Myth-fan game The Ages of Ilathid is an upcoming adventure game that will bring nine new ages to the Myth universe and further expand this popular series. What made this project interesting to us is the fact that the authors of Myst gave their official seal of approval, making this a more official project than just a mod for this legendary adventure title.
In order to find what’s going on we shot couple of questions to Jennifer Parsons and Paulo Monteiro, leaders of the team working on the game.
BSN*: Greetings Jennifer, could you introduce yourself to the readers of Bright Side of News* and tell us how did this project start, who were the initial crew and what was the main motivation behind it?
Jennifer: [explain early history of Ages of Ilathid here, Paulo?]… I myself joined Ages of Ilathid two years back as a concept artist and eventually ended up as "de facto project leader." I still prefer to think of myself as Paulo’s secretary. ;]
Paulo: *walks into the room with white coat and stethoscope on* Oh, hello. I’m Paulo Monteiro, the original Project Leader of TAOI. I’m on leave from the project as of now, since I’m currently an intern at medical school, but I hope to be back soon. Jennifer is doing a magnificent job of holding the fort.
Ilathid started in early 2004, based on ideas that were kicking about in my head from long before that. We had a few major storyline rewrites since that time, thanks mainly to Kelly Christiansen and Elyse Arner, both of which are no longer with us. The main motivation was to homage Cyan with a game that was on par with Riven, but many other things appeared since then – one motivation now is to give fans of the Myst Universe and of the adventure genre in general something they haven’t had for a long time.
The initial crew, as far as I can remember, has as core members Chris Maroglou [Programming], Joel Ronvël [mainly 3D, but he can do everything, including holding the fort alone when I'm away], Heidi Richter [Amazing 2D art and concepts], Kelly Christiansen [she's the author of several novels, under the alias crystalwizard, worked at Storyline], Vera Yatsula [again, 2D art], Alex Coblentz [Music - you can see some of his work in the demo], Eric Burnett [concepts, art and hosting]. They came with me from Verenia, a project that had recently closed down and on which I held the post of 3D artist. Its postmortem, which I co-authored is available at Verenia’s Post Mortem page and is an excellent aid for new devs, showing them the most common mishaps in a volunteer project.
BSN*: Except the game style – what are the connections to the Myst universe, is it a continuation of already established story or something new?
Jennifer: Ages of Ilathid is set right before Myst III: Exile. The game’s character–you–are a D’ni survivor who is searching for Linking Books within the ruins of the Cavern of the D’ni, sent by Atrus himself. After becoming trapped in a room when the ceiling collapses, the player’s only option is to find his/her way out through a hidden Linking Book that leads to another world. As the game progresses, the player encounters familiar Myst elements [linking book travel, the Art of Writing, and other elements of the D'ni culture] set against the background of the completely original civilization of Ilathid. The game’s storyline deals with entirely new characters; this is necessary both to avoid potential conflicts with Cyan Worlds’ canon and because the eventual plan is to use live actors and it would be difficult to find look-alike substitutes for Atrus, Catherine and other previously seen Myst characters.
Typical Myst scenery is back…
Paulo: It is a spinoff, as Jen described, meaning that while the story has strong roots in the Myst universe, it quickly becomes semi-independent save for a few key elements, like the basics of D’ni culture [the Myst universe's main civilization], and, of course, the concept of Linking Books, the almost-magical books that transport you to the worlds they describe. Other than that, we stay away from the Myst storyline, not only because it’s finished, but so as not to interfere with any possible future works from Cyan set in the Myst/D’ni universe.
BSN*: Are you making a game just for Myst fans or one that you would like to play yourself?
Jennifer: Both! Our game targets all adventure and fantasy game lovers, especially if you like puzzles and a good story. You certainly don’t have to be a Myst fan to enjoy playing it, although if you are it will be even more fun. It’s a balance; we try to stay true to the spirit of the Myst games [in particular Riven], but we nevertheless make sure to keep the interests of the general gaming public in mind. It’s important that someone who has not played any Myst games before will be able to pick up our game and not miss out on or be confused by what’s going on. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they should be able to pick up the game and not be any more confused than a Myst player would be anyway.
Paulo: I believe that I’d never make a game or any other kind of entertainment that wasn’t pleasing to me, personally. Mind you, that can be a mistake if you don’t let the game evolve with the ideas and work of all collaborators, if you let only your ego to drive the game – it becomes too artificial and uninteresting to others. For example, the graphics you see in the trailers weren’t like that on the start, the concept evolved much, and they improved greatly. Those that least improved were those that least evolved. So I only prune ideas when they become incompatible with the very essence of the game [like making it multiplayer, for example].
All aboard the crazy train…
BSN*: What are the platforms you targeted for running Ages of Ilathid? Windows are probably a given, what about Linux or Mac OSX?
Jennifer: We are targeting Windows and Mac. We originally wanted to make a version for Linux as well, but we couldn’t find any Linux programmers who were interested…
BSN*: Do you use your own tools to create the game or some already available on the market?
Jennifer: The only software we use which is not generally available to the public is the game’s engine, based on the open source engine Pyzzle, made on the Python Programming Language. It has, however, been reworked dozens of times and still will be, until we can make it fully multi-platform.
Continued and Concluded on the next page.
BSN*: Will Ages of Ilathid be free of charge once you finish it or you plan to release as a commercial title?
Jennifer: Ages of Ilathid will be free of charge! The Myst series, the universe in which our game is set, is the intellectual property of Cyan Worlds. We have a third party license from them which allows us to make the game legally, and one of the terms of this license is that we are not permitted to make any profit of off our game, which does not bother us, since it was the original intent. Translated into plain English – anyone who wants a copy of the game will be able to download it free of charge off the Internet.
BSN*: If it was indeed commercial how do you think it would fare on the market, would there be enough reception? Would you use digital distribution model, and try to qualify for STEAM or try to tie-up with small progressive publishers such as Telltale Games?
Jennifer: If it were commercial, I think it would do well – not fantastic, but well. On one hand, the game’s graphics, animations, and story are [in my not unbiased opinion] top notch; on the other hand, everything is done in the old point-and-click interface which characterized original Myst and Riven. And while making the game in 2D allows us to create extremely high quality graphics [this was the reason we chose to work in 2D rather than 3D in the first place], I think most people who actually plan to spend money on a game want at least full 3D movement. If I were trying to sell Ages of Ilathid, I would try to qualify for STEAM as I think the game would end up reaching a wider customer base.
Paulo: Another advantage we would have is that the game has very low system requirements and can be played by anyone of any age. This means the potential customer base would be much larger than most games.
BSN*: Do you plan to promote your team’s skills through creation of this game or is completion of the game your only goal?
Jennifer: Our team’s focus is more on completing the game than on gaining a reputation in the Indie gaming world, but we do use the game development process to promote our individual skills. Some of our members have used the game materials they created [music, art, etc.] to enhance their portfolios; others work on the game to gain experience in preparation for entering a professional field. I personally used my Ages of Ilathid experience on my graduate school application. Other members have used it on Masters’ degrees and as part of their CV for entering larger companies.
BSN*: Have there been any major problems in game development that you have overcome – or have yet to overcome in order to finish it?
Jennifer: Some time ago, a malicious person attacked the project and as a result we had to get a new forum and server. Many of our finished game materials were lost, and the extended pause in development which resulted as the forums and server were restored resulted in much of the original team drifting away. Since then, we have restored the server, most of the forum, and as many of the lost game materials as we could reacquire, but we have yet to retain our original level of activity. That’s what we’re working on right now; it’s a slow process, but it will accelerate.
Where are all the purdy elves gone…
Paulo: The other problem we have is inherent to our working paradigm. Our developers are volunteers, so we can’t be sure any one of them will have a problem in their lives and be forced to step down from the project at any time. We’ve learned to live with this, though, by constantly finding more staff. This is good in a way, as each developer improves the game in his or hers special way.
BSN*: Are you looking for more people to work on Ages of Ilathid or are you pleased with current amount of the team members?
Jennifer: It’s a mixed bag; in some areas we have enough people, in other areas we’re short-handed, in some areas we’ve always been short-handed – see Linux programmers, and in yet other areas we have enough people but want to expand in order to pick up the pace. Currently we are looking for modelers, concept artists, and programmers experienced in Python and the Macintosh or Linux operating systems.
Paulo: We don’t have much of a prejudice as regards to level of expertise or preferred software/platform or even area, despite needing more people in the areas Jen states. We encourage and aid people to learn what they need to work while working and I can find tasks for any talent or level of expertise, plus you can use your work in a portfolio, which is always a plus. But you must come ready to learn: for instance, the manual we give to new developers, explaining the basics of the project, is over 60 pages and fully illustrated. Tim Thomas, our former HR and PR person, made it for us, for which I’m eternally grateful.
BSN*: In your opinion how close is the game to being finished?
Jennifer: Tough question; it depends on how deluxe we choose to make the final product and on how quickly we build up the size of the team. I’d guess about one to two years, minimum.
Paulo: It could be more, though, so don’t be too anxious. We will keep on releasing content during this time, and our music album is already extensive – we’re thinking of releasing it eventually, if the project itself takes too long. It’ll contain final and concept versions of the songs, so you can have a taste of the feeling of the worlds, only a taste, since the final game will have more songs and some changes. The nature of the remaining content may also depend on future developments from Cyan, so we’ll not disclose our release options at this time. I’ll only say that the fans will have to work to access some of them, as we made them work in the past, with a small ARG.
Yes, I want to enter, but I don’t want to wait [Duke Nukem] Forever…
BSN*: If the quality of the game attracted some established commercial developer team would you stay independent or consider merging with them for future projects?
Jennifer: We all contribute to the game in our spare time; thus, the amount of work we can do depends heavily upon our availability. So while it would certainly be exciting to work with a commercial developer team, I don’t think a merge would ultimately be successful from a monetary/logistical perspective. It is also not possible with the current terms we have with Cyan, which would force us to drift away from our current universe – unless said commercial team was Cyan themselves.
BSN*: Finally – after you finally finish the Ages of Ilathid game – do you plan to take a break from games or already have a new project planned?
Paulo: We will take a small break from games while we spread the word about Ilathid and see the public’s reaction. We’ll also be working on the book series, since The Ages of Ilathid is but a moment in time on a much larger storyline that extends from before the game to many years after it. We’re even thinking of setting it into present time [after all, TAOI is set on the 1800's], but we’re putting this part on hold as it depends much on what Cyan does with Myst Online. There are a few chapters already in the proof-reading stage.
After this break and evaluation period, we will start work on a sequel, which is already outlined. Well, two sequels are outlined, in fact. Both will feature substantial changes on game play, derived from the different settings, without changing the original spirit. But that’s for later; first we will finish this game.
While going through the answers, we could not stop but to think what would happen with the universes if fans had an easier time and more support from the originating companies. To work on a project for five to ten years is extremely exhaustive, and yet you aren’t able to even profit for the efforts put in creating a fan project. Rather, The Ages of Ilathid will be labor of love for the multi-national team.
If this title was being built with a commercial thought in mind, Cyan could help the team to make a transition to iPhone, Blackberry and other commercially-viable platforms for 2D games and create a solid revenue stream. The content that we saw is impressive for a piece of fan work, but Dave Perry’s book just doesn’t stop popping in our minds.
There is little not to like about The Ages of Ilathid – when and if the game finally does come out, it could spark new interest into the Myst worlds. The game itself is oriented towards the crowd that appreciate reading a good book while traveling, and this came could glue them to a laptop or a netbook. Low hardware demands will make this game playable on almost every computer released in the past half a decade.
All in all, we wish the TAOI team all the best in their difficult endeavor and hopefully original Myst content will come to life once more.