An end of an era:
I have some news that some of you have probably not been looking forward to. GameTap has decided to discontinue the operation of Myst Online: Uru Live.
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VP of Content and Creative Director for GameTap
I’m upset that the eight year journey has come to a close, but I also think that it’s time for the experiment to come to a rest. Uru was a needed and welcomed experiment in a MMO based narrative, not on combat. The goal was not to level up or defeat the baddie with spells and swords, but to progress and the story line. From this, a very strong and tight-nit group believed intensely in the project and the community they built.
History of Uru
My journey with Uru started when the project was called MUDPIE. This was back in 1999 when the Myst fan site RivenGuild was still very much alive. The follow up to Myst and Riven, Cyan Worlds set out to anticipate the saturation of broadband internet services and release a MMO. The idea comes from people wanting to share the adventuring of worlds with others. Cyan wanted to capitalize this by providing a platform to explore with others together. In addition, the online distribution model would provide Cyan the means of distributing new content without the need of making a full boxed game.
In the fall of 2003, I was invited to participate in the beta test of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. The title was being published by UbiSoft who obtained publishing rights of the Myst catalogue at the time. This would also be Ubi’s first venture into an MMO. As a huge Myst fan and working towards a career in this industry, it was an honer to be included. I tried to give as much feedback as I could, especially mixed with my college work. For years I have read about the places in the novels, and now I was experiencing them and contributing to one of the development companies I would give most anything to work for.
With out going into much of the details, the release wasn’t the best of releases. Ubisoft wasn’t sure about selling an online only game and forced Cyan to make the box an off-line version with the online component an add on. This would have been fine, but the process of getting to the online component, albeit free, was a complicated mess of invites, sign up procedures (yes, plural), and maybe then you’ll be able to play online. While the start was meant to give a free start of online capabilities and then later start charging, there weren’t enough people who bought the game that knew about the online capabilities, let alone pay for them. In February of 2004, the whole project was canceled and two expansion packs were released using already developed content.
But as the franchise states: The ending has not yet been written. In August of 2004, Cyan released the server code for free to anyone willing to host a server. While users had to pay a fee to obtain a user account, this kept the community going. I didn’t participate in this but I kept an eye on things. Suddenly in Feb 2006, Cyan revived the project by allowing others to join in on the public services thought an invite system. A new funder was there, sure, but who? The speculation was on GameTap. In May of that year GameTap announced they were going to restart Uru along with the news that Sam & Max would start as episodic. Basically, the single best press release ever.
The magnitude of this is great. A project, dead as a doornail, is revived due to fans keeping up the fight. I really can’t recall any other situation like this besides MUDs. Again, I was asked to beta test Uru and gladly did.
The GameTap release had a slow trickle of content drops that were kinda random. Eventually Cyan borrowed a page from us at Telltale and took an episodic route where a plot line would happen one week in a month and a content drop occurring at the end of that week to last the month. However, this reduced the gameplay to reading on various websites what was going on in the cavern than actually experiencing events in the cavern.
The Project Itself
The project was not without it’s faults. Narrative based MMOs create a huge design problem: Provide enough narrative fuel to feed the beast. With a traditional MMORPG, once you have the combat structure, the villains to defeat are more-or-less drop-in. Not to mention extremely reusable. For a narrative, a lot of work goes into building assets with an limited reusable value and at times a very small audience. When content came down the pipe for users, it was great stuff! Sadly it didn’t happen very often if at all during the GameTap run.
The other fault were on the implantation of the game itself. While the control of your character was pretty OK, the other outside functions were required a manual at best. All communication, picture taking, and other functions were placed on an ‘device’ called a KI. Some in the community have argued that figuring out the KI was a puzzle. That may be fine for a single-player game you buy at a store. For a business model that needs new users to approach and stay interested, that’s a failure. Incorporating other users to share in the exploration? The very reason for the project? A confusing mess. To their credit, the community was extremely helpful to new users. These were the nicest people on the whole Internet! It simply wasn’t enough.
At the end of the day, there were unfortunate design choices made back in the early days of development. These issues couldn’t be fixed for the GameTap release. With the fact that the Cyan studio development cycle as the slowest in the industry, there simply wasn’t a good way for these design changes to occur. This is why I’m not angry at GameTap’s decision. It’s simply time.
What I do hope for the coming months are few things. I hope Cyan will release the server code again, but let the community handle usership on their own. I hope we have a really comprehensive postmortem. One that covers every single thing. In all, there are a lot of lessons to learn in all the years. Lots of things went right, lots of things went wrong, all of which are valuable material to learn from.
On a personal note, Uru has always been with my own work in getting into this industry. Cyan was one of two companies I wanted to work for, and now I’m working at the other one. In a way it closes a chapter for me. My development period for this industry is past it’s first chapter.
So long Uru; Thanks for all the fish.