Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Story -- Part II

Thanksgiving Story
Being an Eyewitness Account of the Obduction Kickstarter and Associated Events

Did you miss Part I?  Click here.

Part II: Recent Remarkable Events

As Myst's 20th anniversary quietly passed, there were rumblings of something new under the ground. Cyan's Facebook page began to show more activity, among it an article announcing that a new game was in the works. It would be Myst-like, but not Myst. At last! It wasn't long before a KickStarter campaign for a brand new story called Obduction was announced. The fundraising attempt started with a bang, as eager fans contributed $100,000 in the first seven hours of the campaign.

I feel that I should take a few moments to explain what KickStarter is, as some of my readers might not know yet. KickStarter allows various commercial and non-profit ventures to be funded before their production is complete, through a pre-order-like system. Instead of taking out a loan or getting an advance from a publisher, developers with new ideas can go directly to their potential customers for the money they need to bring work to fruition. KickStarter is a type of “crowdfunding,” which means that numerous people (“backers”) contribute small amounts to make up the pool of cash. After being jilted by publishers, Cyan found this technique a natural choice that would allow them to remain completely independent. Their budget was small for the gaming world, but large by KickStarter project standards: 1.1 million dollars. There was also an element of risk: KickStarter doesn't collect money from any of the backers unless a project meets its funding goal. If Cyan couldn't raise the entire $1.1 million in thirty days, they would get nothing at all, and the game would be canceled, at least for the time being.

Concept art for Obduction. What is that white farmhouse doing in an alien landscape? Get the game, and you'll find out.

Though the fundraising campaign began with an incredible flood of donations, once most of the devoted fans who had immediate knowledge of Obduction had offered their money, incoming pledges slowed to a crawl. I joined the party during this mid-campaign slump. (Although I knew about the effort from Day 1, I delayed pledging until November for personal budgetary reasons, and you don't get to talk to other backers on KickStarter until you make a pledge.) And once I arrived, I found that the fans were responding to the slow progress by taking matters into their own hands. They were making fliers and posters and passing them around so that everybody could use them. They were contacting celebrities that they had an inkling might be old Myst fans. They were getting the word out in virtual communities like Second Life. They were buying Google and Facebook ads to draw more people to the fundraiser. The comments section of the KickStarter page was constantly humming with ideas, accomplishments, speculations, and heartfelt tributes to Cyan's past games. While the US time zones were in bed, fans in Europe, Australia, and other places around the world took up the charge. I'm a horrible advertiser; if there's one activity I hate, it's anything that involves asking people to spend money. But even I got caught up in the effort, in my own mediocre way. I plugged the game on both my social network accounts twice, posted fliers at my workplace and apartment complex, and made an awkward attempt to discuss the situation with my lunch companions. The backers had become an eager amateur PR team that never slept and demanded no payment … save a new game and related goodies from Cyan. Some had learned about the KickStarter because of prior connections, as I had. Others found it seemingly by chance, from things such as the wrong word typed into a search bar.

Heroics among the backers ran the gamut from creative determination to encouraging comic relief. Unable to post fliers on her university's bulletin boards due to policy, NomadMolly parked her car in a high-traffic area and taped one to the window. She vowed to show up for the last evening of the campaign, in spite of being a few hours out of hand surgery. Lorna built and maintained a community document to keep all of the PR suggestions in one place; others helped edit and improve it. The excitable Dimitrios kept the hype going in the comment section with overzealous use of his exclamation point key. Griffin and William wrote poetry. After it appeared that large amounts of money came in while Horatio was at lunch, he developed a policy of “lunching” continuously to help the campaign. The mother of a Cyan employee, known on KickStarter as “RAWA's Mama,” showed up to support the project and was quickly adopted by the other backers. Founders of other KickStarter game projects – even some who had not yet met their own goals – dropped in to offer solidarity and promotional help. Many, many more gave their contributions in fan art, tribute videos, and any sort of hook they could think of to draw people in. Cyan employees worked on getting the campaign into the press, but also participated in the comment area and ran online events which allowed fans to ask them questions. An almost familial atmosphere began to develop.

NomadMolly's infamous car flier. The flier was designed by Christina “Riv” Hawkes.

Doubts were expressed; even Rand Miller, one of Myst's original creators, said there were times when he wasn't sure the campaign would succeed. But the more optimistic backers were always there to squash worries with the wisdom of KickStarter experience, which predicted a steep ramp-up in donations at the end. Feverish calculations were performed in an attempt to rate current progress and predict chances of success. Major milestones were enthusiastically cheered. And slowly, the money gauge continued to rise. As the campaign dragged on through its last two weeks, the suspense intensified.

Meanwhile, as they did their best to help Cyan get its new game off the ground, a number of backers were reminiscing about their old Myst experiences. It turned out that I wasn't the only one who had found these games surprisingly powerful, even life-changing. Noticing the many positive stories that were being written and rapidly buried in the KickStarter comments section, a fan named John Cosgrove created a web site called ThankYouCyan, in which he collected many of these notes. A browse through the site reveals that these works move people in the way that only genuine art can. One person even wrote in that the Myst series kept him from suicide.

As the KickStarter campaign wore on, the wave of nostalgia carried some supporters back to Uru after long absences. People recalled and shared their old user names, and I observed several delighted little reunions. “Well look who's here! I haven't seen you in forever!” Others discovered Uru for the first time. Those who still remembered the Cavern, or had never left, took up the responsibility of welcoming and assisting newcomers. Uru veteran Tai'lahr created a neighborhood on the server for the “Obductees,” as we were now being called, to gather in. Having made friendly acquaintance with a number of people in the KickStarter comments, I felt emboldened to try a little interaction in the game itself. I worked up my courage, went into Uru's public areas, and actually approached and talked to some other people. The weekend before the KickStarter ended, I was hanging out at a karaoke party conducted in one of the virtual neighborhoods (I had no idea people even did such things), and completing a “door run” puzzle with the help of other players. I left with the contented feeling that I had finally experienced Uru the way it was meant to be enjoyed. And as activity on all fronts continued, I began to feel as if some kind of sleeping giant had been awakened.

The final week of the KickStarter began, and things were getting downright distracting. I found myself having to stay late at work in order to put my hours in, because I took so many little breaks to read the comments and see how the funding counter was getting on. (Fortunately flexible hours are allowed where I work, and nobody seemed to care.) The fear of failure that had been evident in previous weeks began to ease. High-profile Twitter users such as Halo developer Bungie and Braid creator Johnathan Blow helped the campaign with favorable tweets. On Wednesday, we got what was likely our biggest break, in the form of a single tweet from Neil Patrick Harris. This tweet came just as the pledge total was creeping up toward 1 million dollars, and the effect was immediate and dramatic. The funding rate spiked as the total shot over $1 million and beyond. The comment section exploded with excitement. Trends and calculations aside, I think there was something about the psychological magic of passing the one million mark that made people certain the project would succeed. The D'ni Musicological Research society cued up an impromptu Shoutcast concert to celebrate. People shouted on their keyboards, “Life! Life in the desert!” and “The tree grows again!” … both references to the restoration of the D'ni civilization of Cyan's stories. And it was then that I began to understand fully what was happening. Not business. Not a game. A resurrection. Something that we had feared dead was coming alive again.

A small crowd of Obductees gathers in Uru to watch the KickStarter funding pass its base goal. Screen capture by Tai'lahr.

With the one million dollar mark passed and the campaign still basking in the afterglow of its Twitter successes, the actual funding goal of 1.1 million felt almost anti-climactic. It was quickly passed. The backers continued to drum up support to meet the first “stretch goal” of 1.3 million, which would add support for non-English languages and a fascinating virtual reality headset called Oculus Rift ( to the game. But with the end of the campaign fast approaching, attention also turned toward parties … and as it happened, there was one more surprise to come. A KickStarter update announced that three Cyan employees would be joining us in the Cavern.

RAWA in the auditorium. Screen capture by Ainia.

Friday arrived, and I made it home from work in time to partake of all the evening's events. Many of us made our way to Uru and filled the dead D'ni city of Ae'gura with throngs of people. Nearly 150 crowded into an auditorium for a Q&A with RAWA (Richard A. Watson, Cyan's D'ni historian and linguist). The server that was providing this virtual space for us groaned a little under the weight, but held up. Some of the gathered became reporters, capturing video and chat logs of the event. Others tried to establish order by urging people to sit down and establishing a queue for speaking to RAWA. We plied him with questions for over two hours. Then it was time to solve some puzzles with Ryan Warzecha and Lauren Hall-Stigerts, who had been responsible for managing much of Cyan's PR during the KickStarter. Ryan had to leave early to deliver thank-you Skype calls to some of the backers, but Lauren stayed with us almost until the end. We ran around a desert world called Minkata together and nearly got lost in the sandstorms near the edge of the map. Meanwhile on the KickStarter page, the money was still flowing in. I was in Minkata with Lauren and a small group of other explorers, in the wee hours of the morning, when the second stretch goal was achieved.

Arrival in Minkata. Lauren (Saxy) is in the center, wearing a black jacket and red pants. I'm the one standing by the flag, with a gray jacket and pith helmet. Screen capture by Christian Walther.

The KickStarter officially ended at around 7 AM my time. I stayed awake and saw it through, joining the Cyan team for a last video hangout. As dawn broke outside my Colorado apartment, I raised my mug of water in a toast with them. The KickStarter closed with a total of $1,321,306 contributed by 22,195 backers, placing it among the Top 50 KickStarter projects of all time.  I left a celebratory comment, ate some breakfast, and crashed into bed.

The KickStarter campaign is over, but Obduction and the worlds of Myst are not. Cyan lives.

Want to continue to Part III? Click here.

Obduction, Myst, Riven, Uru, and related characters and images are copyrights of Cyan Inc., Presto Studios, and/or their publishers (Ubisoft, etc.).

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