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COVER STORY : Cyber Stars of the Next Frontier : These imaginative pioneers are our guides into the CD-ROM revolution. They’re the forces behind Myst, Rebel Assault and the 7th Guest. No wonder Hollywood is hot on their trail.

<i> David Colker is a staff writer in The Times' Valley office and writes the Cyburbia computer column in Life & Style</i>

The Miller brothers, Rand and Robyn of Spokane, were unlikely candidates to be the first super stars of the CD-ROM world.

They were neither obsessed by computers at an early age nor were they any better than mediocre students in school. They were never pocket protector-wearing nerds, and the churchgoing brothers were certainly never part of the hacker underground.

But they shared an appreciation for storytelling and had well-developed imaginations. Because their father was a preacher who changed churches every few years, the Millers moved several times when they were kids.

They learned to adjust to these different worlds by creating one of their own.

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The screen is dark. A pulsing, ominous sound resonates in stereo and suddenly a starry sky fills the screen. In the distance, a crack of light widens and through it falls the figure of a man, moving steadily toward you. Narration begins, telling of a mysterious book, now lost, that holds great secrets.

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The electronic sounds give way to a string and woodwind ensemble, playing a wistful melody.

An ancient-looking book opens to reveal a square patch of shimmering blue that becomes a vast body of water you are flying above.

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Up ahead is a fog-shrouded island, with granite structures set off by majestic pine trees. You glide down, landing on a walkway by the dock.

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Click.

Welcome to Myst Island. Your adventure, guided by the clicks of a computer mouse, will take days or--more likely--weeks to complete.

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Myst, a stunningly beautiful game created by the Millers, is the fastest-selling and most critically acclaimed of a new generation of computer games. Stored on CD-ROMs--compact discs with a vast memory capacity--these games can produce graphics, movement, animation and music of far greater richness than earlier home computer entertainments.

Like the leap from silent to sound movies, games on CD-ROM are not just an advancement, they’re a whole new genre.

The Millers’ creation is universally agreed to be the best CD-ROM entertainment, so far, in terms of storytelling and visual artistry. But the two CD-ROMs that join Myst as the top sellers are also breakthrough games.

Rebel Assault, which came out of George Lucas’ entertainment empire in Marin County, uses computer programming innovations to provide a lightning-fast, shoot-'em-up ride through a game with “Star Wars” settings and characters.

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The 7th Guest, created in a tiny office in Jacksonville, Ore., is a haunted-house mystery that claims Clue and “Twin Peaks” among its influences. One of its authors invented a programming technique that gives the game its smooth, cinematic movement through a richly detailed Victorian setting.

These three games, all of which retail for about $50-$60 apiece, have combined sales of more than 1 million, even though none were on the marketplace until last year.

Hollywood has taken notice. A few weeks ago, Disney’s publishing division announced it would pay the Millers a seven-figure advance for three novels based on Myst, and the studio is in negotiation for the film rights to the game.

Virtually every other major studio plans to get involved in CD-ROM production, and film veterans are linking onto projects. Lucas and Steven Spielberg are collaborating on a science-fiction CD-ROM adventure titled “The Dig.” Clint Eastwood is participating in the making of a CD-ROM retrospective of his film career. Such actors as Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Ned Beatty and Margot Kidder star in the live-action sequences of upcoming CD-ROMs.

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But it was not Hollywood people who led the way in creating the grammar of this new digital language.

The creators of Myst, Rebel Assault and 7th Guest are outsiders from diverse backgrounds. All but one are in their mid-20s to mid-30s. All but one are college drop-outs. All are likely to get rich off their games.

The most important attribute they share, however, is that they are pioneers exploring a new medium. CD-ROMs have been around for several years, but until recently they were touted as reference works. Every time CD-ROM was mentioned, it was sure to be accompanied by the enthusiastic assertion that an entire encyclopedia could fit on just one disc.

The game-makers proved that one disc, you could fit an entire world.

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Vince Lee, a clean-cut, trim man of 26, sits in a conference room at LucasArts--the Lucas game division in a San Rafael office building--watching company publicist Camela Boswell play Rebel Assault on a large, projection-type screen.

“You are doing great,” says Lee, the game’s creator, raising his voice to compete with the sound booming out of stereo speakers. Boswell deftly guides her space fighter through a variety of missions, shooting down the opposition from the Evil Empire.

“I can’t talk while playing,” Lee says. “I can’t do anything while playing.”

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As a junior high student in Concord near San Francisco, he slipped into the high school computer lab to teach himself computer programming. Given the fact that he was also a “Star Trek” fanatic, it’s no surprise that in high school the other kids called him a nerd.

“They probably did, they were probably right,” says Lee, who at least on this day looked preppy in his green print shirt, chinos and Rebel Assault jacket. “I probably had a horrible haircut and no fashion consciousness at all.”

No one could doubt that Lee was a prodigy. The home computer that his dad, a mechanical engineer, had built from a kit did not have a word processor, so Lee created one for it. He created and sold games all through college, even though he never formally studied computer code and to this day doesn’t own any of the heavy code texts that are the programmers’ bibles.

“I was cheap, I was poor,” he says. “I would just get some sample code and figure out how it worked. I learned by looking at examples.”

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Lee was the valedictorian of his high school class and got a full scholarship to UC Berkeley, where he majored in his father’s profession, mechanical engineering, earning a master’s degree.

At about the same time as Lee was attending college, George Lucas was getting more involved in game production for home PCs and the Nintendo cartridge-type machines that hook up to television sets.

LucasArts didn’t get into CD-ROM until 1992 when another firm said it would back a LucasArts CD-ROM game with a “Star Wars” theme.

By then, Lee was a programmer at LucasArts, having spurned a career in mechanical engineering because upon graduation he decided jobs in the field were “too boring.”

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Lee attacked the two basic problems that plagued the handful of games already on CD-ROM--an agonizingly slow pace of game play and postage-sized animations (full-screen images took up so such memory space that their use was impractical.

Lee created a new “engine,” the term used for a core programming code, that not only fixed these problems but also allowed greater depth to the graphics.

“Vince’s technology,” says art department head Collette Michaub, “gave us a lot of freedom on the art side to really go wild, kinda show off.”

Lee was made lead programmer on the project, but he also had ideas about the structure of the game and its story content. Eventually, even though he had never before been in charge of a Lucas game, he was named project leader of Rebel Assault, one of the company’s most ambitious games in development.

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“There were no parameters,” he says. “It was an opportunity to try anything.”

Similar to the way in which movies were made in early Hollywood, colleagues were recruited to play roles and provide voices. One of the pilots is played by the digitized image of Michaub.

“We would just grab people out of their offices,” Lee says.

Rebel Assault took two years to make. (Lucas, himself, saw it for the first time when it was almost done--he had little input in the project.) Because the company wanted the game to be out in time for Christmas last year, there was no time for testing the product outside the company.

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Expectations were not high. “At the time, there was no CD-ROM game that had really done impressive numbers,” Michaub says. “We thought of this as our training wheels project, getting everyone used to using the tools, building 3-D objects and backgrounds.”

But Rebel Assault took off right away. By the end of this year, LucasArts projects it will have sold more than a million copies.

Lee has gone on to a new, secret project. Plus, he is teaching other programmers at LucasArts how to use his engine. Company officials would not comment on his deal on Rebel Assault, but a spokesperson said project leaders usually share in profits on their products.

During the conversation with Lee, Boswell--the publicist playing Rebel Assault--is making progress, shooting and maneuvering her way through every mission leading up to the final big battle, the attack on the enemy Death Star.

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To the cheers of the half-dozen people in the room, she times her final barrage of shots perfectly and escapes in her X-Wing fighter just as the Death Star explodes.

“Camela is a lot better at this than me,” Lee says with a smile. “She has saved the universe many, many times.”

Graeme Devine and Rod Landeros, the co-creators of 7th Guest, did not go the star student route as youngsters. Devine, who grew up in a small city in England near Sherwood Forest, was expelled from high school.

“When I was still in school, I worked for Atari full time,” says Devine, 28, who with his long brown hair, lithe build and scruffy beard could be mistaken for a rock ‘n’ roll roadie. “I took a week off to finish Pole Position, a game I did for Atari. The school didn’t accept that as an excuse.”

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Devine laughs heartily, but that doesn’t disturb Scruffy the cat, who is contentedly sleeping on his lap as she does every morning. Scruffy came with the old schoolhouse, a historical landmark in Medford, Ore., which Devine and Landeros now rent as headquarters for their company, Trilobyte.

On Devine’s desk are five computers that he is using on the 11th Hour, a 7th Guest sequel scheduled to be released Dec. 1. He sold his first computer game, Firebirds, when he was about 12. “This is all I’ve ever done,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve never worked at anything else.”

Like Lee, Devine is sure other kids thought of him as a nerd. But no matter what his appearance, it would be a mistake to underestimate his business sense.

“In school, I was the strait-laced guy, always wearing my tie,” he says. “But I was also the guy getting 700 (about $1,150 by current rates) a month in game royalties.”

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Landeros, at 46, is the grand old man of CD-ROM game creation. When he was growing up in Redlands, there was no such thing as home computers. He dropped out of several colleges where he studied art, first making his mark in 1970 in the raucous world of underground comics in Berkeley.

Later he took up the more sedate activity of scrimshaw carving, selling his pieces at craft fairs and galleries. When he first got a computer, in the mid-1980s, it was to play games, but he soon grew tired of the electronic fare then offered.

“I found out that the funnest thing to do with the computer was not to play games, but to make your own,” says the soft-voiced Landeros. “I started programming, learning out of the manual that came with the computer.”

By the late 1980s, Devine and Landeros had landed at Irvine-based Virgin Games, one of the more prominent game producers. Devine was vice president of research and development, and Landeros was head of the art department. Both were bored.

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“Virgin had become a Nintendo licensee and so we were designing games for kiddies,” Landeros says. “You would have a character who would jump around, shoot something and then collect hamburgers. It was not what I was interested in.”

CD-ROMs were of interest, but it was a revolutionary idea in the game world. “We were at one conference on CD-ROMs in this big hall and the speaker asked, ‘How many of you are planning to do games?’ ” Landeros says. “Graeme and I were the only ones to raise our hands.”

In 1990 Devine and Landeros were sitting in a New York airport after attending a conference on interactive media, including CD-ROMs, and one of them said they should do Clue as a CD-ROM game (neither is sure who said it first).

Excited by the concept, they wrote out a proposal back at the office and gave it to Martin Alper, the head of Virgin. “A half-hour later he comes into our office and says, ‘Let’s go to lunch,’ ” Devine says. “He tells us, ‘Your future, guys, is not at Virgin. You guys are going to leave the company, and I’ll give you a contract to make this game.’ ”

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Thinking the project too tenuous for in-house development, Alper sent them off to form their own operation. With a $400,000 contract (at the time, a huge amount for a game) Devine and Landeros set up their company in Oregon to take advantage of the calmer pace and more forgiving cost of living.

They spent $30,000 on a video shoot to incorporate live action into the game that turned out to be only loosely based on Clue. Theirs is a Gothic-style tale from the 1930s about a mansion owned by an evil toy maker seemingly responsible for several mysterious murders. As you wander through the two-story house, you’re called upon to solve traditional word and chess board-type puzzles to open various doors and progress.

Devine designed an engine to give the game smooth movement and full screen live action, including ghostly characters who appear in hallways and rooms.

After numerous all-nighters they released 7th Guest last year. It had impressive sales almost from the beginning.

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Because they own half the game, Devine and Landeros could probably take early retirement, but they have grand plans for the future. Although they granted royalties to key members of their 7th Guest creative team, such as the lead artist and music composer, they took none themselves, pouring their profits back into the company.

The sequel, which is more technically ambitious and costly to produce (its live-action shoot cost $200,000), will also be distributed by Virgin, but their future games will be published and produced in-house. They have several projects in production, including one that is highly unusual in the computer game world in that it was created by an all-female team.

Trilobyte, now with about 30 employees, hums with activity. Computers crowd every desk--almost everyone, including the receptionist, has at least two. In the next few months, they will move to larger quarters. (Scruffy the cat will be going with them.)

Devine and Landeros are no longer just creators, they are mini-moguls, raising investment cash and green-lighting projects.

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“I’ve learned to give up control, trust other people, delegate,” Landeros says quietly. “I’m still trying to find my place in the company, get comfortable.”

Devine is more involved in the business aspects of the operation, which he hopes will be successful enough to eventually go public. At that point, the two of them as company owners, will reap the financial rewards of their success. But Devine has already savored at least one reward.

“My dad took clippings about the game and presented them to my old school,” he says. “He said to them, ‘This is what happened to the guy you expelled.’ ”

The Miller brothers and their small staff are working in a two-story, converted garage nestled in a Ponderosa pine forest on the outskirts of Spokane that looks suspiciously like the forest on Myst Island.

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Downstairs, artist Josh Staub sits at his computer, creating a tree that might be in the Myst sequel. Using the computer’s drawing and painting tools, Staub had already made a frame for the trunk and then painted on the bark. Next came the leaves, which were literally taken from life.

“We went out and took a picture of real leaves,” says Robyn, 28, enthusiastically grabbing an Apple digital camera to show how it was done.

The pictures were scanned into the computer and sized down. Staub has been painstakingly pasting the image of the leaves, one-by-one, onto the tree branches. The result is very different from the simple, stylized pines of the original Myst.

“Sometimes hyper-reality can have its own unreality,” says Rand, 35, peering over the artist’s shoulder. “We’re trying all sorts of things before we decide on how the sequel will look.”

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It’s a long way from the first computer game, Lunar Lander, that Rand played on a visit to the University of New Mexico when he was in junior high. That game was totally text-based.

“It would print out how high you are, how much fuel you’re burning, how fast you’re going,” Rand says. “You made adjustments and it printed out the figures again, until you landed it or ran out of fuel.”

Sitting next to him at a conference table in the garage offices, Robyn rolls his eyes. “What an exciting game,” he says, drolly, and they both laugh.

Rand found computer manuals more entertaining to read than texts for his classes. Robyn’s diversions were drawing and painting.

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“I guess I ended up doing artwork because it was something constant in my life,” Robyn says. “The high school I went to in Texas was not a very good school, so I mostly taught myself, going home and spending hours just painting.”

To no surprise to anyone who has played Myst, his paintings of landscapes and objects were highly realistic with some surrealistic touches.

Does he still have some of these early paintings?

“I do,” Robyn says, “but I don’t show them to anyone.”

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“For fear,” Rand adds, “he’ll be committed.”

By the late 1980s, Rand was working as a programmer in a bank in Texas and Robyn did free-lance desktop publishing on a primitive Apple while taking classes at the University of Washington. Both were married.

Rand, who had two daughters at the time (he now has three), was frustrated that there were no good computer games for small children. He came up with the idea of adapting a story based on “Alice in Wonderland” as a computer book, envisioning the kind of program, now common, that presented interactive pages, allowing a child to click open a door on the page or look inside a box.

For the artwork he turned to Robyn, who had little experience in using computers and did not think along standard lines. Instead of restricting the action to a book, he designed a total environment where the child could wander around at will, finding all sorts of magical places without ever worrying about going a right or wrong way.

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The world he created was the true ancestor of Myst, in which a player moves about the island to explore buildings, walk through forests, read books in a library and solve the puzzles that lead to a series of discoveries about what happened on Myst Island and why you are there.

They called their first program “The Manhole,” and upon its release in 1988, it was a big hit. They followed it up with Cosmic Osmo, a more complex space environment that included numerous games kids could play.

With their computer environments getting more complex, the Millers needed more storage space than normal hard drives could provide. “We started talking about CD-ROMs,” Rand says. “Even then, we were talking about doing one that would be for adults.”

Unlike Rebel Assault and 7th Guest, Myst breaks no new technical ground, debuts no new engine.

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“We’re tool users,” says Robyn Miller. “We use the technology others create. They’re much better at making that stuff than we could ever be.”

The Millers actually took advantage of the technology’s drawbacks. They used the slow game movement to give Myst a dreamlike quality. Their animation and live-action sequences are indeed confined to small spaces, but they made this a part of the design scheme, framing sequences so that they appeared to be taking place through windows or in one corner of a room.

They emphasized the use of sound, not only in music, but to give subtle game-playing clues. “One of the things we wrote in our very first proposal (to Sunsoft, the Japanese company that provided initial funding),” Rand says, “was that we wanted the people playing this game to use all their senses, smell and touch excluded, to make their way through.”

But the aspect of the Miller game that makes it more sophisticated than any other created for a computer is that no matter how intricate the game play or spectacular the art design, all is firmly rooted in the story they are telling.

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Myst might not be technologically revolutionary, but in storytelling, nothing can touch it.

“From the beginning, we knew that the story was going to be the most important part,” says Rand. “We could have the nicest art in the world, but if there was no story it wouldn’t mean much.”

The Millers decided not to make the plot interactive, unlike computer games that give the player choices having to do with the story line or different endings.

It’s part of the literary genius of Myst that no matter what route the player takes in exploring this multilayered world, they will all be gathering the same story and come to the same plot climax.

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“The challenge was to tell this linear story in a non-linear world,” Robyn says. “We had to figure out ways of doing it as we went along.”

Part way through planning the game they stopped to write a detailed novel containing the back story leading up to the action in Myst. Few incidents from the novel actually appeared in the game, but they feel it makes the story and characters much richer.

Not surprisingly, they have been courted by several publishers for the rights to the novel. The brothers recently signed with a literary agent.

The Millers are pouring their considerable profits into buying new computers and hiring new artists and other personnel; they now have a staff of eight. But they have no plans to become publishers or start a large company. The Millers simply go on creating games together.

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Because they both have families of their own, they don’t typically do the all-nighters that are part of software development lore. But it is through their children that they can see the impact CD-ROMs might be having.

“I thought that my 2-year-old son was much too young to try using a computer,” Robyn says, “but one night I went home and let him play with one of the games. And right away he starts clicking, clicking, clicking to move through the rooms.

“A few nights later we were reading a Dr. Seuss book and I saw him poking his finger at the drawing of a door on the page. He looked up at me and said, ‘I keep touching here, but I can’t go there, I can’t open it up.’

“He wanted to know what was behind that door.”

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Sitting next to him, Rand laughs.

“So do we,” he says.

How Many?

* Desktop computers worldwide: 121 million

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* CD-ROM drives predicted to be shipped in 1994:

17.5 million (more than all previous years combined)

* Computers with CD-ROM drives by the end of 1994:

23 million

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Source: Dataquest


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