The games people play

Myst and Riven are a dead end. The future of computer gaming lies in online, multiplayer worlds.

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Riven was, and still is, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on a computer screen. From the opening sequence -- in which Rand Miller, playing Atrus from Myst, solemnly announces your quest -- I could tell that this was not just a game but a nonlinear novel I couldn't wait to read.

But after the initial forays, when the obvious possibilities for exploration had dried up and the puzzles were stumping me, I quit. I had other responsibilities, and I knew that I would be frozen safely along the game's path until I had the chance to return. But I never did.

In January, I picked up another game -- Myth, by Bungie Inc., a real-time tactics game set in the context of a fantasy world war. I began playing compulsively. I finished off the single-player levels in one weekend and then hopped online to wage war on, a free service for arranging games. Six months later, I'm still playing Myth -- addicted by the immediate payoff of winning a battle, the increased challenge of human opponents and the compliments of fellow players after a particularly clever tactic.

I have the five CDs of Riven close by, too, but these days I think of it more as an inspiring art object than as a game. Riven is the kind of game I dream of creating. But Myth is the kind of game I want to play. Without consciously choosing to do so, I've crossed over to the side of the hard-core gamers.

And it isn't just me. The whole genre of immersive-environment exploration games that Myst and Riven represent -- which once looked like the future of computer gaming -- now looks like a dead end.

Myst and Riven raised the promise of a mass market for computer gaming that has never been fulfilled -- something that developers are finally beginning to admit. Instead of yearning for more games in the Myst-Riven immersive genre -- where lushly beautiful environments and hidden puzzles are themselves the stars -- perhaps the general audience Myst appealed to really just wanted some eye candy for their new CD-ROM drives.

At the same time, the rise of Internet multiplayer games has galvanized the hard-core gamers. Now they can fire up the latest generation of first-person shooters (games like Quake II or Unreal) or real-time strategy games (like Starcraft or Myth) and not only get the visceral thrill of fighting human opponents but also share stories and bragging rights with players anywhere in the world. They can form clans and guilds, create rivalries and organize their own tournaments. In short, they are making their own dramas and histories -- and unlike the general audience, they buy more than one game every Christmas season.

And where they go, game developers willingly follow. Graeme Devine, the founder of Trilobyte and creator of the bestselling immersive mystery 7th Guest, is currently working on a multiplayer science-fiction war game called Extreme Warfare. He conceived the idea before making 7th Guest's sequel, 11th Hour, and once finished with that game chose not to keep extending the franchise. "I could write the next [video compression] codec," said Devine, "and throw in even more puzzles next time, but I couldn't answer [the question] 'How were we moving the medium forward?' So I went back to my other game design."

And so, without a mass market to justify spiraling production costs, and without the traditional gamers to buy them, immersive games have tanked. Sure, Myst has sold nearly 4 million copies to date, raking in almost $150 million in gross revenues, but the equally worthy Obsidian, from the deceased studio Rocket Science, sold just 80,000 copies and took in perhaps $4 million, barely recouping the roughly $3 million Rocket Science poured into it.

Obsidian wasn't the only immersive flop. The Curse of Monkey Island and the Last Express were other critical darlings that lost fortunes. It turns out that the only big immersive hits were those with established brands -- Cyan's Myst and Riven and Trilobyte's 7th Guest and 11th Hour. And both of these studios' creative teams have broken up: The Miller brothers at Cyan had an amicable split, and Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros departed from Trilobyte. So now what?

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The traditional gamers aren't exactly dabbing at their cheeks. They have a long list of reasons for holding immersive games in contempt. The annoying practice of dropping puzzles directly into the story path is one. The utter lack of other characters floating through these worlds is another (and not just because you can't shoot them). Denny Atkin, features editor at Computer Gaming World, says his magazine doesn't cover immersive games because his magazine's audience just isn't interested in them.

What they're still interested in, apparently, are the same game genres that have dominated the market for the last few years, only now with an online twist. The most successful publishers of multiplayer games, like Blizzard Entertainment, which makes Starcraft, and Westwood Studios, of Command & Conquer fame, have erected huge online clearinghouses where literally millions of games are arranged between hundreds of thousands of players, who fill the time in between with impassioned chat room discussions. According to Blizzard producer Bill Roper, the company's free service has played host to 1.2 million unique users in the past 90 days. Since its creation in January 1997, users have logged 25 million hours online -- 19 million in games and 6 million in the chat rooms. The killer app of the gaming industry, it turns out, is chat.

"People really go out there to just talk," said Roper. "Almost 25 percent of hours logged on are people sitting in chat rooms. They're trading strategies or talking smack. It brings us gamers this sense of community. You can be sitting down and talking to people on three continents. Players have formed these clans and guilds with their own Web sites. In Diablo, you can walk into a building and talk to someone waiting to ask you to join their clan."

Steve Wetherill, vice president for research and development at Westwood, reports a similar phenomenon, with over half of members' online time spent in chat. "The interesting part is that with all those games being played, Westwood Online members actually spend more time in the chat rooms than in actual game play," he said. "We're learning more and more that gamers want a community almost as much as they want a great game."

It's just that sense of community -- really just the sense of other people involved in the game -- that is obviously missing in an immersive game like Riven. The most desirable atmosphere for playing a game by the Miller brothers seems to be a dark, empty room, with headphones wrapped around the player's ears. Contrast this with the rousing game of Myth, where the satisfaction of executing a clever flanking move that wipes out an army is accompanied by the self-reflective knowledge that someone is yelling "Arrgh!" on the other end of the telephone line.

"They want to prove themselves as competitors," said Wetherill. "They want to see themselves move up in the rankings. They want the respect of fellow gamers. They love to win and hate defeat. And after a battle, they like to relive it and tell the war story, either in a chat room or live with friends."

Not everyone in the gaming industry believes that the era of immersive games is over. Ted Simon, director of marketing at Red Orb Entertainment, points out that immersive games are still the industry's all-time top sellers. Red Orb, a division of Brxderbund, publishes both Myst and Riven, along with the Journeyman Project series and the Last Express -- making it the preeminent publisher of immersive games.

Simon has a point. But Myst is also the reason statisticians invented medians for calculating averages: It's an "outlier," a data point lying so far off the scale that it skews the average. Remove the revenues of the pioneering Myst and 7th Guest -- which built their brands at the dawn of multimedia computing -- and the sequels that capitalized on these brands, and the sales average for immersive games drops precipitously. That raises the question of whether Myst actually doomed the genre it helped create by fooling publishers into thinking everyone could sell as many games if they created products of the same quality -- hence the price wars and disappointing returns.

But perhaps the publishers have finally wised up.

"Obsidian is a good product for us," said Gary Griffiths, president and CEO of Segasoft. "It is still out there selling, and I've just seen that Fry's has re-ordered it. [But] the typical immersive adventure appeals to a smaller audience. We share the opinion that Myst is an anomaly -- there is no logical reason to explain its success. All you need to do is look at the customer base to know that. They're people who've never played a game before, who bought Myst when they bought their CD-ROMs because everyone told them how good it was. They're not the people who buy five games a year." In short, not the kind of the people who drive the industry.

Chris Charla, the editor in chief of Next Generation, one of the industry's leading magazines, shares Griffith's pessimistic outlook. "From what we can tell it doesn't make sense to make an adventure game unless you're Cyan and Red Orb," he said. "I went to a conference where they showed a chart with the top 18 adventure games over the past year, and it was really depressing. The Last Express didn't make back half the money spent on it. In terms of strictly traditional adventure games, I don't think there's a market there anymore."

To be fair, many of the most successful multiplayer titles are also extensions of franchises -- Quake II, Starcraft and the forthcoming C&C: Tiberian Sun. But the Internet, besides breathing new life into old genres, has also given birth to its own, native multiplayer genre -- the "massively persistent game." This ugly moniker was coined by Richard Garriott, the mastermind behind Ultima Online, the first true example of a massively persistent game.

Ultima Online resembles the tradition of online MUDs -- or a digital version of the fantasy role-playing games of old, like the paper-based Dungeons & Dragons, that's open 24-7. You can turn the computer off, but out there on the Internet (on the servers of Garriott's company, Origin, actually) the game keeps playing. All of the roles played by the software in the original Ultima games -- townspeople, peasants, villains -- are now filled by other human players. You can talk to them, kill them, ally yourself with them, stab them in the back. Just do something -- because if you don't, nothing will happen. The "plot" is all player-generated.

"In a solo-player game," says Garriott, "the entire world space and the entire efforts of the development team have been created just for you, one player. That's true for each player who buys it. A massively persistent game is an environment and a set of experiences shared by thousands. In that case, it is very difficult for them to feel they are the hero. Players are now creating a set of experiences that they chart their life through."

Garriott believes that as technology improves, designers will gain the capability to add more purposefulness to players' lives without disrupting the ebb and flow of the game. He wants to borrow the most familiar aspects of immersive and other solo-player games to make multiplayer worlds even stronger. But even still, he predicts the radical newness of massively persistent games to be their biggest strength. "These experiences are unlike any others in [computer] gaming," said Garriott. "The only thing gamers have to compare it to is solo-player games. That's why they're so enraptured with this paradigm. I'm a devout believer that players will have extremely flourishing histories here. There will always be something to I-am-the-hero games, but there is something magical about these shared experiences."

It probably isn't incidental that the scenario Garriott envisions is more of a publisher's dream than a player's: Build one big game that appeals to everyone in every market -- the bloodthirsty 13-year-old Quake player, the original Ultima role-playing gamers and maybe even some of Myst's audience.

The last group is least likely to be seduced, at least according to Garriott. But while he's mindful of the "massively persistent" genre's limitations -- he also thinks the players lose perspective on their world if more than 10,000 play at once -- his competitors aren't. For this Christmas, Segasoft is preparing to ship its own massively persistent game -- the enigmatically named "10six," which stands for 10 raised to the sixth power. The title of this game about the colonization of a new world by its players refers to the 1 million people who can play it simultaneously. In Sega's view, the more people you add, the more fun the game becomes.

But if Garriott's right about there being an upper limit of players that, once surpassed, leads to alienation and chaos, then the entire enterprise is doomed. Developing multiplayer games isn't just about finding better methods to round up smarter opponents; what elevates the genre is the feeling of shared experience, the sense of personal drama, the retelling of past battles -- in a word, storytelling.

The struggle between immersive and multiplayer games for glamour status in the game industry comes down to which form of storytelling gamers prefer. Obviously, the hard-core gamers have made their choice: They prefer making and telling their own stories to experiencing stories told by others.

But Myst co-creator Rand Miller is unsure whether the multiplayer, massively persistent approach can ever appeal outside the hard-core gamer niche. "The success or failure of those games will be in their ability to provide an illusion of being somewhere else -- of having an adventure, instead of playing a game," he said.

"There is huge potential in the multiplayer gaming arena to accomplish just that. But the first iterations have been more oriented toward gamers, who have a greater desire to suspend disbelief during their gaming experience. The average person doesn't want to have to work too hard to have their vacation on a desktop -- they would like the developers to do the work for them. When developers (ourselves included) can accomplish that with multiplayer game design and implementation, then people will come home from work and log on, instead of channel surf," Miller added.

Miller has a valid point -- but he also has the luxury of knowing that the only games that most "average" people have ever played are his. How can most game developers be expected to pour big money and years of effort into topping Riven's technical excellence and chart-topping sales without an audience they can count on to buy their product? Miller responds by asking, "Has 'Titanic' put success for other movies out of reach? Not to put us on par with 'Titanic,' but the point is that there is room for many levels of creative storytelling." Still, didn't Obsidian and the Last Express try on those levels and fail?

The decline and fall of the immersive genre actually benefits no one. It is simply a sad reality check: The artistic pedigree of these games is too expensive, and their audiences too small, to justify them as commercial software. Meanwhile, the developers, publishers and hard-core gamers who drive the industry have discovered other forms of storytelling they'd rather build upon. And so the market for Myst's successors shrivels.

This is not to say that the world will never see another Riven or 7th Guest -- but when those do emerge, they'll probably leave out the puzzles and give up pretending to be games at all. They'll just be stories -- electronic novels, if you will -- and their creators will no more expect them to be blockbusters than the Miller brothers ever thought Myst would be.

By Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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