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Presto Studios Under Fire on Myst III : Exile

by Rainier on Aug. 20, 2001 @ 8:05 p.m. PDT

Myst 3 Exile finally hit the European market so here was our chance to get nasty with some of the developers. Is turned out to be a quite long one so grab those chips and that bottle of coke ... We added some screenshots for your visual eyegasm.
1. What can you tell us about the development of the game? Why did it take so long to complete?

Once we found out we got the project, it was quite a daunting task for all of us. We had three designers, a lead writer, and myself, trying to figure out how we were going to improve upon the world’s best-selling PC adventure game. I’d say we spent about a month, maybe six weeks, analyzing the first two games and setting up a list of their strengths and weaknesses. Visually, we really wanted to stay consistent with what Riven had done. We felt that was a real benchmark for the industry. But we also wanted to add technology that would let the player look 360 degrees around them. And it was a real task to try to blend those two things.

Early in development, we identified three major factors that we wanted to focus on in the first few months. That was the gameplay, the visuals, and the story of the game. And we really didn’t want to limit any of those three aspects. So, we put separate teams kind of brainstorming each of those aspects and then, later on as those ideas grew and each phase sort of developed on its own, we started meeting together and bringing those aspects together and seeing where the story would influence the visuals or vice-versa, and how the gameplay would be constructed.

I think doing that let us think independently in each of those tracks. There were no restrictions on story when artists were designing visuals. Similarly for the gameplay. We could come up with the best possible gameplay for an adventure game and then see how that could be adapted and related to the story and the visuals of the game.

We spent about a year developing the gameplay, story, and early visual ideas for Exile. At the end of about 11 months, we had a paper document about 160 pages long, but no 3D graphics to go into the game. So, it was kind of daunting, knowing that we had a great game designed, but no visuals, and nothing really proving that it was going to be a great game. ~ Greg Uhler, Producer of Myst III: Exile for Presto Studios, Inc.

2. The FMV sequences look great. How did you manage to intertwine them and the in-game rendered scenes in such a perfect way?

The concept behind live action compositing, or bluescreen compositing as it’s called in the industry, is really straightforward. The thought is that you film a character on blue making sure that their costume and everything that you want in the shot is not blue. And a simple way to put it is: Basically, in the computer, you take out anything that’s blue - and you leave anything that’s not blue - and what you’ll have is a really nice carved out version of the character.

There’s a lot of prep work that goes into a video shoot as technical as this. Obviously you start with the script. But then you do storyboards. You want to break down every shot. Scene by scene you break everything down almost to every single camera shot that’s going to be in the game. Then you break that down further, and start to figure out which lenses, which camera positions, all that type of stuff. When you finally get in to film you have notebooks of materials laying everything out: “On Monday, we’re doing these ten shots, and for this first shot the camera has to be right here, and it has to be this height, and it has to be this lens”. We had all the notes to match the lighting with the computer-generated world and the live action video. If a character walked into a room through a doorway and there were leaves blocking the light in the computer-generated world, then on set you had to match the same thing. The character has to walk through, come out of shadow, into light and the light that they walk into has to have the leave pattern. The thing is that when you put it all together it is totally convincing that the character actually exists in this computer-generated world. And most people have a very hard time drawing that line between what is real and what is not real.

You have to be ready if you’re going to spend that much money on a shoot. Especially having two stages, shooting with digital cameras and you have a crew of fifteen people waiting for you - you have to be ready. You have to have all your storyboards done. You have to have all your shots set up. You have to go in there almost like a General going to war saying, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this.” You have your script, you have your storyboards, you’ve done your rehearsals. And you know exactly what you’re going to do. There is no creative freedom when you’re on stage. You have to match everything perfectly. The computer-generated world has to match the live action world with the actors. If it doesn’t match perfectly, it’s not convincing.

The prep work for the video shoot probably took about three or four months, which is amazing when, you consider that the video shoot was only seven days. From the time that we actually had the script we spent months doing storyboards, doing all the prop design and building all of the costumes, all of that work. It all has to be done in advance. It’s amazing when you start to think about the number of shots that you have to pick up and the technical complexity that is in those shots. You simply have to be ready. ~ Michel Kripalani, Technical Director for the Live Action Video Shoot, Executive Producer of Exile and CEO/President of Presto Studios, Inc.

3. Why did you choose to use real actors instead of computer-generated characters?

One of the key components about a title like Myst and Riven, and now Myst III: Exile, is really the characters. And we’ve incorporated both live-action characters and video characters into Exile. We wanted to get great performances, and computer-generated characters are really just not of the quality that we needed them to be to be totally absolutely convincing that you are talking to a real person in a real world.

4. How did it go, working with actors?

Working with Brad Dourif was great. I mean he is such a professional. I have to tell you, when he gets into character it is really scary. There was a time when we were on stage and I was trying to walk through the shot with him. It was a very emotional part of the game, and he was sort of staying in character while I was busy trying to give him direction. I said, “Brad you need to make sure you hit this mark. You know, come from over here and hit this point over here.” And I turned and looked up at him and there’s a tear rolling down his eye. And I had to take a second. It was like, “Okay now, am I looking at Brad or Saavedro?” He sort of stepped out of character for a second, “No, no, I got it. Don’t worry about it.” But he was in character the whole time. It was kind of creepy.

Working with Rand Miller was great. I mean, this guy is Atrus. Sure there’s the guy Rand Miller, right? And he’s a great guy, a really nice guy. He also gets into character, especially when he’s in costume. It’s like, “Whew, there’s Atrus. You know, send me to an Age. Tell me what you want me to do.” It’s amazing. He’s got this great presence. He has a great voice. And he really is a great gifted actor. There could be a life out there for him as an actor. He really did a tremendous job. ~ Michel Kripalani, Technical Director for the Live Action Video Shoot, Executive Producer of Exile and CEO/President of Presto Studios, Inc.

5. Did Miller brothers have something to do with Myst III: Exile?

Since Cyan created the Myst universe, it was very important to us to make sure that Myst III: Exile fit in with their original vision. During the initial story development phase, we met with them several times. Then, whenever specific D’ni-related questions arose during production, we contacted Richard Watson, the primary keeper of the D’ni universe at Cyan.

We came up with a few story concepts very early and presented them to Cyan. They liked two or three of them and also gave us some ideas where in the whole Myst-Riven mythology we could explore and come up with new characters and new environments.

So we took their advice and explored a time frame just ten years after Riven. What were the characters doing? Who and what new characters were involved in the story? Cyan read this story proposal, and was very pleased with what we had come up with. This really was the extent of their involvement, with the exception of Rand Miller reprising his role as Atrus. ~ Greg Uhler, Producer

6. Myst is a very respected and successful series. What are the reasons of this success?

Speaking as someone in the industry, but not the creator of MYST, I don’t presume to know exactly why MYST is such a phenomenon. But I can identify certain strengths in the product that, when combined with the state of the industry in 1993, promoted mass popularity. First and foremost are the beautiful, safe, surreal worlds. People love to see new places, especially ones that are eerily familiar. MYST took the player to these locals, and let them explore at their own leisure, certainly a departure from most games. Another strength is the challenging puzzles. Puzzle balance is a very difficult task, and hats off to Cyan for creating a variety of intriguing challenges using observation, logic, and even sound. Lastly, I feel the story is a strong factor in the appeal of MYST. Very simply, it is about family. A struggle between a father and his sons. This story hooked players at the beginning and revealed itself throughout the rest of the adventure. When you combine these strengths with the boom of the personal computer in the early nineties, you have the makings of a hit. Once MYST sold a million copies, it became the de facto game for people to buy when they bought their first PC. After that, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, selling close to 6 million copies to date. ~ Greg Uhler, Producer of Myst III: Exile for Presto Studios, Inc.

7. Do you reckon it’s important to have played the previous titles of the series before playing Exile?

All the history you need to know from Myst and Riven gets revealed as part of the gameplay experience. Essentially, Exile is a mystery. Like any good mystery, uncovering the back-story is a major part of the plot.

8. The game resolution is a mere 640x480. Isn’t it a bit limited within the current game advances?

The video sequences for Myst III: Exile were filmed at the resolution of 640x480. We just couldn’t get it any bigger and still fit the movies into the game. ~ Greg Uhler, Producer

9. The game story stretches through 5 different ages. Why did you use this system again, when it had disappeared in Riven?

One of the things we identified in our research of Myst is that it had what we termed as a hub-based structure. Meaning, you had a home island, which was the Myst Island, and then it linked to several other ages. So you sort of had this central place to go to and feel comfortable within and it extended out to other locations. So, we kind of took that idea that was presented in Myst and took it even further. With the Ages, we made them very visually distinct so that when you would go to a new age it would be exciting and brand new and something you’d never seen before. We also allowed the player to come back to the central age any time that they wanted. So, with this structure, one of the reasons it works so well is that different players with different abilities can go to certain ages, solve the puzzles there, come back and go to a different age, while other players might do the opposite, because their strengths in puzzle-solving might be a little different. We felt this structure would allow the players to kind of have a difficulty level set just for them; for each and every player in the game. – Greg Uhler, Producer

10. Is Exile a more difficult and a longer game than the previous titles of the series?

Exile is definitely as challenging as Riven and in some ways, may even prove to be a more rewarding game experience. One of the complaints leveled against Riven was that there was a large chunk of story given at the beginning, and a large chunk at the end, with very little in between. In Exile, we have a much more consistent progression of story throughout the game. It starts quickly, just like it did in Myst. Then, as you explore and solve puzzles, you are steadily rewarded with more pieces of the story. The more pieces you discover, the more driven you are to discover what’s next.

Through the pre-planning stages of development, we were targeting a size similar to that of Riven.

11. You created the famous The Journeyman Project series. Does this series have something in common with Myst III: Exile?

Cyan and Presto shared the same publisher a couple of years ago, Red Orb Entertainment. Our companies formed near the same time, we shipped our first titles the same year, and both companies come from humble beginnings, working in rented houses, basements and garages which were used as offices. We’ve always been aware of Cyan and what they were working on.

The only thing our game series really have in common is that they are both considered ‘adventure games’. They are non-violent, exploring games which makes them accessible to any gamer age 7-70 [and beyond]. It’s great to have an audience this broad. I don’t think any other game series has enjoyed such a varied audience as Myst has. And what game series can say that nearly 50% of their players are women? – Susan Weyer, Public Relations Manager

12. The Myst series has always featured a very simple interface. Do you think this makes the game more accessible to causal gamers?

For consistency’s sake, we kept the inventory as transparent and minimal as possible. There are the standard Myst journals to read, of course. But beyond that, you don’t really have an inventory. Keeping the interface simple makes it very easy to navigate, and leaves the player’s attention to the story, graphics and gameplay options in front of them. It makes the game much more immersive, like you are really there. And yes, I believe it is one of the features that makes the game more accessible to new or casual gamers.

13. How does Myst III: Exile differ from the other installments of the series?

It combines the strengths of each of the previous games, while diminishing their weaknesses. For instance in Riven, it was very confusing to have a puzzle solution provide a result on the other side of the island. In Exile, the results of your actions are immediately apparent. And that immediate feedback is key to progressing through the game. Exile is probably more comparable to Myst, in that puzzles tend to progress the gameplay by revealing part of the story.

14. What’s your opinion on the future of graphic adventure games?

I think ‘traditional’ adventure games have evolved and affected many other gaming genres. Just look at Half Life. It’s single player game has so many adventure elements that it is almost incorrect to call it a shooter. Many other titles are using story or puzzles or characters to enhance their own genre [the staples of adventure games], and I feel this trend will continue well into the future. – Greg Uhler, Producer

15. What are your next projects? Is there a fourth installment of Myst on the way?

Presto is developing a number of XBox titles at this time. Unfortunately, the only game which has been officially announced is the Japanese version of Myst III: Exile, which is currently slated to be a launch title for that console in Japan. - Michel Kripalani, CEO/President

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