May 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Cyan Striving To Repeat Stakes High For Spokane Company As It Wraps Up Work On Myst Sequel

Michael Murphey Staff writer
 

Quickly now.

Without consulting a dictionary, define “riven” and use it in a sentence.

Wrong.

It has nothing to do with getting there, as in “We have a-riven.” Neither can one tie a yellow riven round an old oak tree.

One can, however, awake from an evening of drunken debauchery and feel riven. One’s heart can be riven by a lover driven to the arms of another.

Or Broderbund Software’s stock price could be further riven if Robyn and Rand Miller and their cohorts at Cyan Inc. don’t hurry up and finish their sequel to Myst.

“Oh yes, Broderbund is anxious,” says Robyn Miller. “More anxious than they have ever been.”

But, then, aren’t we all?

Or at least the 3 million or so of us who have bought the Myst CD-ROM computer game and wondered what comes next?

But take heart.

The time is almost a-riven.

“We are very confident in a fall 1997 release,” says Bruce Friedricks, senior marketing manager for Broderbund. “We are very much on track for that.”

“We’re feeling like at this point we are in good shape,” says Robyn Miller. “We’re on a real roll and have just a few more things to do. We actually have the whole game put together in a walk-through form. So at this point, we are just kind of fixing all the mistakes, and doing lots of tweaks.”

So you better look up “riven” before December, because it’s going to be on a lot of Christmas lists.

Riven is the title of the sequel to Myst, the sales-shattering computer game that, with its release in 1993, established a whole new set of visual and audio standards for quality and realism in the CD-ROM personal computer format.

Myst is a cerebral, interactive game which draws players into a universe created by the Millers. The game requires players to glean clues from their experiences in that world in order to proceed. Completing the game takes about 40 hours.

Before Myst, a CD-ROM game best-seller sold 50,000 copies. Myst has topped 3 million and is still going.

Well over 2 million copies sold at the original $50 price. Sales tapered off last year until Broderbund dropped the price to $25 for the 1996 Christmas season, and Myst took off again.

The math shows that Myst sales are nearing $150 million in revenues for Spokane-based Cyan and its publisher, Broderbund.

Broderbund won’t release its sales projections for Riven, but Friedricks says extensive research conducted last summer shows 83 percent of the people who have “experienced the Myst game indicated a strong to definite likelihood that they will purchase the sequel.”

So, when asked if Broderbund is anxious to get on with it, Friedricks says, “Sure.”

With overall sales of $186 million in fiscal 1996, Broderbund is a big player in software publishing. And Myst has been a gold mine.

Broderbund’s stock price was bumping along at $20 to $30 when the Myst phenomenon took hold. That stock price peaked in the $70 range in mid-1995. Today, following a long decline, the stock price is back in the $20-$30 range again.

Certainly, Myst hasn’t been wholly responsible for the meandering fortunes of a broadly diversified company like Broderbund. But it has been a significant influence.

Still, Broderbund must restrain its anxiety over the long wait for Riven to arrive.

“The market keeps you honest,” says Friedricks. “It’s not going to wait for you forever.

“On the other hand, there are extremely high expectations surrounding Myst and what a sequel might deliver,” he adds. “So to rush and get it out just to be ahead of everyone else sort of ignores the best interests of our customers, and we don’t want to do that.”

The biggest danger in such a long delay - particularly in the fast-moving world of computer technology - is leaving a window of opportunity open for competitors.

But perhaps the best testimony about the breakthrough quality of Myst is that no competitor has yet been able to do that.

“We’ve been surprised in the last three years that we haven’t seen more titles come out to rival Myst,” says Richard Vander Wende, Cyan’s vice president and creative director.

Of the expectations to which Friedricks referred, the very highest come from within Cyan’s own offices.

The reason the Myst sequel will be almost four years in the making is that the Millers are obsessive in their belief that Riven must be as far beyond the current CD-ROM game state-of-the-art as Myst was in 1993.

“We want to create something that is the best possible thing we can do,” says Robyn Miller. “So, yeah, we want it to stand out again.”

Miller says the marketplace will ultimately judge whether Riven will set a whole new level for the industry, but, “We definitely believe that we’ve done a really cool thing here.”

Friedricks, who has seen much of Riven as it has evolved, is less reserved in his assessment.

“You don’t play this game,” he says. “You are in this game. It absorbs you. Nobody is doing anything quite like this on the computer in terms of the incredible amount of detail.

“I would say that once again Cyan is going to establish a new benchmark for graphics in the entertainment experience on a computer.”

The difference between the production process for Myst and for Riven is as vast as the difference between a home movie and a Hollywood extravaganza.

Money and technology not available to the Millers five years ago have helped dictate that Riven would be a far more complex task.

Vander Wende is perhaps the best example of that difference.

He came to Cyan and Spokane three years ago from Walt Disney Feature Animations, where he was production designer for “Aladdin.”

“I was in charge of all the design aspects of Aladdin,” he explains. “I worked on character design, I designed the look of the film and directed the production of all the visual elements.

“I worked over four years on the project. I basically started it by myself, and I think I was probably the very last person to get off it.”

Vander Wende was on a break following the Aladdin project when he met the Millers by happenstance. A Myst fan, he saw in it a new range of possibilities for the computer as an entertainment medium.

“Robyn and Rand started telling me their ambitions for the second game,” he recalls, “and it just seemed to fit a lot of the things that I’d been thinking of trying to get involved in.”

“It really seemed like a perfect match when we met Richard,” says Robyn Miller. “There was just a whole lot that we had in common regarding our desires to create and the philosophies we have about creating things.”

Miller says Vander Wende’s influence on Riven is profound.

“We wound up traveling down a number of roads that we wouldn’t have traveled if it were not for the fact that Richard brought a kind of freshness and some brand new ideas to the project,” Miller says.

For the Millers, Riven is a far more complex approach to creativity than their previous experience.

Myst was the product of four talented novices who got together, came up with ideas and created the game as they went using a Macintosh computer. Robyn and artist Chuck Carter did the graphics and animation as they sat at the Mac, changing things as they went.

Chris Brandkamp, Cyan’s chief financial officer, was the sound man for Myst, using the cardboard box that his new refrigerator came in as his studio. The people who appear in Myst’s filmed portions were the Miller brothers.

The credits for Riven, on the other hand, will include 40 or 50 contributors, Miller says.

Filmed sequences were shot in San Francisco using a troop of professional actors.

Instead of a Mac computer, Cyan has 13 expensive Silicon Graphics workstations producing 3-D computer models for every object that appears in Riven. The Silicon Graphics machines are expensive enough that they are typically limited to the likes of George Lucas.

“There’s just no comparison,” says Vander Wende.

“For every object that is built, for every room that is built, we do detailed sketches,” Miller says. “On Myst, Chuck and I just sort of came up with ideas and made them. Our sketches were on the computer screen.”

For Riven, though, so many people are involved that every scene must be sketched and carefully checked for consistency with the set of rules they have established for the Riven universe.

But while Miller sees Riven as a vastly more complex process than Myst, Vander Wende sees it as a far simpler process than Aladdin.

“For me, this is a skeleton crew by comparison,” Vander Wende says. “There’s great appeal to working on a small project that doesn’t inevitably get out of control.”

The reality is that Cyan could not have produced Riven under the same set of circumstances in which they produced Myst. Their ambitions for the sequel precluded that. Even with all the technological advantages, producing Riven with four or five people would have taken a lot longer than four years.

“They are both very valid processes,” says Miller of the contrasting creative approaches. “I’ve enjoyed the experience of working both ways. But I think this is the better way to do it.”

Having a 23-person company, though, presents some problems for Cyan when Riven is completed.

The entire company’s focus now is in the last sprint to finish Riven. Miller and Vander Wende, co-directors of the project, allow no diversion in focus in this final critical stage.

Miller says that means “the next project hasn’t even begun. Not even conceptually. It happened like this with Myst as well.”

So when Riven finally is finished, Cyan’s employees won’t have much to do until the next project gears up.

“You can’t afford that for very long,” Miller admits. “I think this will be the last project where we put all our eggs in one basket. We’ll want to diversify a bit.”

Miller sees the company growing large enough to have two or three creative teams working on separate projects at any given time.

As for a sequel to Riven, well, it’s likely to be a while.

Meantime, you can find a dictionary. Or just play the game.

Says Miller, “It will become real obvious to people when they play Riven how apt that name is to everything that’s going on when you are in that universe.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)


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