CD (Rom) of Brotherly Loves
RAND MILLER PRESSES THE GAS pedal to the floor, cajoling his weathered 1991 Chevy truck up a steep, snowpacked road outside Spokane, Wash. Passing through ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, Miller pulls up to his home, a blue double-wide trailer with white trim. “Not many people bother to come up here,” he says. “Maybe if they did, they’d see that my brother and I are just two average guys.”
Looks can be deceiving—the Millers are as far from average as the original Super Mario Bros. Rand, 35, and Robyn, 28, are the current and undisputed wunderkinder of the computer game world, the brains behind Myst, the eerily beautiful CD-ROM adventure that has won a passionate following among adults and children, as well as kudos from the computer press. Released in September 1993 by Brøderbund Software, Myst has sold more than 500,000 copies at an average price of $50. Last month, the Millers signed a $1 million contract with Hyperion, a publishing subsidiary of Disney, for the rights to three future novels based on Myst, and the brothers are currently fending off movie offers based on the game. “It’s almost silly how much attention Myst has received,” says Robyn. “We knew it was good, but we’re the creators. To see everyone else agreeing with us was astonishing.”
What is it about Myst that has proved so seductive? First, Robyn’s painterly graphics—the soaring evergreens, craggy coastlines and pristine waters of Myst Island—are more vivid and convincing than any other computer game’s. Then there is the hard-to-unravel story: Myst Island has been mysteriously deserted; players must explore the island, visiting a library, a clock tower, a log cabin and a spaceship for clues that will help answer the story’s riddle. “There are no rules,” says Rand, who himself needs two hours to navigate all of Myst’s dimensions. “Time doesn’t matter. The person who sticks with it will be rewarded. Myst is just an excuse for an adult to get lost in another world for a while.”
Elevating escapism to high art comes naturally to the Millers. Robyn, the third of four sons (the second, Rod, 31, is an art history grad student at the University of Louisville; the youngest, Ryan, 20, is an assistant restaurant manager), immersed himself in drawing and painting as their father, Ron, a preacher, moved from one nondenominational Bible church to another, in Philadelphia, Dallas, Albuquerque, Haiti, Hawaii and Seattle. At about the same time, Rand, the eldest, fell in love with computers, and by high school he was doing his own programming. “When Rand was in the 11th grade, he developed a game called Swarms, about killer bees that try to invade the U.S.,” says his mother, Barbara, a homemaker. “It was so phenomenal that his computer teacher tried to convince him to enter a national computer contest. He didn’t think he had a chance. I bugged him until he entered, and he won second place.”
Not until 1987 did the brothers link up professionally. Rand, who had dropped out of college and was working as a computer programmer at a bank in Henderson, Texas, called Robyn, then an anthropology student at the University of Washington in Seattle, and asked him to illustrate a children’s computer game he was creating. Robyn turned Rand’s idea into an underground fantasy, filled with secret boxes and rooms that children could open with the touch of a computer key. The game, called the Manhole, was released in 1987 and won the 1988 Software Publishers Association Award for best new use of a computer. Over the next three years, the brothers produced two more games for children, Cosmic Osmo, about space travel, and Spelunx, about nature.
In 1989 the Millers moved to Spokane to live closer to one another and to their parents. There they formalized the partnership as Cyan Inc. and began to think about the adult market. At first, money was tight. Rand, his wife, Debbie, and their three daughters, Kinslee, now 13, Kerryn, 10, and Kara, 3, relied on WIC, the government-funded food program for Women, Infants and Children, to supplement their weekly meals. They didn’t need the help for long. In 1991, SunSoft, the Japanese corporation that had bought the rights to the Manhole, approached the Millers about creating CD-ROM software. Says Rand: “We told them we had just the thing.”
Inspired by Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which Robyn was reading at the time, the Millers began toying with a game they called Myst. Next they set up shop in the garage of their friend Chris Brandkamp’s house (a former computer technical writer, Brandkamp is now Cyan’s business manager) and over the next two years spent 12-hour days writing the story, creating graphics, composing music and producing sound effects. Within a week of its release in 1993, word began to spread on the Internet. Within five months, 200,000 copies had been sold.
So far, the Millers’ success hasn’t spoiled them. Although Robyn did move into a new four-bedroom ranch house for himself, his wife, Beth, and their son, Alex, 3, Rand and his family still live in their four-bedroom trailer nestled among the ponderosa pines. “The neighbors ask us, ‘So, are you going to throw away your mobile home and build a mansion?’ ” says Debbie. “Even if we could, we wouldn’t. We’re happy where we are. I look at Rand and think, ‘He’s the same old Rand. Success hasn’t changed him or Robyn.’ ”
That may be because they haven’t had time to be transformed. Now immersed in work on Myst 2 (the game is still untitled), the Cyan staff, which numbers nine and is still housed in Brandkamp’s garage, race up and down the stairs between Rand’s programming office and Robyn’s artwork table, critiquing new art and brainstorming ideas. “We’re not just competing against a couple of guys in a garage anymore,” says Rand. “We’re going against Paramount and Microsoft this time.” Still, the Millers are confident they can deliver. “It’s almost like Myst was a practice run for this one, the big event,” says Rand. “Besides, we have a story to finish.”
CATHY FREE in Spokane