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Mead-based ‘Myst’ creators to publish new virtual reality game ‘ZED’ early in 2019

November 25, 2018

The makers of “Myst” are turning to an old friend to push their foray into virtual reality gaming even further.

The Mead-based independent game studio Cyan Worlds announced earlier this month it was spinning off a publishing arm to handle the release of “ZED” this spring. The fantastical adventure title comes from the mind of Chuck Carter, a former Spokesman-Review staffer who worked as an artist on the groundbreaking 1993 PC title.

“It’s not ours, it’s Chuck Carter’s game,” said Rand Miller, co-founder of Cyan Worlds, in an interview this week. “It’s his brainchild, and really his vision for this thing.”

This is the first time Cyan Worlds has forged such a partnership. The games releasing under the brand have traditionally been developed at the team’s studios off U.S. Highway 2.

“ZED” is being designed to work with traditional PC gaming rigs, as well as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. Like Cyan’s most recently announced title, “Firmament,” details about the game are scant. A joint news release from Cyan and Eagre Games, the Maine-based company founded by Carter, describes the title as an experience that “blends adventure, a rich narrative, stirring sentiment, and fanciful world exploration.”

A brief teaser trailer includes narration from veteran video game voiceover artist Stephen Russell, whom sharp-eared gaming fans will recognize as the voice behind characters in the stealth “Thief” franchise and as the chipper butler robots called “Mr. Handys” in the “Fallout” universe. A montage of absurdist images flash on the screen as Russell talks about connecting memories and creating a book for someone named “Charlotte.”

The story, co-written with talent from Skymap Games who had previously worked on titles in the “Metal Gear” series and “Bioshock Infinite,” follows the story of an artist who is experiencing a mind on the decline, Miller said.

“Here we’re talking about some guy who’s got lots of regret in life, and gone through life with some issues that didn’t serve him well,” Miller said. “He’s got dementia. He’s starting to lose his mind, and he finds out that he’s going to have a granddaughter he might never see.

“The essence of it is, you’re kind of trying to put together the memories of this guy into a children’s book that he’s going to pass to his granddaughter,” he continued. “Which is just sort of a cool idea.”

Miller acknowledged that his small team north of Spokane doesn’t have the kind of star power to propel a game like “ZED” past the blockbuster franchises, like the recently released Western “Red Dead Redemption II,” to the top of the sales charts. But VR, and the gaming industry in general, has in recent years provided small developers hoping to push the boundaries of the medium in new directions that Cyan wants to highlight, Miller said.

“Indie development is where people can experiment and try different things,” he said. “I don’t know when it was in the film industry, maybe back in the ’60s or something like that, where the indies – some of them really bad, some of them really good – all of them experimenting in ways that brought the process forward a bit.”

While Cyan may not be able to compete with the likes of Rockstar Games, the developers and publishers behind “Red Dead Redemption” that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market the game and reaped nearly three-quarters of a billion in sales over its first weekend, the firm has proved it’s no slouch on the Kickstarter circuit. Cyan raised $2.8 million earlier this year to re-release “Myst” for its 25th anniversary, and for “Obduction” raised $1.3 million, enough to build a virtual reality component for that in-house title that released in 2016.

Miller said he’s interested in developing games specifically for virtual reality platforms in the future, in what is perhaps a risky gambit. Many trade publications, based on sales reports from online retailer Amazon released this summer, predicted a plateau for the medium after initial excitement around the time of Obduction’s development.

Still, Sony – makers of the headset for its PlayStation 4 system – reported sales topping 3 million worldwide at the end of this summer. That’s compared with a reported 80 million total PS4 systems sold since the console launched in 2013. Microsoft’s console, the Xbox One, does not currently have virtual reality support.

“It’s scary, frankly,” Miller said. “It’s a slow burn at this point for VR. There’s a lot of companies that are offering some kind of commitment to it, and we’re hoping there’s more in the future. It’s definitely waiting for those killer apps that push things forward.”

Industry watchers have also predicted that the immersive worlds created by developers for modern titles, when translated to a virtual reality experience, could make worse the addictive nature of modern gaming. Citing numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Washington Post reported in 2016 that time spent gaming has been on the rise since before the 2008 recession, especially among young, unemployed men. The average time spent gaming among that demographic before 2007 was 3.4 hours per week. By 2014, that number had increased to 8.6 hours per week.

Eric Geissinger, a tech writer based in New York, wrote in his 2018 nonfiction work “Gamer Nation: The Rise of Modern Gaming and the Compulsion to Play Again,” that such a trend may be exacerbated by the immersive worlds virtual reality gaming can offer.

“Game designers will be able to carefully calibrate their game mechanics and in-game offerings to match a player’s heart rate, put them in realistic 360-degree peril before asking them for an extra life or upgrade, use all the tricks learned and implemented on a small screen and multiply their effect a thousandfold, surrounding players with a dazzling immersive experience that very few people would be able to resist,” Geissinger wrote.

Miller said he shared those concerns, but pointed out that Cyan and its partners are interested in narrative-driven experiences that have a definable end encouraging the player to put their joysticks (or virtual reality gloves and headsets) down.

“I look at it differently than the ‘Candy Crush’ crowd,” Miller said, referring to the wildly popular mobile game that has been criticized for being designed with addicting a player in mind. “I’m looking at it as, I want to give people a sense of satisfaction, with that whole frustration/reward cycle, I want it to culminate with something that they go, wow, that was a cool experience.”

“ZED” is scheduled for release in spring 2019, and will be available through the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, as well as a traditional PC release.

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