Last month, Phoenix Online Studios released its first original point-and-click adventure, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. Having its premier title well-received by the adventure-gaming public, and having just announced a new collaboration with legendary designer Jane Jensen, Phoenix Online is riding high. Recently, I spoke to Phoenix Online Studios’ CEO Cesar Bittar (a veteran of the Bay Area’s own Telltale Games) about Cognition, Jane Jensen and POS’ development process.
NJ: As I understand it, getting your own game company off the ground has taken some years of hard work and dedication. How did the development process differ between your first effort, The Silver Lining, and your sophomore project, Cognition? What had you learned from making your first game?
CB: It took us close to 10 years to release the first episode of The Silver Lining, while it took us 10 months to release the first episode of Cognition. A lot was learned in the process of making the first game, from what works on paper but not in an actual game, to all the little technical details that took us months and years to figure out on while we were working on The Silver Lining.
So, we didn’t have to learn how to make a game. We had to learn how to manage a team in such a high-paced environment. Being able to pay a full team also means that, as a manager, you have to be ready to make sure you are using their time in the most efficient way, and in a project where you are stretched thin all the way, it becomes extremely difficult.
But, at least for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It adds a lot of weight to our resumes, and it’s a wonderful experience—especially because I’ve dreamed of being able to lead a team full time like this for a very long time.
NJ: You’re a big fan of Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight games. How much pressure did you feel to make a game that lived up to that standard, especially once you had Jane Jensen herself on board as a story consultant?
CB: For some reason, beyond the first impression of getting a story that Jane would like, I never got that pressure. I knew that the team had come up with something very especial, and there was such a high energy among us that I knew things were going to go well. Now, I never imagined that some people were going to compare it to Gabriel Knight—that is the kind of praise that makes me extremely humbled and happy, and very grateful to have had the chance of working on something like this.
On the other hand, I feel a lot more pressure on the other project I’m working on with Jane. We have are working with Jane Jensen on her new game Moebius, and we’ve been doing that for a few months now. I’m always biting my nails about meeting Jane’s expectations, because I want to make sure we do an excellent job and that the fans get the game they deserve.
NJ: How did that relationship work? What exactly did Jane contribute to the project?
CB: Jane was involved in the full crafting of the story. She worked with us on the first treatment, helped us focus on the theme of Cognition, as opposed a few other themes we were trying to weave in together. Since then, she’s met with us every once in a while, and given us feedback on different game ideas. She always gets the final script for the episodes, and she does a full pass on the story, sharing her thoughts on what works vs. what doesn’t, and doing a full editing pass as well. There are a few great lines in Episode 1 that are Jane’s.
NJ: Was there ever a moment she suggested something and you said, “you’re wrong”? :)
CB: I’m very peculiar about the way I get in love with my stories, and I can be very hard-headed sometimes. However, the moment I pursued this relation with Jane, I knew I was in it to listen. And I did, I always listened. And most of the times, I changed something about the game because of a suggestion from her—for example, solving the puzzle and taking Scott outside the tomb was her suggestion, as opposed to the very horrible way he dies if you fail to disarm the trap, which was my idea. So, I decided to keep both as two possible endings to the intro section you can get.
There were other places where I did disagree with Jane’s suggestions initially, and Jane was always respectful of our decisions and let us develop the ideas. One particular section of the game, she wasn’t keen to the idea when I came to her with it, because it seemed too complicated, but after she let us develop it, she liked it and found it easy to understand. But it was her feedback what allowed us to work the story and be extra mindful about simplifying what didn’t need to be complex.
At the end of the day, I’m very pleased to have had this opportunity. How she untangled the complexity of the story presented to her, and guided us to have a better focus on what matters is why people are so hooked in the plot these days. And she did it all by suggesting things and by always respecting our original ideas, which made the whole process extremely satisfying.
NJ: How did you decide on a female lead for your series and what, if anything, influenced the creation of Erica Reed and her back story?
CB: Erica already existed as a character in this universe when we got the project. So, it was all laid out for us to work with. As for her mannerisms and backstory, I knew I wanted to have a very strong character with a past that fit the overall tone of the story. I’m always interested in exploring how “cool powers” affect someone’s psyche, and this was a great way to develop Erica through one of the most important aspects of the game itself. So I started to think how this power would affect things like a relationship with someone, or how this would affect the perception her coworkers would have about her. Aside from that, I was watching a lot of Fringe and Dexter at the time, so Erica’s a bit of Olivia Dunham and Debra Morgan. All together with a dash of Jack Bauer!
NJ: Why did you decide to combine a 2D comic book style cutscene technique with gameplay rendered using 3D models?
CB: We are a 3D house mainly. Every piece of The Silver Lining was made in 3D. It was convenient for us to keep the characters in 3D, but we absolutely wanted to use Romano Molenaar’s art directly in the game because it was so beautiful. So we decided to try a mix of both, and we managed to make it work really well. A lot of people have praised the art in the game—we worked really hard to achieve that particular look.
NJ: What are you most proud of about Cognition/do you feel is Cognition’s greatest achievement?
CB: Working online and having managed to release a game in 10 months, considering we started from scratch with a new engine, and had to build the tools, also from scratch, to release the first episode –that was definitely our biggest achievement. I was always fearful because it took us so long to do it with The Silver Lining, and having managed to do it so fast in Cognition really surprised me. The team rocks!
On the design side of things, I’m proud of the Cognition power mechanics. The Robert memory puzzle is probably the best thing I’ve done so far.
NJ: What was the biggest challenge or what would you call your biggest stumbling block while making the game?
CB: For a while, in the middle of development, it seemed as if we weren’t moving anywhere, because our tools were broken and our team was frustrated because they couldn’t really put the game together. That and getting people to the same page as the level of quality expected from the game. But we managed to get past it, and we are on our way now to improve our pipeline.
NJ: The adventure genre has a small, devoted following in the ‘States but seems to be bigger in other countries. Are you distributing the game outside of the U.S.?
CB: Yes, we are distributing in every country out there, and have PR campaigns specifically geared towards the European market. The game is also translated into German, because we know adventure has a big following there.
NJ: With what you’ve learned from making the first episode of Cognition, do you think future episodes will release more quickly? If so, when do you predict gamers will be able to play them?
CB: Most definitely. Episode 2 is in alpha stage and our goal is to have content complete by the end of the month. We want to avoid the holiday rush, so we are looking at an early 2013 for the release. We are trying to do our best to keep them as close together as they can, 6-8 weeks between each episode.
Stay tuned folks. Erica Reed Episode 2 is on the way. For more information about Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, go to the official Cognition website. Help Cognition get on Steam by voting here!