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Week of the Phoenix: Phoenix Online Studios – The Interview, Part 3 of 3

Posted on March 8, 2013 AT 12:46pm

The Week of the Phoenix is drawing to a close. Today comes the third and final part of our interview with Cesar Bittar and Katie Hallahan of Phoenix Online Studios. If you need to catch up, you can find the first part here, and part two over here! If you’ve already read them both, then follow me into the fire! [Cuz, y'know, Phoenix.]

[Reference Key for ease of reading -- DN: DigitalNoob (That's us!), CB: Cesar Bittar, KH: Katie Hallahan]


DN: You had said in another recent interview that you feel that the ‘at-your-own-pace’ feel of point-and-click adventure really helps players get deeper into the story. How do you maintain the balance between letting the player continue at a pace that they feel comfortable versus keeping the intensity high when you need to?

KH: I think I remember that one. I think it was me that said that! It’s not the same kind of pace as, for example, if you’re in a Call of Duty or something, where if you stop to look around, you’re probably going to get shot by somebody else. So it’s a game where you can save it and come back to it if you want to. Even if you’re playing it all in one session, you’re still kind of progressing at your own pace, and there’s nothing really punishing you or pushing you to go faster or figure it out faster. The way to adjust the tension in different scenes just comes from how they’re constructed and what kind of puzzles are in there. Like the opening scenes in episode one that Cesar wrote, for example, in the cemetery are very intense because you immediately throw the player into this situation, and you quickly establish the situation and ‘okay, here you are, your brother’s been kidnapped, the serial killer has him. you have to get in there, or he’s gonna die. Do it now!’ It’s just how you set up those scenes, and how you construct adding the music in there and having your voice actors put that urgency into their voices for those lines.

CB: Obviously, you can also go into a little bit of, if you wanted to, some time elements, like when you are in the fight in the tomb interior with the killer, you want to have some time elements. Like, if you wait too long, then you die. And so, there are always ways to… I won’t say ‘punish a player’, but just to make it seem a little bit more real, that raises the tension. Also, as well, you do it through the story itself. The story gives you the drama, and you do count on the player immersing themselves into the story and going with it, because you can pretty much pull back and say, ‘There’s nothing really hurrying me here’. But, that’s something that you don’t know. If you believe what the story is telling you, then you will go with it. There’s tricks that all the designers use in the stories when they’re writing them, and if you do it well, you can pull it off.

DN: Just one little bit of personal feedback regarding the opening: Thank you for not making the timed event a Quick Time Event, because I am so tired of those.

*both laugh*

DN: Also regarding the openings: I’m guessing the ‘cold open’ with the high tension is going to be something that happens at the beginning of each of the episodes?

KH: I think some of them. Episode two doesn’t open with quite the same sort of… Hm, well, I guess it does. It first opens with conversations, but I think they’ll all open with something that will pull you in, whether or not that’s an action-y high intensity situation. Episode three doesn’t really start that way, but it does start with some really interesting stuff that you’re going into right away.

CB: There’s some big revelations in the beginning of episode three and I think those do the job like the high tension moments of episode one and episode two. With episode four, it’s mostly all a high tension ride.

DN: Regarding the episodic release model: Is that going to be something key for you with your future titles, or do you feel that episodic content may be just a passing fad?

CB: That’s a very interesting question and I don’t know that I have an answer to that right now. There are things that we like about episodic gaming, especially from the production standpoint and the fact that we get feedback from people. There’s advantages to that which full productions don’t give you, but on the other hand, it’s really hard to do the whole marketing and PR for episodic releases. And also, you have to prove yourself when you go episodic. Like Telltale has proven themselves in that, and so they only sell season passes instead of individual episodes and that works for the sales model. So, we are experimenting, and we’re learning a lot with Cognition. What to do, what not to do, how to do it. I don’t know if our next game is going to be episodic or not, let’s ask that question nine months from now. Moebius, maybe. There’s talk that we may do that one episodic, but I don’t know the answer to that.

DN: That was actually going to be one of my next questions, so you kind of just fronted that on your own! This is my last big question for ya: Let’s do a quick post-mortem analysis of the episodes of Cognition and The Silver Lining that you’ve brought out so far. What do you think has gone right, and what do you think that you would go back differently if you could?

CB: Well, I’ll talk about episode one, and I’ll let Katie talk about episode two of Cognition and then if you want, we can do a bit of The Silver Lining. For episode one, I think that I was too worried about the length of the game overall. I padded the game with puzzles that may not necessarily have added anything to world itself. So, I guess I would like to focus more on big special puzzles and moments like the Robert interrogation in episode one, instead of little things that may do a lot of backtracking throughout the episode that really didn’t add a lot. That’s something that I do like, personally, but a lot of people probably do not, and so I would probably do a bit more tightening of the episode in general for episode one. I would also, I might, I don’t know how I feel completely about this, but I might tone down the humor, and might make it a little bit more serious. That’s something that I discussed with Katie in general, and if we do a season two we’re probably going to go a little bit more of the route of serious. There’s always the need of a little bit of humor everywhere, but I think that we might have gone a little too far with it, and I think that a story like Cognition would benefit from being a little bit darker, as shown in the most intense moments of episode two.

DN: That kind of brings to mind Gabriel Knight, because it is generally a pretty dark series, but it does have its funny moments. It’s sometimes kind of hard to get that balance.

KH: For episode two, I think I would work on balancing the difficulty of the puzzles a little better. You’ve played it. It’s kind of loaded toward the back end of that episode, particularly the last puzzle with the quiz. I really liked how that one turned out, and I’ve read in the feedback that we’ve gotten that some of the puzzles earlier on were too simple in comparison. Interestingly, because of time and restraints on what we can do and how much we can do, there were some separate plots that got dropped from the episode pretty early on. It does kind of make me think about those and kind of consider Ah… wellllll…’ I like how the episode turned out, definitely, but it makes me wonder if we’d had stuck with these ones and dropped the plots that we kept instead, what kind of episode would that have looked like? I would have loved to have put *everything* in there, but that’s just not possible.

CB: I feel that if we had kept some of those storylines, the episode might not have felt as tight as it did. We made a few good choices as to what to keep because we made it tighter.

KH: That’s kind of why we made the particular choices of ‘we’re gonna keep these, and get rid of these’, because the other ones weren’t as tightly related to what was going on in the episode, so it made sense.

DN: I know that episode two definitely was a bit *shorter* than the first episode, because I have a tendency of wanting to play through the entire episode all at once, so I know that episode was a bit of a faster trip. The tightening was definitely noticeable.  But regarding the ‘challenge level’: I was wondering if perhaps later on, you might add, I guess you would say, a second difficulty level? The Monkey Island series, some of the later ones, had something which they referred to as ‘Mega Monkey Mode’ that basically plays through the same, but adds more puzzles, or it makes puzzles that were already in it more difficult. Is that something that you might consider for future episodes or future projects?

CB: I don’t know because what that adds is a lot of production to episodes that need to come out very soon because of the episodic model. We don’t want to wait too long to release an episode, because people just forget or their interest wanes. It would be pretty difficult to do that, so we do instead is we playtest the episodes. We have focus groups that come in and give us feedback on what they think about this puzzle or that puzzle, what are they missing. In the process of fixing those puzzles, we may make them too easy. So, there’s always a balance there, but it’s one that is there for a reason, because we also do think about the story and how it flows. Having somebody stuck in a puzzle for a long time is not beneficial to the story itself.

DN: Is there any possibility that once season one is done that you might revisit the content and maybe update it, add puzzles, or change things? So, basically, make a ‘special collector’s edition’.

CB: We might, if we go that route. I don’t that we’ll necessarily change the content. Once, we said we work going to do that with TSL, but that never happened. You just move on, move on to other projects.

KH: It’s a lot of work!

CB: Yeah, it becomes a lot of work to go back and redo stuff and change things. I think that maybe, who knows. There was Broken Sword, which fifteen years later, they did that remake and added more stuff to it, so there’s always a possibility. But, I don’t see it happening in the near future. We do want to a ‘box edition’ with all of the episodes and as much as we can add. But, to go back and revisit? I’d rather work on a new game.

DN: Is there anything else that you’d like to say before we wrap this up?

KH: In general, huge thank yous to everyone who’s bought the game or has played or downloaded The Silver Lining, or voted for us on Steam Greenlight, or backed our Kickstarter, or signed petitions to get The Silver Lining going in the first place. The first few times we got cease and desists .. We’ve always had a really awesome fan community who’s been incredibly supportive. I want to thank them any time I get the chance to, just because they’re awesome and we wouldn’t be able to be doing this right now without them.

CB: And thank you, Bryan, for the interview and the chance to be here talking to you, saying what’s on our minds. So thank you, thank you.

DN: It really means a lot to me that you guys would be able to set aside time, because I know it’s not always easy when you’re essentially running everything yourselves.

CB: Yeah, it’s a dream come true, but it’s one that comes with a lot of sacrifices. We have to keep working, we have to keep doing, because we’re on it all.

DN: Unless you have any other final words, I just say once again that I appreciate the time you’ve set aside, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the Cognition season one, and eventually Moebius, and anything else that you have coming!


[End Part 3]


Thank you for stopping by all this week to check out this interview! It really was a blast, and I hope to follow up with Katie and Cez in the future as their other projects unfold. Also, keep your eyes peeled, because we’ve got another interview coming soon: Jane Jensen! Are you excited? I know I am!

Have you bought or tried out Cognition yet? You really should. If you’re an old school adventure game fan like I am, you’ll love it!

You can grab it from Phoenix Online Studios’ website and if vote it up Cognition on Steam Greenlight you’ll eventually be able to buy it on Steam, too! You can also pick up a copy of Cognition Episode 1 for iPad for just $3.99!

Bryan Todd [aka DieselBT] -- This is where I'm supposed to say something clever about myself. Let's pretend I did, and it conveniently mentions all of my top interests, such as anime, video games, crazy gadgets, electronic music, voice acting, sound editing, and countless other ridiculously fascinating topics. I also like to write stuff about things, which is why I'm here.

...That, and I like your shirt.

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