The Parable of Myst II

With "Myst," the Miller brothers unleashed a pop-culture phenomenon and achieved phenomenal business success. Now they're hard at work on "Myst II." Will they escape the demons that stalk fame and fortune?

There are demons out there. Some appear as movie deals, others as formal staff meetings. Still others materialize as name tags at the company picnic. Such are the torments and temptations of overnight success-and the expectations of still greater things to come.

When brothers Rand and Robyn Miller and their small band of software programmers and artists hit it big with "Myst" how could they have guessed what they would surrender for all that they would gain? Now the men and women of Cyan, Inc. lead double lives. They're making big profits, but yearn to be a family again. They're thrilled by the chance to become the next Disney, but demur from million-dollar movie deals. They're famous, but still live in the woods.

They've learned how it feels to be suddenly, supremely successful, and try to live in accord with the words of a T-shirt one of them wears to work: Our God is an awesome God. He reigns from heaven above.

Where in the World Have We Landed?

No one is here. But the door's open.

You pass into the unmarked, single-story building, past the "Shirts Required" sign in the window. It's December 1995, a gray, cold day. You're in an office building at the edge of a strip-mall parking lot north of Spokane, Washington. Traffic rumbles by. A bicycle leans against the wall in the entry. No chairs, no tables but a receptionist's desk and a countertop behind it. On the floor, stacks of "Wired" magazines. Software boxes and T-shirts are piled on the counter. Can this really be the place? A brochure on the counter reads, "Cyan, Inc.: the people who created 'Myst.'"

Everyone is here, so Rand Miller begins the staff meeting: 20 people assembled in a little room where the oblong conference table has a plastic net for Nerf Ping-Pong. Rand, 37, bearded, looking as crisp and unconventional as he did when he appeared with his brother, Robyn, 29, in The Gap ad, leans back against the wall. He wears jeans and a foulard shirt with a small pattern, and speaks from notes on his Apple Newton Message Pad.

"You can pick up your 'Myst' posters now," he says. "One free per employee. And people, please don't crowd."

He sounds like the early NBC David Letterman at his most understatedly ironic, getting a few laughs and many smiles. His voice has trace elements of Keanu Reeves as a surfer dude, struggling against a deeper rooted Texas accent. It's as if he started doing these voices as a joke, and it took. Mostly he comes across as a genuine guy, with no pretensions.

"'Myst' is generating a lot of money. I thought it would be good to give a synopsis of what we made and what we spent. From July through September we made $2.5 million in sales and we had $1.7 million in expenses in total. We have exactly $742,000 in profit," he says, pausing to glance around the room. "That money goes to Robyn and me."

He gets a laugh from about half the staff. The other half looks like: Is he serious or is he kidding? Everything's changing so fast, nobody's sure what's real and what isn't.

He is joking.

"I want you to understand, that's not what happens. This isn't a temporary thing where we let people go in slack times. That isn't the way we do business." The money's in investments he can liquidate quickly. Even in the unlikely event that "Myst" sales tank, everyone will continue to draw a salary.

Other announcements: Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, has just bought a minority position in Broderbund Software, the company that published "Myst." Smart move. On a $300,000 investment, the Millers and their team created a product that sold 2 million copies at about $50 each -- a revenue stream of nearly $100 million, on par with some of the top-grossing films of 1995. Allen's investment is a huge vote of confidence in their work.

"And one other little detail: please lock the door on weekends." Old habits die hard.

Across the room, Bonnie Staub isn't smiling, as she usually does. Maybe she's wondering if this is the same Cyan she joined in September of 1992.

Bonnie sits in her cubicle, looking distracted, glancing at her To Do list for the week. She's 23, with long, dark hair piled behind her head and held in place with a No.2 pencil. She handles public relations, recruiting of new employees, marketing -- and she arranges for bagels and coffee. She makes it a point to know how Rand likes his tall double-mocha brews -- short on espresso, heavy on hot chocolate. The question is, will Rand ever follow through on his aim to advertise the job they discussed: Somebody to Do Dinky Little Things?

To Bonnie, it's not the way it used to be, back before "Myst" went blockbuster and the Millers became folk heroes of multimedia. She can feel the difference: "I was going through the pictures the other day. Group shots from the old days at the garage. What was so cool about this one picture was, everyone looked so happy. We were having fun just taking that picture. "Let's try this! Look that way! Look this way!" In some pictures you'd see everyone hunched over because they were laughing so hard.

"Now everyone is more intense. We don't come to work in sweats anymore. It's not that people are clock-watching, but you have a feeling that not everybody has the passion. People who did have the passion lost it. Instead of having this family of people, we actually had name tags at our company picnic."

In "Myst," you fall from heaven onto a deserted island. As you move through the islands, you gather hints about this world's origins and your role in it. You've fallen into a world created by someone who has mastered The Art: the ability to write things into being. Two brothers created these worlds, moved before you through this imaginary-yet-real universe, and became tyrants over their creations. Now they've withdrawn. It's your job to figure out what happened to them and to determine what will happen. It's "The Chronicles of Narnia" meets "Lord of the Flies," "The Tempest" meets "Heart of Darkness." without all the words to slow you down.

In Spokane, the Miller brothers created a new world for themselves. They wrote themselves into a wooded island of new possibilities: wealth, fame, power. Now they must navigate through this realm themselves, not knowing what's going to happen next, what they will discover. An uncertainty has slithered into the garden. The job has begun to feel more like a task than a game. What worked before doesn't apply. Things feel different.

They struggle to hold fast to what they believe: You are what you do, and how you do it means everything.

Nice Apples, But What's That Moving in the Grass?

In the beginning: It is six years ago, Rand Miller is working for Citizens National Bank of Henderson, Texas and tinkering with computers at night. Robyn Miller studies anthropology at the University of Washington, thinking about a career as a physician's assistant, and on weekends does art. Chris Brandkamp is an accountant at Myers Accounting in Van Nuys, California and is working literally inside an antique Burroughs adding machine: it's something straight from a Kafka short story -- a one-ton contraption so huge it has its own chair attached to it. It goes cha-chung, cha-chung, cha-chung, printing out spreadsheets. Chris is a man in search of a passion.

For different reasons, they all come to Spokane. They meet at Northview Bible Church, where the Millers' father preaches. All three are deeply religious. What they do for a living, and how they do it, matters. They decide to combine their skills in the evenings and make computer games that don't contain sex or violence. A fourth partner, Chuck Carter, joins the team.

One year leads to the next: they sell three games for children, "The Manhole," "Cosmic Osmo & the World Beyond the Macro," and "Spelunx & the Caves of Mr. Seudo." It's recreation, a pastime. But with "Cosmic Osmo," they realize they might be able to make a living this way. They conceive "Myst" and harbor a dream: they can turn their hobbies into a career. Maybe their work and their lives can actually be fun.

For two years they work on the game, each in his own basement, linked by modem. The labor pushes them to emotional and financial breaking points. When they finish all the images and put them together, it doesn't quite come alive. Something is missing. It doesn't ... sing.

They need sound and music. Robyn composes and performs the score, and Chris spends weeks gathering sounds: running a car over gravel in the driveway to simulate a crackling fire; recording a swimming pool's lapping water; holding his tape recorder near an air-compressor tank attached to an industrial staple gun to capture the sound of the appearing and disappearing squares in the "Myst" library's fireplace. His sound-mixing studio is an old refrigerator box.

They add the sounds and music, and go through the game again -- and this time it's as if they've thrown gasoline on a fire! Everything comes alive, including the game's creators. They've done something magical and they know it. They get cocky. It will, they predict, sell 20,000 copies, maybe even 30,000. "Really! No way, man. Who knows? That would be so cool."

The truth is, it has to sell. Otherwise they're ruined. Before they're done Rand and his wife, Debbie, are paying part of their grocery bills with government food stamps. They've worked twelve-hour days continuously and haven't taken a weekend off in two years. Still, they know most CD-ROM games sell no more than 10,000 units, bringing royalties of $12,000 on a $50,000 investment.

Broderbund releases the game in September 1993. "Myst" astounds everyone. Within a week of its release, word spreads on the Internet and demand skyrockets. Within five months, 200,000 copies are sold. Sales hit 500,000 in January 1995. Four months later sales top a million and now are approaching 2 million. The Millers are profiled in publications from "Newsweek" to "People," and they appear on "Good Morning America" and "MTV." They have one agent for publishers, another to handle Hollywood offers, and a third for merchandising. "Myst" has become the multimedia equivalent of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or Nirvana's "Nevermind" -- a popular hit that's also a fresh and original demonstration of a medium's potential. They nailed it.

And now what?

Success, it turns out, isn't a place. All that happens is that everything gets more intense and harder to comprehend -- and keeps going.

It's spring 1995, and Cyan, a little family of 10 people, is in its lowly converted garage beside Chris Brandkamp's home on five acres of ponderosa pines north of Spokane, out past the U.S. Border Patrol office and the taxidermy place. Space is so tight that when Rand hums the "Mission Impossible" theme song, the others chime in from their cubicles. In the center of the office, a statue of "Seinfeld"'s Kramer stands like the Statue of Liberty, holding aloft a little can of rubber cement.

They're facing a hiring crisis. They've already spent a year planning the new CD down to the last detail: now they need to build digital computer models of all five islands in "Myst II," rendering more than 5,000 views. Without the right artists, they'll never even get close to finishing in time for the 1996 holiday season. There's work enough for a dozen artists, which means they're 10 short. Everything is uncertain. Everyone's behind schedule. Everyone's overworked.

Robyn's in a state of hypnotic concentration when you poke your head into his cubicle. The furnace, which serves as one wall, bears a sign that says: "Warning, Electrical Hazard."

You ask, "How's it going?"

He goes rigid, staring at his computer, not saying a word. Finally, after an agonizing silence, he says, "I'm busy right now."

The task ahead gives some of the staff the twitchy, vacant look of people who've gone off their mood stabilizers a little too long. If the family can't grow, it's all over.

Rand's on the phone to their agent. "We've got a headhunter in the San Francisco Bay Area," Rand says. "We're looking at people from Industrial Light & Magic. We thought we'd have more from ILM, since they're flush with that kind of person."

"You could go to another software developer," says the agent.

"That's right, we could. But we want the best. We're concerned the best ones are going to ILM and Disney. We don't care what it costs. We want the best people in here. The guys doing computer graphics in movies, they're doing real stuff, not stereotypical computer graphics. That's what we're doing. We're building these worlds to make them look real."

"What can we show from your next project?"

"There's nothing concrete to sell yet. It's air and relationship at this point."

"Well, remember, when we meet with some of these people, they'll want to see the principals of the firm, not flaky stuff."

"I'll just be wearing my khakis. You have to understand, that's how flaky we are."

The hiring begins slowly. Rand and Robyn stumble upon Richard Vander Wende by accident at a trade show in California. Richard sits in his cubicle beside a Silicon Graphics computer so powerful engineers could use it to design a nuclear reactor. He uses it to create animated worlds. He's 34, tall and thin, a sort of elongated and ethereal figure out of an El Greco portrait, wearing a Mickey Mouse watch.

"Industrial Light & Magic was fun. I was a kid. George Lucas and Ron Howard presented the story for "Willow" to us. I think what we could visualize was much cooler than what the film turned out to be. Then I left ILM for Disney. Everybody warned me: you don't want to go there. It's a political snakepit. The first project they had me on was a rough script for "Aladdin." I tried to extract recurring themes from "The Arabian Nights" sketching, painting, pinning everything onto cork boards. I became chief designer for the film: custodian for all visual aspects. We had 500 people drawing the movie.

"After four years, I quit. I took a year and a half off. Only two things got me excited: "Jurassic Park" and "Myst." I got a computer, all the applications. I went to a trade show, and recognized Robyn Miller from the CD. He said they weren't looking for anybody at that point, but he'd like to see my stuff. Robyn understands my stuff. The atmosphere here is completely different. This studio is a lot like the early days at Disney."

To become another Disney: nobody says it, for fear of jinxing it. In the hallway a poster of Mickey Mouse hangs behind glass. It's the original, grunge mouse: a skinny rodent, shaking things up. On the glass someone has planted fifteen lipstick kisses. No one knows how big Cyan may get. They aren't ruling out any possibilities. Somebody has been kissing up to Mickey, just in case.

It's December 1995. Hiring is almost complete. Rand sits in his office, checking over his e-mail messages.

They're in the strip-mall offices, temporary but spacious, waiting for the new million-dollar headquarters to be completed -- a structure that looks like a cross between a huge CD player and Frank Lloyd Wright's homage to Spokane's geology. They've staffed up to the point where the computer models for two of the five islands are done.

They have more money than they ever thought possible, and yet they behave as if they're close to insolvency, struggling not to let the money seduce them. Rand Miller still lives with his wife, Debbie, and their children in a double-wide trailer home, with a cistern and water deliveries. He's so far in the woods he can't get back and forth in December without using his four-year-old Chevy S-10 pickup.

So many things are changing, they cling to whatever they can keep the same. They keep an eye on themselves, watching for false moves. They know everything they touch doesn't turn platinum: a novelization of the "Myst" story was a critical flop and didn't sell well enough to hit the best-seller list.

Everything except "Myst II" is a distraction, a temptation to get greedy and forget their calling: to be builders of convincing imaginary worlds. As Richard Vander Wende put it: "As long as you stay true to what you think is interesting -- that's your best hope."

Rand is engrossed in his computer screen. How is he going to get thousands of surrealistically detailed and megabyte-rich 32-bit images down to an 8-bit size that'll run at a reasonable speed in a CD-ROM drive? He has no idea, since his DeBabelizer Toolbox software isn't working. Without it, the game never gets to market - it's that crucial. At the moment, Miller feels like a total novice again. Everything could fall apart, right here. The whole game stuck in development, with nowhere to go.

So why is this man smiling?

Because he's having more fun than he's had in weeks.

To compensate for the jobs he has to do, Rand rewards himself with these kinds of software problems to solve.

Over the course of three days, as he works on this technological puzzle, Rand keeps smiling. He moves from one office to another, exploring possible alternatives to the software. Everything has become a moving target. The original software behaves in unexpected ways. When he wants to reach the company that makes it, and he goes to their Web page, he finds an announcement: Today we're moving our headquarters. Sorry, we can't be reached. When he tries to download the software, he keeps getting error messages.

He finally downloads it, only to discover that the registration number doesn't work. He spends an hour searching for the correct number. He finds a registration number that gets the software to work, but then has to tinker for hours with the settings, playing with it, sometimes coming up with terrible results, other times getting closer.

On the third day he discovers the proper settings and translates a set of images into the more abbreviated format - the results are indistinguishable from the complex originals: the most impressive, a scene showing sun-drenched sandstone in tropical waters, with an infinite ocean horizon under blue sky with brilliant white clouds.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," he says. "And quit calling me Will."

As people file into his office to look at the results, the reaction is unanimous: "Wow. Sheesh. It's phenomenal!"

Rand shows the results to Robyn and Richard.

"That's incredible," Richard says. "Zoom right in there."

"Look at the detail in the cloud."

"Cool."

Robyn is so enchanted with designing the new game, it's all he can do to go home at night. The most Generation X member of the crew, he comes to work carrying a little shoulder bag with an espresso thermos. Sitting in his office beside his Silicon Graphics terminal, he lights up with tense joy as he talks: "The playfulness of the job has changed but ... I'm really excited about coming into work. I'm much more invested in this game than in the first one. The first was more of an experiment. We goofed off a bit while making it. We didn't realize the potential of what was there. I'm having fun. I'm definitely having fun."

Chris Brandkamp is just as pleased with his emerging role. His office looks like a sound studio: mixing board, speakers, all the electronic equipment and computers. He's tall, with brown hair, a mustache, and a quiet, cutting sense of humor. At 38, Chris is one of the oldest members of the staff. For "Myst II" he's off-loaded his financial duties to a new accountant, so he can devote himself to creating sounds. After all these years, he has found his passion.

"I know just the sound I need for one stage of the game. I backpacked in the Sierras, and I heard it."

He has the gleeful look of a child on Christmas morning. He can't wait to start creating sound effects. It would seem he's got all the tools he needs, right in this office, to synthesize any possible noise, but he wants it to be authentic, exact.

"I need a workbench with a vise. That's the kind of sound equipment I really need. Some carpentry tools. A hammer and pliers and all the stuff needed to hold and whack things to see what noise they make."

Chris grins as if to say: And they pay me for doing this.

Bonnie feels left behind. Not always, but occasionally, she feels as if her husband, Josh Staub -- they were married only two months ago -- has gotten snubbed, in a way. Rather than being given his own office and the rank of game designer -- like Robyn and Richard, he's out in the bullpen with all the other model-builders. Josh is only 21, but in the garage he was an integral part of that design team. Now he's more of a shop foreman.

Rand's aware of this. He knows how Bonnie and Josh look at the situation, but he doesn't know how else to organize the place. He needs Josh just where he is. "We've told Josh he's incredible. We need him to be the person people go to with questions. It limits his focus, but that's the necessity. Josh can move into design eventually. It depends on him."

Rand knows they may be losing the family ethos they had in Chris Brandkamp's garage. People feel cut off now. Bonnie wishes they still had spontaneous pizza parties late into the night to brainstorm ideas. Rand wants her to know the key people haven't changed. The spirit lives, though the pizza got cold a long time ago.

Give Me That Old-Time Religion

It's the end of the work day, when pizza used to happen. Rand sends out a general invitation for an impromptu dinner at Azteca, a Mexican restaurant downtown. It isn't pizza. It's lamb shank and burritos, but what the heck. Only Bonnie and Josh take him up on the offer. Conversation is tentative at first, and then the newlyweds start talking about their honeymoon. Next they discuss Chuck Carter, who left the company as "Myst" was coming out to return to freelancing as a game designer.

"Remember that haircut he gave himself?" Rand asks.

"Oh yeah. He was using this thing with this collapsible tube and it collapsed while he was using it," Bonnie says, laughing too hard to continue, then recovering. "He had this one little patch down to his scalp."

"Right. So he had to finish the job," Josh says.

The volume of laughter rises around the table until everyone has trouble breathing, let alone eating. Finally, Rand opens up. His mind's a cauldron of funny observations: why nutritionists don't normally consider french-fries-and-onion-rings a good vegetarian lunch; what attachments to use on his Flowbee Precision Home Haircutting System to get just the right look over his ears without inflicting a Chuck Carter-style haircut on himself; why the pixie-dust setting on his new software doesn't make a QuickTime waterfall dribble properly.

By the end of the evening, they've returned to that original state Bonnie misses most. They're back in the garage. For one more evening, the old team comes alive -- but when they head into work tomorrow, they'll find the new organizational life right where they left it.

This is what it's all about. Four guys in this little conference room, coming up with ideas. Robyn, Richard, Rand, and Tony Fryman, 39, their project manager, an old friend of Rand's from Texas. The bagels remain on the conference/Ping-Pong table from yesterday's meeting where Rand announced profits. Now they're deciding how much work will go into each of the taped sequences in the game -- little films of live action, using real actors. They've hired a small company, North by Northwest, to do the casting, staging, directing, and taping.

"Will these be close-ups?" Rand asks.

"I have no idea yet. Will you see his pen and glasses?" Robyn asks.

"Possibly," Richard says. "There could be other scenes here. Probably it won't all be in one room."

They go from one scene to the next, figuring each one out, planning the logistics, ranking their difficulty by number.

A young woman brings in a box, a delivery from Seattle. It's a prop they commissioned from the company that does props and costumes for the Seattle Opera. Nobody wants to open the box -- if it isn't what they want, it would be a bad omen, too discouraging to take at this uncertain point in the game's development.

"Click on that box," Rand says.

"It's not going to be good. I know it," Richard says.

Robyn picks up the box and slowly removes the tape, pulling out a small pipe: it's what a hashish pipe out of "The Hobbit" would look like, if Frodo Baggins were into that sort of thing.

"That's cool!" Rand says.

Everyone examines the pipe: Maybe this game will happen!

"How much?" Rand asks.

"Guess," Tony says.

"I don't know. Four thousand?"

"Three hundred," Tony says.

Everyone is really happy. The old spirit of the garage and the new one of the profit-making company harmonize -- then they move on.

The new "Wired" magazine makes its way around the office. Finally, it arrives on Rand's desk. Robyn comes in and picks it up, and starts rifling through it, looking for the usual page. He finds the list: what's Tired, what's Wired. He scans the list intently. Nope. "Myst" hasn't made it onto the Tired list yet. Only 10 more lists to come out before "Myst II" hits the shelves.

Rand doesn't even look up from his computer as he listens to Robyn thumb through the magazine. He knows what's going on.

"Still not on it?" he asks.

"Not yet."

"Cool."

David Dorsey (dedorsey@aol.com), author of "The Force" (Random House, 1994), explores business and plays "Myst" from Rochester, New York.

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