Uru was a 'successful failure', according to Cyan CEO Rand Miller.
Uru remains, to this day, the most expensive project Cyan has ever undertaken, and the most ambitious in many ways. The vision for the project was a 'multiplayer Myst metaverse' - a Myst MMO that Cyan would be able to continuously expand with new ages, new things to discover every month, new storylines, new places, new puzzles and collectibles.
It was, in short, an MMO but not an MMORPG. It was a rather direct hybrid of MMO and graphic puzzle/adventure game, the first and possibly only game ever to try mashing up these two formats [multiplayer, puzzle/adventure] as the primary design aspects. That said, other games have done things sort of adjacent a decade later, but only while attaching other gameplay elements more prominently.
I know ThatGameCompany has made some titles that are multiplayer and have puzzles, but the puzzles there are typically easy and overshadowed by platforming. Ragnar Tornquist's MMO 'The Secret World' has tried adding puzzles to the MMO format but there the focus is still primarily on conventional RPG combat mechanics.
So again, Cyan was trying a combination nobody else had ever tried, and when it failed for them, for a rather jumbled mix of reasons, nobody else ever tried again. They were aiming for a target that nobody else was aiming for and that perhaps nobody else even saw as a valid target, which made them either brilliant risk takers or misguidedly crazy. And it's kind of a shame as the current range of aspiring metaverse concepts, from Meta's flailing "Horizon Worlds" to Roblox and VRChat, are all missing something enchanting and unique Uru definitely had.
Cyan had the established Myst mythos and setting backing this up, and it had a certain stylistic consistency and beauty that even recent fan-created updates are trying very hard to match and adhere to. Uru is a metaverse that has a consistency to it, a fantasy canon that's managed to remain both open-ended and cohesive with a real sense of place and a strong community.
It also got axed by Ubisoft right out of the gate and while it survived that in the end, it also failed to be everything that it was hoped to be at the outset. It's sad because this slowly growing set of worlds has a weird staying power. There are still a few thousand people logging into Uru each month, 20 years after it was officially 'cancelled'. It's the 'zombie game that won't die'. It refuses to die, because the core Myst fanbase won't let it.
'Uru' was a word in three different ancient languages, from Hebrew to Sumerian to early Japanese. Each of these languages gave the word a different meaning, but all of these meanings were relevant to what Uru wound up being. Uru is about a 'deep/buried city', it's a 'gathering place', etc. It's also - spelled out loud - "YOU ARE YOU".
The idea of Uru was divisive from the start: a Myst MMO in the present day? In realtime 3d? When Rand Miller and others at Cyan discussed the concept after the release of Riven at the start of 1998, Robyn Miller was skeptical.
Robyn probably had a lot of issues with the idea. Myst had, after all, always been a solitary experience and bringing the players all together inherently would mean a different sort of game, and one that would - as proposed - involve significant alterations to the existing Myst canon. Trap books, as seen in Myst and Riven, had never made a great deal of logical sense, but they were now clearly established in the games, and the 'rules of linking' that Richard A. Watson proposed after Riven as canon indicated that they never existed as anything other than a simplification of what was actually happening. There were not trap books that 'only could hold a single person at a time' as such - just ages with no evident link out, such that a person could become trapped in them, and then turn on and trap the person who showed up with a linking book to rescue them.
And while the Millers had always envisioned the D'ni cavern as being in the Southwest US, near where they'd spent some bit of their childhoods, the Hugo award winning author they'd worked with on Book of T'iana (David Wingrove) had included details in the book that confused the location, most notably the presence of both horses and camels passing by [on the surface where T'iana started out] and these details seemed to suggest that the desert location of D'ni was somewhere in the Middle East, or North Africa. Pushing the location back to its originally intended one for Uru would now contradict the expectations of those players who had read the Myst novels.
Moreover, there were valid questions in 1998 about whether the richly textured, intricately detailed worldbuilding attached to existing Myst titles could even be done any time soon in realtime 3d. Could ages in a realtime 3d game engine be as immersive as the ages already established with prerendered art, by the early 2000s?
Simply put, for various reasons, Robyn felt Uru would be a mistake, and citing 'creative differences' he left Cyan in the late '90s to pursue experimentation with new ambient music apart from the context of game soundtracks.
Cyan - without Robyn present - pursued "RealMyst" and launched it in 2000 - as a test case to see whether the original Myst's worlds could function in real time. If that was successful, reasoned the studio, surely a new realtime 3d Myst title three years later would be. But RealMyst proved a slow burn on sales charts. The game more or less managed to make 'Myst' work as a realtime 3d title, but getting Myst to run in realtime then meant there were noticeable compromises in both detailing and playability. RealMyst had high system requirements at launch and drew in mixed reviews as a result of these performance issues, with some critics outright saying it was best to wait to buy it until players next upgraded their PCs - it'd be cheaper [in bargain bins] by then and it would actually run smoothly with good framerate on a 2001-2002 era desktop.
So RealMyst sold poorly out of the gate, though went on to sell decently over the longer term at discounted pricing on Steam. This too, in retrospect, was a bad sign for Uru.
Uru launched as 'Uru: Ages Beyond Myst' in fall 2003. At the moment of first release, the project had already cost Cyan $12 million, more than Riven, and Cyan's team had ramped up to fifty people working on Uru full time - fully double what Riven's team had been. Ubisoft, the game's publisher, was hoping for a target of 100,000 subscribers established by the start of 2004 at some price level at or near $10/month. In other words, Ubisoft was hoping that Uru would pull in twelve million dollars each year.
Cyan had pushed Ubisoft to keep Uru 'multiplayer only' - with players subscribing at the monthly amount to join, and getting access to everything for that monthly subscription amount. Ubisoft argued in favor of an initial single player Uru game that then extended into the MMO - a game retailing at $50 that could then offer a $10 monthly subscription on top of that for a growing multiplayer format.
Well, you can kind of guess what went wrong.
The system requirements were pretty high out of the gate so many potential buyers balked at buying the core game immediately, when it launched in late '03. The thinking was 'wait to get a new PC first' and even the players who had new PCs, often mistakenly opted to complete the singleplayer game before pivoting to the multiplayer extension.
The game did not pull in 100,000 multiplayer users by end of '03, not even all that close, with only a little over 30,000 people actively engaged in the multiplayer portion, and Ubisoft shut it all down very suddenly and arbitrarily after only three months, even as the number of players drifting into Uru Live continued climbing. It's now believed that this was part of a company-wide, very arbitrary executive-level decision to pivot away from MMOs at that time. This explains why several other growing Ubisoft MMOs, including successful ones like The Matrix Online, were all also shut down at the same time, usually with no explanation given.
Uru in particular also had some acknowledged serious defects. The game used an overhauled version of the in-house Plasma engine Cyan had used on RealMyst, and with that fairly cumbersome controls and intermittently janky physics. Rather than downplay these weaknesses, Cyan figured the presence of realtime physics was a selling point insofar as no prior Myst title had ever used them as part of a solution in puzzles. So the outcome of this was a game with certain regrettable puzzles in a number of spots, including the Eder Gira puzzle many players refer to as the 'basket water torture' puzzle. It involved moving [something] across several bodies of water without it getting wet, kicking baskets around to form bridges and then walking over the bridges without getting anything on you wet. Moving all the baskets into position was tedious and clunky, and even if you got them all in the right spots to walk across, almost invariably they'd roll and tumble around when you attempted to walk across them. Figuring out the answer to the puzzle was one thing, but the process of actually successfully executing that solution could take over an hour of increasing frustration.
Moreover, the delivery of story content was a mess. The singleplayer story was vague and thin, leaving a lot unclear and unresolved, part of the issue was always going to be there given the open-ended MMO format that inherently rejected closure, but even given those constraints Uru made some questionable choices. There was a lot of backstory through journals and ingame texts, and much of the subsequent multiplayer narrative that built on all the text and singleplayer starting point was delivered in live events with Cyan staff playing characters in the canon. These story developments did NOT use NPCs, they used actual people acting and at times responding to player queries in an in-character, improvisational manner, and they'd do so sometimes entirely unannounced beforehand. This was 'a fascinating idea that needs to be burned to death in a fire' according to one fan, and the problem with it is pretty clear: If players missed a story event because they were offline or in a different part of the gameworld when it took place, they could not get a second chance to experience that live event, aside from someone else's screen video capture or copied off chatlog. You kind of had to hope that if you missed something big, somebody recorded it well. It was an unreliable way to convey a story.
This is not to say Uru was outright bad! Indeed, it's remarkable in many ways. Recall the quote after the fact. 'Successful failure'. Cyan was pushing Myst into new territory in every direction. The results may not always have played out as well as had been hoped but the fact was that Uru was trying new things, taking bold risks, and more often than not making decisions that paid off creatively even if they backfired on occasion here and there.
Uru's puzzles have been at times fantastic. Kadish Tolesa for one example, was an age that had a series of puzzles that were satisfying and logical and made sense, woven into a world that kept rewarding players with beautiful new discoveries whenever a puzzle was completed. Many other ages had good puzzles too. Ahnonay, an age in Uru, is an absolute standout in its clever self-contained, surprising storytelling and puzzle design.
The graphics tech is now archaic, as the game's underlying engine and most of the core content is 2003-era. Even newer additions avoid straying too far from those 2003 standards, opting to meet the now ridiculously low system requirements the game always stated, including a need for a computer with 512MB of RAM.
But at its time it was excellent, and even now when the underlying engine is aging badly, the art direction [led by art director Stephan Martieniere] was so good that it elevates it beyond what one would reasonably expect from the time period. Uru is often beautiful to this day and it has a certain depth and internal logic to it, which always helps and is one of Cyan's greatest strengths. Cyan has always made worlds that had puzzles, and beautiful aesthetics, but managed to give those things narrative credibility and a reason for existing, in ages that had a history and sort of thought-out background to them. Art, puzzles and story all would blend together in Myst games such that none of the three detracted significantly from the other two. It's telling to me that one person I once showed a Myst game to briefly, asked 'where are the puzzles?' seemingly not realizing that practically everything in that world was part of one.
Such artistry and design is taken further by Tim Larkin's soundtrack. Often understated and left unrecognized by fans in favor of the work of Robyn Miller or Jack Wall, elsewhere in the Myst series... Larkin's background music throughout Uru is nonetheless textured, atmospheric, and subtly mysterious. It even, on occasion, manages to be outright enchanting. The singer, passionately vocalizing in sad, otherworldly words, heard in K'veer and the Kadish Gallery is absolutely outstanding.
Further, the scope of Uru is truly massive. It's by far the largest Myst game, and it has become the focal point of the Myst community online. The fact that it is a multiplayer Myst experience means that it was uniquely positioned to galvanize and connect the various fans of the Myst series from all over the world. And yes, Uru was cancelled shortly after its first 2003 launch by Ubisoft, reopened on GameTap in 2006 only to be shut down again in 2008... and reopened one last time in 2010 by Cyan themselves, with NO subscription fees, just optional donations.
It's a gigantic and sprawling multiplayer Myst spinoff, likely over $20 million of developed game content that is now accessible entirely for free to anyone actually interested.
And it's still open today. Cyan continues to draw enough support from the players to keep it open, and keep the servers running, but not enough to continue making new Uru content in any meaningful way. And yet, a group of about a dozen fans in recent years have been adding even more ages to Uru - fan ages - and a handful of these appear as new areas in Uru each year. They're uneven in quality, but that they exist at all - that this game is still available at all with active players still logging in, twenty years after it first released, is somewhat astonishing.
Fans - led by Adam Johnson, in particular - have managed to dig through the game engine and build entire tools and workflows for making worlds and adding them to Uru, then others like Patrick Dulebohn proceeded to build an increasing roster of worlds inspired by Myst's mythos, spending thousands of combined hours on 3d art and texturing, sound design, puzzle design, etc, with zero compensation, just out of appreciation for Cyan's creative vision and their desire to add something of their own to help keep it going.