Monday, August 15, 2022

Mysterium 2022: The Cyan-adjacent news

(Continuing my Mysterium report; see part 1...)
Not all the presentations were from Cyan folks! The fans working on community Myst Online support gave talks on their work.
On the software side, the H'uru group has a fork of the official (open-source) Myst Online client with a whole stack of improvements. (64-bit Intel and ARM support; native Mac and Linux support in progress.) The chart they showed gave a mid-2023 estimate for integrating these improvements into the official client.
As for content: new fan Ages continue to pop up on the Myst Online server. (Tiam in December; Elonin in April. The Gahreesen climbing wall was also reactivated in April.) The next release is expected to be a garden Age called Eder Naybree on September 9th.
There were also presentations from the creators of Area Man Lives, The Last Clockwinder, and Walkabout Mini Golf. Again, I'm not a VR fan so I don't have much to say about these.
Oh, in case you missed it: the guy who did Myst for the Apple 2 is now showing off Myst for the Atari 2600. In case you thought there was nowhere to go with that.

The Myst documentary continues apace. Philip Shane says that they're working hard to have it done for next year's Mysterium. If it's not finished by then it should be in the final editing stages, at least.
(It only now occurs to me that we've been calling it "the Myst documentary" all this time. Does it have a title? It's funny that nobody's ever asked... The press page says "THE MYST DOCUMENTARY" so I guess that's the title.)
The movie will be released on the usual streaming services. If you have a local theater that shows documentaries, it could show up there too. And maybe game conventions? I didn't ask about this, but Get Lamp showed at PAX and some other cons, so who knows.
Philip showed an outline of the documentary. Details were blurred out (awww) but the movie will cover the creation of Myst, Riven, and Uru, the near-collapse of Cyan in 2005, the resurrection of Cyan and Uru in 2006-7, and then the "new era" of Obduction and Firmament. With side trips to Rand and Robyn Miller's childhood and formative computer experiences.
Shane describes Rand and Robyn's story as the "spine" of the movie, but it will also deal with everyone else whose life impacted or was impacted by Myst. That includes other Cyan creators like Chuck Carter, Richard Vander Wende, Richard Watson, and so on; and also the fan community in all its glory.
The second half of the presentation was about the Community Vault of Myst stories. This was a high-level backer reward: get your personal Myst memories into a public archive which will accompany the documentary.
The Vault is now live! They started accepting stories three days ago. As of Shane's talk, they've gotten 56 contributors with 126 pages of text, photos, video, and audio. These numbers will certainly shoot up in the next few weeks. It looks like about 700 people backed the documentary at the Vault level. If you didn't, donations are still open at Fangamer, so you can still get in if you want.
(Disclosure: I did not back at that level. But I'm considering it now.)
As you saw when you insta-clicked, the Vault site is presented as an interactive library environment. No Myst without libraries! The creator, Elana Bogdan, cites the US National Archives and the Stockholm Public Library as inspirations. Open the gates, click on the shelves, browse the books. If you've got a backer code to add material, the center desk provides an in-browser editing interface for your book.
This is extremely cool, and absolutely lovely, and also somewhat awkward. (Warning: I start getting opinionated here. Lecture and suggestion follows.)

The idea of creating a Myst-style immersive environment on a web site is very nearly as old as the Web itself. I've always loved it. You can browse my library that way! However, for an archive... I worry that the concept is getting in the way of the information.
During the Q&A session, a few questions came up about the interface. Is there a card catalog? Is it searchable? Can you browse by date to find new material? Have you tested the site for visual accessibility? (I asked that last.)
The answers were, basically, "We want this to be like Myst". The Vault is supposed to be a sensory, tactile experience. You have to poke around the shelves. You have to pick up books and leaf through them, one book and one page at a time.
I get that. It's a great design and people will have a lot of fun playing around in the site. But to force people to use this site interface isn't fun; it's precious and exclusionary and inaccessible. The result was that the Vault presentation had a running backdrop of apologies.
  • The site does not work on a phone, sorry. It requires a large browser window. (It was functional on my iPad but the edges of everything were cut off.)
  • No, it does not support screen readers. There's an option for "accessible fonts" which changes the handwriting to typewriter -- full credit there -- but true visual accessibility is not supported. (They hope to work on that after launch.)
  • No, you can't search. You can't find recently-updated books. You can't link to content. Sorry, that would break the immersion.
  • No, you can't page through a book quickly. The 1.2-second crossfade is unskippable.
  • What if someone in the community dies and I want to search through every memory for mention of their name? Or even browse as quickly as possible? Sorry.
There's also the question of future support. What will this site look like in five years? Ten years? As the Myst community knows very well, web sites go down. SQL servers choke. Domains expire. People leave the fandom or disappear or die. A lot of what we thought of as crucial fan sites in 2003 or 2007 are long gone to dust. Only the Wayback Machine remembers... but the Community Vault site is completely inaccessible to crawlers! The Wayback Machine can't see it. If the server falls over, all that contributed material is gone.
This is not doing right by the memories that have been entrusted to you.
But, I think all of these problems can be addressed with a single update! My suggestion:
  • Put a link on the front page which says "browse in plain mode". That should link to a simple HTML list of contributors. No jQuery, no shelves, no book jpegs, no infinite scrolling. Just a plain <ul> list of links in alphabetical order. Each entry is a name, the page count of how much content has been added, and the date of last edit.
  • If you want to get fancy, add a second index page (different URL) which lists the same links in chronological order, most recent update first.
  • When you click on a link, you go to a web page showing all that person's content. That's all. Plain HTML with all their text and images. Links to the audio and video. Stable URL -- everything is permalinks. (Keep the "accessible fonts" menu option; that's solid.)
  • Make sure the plain-mode index and all the contributor pages are visible to web crawlers, including the search engines and Wayback Machine.
That's all. That gets you mobile support and visual accessibility and page-search and Google search and a fallback for when the site goes down. And citeability, for when someone's writing their PhD thesis on Uru and wants to link to a specific person's entry.
When you start to think "But that breaks the experience..." No. Let that go. You can't force people to have an experience. If someone uses the plain interface, they need the plain interface. If someone finds a text through Google and clicks through, they're reading the text. Success! That's what an archive is for.
I'm not saying add this feature right now! I realize that the site just went up last week and you're still hammering out the first wave of bugs. The contributions are still rolling in. I love the site and I'm happy to see it working.
But when you get back to thinking about accessibility, please consider this idea. And please don't stay stuck on the "force people to play a Myst game" idea. It's too narrow for what you want to accomplish.
(There's other ways you could accomplish these goals, of course. You could package up all the contributed data in a big zip file every three months, hand it over to the Guild of Archivists, and say "Here! Archive this!" I think that would be more work though.)

Mysterium 2023 will be in Spokane. See you all next year, I very much hope.

A footnote: My regular readers know who I am. But if you got here through Mysterium links, you might not understand where I'm coming from or why I care about accessibility.
Hi! I'm Andrew Plotkin, or Zarf, or Belford. I'm a big fan of Myst. I'm also a big fan of old-school (Zork-style) text adventures. I do volunteer work for the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting, preserving, and advancing IF tools and services.
IFTF runs a bunch of community services including the IF Archive, the IF Database, and the IFWiki. Some of these services go back 25 years or more. We have games, articles, and community content saved from the early 1990s. Seriously.
Part of our job is to go around to IF services -- whether we run them or not -- and ask, "What's your backup plan? Is your service accessible? Is there data export? Do you need a safe place to drop database dumps? What happens if the site developer gets bored or gets another job? Just checking that you've thought about this stuff."
This is why, for example, you can go to this archive page and download quarterly SQL dumps of the IFDB database. (The public parts of it, that is.) It's an ugly format and nobody would browse it for fun. But if people ever want to do research on IF history -- it's right there.
I hope I will be around 25 years from now. I know the community will be. They will look back at 2022 and say "Someone saved that stuff and we still have it." That's important.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Mysterium 2022: The news from Cyan

I did not go to Denver for Mysterium. I wish I were there; the fan expedition to Meow Wolf sounded like a big hit. But the conference is hybrid-format this year, so I was able to tune into most of the presentations from home.
(The online videos are currently viewable on Twitch. They will make their way to Mysterium's Youtube channel in due course.)
This post got so long that I chopped it in half. This is the stuff about Cyan itself and what they're doing (Myst, Firmament, etc.) Part 2 will be fan activity and community contributions, including the Myst documentary.

Cyan offered a "State of Cyan" video, hosted by Hannah Gamiel and Eric Anderson. With cameo intro from Rand Miller, who is on vacation in the UK.
So, what's the state of Cyan? The short answer is "super busy with Firmament." That was pretty much every third sentence out of the Cyan folks' mouths. But I'll summarize the other details they dropped.
Last Mysterium, we were still waiting for the new Myst to land on PC. Now it has! Also Mac, Xbox, and a bunch of other platforms. They've gotten patches and improvements out too. The new Myst has won a Webby award for technical achievement in games and been named Apple's Mac Game of the Year. So that's a pretty impressive year.
They've started working on Myst's bonus Rime Age (they dropped that hint a few months ago), but there's no release date in sight. Again, Firmament is a higher priority.
More Myst updates in planning: node-based navigation? A director's-commentary mode? More platforms? "Keep your ear to the ground."
They note that 2022 is the 25th anniversary of Riven! But they're really busy with Firmament so they don't have time to celebrate properly. Instead, they're pushing the celebration to 2023, which is of course also the 30th anniversary of Myst. It'll be sort of a Myst/Riven Advent calendar: "We're going to have something new and exciting every month in 2023." Examples: Myst-themed challenge coins; new Cyan swag; previously unreleased material from Riven's development years; secret fan projects from the community.
(Before you ask, no, none of those community projects involve Seltani. Sorry. I haven't pushed the idea and nobody's come asking.)
Oh, and they plan to re-release the three Myst novels as ebooks. These haven't been available for a few years, but they should be out for the 2023 celebration. They also want to do fancy printed editions but that's less certain. Printed books are a lot harder, particularly nowadays.

On to Firmament. First answer: No release date set. They've previously said they're aiming for the end of this year, but no guarantees.
Firmament is targetting PC/Mac/PS4/PS5. The VR version will require PSVR2, which means VR will not work on PS4. As for Quest, that's a maybe-someday idea. ("Design high and optimize down", but it will take a lot of optimization to squeeze the game onto Quest hardware.)
They showed some work in progress video of Firmament as it currently exists. This shows two of the game's worlds, the "Glacial" and "Coastal" environments. It's flybys in the editor, no gameplay -- spoilery for visuals only.
(Local color: everybody in the Cyan office calls these the "Glacial Age" and "Coastal Age". That's just force of habit though. Firmament is an original story, not connected to Myst or Obduction.)
On the gameplay side, they only said that the role of the Adjunct, the little flying drone, has changed some since the original 2018 proof-of-concept demo. It's less autonomous now; more of a go-where-I-send-you tool. But the game still revolves around using the Adjunct to activate sockets around you.

On the Cyan Ventures side of the company, Area Man Lives and The Last Clockwinder have both been released. Walkabout Mini Golf is getting a Myst-themed golf course in Q4. These are all VR-only games so I haven't paid much attention, but they're out there.
(The golf game is coming to iPhone/Android in some kind of AR mode. "Look through the screen, then swing your phone like a golf club"? I'm nervous, to be honest, but I'll try it.)
Also, Cyan Ventures is shifting focus. It was originally pitched as Cyan's publisher arm; now they're describing it as a development-support group. They'll help their clients with porting, VR optimization, console qualification, storefront setup on various platforms -- that sort of thing.
This mostly sounds like they're adjusting the marketing to conform with reality. "Publisher" implies that they fund games, and Cyan hasn't been cash-heavy since about 2001. But expertise in shipping games, particularly VR games -- that they got.

Cyan also hosted a live Q&A session, which was fun to watch but didn't provide much grist for this post. Go watch it yourself.
They mentioned what they call "Miller's Pillars", the game-design principles that Cyan is built around: a balance of Story, Environment, and Friction. This fits in nicely with how I think about games. (I've defined "puzzles" as "anything that provides pacing". "Friction" sounds like another way of phrasing the same idea.)
Yes, they have a roadmap for what to work on after Firmament ships. No, they're not revealing it. I guess they're a little gun-shy after talking a whole roadmap in 2019 and then immediately departing from it.

And now the sour note of the day: the Starry Expanse update.
You will recall that Starry Expanse was a fan project to rebuild Riven in true 3D. (With Cyan's blessing!) This was a huge undertaking. It started in 2008 and progressed at the rate that big fannish volunteer-based projects usually progress, which is to say, slowly but with great love. They presented their progress every year at Mysterium and always wowed the crowd.
In 2019, Cyan announced that they were working with the Starry Expanse project on an official 3D (and VR) Riven. They didn't specify what "working with" meant -- whether that was hiring the SE developers, or working collaboratively, or what. Presumably they were still figuring that out.
How'd that go? The Starry Expanse crew posted one more update in January 2020, and then... silence. No update at Mysterium 2020. No update at Mysterium 2021. In April 2022 someone added a note to the web site saying "We will share more news as soon as we are able!" I think there was a tweet from one of the original developers saying "Sorry, NDA."
This was not exactly reassuring. Cyan often plays their cards close, and they can be particularly secretive about new projects. But they're not shy about teasing good news for known projects. (See the Rime Age update above.) They're also not too shy about announcing when projects are delayed or rescheduled. (Again, Rime.)
So two and a half years of dead silence about Starry Expanse was out of character. (Remember, they'd been posting several updates per year for ten years!) Was the project going full steam? Had it bogged down? Was there some problem moving it under the Cyan umbrella? Or had it crashed and burned so badly that Cyan was applying NDA threats to keep the disaster under wraps?
In this year's Cyan video, Eric Anderson finally broached the question. "We're long overdue to tackle this. So, what's the deal with Riven?" And Hannah says, "So..." And then they cut to a fake "Technical Difficulties" screen. "BEEEEEEEEP... (click) I'm so glad we had the opportunity to talk about that." "You can stop asking now."
Yeah, ha ha. Everybody laugh. I laughed. But I also felt hurt. Disrespected. I had to spend a while pinning down exactly why.
Look. Sometimes fans deserve to be (gently) slapped down. The writer is not my bitch. I get it. Sometimes it's even a running gag. People have been asking about the Book of Marrim since my first Mysterium -- that's the putative fourth Myst novel. The question is always ostentatiously ignored. We know the answer, anyhow. There ain't no Book of Marrim.
But Starry Expanse is not a Cyan project. It's a community project. We're not just upset that a game is behind schedule. We're legitimately worried that Cyan has sucked in a fan project and then mishandled it so badly that it bled to death.
Nobody wants to think that, but it's really hard to see another explanation for all this silence. This is not how you build up a project which is nearing success. Cyan can run their games under wraps, but not our games.
And then, in that situation, to openly mock the fans who are asking questions? For caring? No. Not funny.
I lost some respect for Cyan this weekend. Lost all benefit of the doubt, too. From now on, if someone asks me what happened to Starry Expanse, my answer is "Cyan must've killed it." I hope I'm wrong but I can't see a reason for optimism.
To be clear: nobody said the words "Starry Expanse" in this year's update. They talked about "Riven" or "Riven in VR". So maybe the whole Starry Expanse thing fell through and they've been working on a new 3D Riven release, entirely internal to Cyan? But that's the same situation! What happened to the Starry Expanse devs? Have they all quit in disgust? Silenced by NDA? Is Cyan using their work or not? We deserve more transparency than this.
Sorry to end on a down note. I will admit that the chat-room response to Cyan's gag was 80% laughs and 20% frown-emoji. Most people seem to have let it go. I may be the only one writing up a butthurt screed. But here it is anyhow.
Up tomorrow: The Cyan-adjacent news from Mysterium 2022!