Monday, July 3, 2023
Comments: 7 (latest July 20)
The understated news is that Eric A. Anderson and Hannah Gamiel are now Cyan's studio leads. The younger generation is now in charge. Rand Miller is, well, they didn't give him a title, but basically Artistic Vision Greybeard and Occasional Voice of Atrus is the impression I got. They joked about how Rand can no longer threaten to fire Eric.
Myst (2020) is still getting updates. Steam Deck support is in; iOS support is in. (Eric was smug about the iOS version running off the same graphical assets as the PC version.) Quest 3 support is coming. Possibly more platforms after that.
No progress on Rime though.
Firmament shipped in May! On PC/Mac. "More platforms to come," including PS4/PS5/PSVR2. Undoubtedly more beyond that, but no announcements.
Firmament was a tough project for Cyan. "It was a big lift." "I think the studio learned a lot of lessons." "A lot of us are still recovering." Eric noted that while the studio was split between finishing Firmament and post-launch Myst support, pretty much everybody worked on Firmament at some point.
Now that Firmament is out, there is still post-launch support (and all those upcoming platforms!) but the studio has mostly changed gears. "Most of us are working on the [Riven] remake." "We're more focused in a single goal than we have in three years."
Eric noted that, among Cyan staff, Riven is the modal favorite Myst game. Everybody is jazzed to be working on it.
Nothing yet about platforms for Riven; it's way too early for that. No release date either, but they expect it will be a shorter dev cycle than Firmament. "I can guarantee it'll be out before the 30th [anniversary]," that is, before 2027.
They're still using Unreal 4 for Riven. UE5 (or UE5 features) aren't there yet for a wide range of platforms. (Low-end VR platforms have limited hardware, and Riven needs to support those.)
The game is already playable end-to-end! That's far off from "finished", of course. Visuals are somewhere between "greybox" and "getting there". But all the game logic is in place.
The aim is to make Riven, the game we all know, but updated to show more of the Age of Riven (and the other Ages). Same story, more angles. More contrast between Rivenese culture and Gehn's imperialist additions. They stressed that they want all the additions to flow from a coherent vision; they're not just adding stuff for the sake of stuff.
"Riven, but with new discoveries about Riven." Rand's schtick is that they've uncovered more archaelogical material from the New Mexico desert. It expanded their view of the Riven story, and they're incorporating those discoveries into the new game. They hauled out a huge metal plate with a relief of D'ni letters, which "fell through the fissure" from Riven. Gehn's architecture will incorporate this "inscribing Books on metal" motif.
Eric loaded up Boiler Island, live, and played through some of the puzzles. Boiler Island looks completely polished (although I'm sure Eric would disagree!) Rand showed screenshots of new views and scenery that wasn't in the original.
They acknowledged last year's rather mean-spirited news update. "At Mysterium 2022, everybody hated us." It wasn't exactly an apology, but okay. We can agree that wasn't the way to go with their fans. This year's update was much better.
They were careful to acknowledge the Starry Expanse project, too. Rand started off his segment with "Shout-out to Starry Expanse peeps!" They're not using models or artwork directly from SE -- everything in Riven is being built from the ground up. But the Starry Expanse work provided an invaluable reference for models and terrain; the Cyan folks expressed how important that was. Rand also mentioned that they'll work some nods to the Starry Expanse team into the final game.
So that's good news.
They've also managed to extract a couple of the original Riven 3D models. Those have been considered lost since the 1990s, and most of them still are, but they now have a few. (The rotating puzzle room was mentioned.) Again, this will be reference material for the new game, not directly incorporated.
Someone asked, will they use live-action video for the characters? No. Character animation tools are changing fast. The faces in Myst were an experiment; Firmament was a more successful experiment. They'll see what works for Riven. "The uncanny valley is getting shallower."
The focus will be on Riven for a while yet, but they're at least considering what future projects might look like.
They would like to do smaller games. A big theme in Cyan's presentation was: Firmament was too ambitious. They didn't quite say those words, but they hinted at it repeatedly. It's not sustainable for the studio to do projects that take that much time and effort.
The unstated question is, where's the sweet spot? Firmament already felt smaller and shorter than Cyan's previous tentpole games. (Rich and dense, but shorter!) A more compact game wouldn't be the classical Cyan experience. What would it be? They're open to experimenting with new genres and styles. "Specifically one of the things we're interested in pursuing is something with more replay value." (I.e., not a classical solve-once adventure game.)
This is a way they could go back to the Myst/D'ni setting. Eric invoked the approach that Star Wars has been taking: smaller stories in more corners of the Myst universe. Places we've heard of but haven't visited, like Everdunes.
There were many Bug Chucker jokes, but they're not going back there. "We're not doing Myst Candy Crush."
They also joked about a Myst dating sim, but that might be a good idea actually.
The usual questions: The TV-show idea is "in a lull". (The TV boom is over, plus there's this writer's strike.) Book of Marrim: someday! We've talked about it. Cyan Ventures: Hasn't been our focus recently, but maybe if the right project came along.
The Myst novel trilogy (originally published 1995-1997) is coming back into print. Mysterium attendees could pre-order the hardcover Book of Atrus -- but only in person, sorry. (No problem, I have the 90s edition.)
Archiving Cyan history
This is material recorded in the 90s. It's been sitting in a closet all this time. It got unearthed as part of Philip Shane's documentary. Philip asked "what's on those tapes?" and nobody at Cyan even knew. But when he posted images of the stack of tapes, Phil Salvador jumped on them. As Library Director for VGHF, he volunteered to borrow the tapes, digitize them, and make them available for public viewing.
The project is in progress. They've digitized about half the material. (VHS tapes were relatively easy; now they're dealing with "Digital Betacam" tapes, which are even more obscure than Betamax.) They hope to finish the stack and make the collection available by the end of this year. It will total about 100 hours of video footage.
The collection includes...
- Behind-the-scenes footage from Riven's production.
- A bit of behind-the-scenes footage from the very beginning of Uru.
- Uru technical tests as Cyan was taking the Headspin (Plasma) engine on board.
- Unused footage from the "Making of Riven" video.
- A prototype video (vertical slice) of Myst 4, handed off from Ubisoft.
- The construction of Cyan's office (which hosted Mysterium this year!)
- Interviews, interviews, interviews.
Phil played a few clips: bloopers and gag takes from the Riven live-action film shoots. The audience, it is safe to say, went wild.
When the video collection goes live, everything will be streamable "as part of our arrangement with Cyan". It won't be directly downloadable. The raw footage will be archived by VGHF but still owned by Cyan.
This is exciting. (It'd be more awesome if the archive was creative-commons, but we'll take what we can get.) Back when Philip Shane announced his documentary, he showed early footage of background material from Cyan (including the stacks of old videotapes!) I raised my hand and asked if this material would be publicly available outside the documentary itself. Philip's answer was "That's up to Cyan." Turns out Cyan is willing! That's great.
Speaking of the documentary, Philip Shane had an update as well.
The movie isn't done but it's well under way. They've gotten most of the primary footage they want: filming at Cyan, filming home with the Miller clan, filming at various conventions. They got footage of Rand at the Living Computer Museum (now sadly closed). They've gone through the Cyan vault for background material. They've nailed down the outline and are doing storyboards.
What's left? More interviews (estimated 30 days). B-roll in various cities other than Spokane (estimated 20 days). Then: editing, animation, and music (estimated nine months).
Editing is always a long pole in the tent. Philip wants to do a lot of dramatic animation and surreal visualization of scenes, so there's a bunch of animation work needed as well.
So that's about a one-year timeline to complete the documentary. To support this, they're looking to raise additional funds. Hopefully another $50k by the end of the year. This isn't crowdfunding; it's the kind where someone writes a big check and gets credited as "Contributing Producer" or some such title. If you have a big checkbook, contact Philip.
Rand and Robyn's condition for the movie was "This can't be just the story of the Miller brothers." Philip has interviewed lots of other Cyan notables: Tony Fryman, Richard Vander Wende, Richard Watson, Eric Anderson, etc, etc. All of them will be featured.
Will outtakes from the film go to VGHF? "We haven't discussed it. Possibly." Extras and raw interview video will be available to the public eventually.
Someone asked if the movie's title was really "The Myst Documentary" or if that's just a placeholder. (They credited me with asking this first, which I guess I did?) Philip replied, "We have other ideas for the title, but for now we're sticking with 'The Myst Documentary'." (Audience suggestion: "Myst: The Book of Cyan.")
The Community Vault of Stories now has, I think they said, about 500 pages of contributions from almost 90 people.
Philip described the original Myst source code as being 57000 lines of (I presume) HyperTalk. Apparently Rand carries it around on his phone.
One more note on Myst history... There was a line in Philip's movie outline:
2021: Cyan hired by Oculus to create VR version of Myst
On the one hand, this rather supports a theory. On the other hand, the Oculus Quest version of Myst actually launched in December 2020, so the dates are a little off.
Relatedly, Hannah Gamiel was quoted in an interview:
The [Firmament] Kickstarter didn’t cover the full amount we needed to create the game in a year. But I said, “You know what we could make in a year?” I'm sure every Myst fan in the world would have rolled their eyes, but no one’s ever been able to play Myst in VR before. And that was probably the best decision we could have made, because it helped us hire 10 more people to work on Firmament.
-- Into the Myst, Inverse, March 15 2023
Conclusion: still hazy.
The masterwork of the weekend was Mike "RIUM+" Ando's holographic imager.
The Andotrope at Mysterium 2023. (Photos by Jeff Hitchcock and T-Squared)
This is a recreation of Gehn's imager from Riven -- with a functional "hologram"! It's a spinning black cylinder with an animated glowing image inside. Rium promises a full blog post soon, but for now, see these video demonstrations.
The thing is a bit hard to explain. The cylinder is optically black cloth with two vertical slits. Inside the cylinder are two Android tablets glued back-to-back; they play the (same) video. The whole arrangement spins at 1200 rpm. You only see the screens through the slits, but the cylinder rotates fast enough that it looks like a smooth animation. The principle is the same as a zoetrope, and in fact the creator calls this device an "Andotrope".
A zoetrope turns still images into a short animation. What's the point of building one with an animated video display? Answer: the Andotrope video always looks face-on to you, no matter where you're standing. A group of people can stand around the cylinder and they'll all see Gehn's face (or Rium's) talking directly to them. Again, the videos demonstrate this.
Rium notes that this seems to be a new idea in the world. In fact he's put in a patent on it. (Not yet published.) "I have accidentally invented new technology while trying to make a videogame prop more screen-accurate."
Other demos and projects...
Patrick "Doobes" Dulebohn demonstrated building a simple Myst Online Age from scratch. The tool for this is Korman, which is a Blender plug-in that knows how to export Plasma Age models. (See the Guild of Writers wiki for more info.)
Doobes's current project is importing the "Descent" experience from Myst 5 into Myst Online. Video trailer for this. (These are the environments from the opening of Myst 5, but played in the MOUL engine with a MOUL-style over-the-shoulder avatar. The very last shot appears to be a brand-new environment...) Descent will hopefully be released in MOUL by the end of this year.
Phil (yet a different Phil) showed off Uru: DeMystified, a demake built in the Bitsy engine. It freely adapts the Ages of Kadish, Teledahn, and Ahnonay (as "Rooted Hold", "Fungalmill", and "Chronalatoll") into a 2D pixel adventure.
Unwritten, the Myst RPG, has just launched a Kickstarter for their next sourcebook: Modern D'ni.
The "Guild of Speedrunners" did some Myst speedruns on various devices. All red and blue pages: fourteen minutes. "Cheesing" the fireplace code and going straight to D'ni: one minute. Repeating that feat blindfolded while someone else shouted out how to move the mouse: seven minutes. Yes, that's what I said.
Also a Firmament speedrun: ten minutes. This involved glitching through the void while juggling save files to break various game flags. Truly dedicated stuff.
Tim Heiderich brought in a highly impressive Lego rendition of Myst island.
And that, holy wow, is everything I wrote down. Next year in Montreal! I may or may not be there.