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For Robyn and Rand Miller, life has become a fantasy much like Myst, the best-selling computer game created four years ago by the two brothers. The game, which has players figure out what happened to the missing inhabitants of a lush yet mysterious island, launched a new genre of entertainment software. And despite its age, Myst, with its beautiful and eerie scenes, still outsells many whack-and-hack games. Some 3.5 million copies have been sold since late 1993, raking in $130 million in sales for the Millers and their publisher, Broderbund Software Inc. The Millers got a small slice of the sales--enough to move their company, Cyan Inc., from a garage in Spokane, Wash., to new headquarters that resembles a Myst shrine, complete with rock gardens, waterfalls, and a drawbridge.

''SCARY'' HOPES. Now, the Millers are putting the finishing touches on Riven, the long-awaited Myst sequel. Three-and-a-half years and $10 million in the making, analysts expect nearly 90% of Myst owners to snap it up, which could make it the No.1 seller this Christmas season. ''Expectations are so high, it's scary,'' says Robyn Miller, at 31, the younger brother.

Nowhere are expectations higher than at Broderbund in Novato, Calif. Despite evergreen productivity and educational titles such as Print Shop and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, sales have been sluggish. Revenues are expected to dip from $186 million in 1996 to $184 million for the fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31. Worse, as development and marketing costs increase and prices on CD-ROM titles drop, earnings could plunge to $12 million, vs. $35 million in 1996, analysts warn.

To cushion the potential blow, Broderbund recently formed a division called Red Orb (Broder spelled backwards) Entertainment to get into the hot games market. While Red Orb will produce a variety of games, Riven is the one most are betting on. John G. Taylor, an analyst at Arcadia Investment Corp. in Portland, Ore., figures Riven could help Broderbund pump up its entertainment revenues to $56 million next year, from $27 million in 1997.

Still, the game market can be brutal. Broderbund's stock took a major hit--dropping from 60 to 22 last year when it delayed introduction of the sequel. Now that the $50 title is ready to ship on Oct. 31, Broderbund's CEO, Joseph Durrett, is launching a $10 million promotional campaign.

Riven picks up where Myst left off, building on the story of the main character Atrus (played by Rand Miller), who has the power to create worlds. Players will explore new, lusher worlds in search of Atrus' wife, Catherine. Cyan packed so much new video and graphics into the game that it now takes up five CD-ROMs.

Will the brothers make magic again? Broderbund's Durrett concedes that consumers can be fickle. And analysts point out that Riven's familiar Myst-like graphics may not cut it with sophisticated consumers. Still, its creators are confident. ''We think we did something really good here,'' says Robyn Miller, who was an archaeology student before dreaming up Myst. There are already waiting lists in some stores. So, the Miller brothers may prove again that brains and imagination can beat out brute force violence.

By Seanna Browder in Spokane, Wash.

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Updated Sept. 25, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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