The Future of D’ni

So my Myst Online piece got a record amount of feedback, mostly positive, thanks to a fanboy who hated it and decided to post it on the Myst Online forums. So thank you DerCerbr…wait, is that right…Cerberus?

Anyway, because of this I learned if I insult something sufficiently enough it will get more hits then normal, so I will begin by saying World of Warcraft is a complete load of crap and deserves to die! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the Myst franchise.

But first I would like to deal with the whole concept of criticism in general, because the most outrage I got seems to be from people who simply hated my final conclusion, so they didn’t even analyze the individual points really they just read them and tore them apart.

One of my favourite online commentators is Ben Croshaw, also known as Yahtzee, who’s weekly video game review series, Zero Punctuation, regularly tears apart whatever game is placed on the chopping block that week. One review I remember him doing was for The World Ends With You. Let’s get something straight: I love The World Ends With You. It has an original battle system and a unique and interesting story with plenty of sequel potential (albeit with a new cast of characters, but still). I haven’t played it recently because I haven’t had time, plus I finished it so there’s nothing left but to go for 100 per cent completion and the designers seemed to go out of their way to make that as difficult as possible. However Yahtzee didn’t like the game so much and I must say each point he made was accurate. But it doesn’t matter, I love the game. I agree with his points but it doesn’t change my feelings for it. He also makes a habit of tearing apart any and all JRPGs and while I do agree with his reasoning, I don’t agree with his overall thesis. I, personally, have not found a JRPG I didn’t like…wait…scratch that, Lunar: Dragon Song, but even fans of the Lunar franchise hate that game, having to switch between fight for money and items mode and fight for experience mode is bullshit.

Anyway, my point is simple, one can agree with the individual points without agreeing with the overall thesis, either because of differing taste, priorities or what have you. Which is why I disagree with many on many issues, we agree on the facts, but not on the level of relevance for each.

Now time to get down to business. With the closing of Myst Online: Uru Live, Myst is in a state of Schroedinger’s franchise, it’s future is uncertain, even to Cyan. Currently it seems there are plans to open-source the engine and let the whole thing be community run. But what does this mean for the players?

Once something like a game engine gets released into the world of open-source the unwashed masses suddenly think themselves high-end game designers, and while they may know how to create levels there is a difference between knowing how to do something and being good at it. I know how to write a novel, that doesn’t mean The Adventures of Captain Cliche is going to be the next New York Times bestseller. The vast majority of any new content that would come out of a completely community run Myst Online would be, I’m sorry to say, a giant load of crap. Why is this? Well to most, level design is a hobby, not a career, so they are not going to spend a lot of time on it. It took the whole Cyan team four years to create Riven. Now granted, with today’s technology including the whole real-time rendering thing and more user-friendly design tools, development time is cut down considerably. However, they had a whole team who made it their full time job, spending way more than a few hours every weekend designing, building and polishing the whole thing.

Black Mesa, a community-made mod for Half-Life 2, has spent five years in the works, and they had a whole team, plus all the level design was done for them. Now granted this is not their fault, making a game is probably hard work. But that’s my point. I find it highly unlikely there will be these large communities formed to create specific campaigns, or even individual ages that are large enough to hold our attention for more than a day, with high quality design and construction that will be released in a timely fashion so we don’t get bored with the project. Face it, as sad as it is for me to say it, the Myst community is small, way smaller than the Half-Life community. So does anyone really expect us to come out with anything good in a 100 per cent community developed way?

No. We need Cyan. We need them to release new content and we need to make it worthwhile for them to do it. So the real solution to get Myst to last is to come up with a business model that would get Cyan to make ends meet. Traditionally the number one way for game companies to make money is to sell the stuff they make. There is a problem with this. In order to sell it in stores you need to know, or at least guess, in advance how many people will buy it, and any copies you don’t sell you are stuck covering the cost. The five Myst Games won’t sell a lot of copies right now, but you can still make money off it. Enter Steam. Yes I’m am mentioning a product by Valve again, but that’s probably because they are doing it right. While Steam has it’s faults and not everyone will go for it (myself included). You must realize, Steam is huge! It’s efficient download method of getting the games to the consumer cuts down on shipping costs and you don’t need to predict how many copies to press before you can send it to the consumer. So Cyan, put the entire Myst series on Steam. I don’t know what the practice is for Valve regarding Steam, they probably take a percentage of the cut, but whatever, it’s better than not earning any money at all. Not only that it will attract new people to the franchise, people browsing on Steam might notice the Myst series and download it out of curiosity, suddenly you have a whole new group of loyal fans. Plus while you’re at it you can release The Manhole, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel, and Spelunx on Steam too. Oh, and if Ubisoft is too snooty to let you release the games there then knock some sense into them because releasing it on Steam for five to 20 bucks a copy is better than letting it sit on a metaphorical shelf collecting dust, and while you’re at it talk to Mattel and try to get realMyst out there too. I’m probably not alone in wanting to buy my game, so I own it, permanently. So GameTap isn’t good enough.

Next step, bring out new content, or more specifically, repackage old content that you already released. I am of course talking about the Myst Online: Uru Live ages that were never released to those who weren’t fortunate enough to join in the Myst Online fun. As I have said before, release all the missing content as an expansion pack for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and Uru: Complete Chronicles, because unless you are holding on to it for some odd reason, you have nothing to lose.

Next…DO SOMETHING ELSE!!! Cyan, you are the only game company I know of that has been putting all their eggs is one extremely small basket. Even Rockstar Games, with their phenomenally successful Grand Theft Auto series, has been investing their resources into other forms of simulated crime. Since the release of Myst you haven’t made any game that is not Myst related, with the solitary exception of Cosmic Osmo’s: Hex Isle a couple years ago. But please, come up with an idea for an adventure game that has nothing to do with ages, the D’ni, or books that are portals to other worlds, as awesome as that idea is. The Manhole 2 would be a good place to start, but I know you can do better than that. It’s not hard to come up with new ideas, how’s this: a game about a mutant alien gecko trying to save his swamp-like home planet from an angry race of insects. See, and I just pulled that out of nowhere, and I know you can do better than me.

Next, sell some swag. I know I’m not the only one who would love to buy a real KI (not fully functional obviously) and a Relto book for the sole purpose of awesome cosplay. But don’t stop there, how about the Myst or Riven linking books? You could even sell posters of some of the better images from the early games, even some images that were never released, I know you have some. Also, what about the soundtracks? There used to be soundtracks to Myst and Riven, and I don’t think you sell those in stores anymore. What about selling them on iTunes? Would that work? You are? Well never mind then.

Now, with all the extra money you guys make, you can devote some resources to Myst Online, either creating new ages, or simply maintaining the official servers as well as an approval process for fan ages. Yes, fan ages. I think I need to clarify my earlier statements: I am not against user made content, I just don’t want to rely on it. With user made content there will undoubtedly be some good content, the problem is they will be buried under mountains of metaphorical spunk. I doubt I’m alone in not wanting to have to search through dozens of bad ages to find the two or three good ones. So I would like to see Cyan create some sort of approval process, similar to their own internal approval process (assuming they have one), so all I have to do to find the good ages is ask Cyan. Some may say the fear of rejection will stop most from creating ages. Well if that is the case it will mean only those who actually think their age will be good will go for it and the others won’t waste their time. But even if their age doesn’t get through the approval process there will be people who will play it…assuming they are that bored. Others may scream censorship. It’s not censorship it’s quality control. Because let’s face it, you are not a professional level designer. You are a guy in a smart-ass t-shirt. Odds are, any ages you create are going to suck. Look at it this way, Cyan hired a real architectural firm to design the buildings in the D’ni cavern. I doubt you would do that for the design of your level. Now of course I would not expect them to ask for the same level of quality for fan ages that they would for their own ages, but set the line somewhere is all I ask.

Well it’s getting late and I want to do some reading before bed so I’m going to wrap this up now by waving a big disclaimer saying I am not an expert. I am simply a guy who’s looking at the current state of Cyan and is extremely concerned, like I would be for a guy who just got hit by a bus. I’m no expert but I am pretty sure he is in some bad shape, and while someone calls 911 I should do as much as I can to keep him breathing. Most of these ideas are probably infeasible, but you can’t tell me they aren’t worth a look. I worry about Cyan, I think they need to do whatever it takes to stay afloat. Even if it means ditching the Myst franchise all together. Yes, as painful as it may be, we must face the cold hard facts. The Myst franchise has not been doing well as of late. The only ones still hanging on are the loyal fans, not that there is anything wrong with that but when the number of these fans rank less than a thousand we have some problems (I don’t know what the actual number is, but I heard Myst Online once peaked at 200…basically I’m guessing). Myst could be the anchor around Cyan’s neck, and they need to find something that would keep them afloat, not peddle to those who would want them to maintain the franchise above all else. Don’t kid yourselves, Cyan is in business to make money, just like every other company on the face of the earth, and no diehard fanboy is going to change that. All I ask before they end it is for them to end it well, not in medias res.

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