Games December 07, 2016 by Ben Pateman
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Interview: Rand Miller, CEO of Cyan Inc (Myst, Obduction) chats with us about all things VR

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Obduction VR became an instant classic for us and many others, and will no doubt be looked back on as a hugely important title in the early history of VR. The game, developed by Cyan Inc, is the spiritual successor to their iconic 90s game Myst, which involved exploring a mysterious and immersive steampunk world filled with alien vistas and enigmatic machinery.

Co-creator of the original Myst and CEO of Cyan Inc, Rand Miller is considered a legend of gaming. Not someone to shy away from exciting new technology, he developed Obduction from the start with VR in mind, at a time before Facebook acquired Oculus and back when VR was generally more associated with those bulky 90’s headsets than with anything modern. We were fortunate enough to catch up with him for a good long chat about VR and what it means for him and the virtual worlds he crafts. You can find the full interview below:

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Recently you’ve been speaking about going ‘all in’ on VR: I guess you’re pretty optimistic about the industry?

Yeah – I mean, there’s no way to know, I wish I had a crystal ball to figure it out, I think there’s still some impediments to it but… I feel like the “magic factor” is pretty high right now. You give it to people who aren’t even that into gaming, and they put it on, and they go “oh, this is cool“. Now, there’s still some high barriers to entry and we all know what those are, but we just feel like those will be solved, because that’s what technology does. It makes things smaller and cleaner and easier to access. So yeah, we felt like the timing’s pretty good.

…we realized the strengths of CD-ROM, and we realized the weaknesses of CD-ROM, and we designed with those things in mind. And I think that’s maybe the same way we’re looking at VR at this point

I’ve been in this industry a long time, and if there’s one thing I have going for me it’s that – at least until my memory fails me [laughing] – I can remember all the changes, the sea changes, that felt like they were large, and that had an effect on how we build our worlds.  There’s been a few of those that have felt like, “whow, this feels magical”, and VR – at this point – definitely has that potential.

Back when you were developing Myst, one of the earliest CD-ROM games – before the format had really become mainstream – it must have felt like a similar leap of faith?

Yeah, it was a very similar situation. CD-ROM was a hot new item, and PCs were coming with it but the majority of content for CD-ROM at that point was a lot of things that were refurbished items from other entertainment, or reference items – lots of encyclopedias, or collected video items, lookup items, and there were a couple of games that felt more like some demo-type stuff (because CD-ROM had some limitations you had to deal with). But we went all in. I mean – when we sat down to design it – we realized the strengths of CD-ROM, and we realized the weaknesses of CD-ROM, and we designed with those things in mind. And I think that’s maybe the same way we’re looking at VR at this point.

The feeling of Presence seems like the primary selling point of VR, and your games feel like the perfect match in that regard.  Is there any other aspect of VR that comes close in terms of importance?

Yeah, I think Presence is number one, especially with just what you said, especially in-line with what we do: We put people in other worlds, that’s kind of all we’ve ever done and wanted to do, so VR does the heavy lifting for us now! [laughing] It’s easy to put somebody in another world.

We put people in other worlds, that’s kind of all we’ve ever done and wanted to do, so VR does the heavy lifting for us now!

The other aspect of what we’ve done is try to always make the interface fairly intuitive. Myst, and our early children’s games, were a mouse and one button. Anybody in front of those early games that had a mouse next to them, even if they weren’t necessarily familiar with gaming, could move the mouse around, they’d see the hand on the screen moved around, and if they wanted to go somewhere they’d just intuitively click the button and they would go there. Well, interfaces have got more or less complex over the years, depending on how you’re playing, and gamepads definitely are oriented more towards gamers: you have to learn the interface and kind of feel how that works, but regardless we’ve always tried to stay intuitive. I feel like hand controllers in VR bring us a step back toward very intuitive interfaces.

It’s really interesting watching people play VR with hand controls because the first time you put them in a space, and they reach out and grab these non-existent-but-kind-of-existent things…  Watching what people do is amazing,  because regardless of how old or young they are, they start to just do things naturally because the interface feels like the world that they’ve grown up in.   It’s not like them having to use an interface, it’s like it suddenly becomes everyday items they’re interacting with, like they would in the real world.  And that’s amazing.  So that means with puzzles you don’t have to worry about the interface and what buttons I have to push to move this lever or do this thing in the game; you just build the puzzle like it would be in a real world, and they will intuitively interact with it.  I just love that.  I think that opens up all new kinds of ways to build friction into our experiences.

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A lot of VR developers feel like graphical user interface design is basically going to be reinvented, with abstract 2D UI menus being replaced with physical, hands-on machines, levers and buttons.  I can imagine an Obduction-like machine acting as a VR main menu for one of your future games.  Just maybe not the Russian machine in Kapkar! [pictured above]

[laughing] No that’s so true!  And it feels like you can take it a step further and – instead of even describing things with language – this won’t happen completely, but in many cases the device you’re interacting with itself will give some indication of what it does even if it’s not in the game, even if it’s just a GUI.  It will kind of indicate what it’s doing as you move it, or you’ll get an idea of what it does.  There just seems like there’s so much room for that.  And I love the fact we’re on early stages of it, it feels like we get a chance to define it.  I mean, you know, it’s risky!  But it also feels like it’s new territory and there’s something about that that invigorates me.

The rules haven’t really been established yet.

Right!  Again, I’ve been around long enough to remember the whole multimedia computer phase that we went through, when suddenly computers had enough resolution, enough colour, enough sound capabilities and enough storage that we started calling them “multimedia machines”, and we had to do new kinds of gaming and interactivity because the computers had a lot more potential to put full-motion video and full-colour and full-sound, and all those things combined in a really interesting way…  But VR feels like it’s just an order of magnitude above that.

It’s really exciting.  As long as you’re not afraid to fail a little and mess up a little, and to really get your stuff out and see how people respond and watch what people do…  I just love doing that.  Frankly, it’s been fun for us, and this is gonna seem weird but as much as I like to play VR, I also love to watch people playing VR.  I love the human psychology of that:  what do they do?  So – and this is probably the simplest example that I just have been enamoured with – on the Vive there’s the Vesper Peak demo, where you’re at the top of the mountain and there’s a little robot dog, and there’s some sticks on the ground.  And I love watching people – y’know because it’s one of the things we put them in first, and they’re somewhat intimidated because it’s new technology, and they know people are watching them… They’re a little bit fearful of what to do.  So they’ll walk around a little and get a feel for it, and they see the sticks on the ground, and they’re not sure…  And at the very least, some people – not everyone – you have to say “hey, you can pick up the sticks!”, and that seems the only thing you need to tell them.  And once you tell them that, they’ll pick up the sticks, and I don’t think anyone I’ve ever had to tell that they can throw the sticks.  It’s just in their nature:  as soon as you tell them they can pick it up, the first thing they wanna do is try and throw it.  And I just love that psychology:  why is that so intuitive?  You give them one small hint and it naturally maps to what comes next, which is to throw it.  So I love building that kind of interface and figuring out how that works in a world and in a game.

I think it’s evidence of how effective VR is this time around. 

Right – it maps to your real world experience for the first time in a way that is truly impactful.

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Showing VR to other people, it definitely feels like introducing hands/motion controllers is what takes it to the next level in that regard.

I look forward more to the work of designing specifically with hand controllers in mind in the future.  What kind of interesting puzzles can we do?

It feels like that’s the way it’s going.  I mean, there’ll be different variations of that, whether hands are read with controllers, or more of a Leap Motion kind of thing, something that reads your gestures, but it just feels like that’s how we interact.  In an odd kind of way, I think back to our earliest worlds that we built, and the interface was a pointing hand. We always kind of feel like our hands are how we interface with the world and so those controls just seem like a very natural extension, and in VR they’re done so well.

You’ve mentioned plans to bring motion control to Obduction next year, presumably it’s not a trivial task to implement?

It’s interesting, I mean you don’t want to do it frivolously.  What we have going for us is that since Obduction is a hyrbid, we knew ahead of time we were going to do it for both flat-screen and VR…  The interface is kind of a callback to the Myst feel, not super complex, so we kind of have that going for us.  We still want to make sure we do it well, there’s some fun aspects to coming to one of those large switches…  We knew from the beginning that those real big train track switches, that those would just be fun in VR with hand controllers.  You can actually just reach out and throw the big switch, no instruction necessary.  It feels like all of our interfaces, if we do them well, just kind of fade away.  Takes a little bit of work but I think I look forward more to the work of designing specifically with hand controllers in mind in the future.  What kind of interesting puzzles can we do?

When we say we’re “all in” on VR, it doesn’t just mean we’ve got one project in mind.  In fact, we’ve got a lot of projects in mind

I say that knowing that we just released Obduction, but there’s no way that VR alone could’ve supported the size that we made it – I think it’s one of the larger VR games at this point because we were able to offset some of the costs by selling it to both flatscreen and VR.  But moving forward, I think VR has the potential to support some large developments, so we look forward to developing specifically for hand controllers and I do think that requires a little more work and thought as we delve into what that means.

With the discussion of motion control always comes the topic of room-scale.  What do you think about room-scale, and do you think it’s going to be relevant to any of your games?

Yeah, definitely.   When we say we’re “all in” on VR, it doesn’t just mean we’ve got one project in mind.  In fact, we’ve got a lot of projects in mind.  Some of them are smaller, some of them are more linear, some of them are room-scale large projects, room-scale smaller.  But we kind of want to have a whole variety of projects at our base that we start to grow upward – all of these things – to see which ones cause trouble, which ones bubble to the top, which ones seem fun and exciting.  And so, with that in mind, yes:  we definitely have some room-scale type projects in mind as well.

It’s intriguing to me that exploring worlds is almost mapped – at least for the time being – in a very similar way that Myst was where you’re moving from a point to a point, and you can explore that point.  And there’s also the issues with roomscale that we’re having to deal with.  I mean, when you have freedom to walk around within the room and stick your head potentially through a wall and see what’s back there, or into a piece of equipment, there’s plenty of room for ruining surprises or getting information that we would’ve counted as a reward before you’d actually earned it.  So we’re trying to think of ways around that.  You see other people doing the same thing, looking at ways to accommodate that.  But it’s really exciting.  

It’s also interesting, because right now it seems like we’re at this weird transitional phase where people aren’t sure how much you’re supposed to explore with room-scale, and how much you’re supposed to explore by warping yourself.  And you see that with some of the HTC Vive demo stuff that was put together, where the controller shoots the stream out of where you can go to, and you can position yourself anywhere in that room, but then you can also walk around that room, and those two things conflict with each other.  It’s interesting to me to watch the psychology because sometimes people get used to just kind of warping themself from place to place, even small jumps, and then they forget that they can actually wander around in the room, that they can explore it on their own and move around on their own.  I think we want to make sure we explore that well, where we’re not stopping the room-scale exploration just because people can navigate without.  I think there’s going to be some real elegant solutions that hopefully can handle that and do a good job of both.

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I’ve had to tell people in VR that they don’t have to stare forward, they can look around.

It’s amazing what goes on people’s heads and how much we’ve been programmed to look forward to a screen.  I wish I could get in their heads, because we’ve had people that, you put them in a demo, and they’re looking straight forward, and even the demos that you know, “ok, now there’s a sound behind them”, and you know they can hear it to their left or right, they hear that there’s a sound behind them, but they don’t turn around.  They’re waiting for the action to come to them because that’s how we’ve been programmed.   It’s exciting to think that we can get around that, we can anticipate that and reprogram people to a certain extent.

What does that mean for linear entertainment if I know that they’re looking this direction, and I know there’s going to be action behind them: do I have to wait for them, do I try to draw their attention, how do I do those things?  I love that kind of stuff

I know there’s a big discussion concerning this when directing 360′ video: how do you direct attention?  How do you ensure that the people watching are looking where you want them to look.  You have to kind of create these distractions to grab their attention and make them look at a certain area of space.  

Yeah, well this is one of the things we’re looking at, among the plethora of projects that we’re dealing with, some of them are much more linear, and we’re asking the same questions.  And it feels like even if it’s linear entertainment, like presenting a movie, it feels like there’s more gaze potential in them depending on whether they’re filmed or done in CG.  Even if they’re not interactive in some kind of formal sense, you get to control and know exactly where people are looking: that’s powerful, we’ve had that before but never in such a way that it’s so precise that we know exactly where the centre is of where people are looking and we can actually trigger things with that.  That’s a really powerful tool.  I’m excited to see what people do with it – not just us, but wow.  What does that mean for linear entertainment if I know that they’re looking this direction, and I know there’s going to be action behind them: do I have to wait for them, do I try to draw their attention, how do I do those things?  I love that kind of stuff.

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The potential is huge, and it feels like a whole new artistic space that will eventually be mastered.

That’s all the stuff that’s so exciting about this whole transition.  That gets me out of bed in the morning.

There’s also this weird thing where we don’t want to shoehorn the old way of gaming into this new medium

One of the big challenges VR developers are facing right now is how to handle locomotion and motion sickness.  Do you think we’ll converge on just one optimal method of player movement, or do you think we’ll continue to see multiple options given to the player, like in Obduction?

Feels like we’ll need – at least for the forseeable future – at least multiple ways to move around.  Only because of what Oculus calls “the comfort level”.  It’s amazing to me how quickly people have adapted, here, to full motion in VR and not getting sick.  But even those people, there are still elements where when you turn their head they can start to feel a little bit of discomfort, so…  I think we have to be careful with that.

There are all kinds of things people are doing to try and alleviate that, like tunnel vision or putting a fake nose in the screen, pulling in the edges, or a warp that doesn’t feel like warp.  We did steps at one point, in Obduction we experimented a bit, where you could point in the direction and start moving there but we would actually just move you a step at a time – warp you a step at a time – and it all had to do with the framerate.  If we slowed it down enough, you increase the comfort level, but then it was this weird thing where you don’t get as much of a sense of transition from place to place.  So I think all that, again, is things that really creative people will solve – I don’t know if it’ll be us! [laughing]  But for time being yeah, I think there’ll be various levels of ways to transition through the world.  I know we’ll be doing that, we’ll definitely be offering multiple ways to explore.

There’s also this weird thing where we don’t want to shoehorn the old way of gaming into this new medium, and I don’t know what that means.  But ever since we’ve had real-time 3D it’s meant that spaces have been traversable, it’s meant we move through space freely, and that’s how we build our games, whether they’re shooters, or racing games.  But there are other ways to do that, that allow you to stay in a room-scale, and maybe transition from place to play in other very creative ways that fit the medium better.  And maybe we’ll see more of that as well.

Personally I’ve found teleportation to be a bit immersion-breaking if it doesn’t thematically fit, but there are some cases where it can make sense to the game’s world.

I think there’ll be various versions of that.  People will start to figure out other ways and it’ll start to have a life of its own.  Doesn’t mean we’ll give up navigating – navigating will always be there, it’s a part of life, but I think we’ll start to see some other explorations – other game types, even – take hold as we move forward.

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Speaking of navigating, I have a feeling that you guys at Cyan have a love for maps.  Playing Obduction in VR, I felt like I had a better sense of direction than I would have playing on a regular monitor.  Reading the in-game maps, even the more enigmatic ones, felt far more natural, and despite the twisting landscapes and space-bending mechanics, I somehow never felt lost.

A maze had to be over-simplified in our flat-screen worlds we were building because people just didn’t have a sense of where they were going.  I think that’s different in VR

I totally agree, and you’re right – we actually build our world with maps, that’s how they started for as long as I can remember.  Myst started that way, where it was just a top-down map.  And just like the real world, there’s something reassuring when you ground yourself in knowing, “oh well I know I came from that direction”.  And so many times in games it’s hard to know where you even came from, because you spin around and you don’t really have that sense.  But VR also seems to take care of that.  It’s like, “oh yeah I remember, I came right down there”, turn your head and look, “yep, that’s what’s behind me, this is what’s in front of me”.  You get a feeling of when something’s 180 degrees behind you and that is really hard on a flat-screen.

Y’know, on a flat screen when you try and turn around, tell somebody [non-gamer], “turn around 180 degrees”, they have no idea that they’ve turned 180 degrees, there’s just no indication, so… Yeah, that’s a really good point, and we’ve already seen that as people explore they get a real sense of what is in what direction.  And in VR, as well, just like in real life, you can look for something in the environment that gives you a clue, whether it’s a clocktower, or a mountain, and always get your sense of direction that way.

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You know what’s weird is some of the games we’ve done in the past – well some of them are more definitively mazes, and others, we’ve kind of considered them mazes – and what we’ve learned real early on, even in some of the kids games, is that people got lost much more easily than what we anticipated.  A maze had to be over-simplified in our flat-screen worlds we were building because people just didn’t have a sense of where they were going.  I think that’s different in VR, I think mazes can be more complex and people will grasp certain aspects of it.  If you’re doing mazes.  Obviously it’s nice to have… the back-side of Hunrath [Obduction’s mining town] feels that way to me on a flat-screen, where you get into some of the canyons and areas, on a flat-screen you start to lose a little bit of reference.  But in VR it’s like, “oh! ok, wait – yeah yeah yeah!”, you look up, you see right away, “oh that’s that path up there, over there is Farley’s back door, ok I see where I am”.  That’s like a gift.

…as we come up with new forms of exploration and entertainment, the old ones don’t just go away: it just gets wider and wider which I think is really healthy and exciting

Did you prefer playing through using teleportation or full movement?

I can’t do full movement yet, yeah I’ve gotta teleport.  I mean, I can do it for a while, but it almost, in some ways, becomes a little tedious for me.  You know when you start to get that discomfort?

I’m one of the lucky ones!

And I think we may have a whole generation that grows up without ever experiencing that, which is interesting.  I don’t know what that does in real life! [laughing]  I heard somebody say that basically its your body saying “Oh, I think because what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling doesn’t match, you probably ate some poisonous mushrooms so you need to throw up now!”.  And I don’t think we really need that any more! I do wonder, you know, after a night at the pub, people who are really into VR may not throw up as readily as the rest.

I’m waiting on the research on this, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time!

[laughing] I can almost guarantee it’s gonna come!  But yeah, so unfortunately I.. I can move, I can do free motion a bit, but I find myself starting to get that little bit of twinge of discomfort, and unfortunately it doesn’t go away easily, it kind of sticks with you a little bit.  I think people you talk to probably say the same thing.  So you don’t want it to come up, or when you come out [of VR] it hangs on for half an hour or so.

I think it’s Samsung who are developing a pair of headphones that send electrical signals to your ears to play with your sense of balance in tandem with a VR experience, shifting your real sense of balance as you move in the game.  Apparently it’s.. not dangerous!

Wow.  That’s really interesting.  I still remember, though, one of those early, don’t even know if they called them “VR rides”, but you know the ones that you’d go into a device that had hydraulics and it’d kick you forward and back… And if they didn’t sync…  One of the worst motion sickness experiences I’ve ever had was on one of those rides when it didn’t sync in-ear with the sight very well, oh it was terrible.  As long as Samsung can get that stuff synchronised…

Oculus, as you know, are really pushing social VR, they think that’s the big future of the medium.  Have you had any thoughts about social VR?  I know you had the Uru Project a while ago, and Myst Online, do you think there’s any possibility you might be looking into making a Myst-like world for social VR in some way, whether it’s an MMO or just a kind of meeting/exploring space?

…we’re tribal creatures that love to have people to share our journey with

Our opinion has always been that these worlds that we build… we felt like people always share the journey.  Whether they’re single player or not, we felt like people would always talk to other people about it, and that was before online, even with Myst, they’d be on the phone in the evenings like, “hey did you go here?”, or two people would sit in front of the monitor and explore together.  So it feels very natural.  I don’t know that we ever want to do massively multiplayer, even our venture into that was still allowing people to explore on their own, or with a tiny group, just one other person if they wanted to.  

But yeah, I don’t know that’s magically something that everyone would do, but I feel like it’s an important aspect of VR that needs to be included.  Some people do want to just be by themselves, and other people want to be with others… I like the fact – because VR has the potential to be so solitary, because it blocks you off from everyone – I like the fact that people are dealing with that, saying, “well how can we make sure people don’t just get stuck in a world by themselves”.  I know other people do MMOs that way, and I think having [VR goggles] that can also open up to the world around you is an important thing too, because we don’t want… We can picture the families of the future at the dinner table with VR headsets and none of us want that!  [laughing] So somehow you have to be allowed to socialize, whether it’s in the world around you, or in the VR world.  So, yeah, that’s definitely an aspect, at every level, that I think will be at least part of what we’ll be looking at.

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I haven’t talked much about this at all, and it feels a lot like those early days of doing Myst Online, where it was the same thing.  Even though what we were building was an MMO that could handle what we were hoping would be millions of people, we still didn’t think people want to explore with millions of other people!  We just looked at it as a way to put people together, where they could explore in small groups.  Close friends or with families from around the world.  Ways that you’d get a sense of being with them.  And VR, with its ability to enable Presence, maybe has a better capability to do that.  I guess it’s to be seen!  But yeah, I do think that, y’know, we’re tribal creatures that love to have people to share our journey with.

I’m sure social VR will mimic social gaming – there will continue to be more immersive, single-player experiences on top of all the variants of social and multiplayer VR games.

Yeah, I think one doesn’t preclude the other, and I think we’ve all seen that as we come up with new forms of exploration and entertainment, the old ones don’t just go away: it just gets wider and wider which I think is really healthy and exciting.

…these entry-level devices are more powerful than what we started out with by orders of magnitude.  And, yeah, it’s not very limiting when you look at it that way!

You’re porting across to the PSVR, which is bound to be huge for sales as the headset itself currently seems to be doing very well.  Have you thought at all about the Gear or Daydream View?  I know you guys are big on photorealism, so do you think it’s even possible to create a Myst-like game for that kind of platform?

Oh sure!  Yeah, again, when I say we’re all in, we’re all in!  It may be that Daydream is like our entry-level – we’ve got to set an entry-level somewhere and we’re kind of experimenting with what that will be.  But: yes!  I definitely think that we can provide some amazing experiences even from that level up.

And that’s, frankly, exciting.  You have to understand where we come from, too.  We’ve been providing these somewhat real-world experiences on hardware that was much less powerful than phones that people carry in their pockets.  So from our point of view, these entry-level devices are more powerful than what we started out with by orders of magnitude.  And, yeah, it’s not very limiting when you look at it that way!

It’s amazing to me that on my phone, not only can I play Myst (which is easy), but I play the real-time version of Myst on my phone, and it looks gorgeous and it’s smooth.  And I’m on a phone that’s a couple generations back…

Things get faster, and yeah… We definitely have some projects with just those platforms in mind.

Thanks a lot for speaking with us Rand, it’s been an honour! 

Obduction is available now on PC, both as a regular 2D game and as a VR experience with the Oculus Rift. You can find it at any of the major online retailers linked below, and it’ll also be coming to PS4/PSVR and HTC Vive some time next year!

Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/306760
GOG: https://www.gog.com/game/obduction
Humble: https://www.humblebundle.com/store
Oculus: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/rift/1272728086074533

Also be sure to check out the game’s official website!

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