iTête à iTête – Interview with Mark DeForest from Cyan Worlds – Immersing you even more by letting you touch the game

If you were in any way connected or even remotely familiar with the video gaming industry in the 90′s, you couldn’t have missed Myst (TMA Review). This bestselling game of all time (at least until the dreaded ‘The Sims’ came along in 2002) has seen a superb re-release on the iOS about a year and a half ago and nabbed a special mention in our The App Store’s Best Adventure. And with the recent release of the Riven: The Sequel to Myst (TMA Review) I personally couldn’t pass up the unique opportunity to interview one of the leading minds behind the scenes – Mark DeForest, the CTO of Cyan Worlds.

My comments are in my ususal bold.

1. Mark thank you for joining me today, especially at this early of an hour for you. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and Cyan Worlds?

I am the CTO (chief technology officer) at Cyan Worlds. I have been at Cyan for 16 years. My first assignment at Cyan was to port Manhole Masterpiece to the PC. Since then I have been involved in all of Cyan products – for the last 7 years as the manager of the technical side.

Cyan was started in 1987 by Rand and Robyn Miller to create a children’s exploration game on the Mac – Rand the programmer and Robyn the artists. It was followed by a couple more children’s games. And then the big break came when they decided to do a more adult adventure game called Myst, which was a computer game best seller. Since then we have continued in the adventure solitarily games. Then we ventured into the MMOG area with the release of Myst Online: Uru Live – which is currently running as a free service on our servers.

Recently we have focused more on the mobile platform – in particular the iPhone/iPad bringing some of our older games (Myst (TMA Review), Manhole and Riven (TMA Review)) as well as new game such as Stoneship and a new title to be released later this year.

2. Why did you decide to adapt your classic adventure for the iOS Platform?

Rand has always been an early adapter to new technology and when he was one of the first to get an iPhone he could see immediately that it was a perfect platform for games like Myst and Riven.

Myself, I was a little skeptical but he is the visionary so Derek and I started working on it. The more we had developed, I started to see how the touch screen that you hold in your hand was the perfect platform for a game like Myst and Riven, immersing you even more by letting you touch the game.

3. What would you say are the main challenges in bringing such a game as Myst or Riven to the iOS?

The main challenge was the same thing that made it great. The touch interface:

1) There is no cursor – so you have to give hints differently to the player.

2) Your finger is in the way of the screen – so it is harder to show what is going on underneath your finger. But it allowed for really cool things like swiping to turn and dragging things around the screen with your finger.

4. Do you feel you’ve done a good job with controls? Would you change anything now that the game has been live for about a month?

We are pretty happy with the controls. Riven did need more in the interface – mostly because of all the movies that will play which in the original the player was not able to interrupt, which they can on the iPhone.

The thing that I am working on now for a Riven update is to add Game Center achievements which create some games within the game.

5. Were you involved in the development of the original titles? Have you felt like there were things you would change for the iOS release? Apart from the interface, of course.

I came just after Myst but I was involved with the Riven development. Actually, there were a number of things that we changed from the original Riven – the biggest things was a hint system that shows the objects you can interact with – which the original had nothing like that. And of course, as I mentioned, adding achievements to the game and being able to share that with your friends is really cool!

6. In any project there are lots of funny stories. Could share one or two of them from your projects?

Funny stories, hmmm – I can’t think of a big one.

But there are at least a dozen gold discs on the roof of the Cyan building, most put there during the original Riven project. There are many scooter crash sites inside the second Cyan building after many all nighters during the Myst Online project. The dirty images drawn on the in-game tablet in Myst V testing that were submitted by the QA department as bugs. The Japanese TV crew that came to the Cyan parking lot and filmed the trash can. And, of course, the Space Ghost interview with Rand.

7. If you could go back to the start of the project, what would you’ve done differently?

I guess it would be to create higher quality assets for the iPad alongside the iPhone assets. That is one thing we are doing now is assembling the iPad assets for an iPad-only Riven. So, it would have been nice to have those ready to go much quicker.

Are you re-making the assets from scratch? I read somewhere that for the iPhone version the quality of the originals is somewhere in between the Retina and basic quality.

The resolution is already is as high as we can make them, which is bigger than the iPhone screen but smaller than the iPad screen size – however, to conserve on the size of the iPhone app they were created with a lower quality setting. For the iPad we can make the app even larger with higher quality settings – which the iPad user would notice more because of the bigger screen.

The original images were rendered on SGI workstations which we no longer have access to. So, it is not possible to re-render the Riven images again.

8. What can you say on the future of the iOS devices as a platform for adventure games? How would you compare it to the other similar devices on the market?

The iOS devices are growing to be an excellent platform for adventure games as well as other kinds of games. I think people originally thought that only “casual” games would be on iOS devices but I think that we as well as other game developers have shown that more serious games fit very well on the iOS devices and is received quite well by gamers.

As far as other mobile platforms – there are some very promising devices – Android, Windows 7 mobile, but they both have restrictions on the size of the app in their market places that games like Myst and Riven would be too large. Hopefully, these other device developers can see that the gamer wants more than just casual games on their devices.

As I understand you’re not planning to focus on other platforms but the iOS for the moment?

Right for now, especially for Myst and Riven because of the restriction on size of app by the other devices market stores. However, we are creating some new games that might fit into those size restrictions, so we have not closed that possibility.

9. Along with the re-release of Myst and Riven you created all original titles for the platform as well. Why did you decide to go that direction? How did it feel developing for a mobile device from scratch?

We decided to make some new titles for the mobile platform after the success of Myst on the iOS. One because we could see the potential but also because we could self-publish with Apple’s dev program – which makes it a lot easier to develop new ideas rather than the old fashion publisher route – which can get bogged down because it is different. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t do a published title – which we may do in the near future (nothing I can say at the moment).

Was it a different feeling, creating an original game for such a device? Would you say it requires a different mentality?

I’m not sure there is a different feeling or mentality. Making games is making games. Which is from the heart, more so than other kinds of software. And you definitely need the desire to entertain.

10. You mentioned a new release in the coming months. Can you share some details? What are your future plans? Are you going to bring the other titles from the Myst franchise to the AppStore? Or do you plan to focus on original titles?

We are working on a physics game based on Unity3D that should play really well on the iOS. As far as the other Myst games, Cyan only developed Myst and Riven. The other games were developed by Presto (whose owner now owns Oceanhouse Media) and Ubisoft. So that is a little out of our hands at the moment.

Our main focus from here on will be new titles on mobile devices as well as game consoles and PC/Macs.

Why did you choose Unity and not the gorgeous Unreal engine, recently debuted on the iOS with Infinity Blade?

When we started developing it, Unreal was not available yet.

I see. And do you plan to make full blown adventure titles or focus on lighter genres?

Both. Our core is adventure gaming but is fun to expand out a little.

11. What do you think about the iPad? Many competitors have announced similar devices at the recent CES 2011. Do you feel Apple will be able to hold their ground?

Oh yeah. Apple not only has the head start and has built a good market (despite the original critics) but to develop for the iPad (and iOS) and publish is still way ahead of the competition. But I do think they will figure it out (it is not just the tech aspects of a device that make it sell) that it is the apps that sell the device – and you need to make it easier for the developer as Apple has.

12. What are your expectations for the iPad 2? Have you thought about it at all?

I have not looked at the details yet. But I’m always amazed at what comes out of Apple lately!

13. Almost each month some developer publicly announces that they suffer enormous amounts of piracy and lost revenue. What’s your take on piracy on the iOS platform?

Personally, we have not seen “enormous” amounts of piracy for Myst or Riven. I don’t know if other developers have different problems than us or if they are seeing something we don’t or if they see something that is not there.

<shrugs>

14. And what about jailbreaking?

For us, we only see a small percentage using Myst and Riven.

You track the percentage of jailbroken devices in using your games?

We use Flurry.

15. What are your top 3 favourite apps and games for the iPhone?

Angry Birds (of course), redbox and eIDB

16. If you could ask for one new feature for the next iPhone or iPad, what would it be?

Faster, bigger, better. – it would be nice to interact with the AppleTV more than just movies. One of our fans wanted to play Riven thru the AppleTV onto their big screen TV – but currently you can only send it movies.

Theoretically you could jailbreak and use an app to send it to TV Out :)

Right, TV OUT would work but it would be nice to do it all legal and such.

17. Mark, thank you for your time. Could you say some final words for the TMA readers?

No problem. It has been a pleasure talking to you and hopefully we can talk again on a new release in the near future.

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