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Piercing the VR Veil — The Creator of Myst Talks Its Ambitious New Game Firmament

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For gamers of a certain age, the name Cyan Worlds carries with it no small amount of reverence. In 1993, the Washington-based studio upended the industry with the release of the massively popular Myst, and then followed that up with an even more successful sequel: Riven.

In 2016, Cyan successfully Kickstarted a spiritual successor to Myst and Riven, called Obduction, to the tune of USD$1.3 million. We sat down with the venerable Rand Miller, co-creator and co-designer of Myst, to discuss the company’s next project: Firmament.

Like Obduction, Firmament is being funded on Kickstarter. Unlike Obduction, which had a VR mode added post-launch, Firmament is being built from the ground up with VR support in mind.

OnlySP: Your Kickstarter pitch begins with the words “Firmament is the next step in the evolution of Cyan.” Could you elaborate on what this means? What is at the core of the company philosophy, and what is the evolution of Cyan?

Rand Miller: We think that our little niche is building complex, evocative spaces that feel authentic and real (or surreal). We started with simple, hand-drawn, black-and-white worlds, and we’ve evolved along with technology to make our world-space more and more convincing and immersive. So, all that is to say that VR is another step in that technological evolution that we get to embrace.

OnlySP: You’ve been very clear about the fact that Firmament is built from the ground up for VR. How does that manifest in practice, in actual moment-to-moment gameplay?

Miller: Yeah, so disclaimer first—Firmament is still a wonderful “flat screen” experience, too. Building for VR doesn’t mean we leave the flat behind. The interesting thing about designing for VR is that it causes us to rethink the interface. We feel that one of the most advanced and yet simple breakthroughs in VR is giving players hands. That’s because you don’t need instructions to know what to do with hands—you know how they work. That’s exciting to us because in many ways it gets back to our roots of a very intuitive interface that just feels natural. That’s what we want for Firmament.

OnlySP: Obduction was Cyan’s first VR-compatible title, and support was added post-launch. What did you learn about VR from Obduction‘s VR implementation?

Miller: Wow, so much! We learned how much accurate scale matters, how to optimize for VR, the complexity of intuitive hand interfaces, how comfort levels vary between players, what interactive devices are hard to operate… I could go on with more and more specific items. It was an amazing learning experience.

OnlySP: What made you decide to build your next game for VR from the ground up, and not as a post-launch update?

Miller: All of those things I listed in the previous question. Once you’ve learned the hard way, you want to take advantage of everything you learned. And it’s much easier to design for VR and simultaneously adjust for monitors. Post, although sometimes necessary, can make things much more difficult.

OnlySP: Do you think developers have solved most of the basic gameplay questions the industry has grappled with since the VR renaissance (locomotion and motion sickness, preserving agency and consistency of storytelling, etc.)? If not, what do you think are the biggest issues we have yet to tackle?

Miller: VR is exciting to me because of just how many variables there are. There are so many ways to do anything and everything that it’s invigorating—it feels like everybody gets a chance to try a new method or technique. The most confounding and therefore interesting gameplay issue to me still for VR is locomotion. Teleportation is filling the gap, but it seems like there will be better and better ways to move around in these worlds we’re building.

OnlySP: You have highlighted the fact that unlike Myst and Obduction, Firmament isn’t an entirely solitary experience. You’ll be exploring the world with a silent clockwork companion that aids in the solving of puzzles. Is the little fellow intended solely as a tool, or is the goal to nurture a bond between the player and the companion?

Miller: We hope you form a bond—like a shepherding dog is both a marvelous tool and a loved and trusted companion.

OnlySP: Firmament’s Kickstarter page describes the game as “the beginning of an exciting new Cyan universe.” Does this imply that more games set in this universe may be on the horizon in the future?

Miller The Firmament narrative is one of the most interesting that we’ve done. It’s got a wonderful base story, that the player (of course) picks up quickly, and then some… I can’t… I really want to give more details, but… it’ll be so much fun to watch people uncover the story. 😉  

OnlySP: For now, all the focus on Firmament, but Cyan’s place in history is irrevocably tied to Myst. Is Myst entirely in the rear-view mirror at this point? We remember murmurs of a TV show not long ago…

Miller: Myst is definitely not in the rear-view mirror. We feel refreshed from Obduction already. Firmament is so much fun that we wanted to give it a chance to come to life, but beyond Firmament there are some really exciting potential developments on the Myst horizon.


Despite its impressive legacy, or perhaps because of it, Cyan continues to look boldly to the future with Firmament. If that future comes to pass, Cyan promises gamers a deeply immersive narrative adventure that harks back to and is informed by that great legacy.

To learn more about Firmament, be sure to have a look at the game’s Kickstarter page. For updates and continued coverage, be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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Interview

Fantasy Hawaiian Shooter Ashes of Oahu Gets a Second Wind – Exclusive Interview

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Ashes of Oahu

Early last year, one open-world RPG promised to do things a little differently from the norm. A post-apocalyptic setting, various factions, and dialogue options all seemed standard, but Nightmarchers stood out because of its setting.

The game would take place on Oahu, with its story steeped in local folklore and mythology. However, an ambitious crowdfunding campaign fell short and the team behind the project, Wyrmbyte, fell silent.

Fast forward almost eighteen months, and the team stepped out of the shadows with a revitalised project, featuring a more contained world and a rebranding to Ashes of Oahu. In the wake of the comeback, OnlySP got in touch with Wyrmbyte president Scott Brown to find out about why those changes took place and what the game looks like now.

OnlySP: For any of our readers who may not remember Ashes of Oahu, what’s the elevator pitch?

Brown: An open-world, post-apocalyptic RPG shooter where you tap into the power of the spirit world to liberate the Hawaiian island of Oahu from the army that occupies it.

OnlySP: When we caught up with you last year, Ashes of Oahu was known as Nightmarchers. What prompted that rebranding?

Brown: Feedback from Native Hawaiians asked us to not use the name so we changed it.

OnlySP: What has the response been like since you brought the game back into the public spotlight?

Brown: People seem to like our story and are usually wowed when we talk about the small team and how big the world is and how much dialog is in the game.

OnlySP: Do you have any insight into why you might have struggled to garner the funding you required when you took the game to Fig last year? 

Brown: We are so small and larger funding raises require strong marketing efforts, something we could not afford. We stayed with development, it has just taken much longer since the team never had the chance to grow.

OnlySP: One of the changes that stands out the most has been the shrinking of the map from a 1:1 recreation of the island of Oahu to a much more modest 25km2 area. Why have you done this, and what have you focused on in doing so?

Brown: It really came down to two issues. Scope and fun. First the scope of making an interesting world that large was just way beyond what we could pull off with our team size and budget. Second fun, there needs to be variety in experience as you travel around the world or it can become just more of the same. The game is still huge, just not the insane size of the actual island of Oahu would have been.

OnlySP: Are you at all concerned that maybe you’ve compressed things too much?

Brown: Not at all, this is still a very large world and there is a ton to discover. We have several modes of travel to help deal with the size of the game, horse, bird form, shark form and fast travel for example.

OnlySP: From the descriptions you’ve provided, the storyline seems largely unchanged, though you’ve moved away from a claim of authenticity to Hawaiian myths. Why is that?

Brown: Again based on feedback from Native Hawaiians who asked us not to.

OnlySP: This change in perspective also has me wondering what you’ve learned from the feedback you’ve received? Do you think there’s a difference between representing living and ‘dead’ mythologies (like those of the Ancient Greeks)? What advice would you give to other teams that are interested in exploring the cultures of marginalised communities?

Brown: Work with those communities as much as you are able. Listen to their concerns and be flexible in your design to accommodate those concerns.

OnlySP: Aside from the aforementioned differences, the focus on taking over outposts, the presence of multiple factions, and the combination of magic and gunplay for combat all seem largely unchanged. Have you made any other major changes to the overall structure and style of the game in the last year and a half?

Brown: It is more minor iteration in details like how the game controls, AI behaviors, balance,  performance optimization. The reason for the extended time is honestly production. Building out this massive story with multiple paths you can take is a ton of work.

OnlySP: A recent blog post for the game talks about how player choices can have far-reaching consequences. Will many side-quests interact with the central narrative at all, or are they self-contained stories?

Brown: They can influence both faction rating, which unlocks skills from those factions or change your pono (karma basically) which also can change how you are perceived by NPCs.

OnlySP: You mention that Ashes of Oahu will have over 100 endings. How different will those be, and what sort of decisions will players have to influence them? Also, will players be made aware when they’ve made a choice that impacts the storyline going forward?

Brown: Whenever you are making a decision that will impact faction rating or pono you are alerted to the impact before you make the decision. However, all possible decisions are not always spelled out for you. For example, if someone asks you to steal an item from another faction there may be other ways to get the item or even convince them they don’t need the item they want you to steal. The endings all come down to the combination of how you worked with each faction as well as some significant side stories you may or may not have completed.

OnlySP: When last we spoke, you were confident about a Q3 2018 release. The reasons why you missed that seem straightforward, but how far away do you think you are from pinning down a new launch date?

Brown: Right now we are in testing and fixing issues as they are found. We want to have a solid release so it will take as long as it takes to get through the feedback. We are close however, all the mission chains are in, the major points of interest on the island all exist, and we have found and improved a number of bugs and balance based feedback already. I am confident in a summer release at this point.

OnlySP: Finally, do you have anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

Brown: We love any and all feedback and I would invite people to join us on our discord server if you have any questions or just want to talk about the game more.  https://discord.gg/KhW7uSj


For all the latest on Ashes of Oahu and much more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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