Insert Disc: Myst’s Impact on the CD-ROM

With fairly sophisticated graphics, an intuitive playability, and expansive fictional world, Myst solidified itself as a killer application, and was an instant and lasting commercial success; however, it’s important to consider how this game’s mechanics- how being distributed via CD-ROM specifically allowed and enhanced each of these lauded aspects of the game- went on to shape the rest of an entire generation of gaming, exacerbating the shift from cartridges to optic storage. Capable of showing the best elements of computing, programming, and design at the time, Myst became an instant necessity for the computer gamer, proving the merit of the CD-ROM as a distribution method. Regarding the popularization of the use of compact discs with read only memory in personal computers, the Miller brothers- as developers of Mac OS hit Myst- were able to alter the direction of videogaming history.

As the game was released on September 23 of 1993, it became and remained the best-selling PC game throughout the rest of the 1990’s for almost a decade, funneling sales into the CD-ROM industry. In this way, Myst shaped the rapidly-evolving fifth generation of computer videogaming, allowing game publishers radically increased data storage at dramatically reduced manufacturing prices (Paxman, Jeremy. “When SCUMM Ruled the Earth.” 1 UP, n.d. http://www.1up.com/features/essential-50-myst).

Initially, the Miller brothers (under developer Cyan) designed Myst unaware of the immense success the game would achieve. Due to its simple gameplay, the game was immediately recognized as widely playable in a gaming generation that was about to break into 3D rendering on console platforms. Interestingly enough, however, Myst was able to compete with the sales of Playstation games released in 1994- games that it directly helped influence (“Myst – Personal Computer.” VG Chartz, December 1, 2012. http://www.vgchartz.com/game/6359/myst/).

In fact, as Myst’s reputation grew, and more and more CD copies of Myst were distributed, other games attempted to copy the Miller brothers’ and Cyan’s success. Aside from spawning many look-alike games, Myst’s release on CD-ROM was later reflected by Sony’s unveiling of their Playstation system, which read CD-ROMs. After the birth of Sony’s Playstation, Myst was even ported to it, along with Sega and Atari consoles of the time (Wikimedia Foundation. Myst Series. eM Publications, n.d.). The sheer fact that Myst was influential enough to be noticed and mimicked by the makers of Sony is noteworthy, let alone the fact that the game continued to be so beloved that it remained the best-selling PC game until 2002, with the release of The Sims.

Unlike many games of its time, however, as an artistic point-and-click graphic adventure, Myst immersed its players in an intensely-detailed, intricate, arcane, and mysterious world. In an active tutorial, players learn the simple controls as they discover  the island of Myst. By clicking and dragging certain objects, players are allowed to interact with many different aspects of their world. This level of detail, this beautifully-immersive fictional world couldn’t have been achieved on conventional cartridges.

At the time, cartridges were generally used to transfer software, though they could additionally be used as coprocessors, or provide alternate RAM. Simple cartridge ROMs consist of a basic circuit board that interfaced directly with the reader, through a bus port. However, when they were first developed in the 8-Bit Era, the benefit of extra RAM was less a necessity than was their deterrence of piracy and speed (“Reference Guide for Optical Media.” Memorex, n.d. P. 19. http://web.archive.org/web/20061022035649/http://memorex.com/downloads/whitepapers/WhitePaper_Reference_Guide_Optical_Media_Mar2406.pdf). More easily read by computers, cartridges allowed users to introduce software to their computers with little time spent on loading and rendering, but would easily run out of space, and require the use of bank switching programming to conjure more writeable memory.

With the development of Myst, as it became immensely popular, game producers began to realize they could utilize CD-ROMs to increase data storage by the use of optic reading; basically, a laser would reflect off the surface of the CD-ROM, and the manner in which the scanning laser diode relayed signals to the computer would determine what operations to run (Thomas Hoffmann. “IBM PCjr.” Creative Computing 10, no. 3 (March 1984): 74). On top of being easily mass-producable for a much lower  cost than cartridges, CD-ROMs were easier to transfer and market to a generation of gamers ready for more realistic and intimate videogames like Myst.

Furthermore, CD-ROMs simplistic design allows them to be pirated with more ease than cartridge ROMs, increasing the popularity and use of the game at the cost of demand; while Cyan and Brøderbund, the game’s chief distributor, likely lost sales to bootleg CDs, the game itself undeniably traveled like wildfire amongst the 1990’s computer gaming generation (Wikimedia Foundation. Myst Series. eM Publications, n.d.). However, Myst didn’t sell out in a phase- rather, the opposite occurred; the game’s legacy includes everything from reboots to ports, sequels to spin offs in the form of novels, as it moved through more than five new developers and publishers before settling itself with the final game in the saga released in 2005, more than a decade after the first (“Products.” Cyan Worlds, Inc., n.d. http://www.cyanworlds.com/products/).

Thanks to its elements of gameplay, Myst became wildly popular, proving itself to be a killer app for the burgeoning personal computer gaming industry, further perpetuating the development of CD-ROMs. Knowing how to exploit CDs’ inherent technical benefits (such as decreased production costs and increased memory storage, allowing better graphics and gameplay), the Miller brothers showcased the CD-ROM’s best qualities with Myst and its intricate, storytelling and puzzles, giving producers reason to continue and elaborate upon the use of CDs.

By: Nick Coladonato


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