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Myst creator warns of over ambition in MMO space

AUSTIN GDC: Myst Online failed because it tried to compete with TV, says Miller

At a panel discussion at the Austin GDC, Myst creator Rand Miller gave his audience a look behind the scenes why his URU: Myst Online MMO has failed commercially not once but twice, summing up its failure by saying "it's frankly cheaper to build a treadmill than a national park. We were building a national park."

Rather than "setting people in a hamster wheel and saying 'run run run run run'," explained Miller, developer Cyan said it wasn't approaching URU as a "game in the traditional sense" but as something that "had the potential of competing with television." Rather than "what you would watch that night," Miller said the team saw potential to continually produce new worlds and shift the entertainment paradigm to "where would you go that night."

The title has always maintained a small but extremely avid fanbase who, the panel noted, not only kept unofficial game servers running for two years following its unceremonious cancellation by Ubisoft following a public beta that gathered 10-40,000 users, but also recreated its landmarks in other virtual worlds like There and Second Life.

Those users celebrated Turner Broadcasting's decision to revive the world and develop new content through its GameTap game subscription service, but – after only a year – Turner product development vice president Blake Lewin said the userbase couldn't support the operation costs and the game was shuttered once again.

Elaborating on why the game couldn't manage to initially keep itself alive, Miller said, "I'm always going to fall back on 'we were ahead of our time,' because it's easy."

"The biggest thing we did was an all or nothing proposal from an entertainment point of view," he continued. "It's not like you can start up a new TV network and give one show a month and expect it to be successful... We couldn't quite pull that off with the money we had."

Added Lewin, "I don't think there's any budget that would have worked," as the content production pipeline was extremely difficult. "Look at [TV series] Lost," he added. "Lost, at its level of quality, still can't get 26 episodes out in a year."

"There's a similar issue with Myst Online," he concluded. "It's a bigger issue when we're looking at broadband entertainment. The fallback is reality TV... [where the thought is] lets make users make idiots of themselves and we'll all laugh at them... We all do want to see the 'Lost's but production costs have to come down and we have to get smarter about tools."

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