams of information about the D'ni economy and their religion and their schooling and their marriage traditions... You guys have seen some of that.
In Myst 5, the tablet used a neural net for symbol recognition.
We decided we would use machine learning for the tablet... [To train it] we got everybody at the company drawing those symbols over and over again on the tablet. We spent the whole day doing that.
(The neural net is why it recognizes your drawn symbol a lot of the time, and then sometimes utterly fails. No way to diagnose this, the algorithm is a black box.)
The idea of removable red and blue pages in the book-box: Rand says they talked about it, but the box project already has a lot of complexity. Cyan talks to IdeaPlanet, IdeaPlanet talks to manufacturers in China. There's always a tradeoff between quality and speed. They're currently leaning towards quality over speed, although they'd really like to have the rewards out for the holidays (end of 2018).
On the community goal of 3750 high-level backers: Rand implied that they're angling to get a better deal by doing a larger production run on the inkwells.
There are some goals we're trying to make which lower our cost of goods.
Would they consider doing a non-puzzle game (more in the "walking simulator" genre): yes!
Puzzles are not something we consider essential to our style. We've almost been misconstrued as a puzzle company... Yes, we have considered doing games which are much less difficult, which have less friction.
(In the first chat, Rand talked about treating puzzles as a pacing mechanism, a way to add friction so that the player doesn't zoom through the story very quickly.) (I entirely agree, by the way. If you ask me to define "puzzle", I'll shrug and say "any pacing mechanism".)
On Linux ports for the anniversary release: they've looked at the numbers, and Linux ports would be "prohibitively expensive". They'd have to contract out that work, they couldn't do it in-house. This KS wouldn't come close to covering the cost.
On Myst in VR:
MystVR is a no-brainer, but it's also something tht has to be done really really well, and I don't think a Kickstarter would give us the budget for that.
On the high-detail screenshot at the end of the Art of Cyan book (also viewable here): Apparently this was done in just one week, as part of a Myst VR test. But it's not a full VR version of the island. It only looks good from a couple of spots.


  1. About this last stretch. In crowdfundings you can have a final high spike using various strategies. One common is to announce a final surprise, maybe a new crazy tier, probably impossible, but that shakes the community and the press, and with that reach new needed exposure. Take a look at the crowdfunding of Tale of tales for the Cathedral in the Clouds.

    And another way is the one used by Cyan. To radically improve some tiers with an attached stretch goal (like in this case) so you can convince your own backers to increase their patronage.

    1. Yeah, I agree with all of that. I thought the end of this one would tail off, but they've gotten a couple of big spikes. One from the stretch goal, and another in the past couple of days -- I don't know what caused that. :)

  2. Another AMA chat set for Friday, I'll be sure to add quotes from that one too.

  3. This doesn't make any sense. Why would they start a kickstarter with a set goal that if reached would still result in them losing money overall? Did they figure a lower goal would result in more backers? Or people are more likely to back a kickstarter that already passed its goal? (Just speaking for myself, the opposite is usually true.)

    Probably Presto Studios and Ubisoft aren't handing over the assets and source code for Myst 3-4. And if that's the case, they really have no option but to wrap the existing binaries.

    Wouldn't surprise me if new Myst games do one day get made (Myst VI or an unrelated reboot/spinoff), but I kind of doubt Cyan or Rand will be very involved.

    Damn, sounds like Riven's asset data might as well be imprisoned in an impenetrable lockbox. Makes me wonder if any trace of the code I've written professionally will still be around 20 years later...

    1. I'm not saying it makes sense, I'm just reporting what Cyan has said in their updates.

      I suspect the answer is: they intended to get the publishing rights for Myst 3/4 regardless, so that was a sunk cost. If the KS hadn't covered it, they would have been sad, but the deal would still have gone through.

      As for the assets of those games, it's possible that those assets are lost. But even if Cyan has them, they couldn't do anything with them beyond posting some samples for historical interest. Reimplementing the old games would be vastly beyond the budget of this KS.

    2. This had nothing to do with anything, but I liked Real Myst a lot. Hopefully more "Real Cyan Games"