Phoenix Online Studios – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

And I’m back! Holidays enjoyed, food devoured, post-bing-detox done! Now let’s start up a year with a nice little Attic Diving, where I take a plunge into other people’s Mental Attics to find out nice stuff about their past, current and future projects. To start the year we have an interview with Phoenix Online Studios, developers of the hit episodic game Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, which earned top marks on The Mental Attic’s Scoring System! You can read my review here.

I want to thank the amazing Katie Hallahan, Head of Phoenix Online PR and Game Designer, for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer this mammoth list of questions, which will hopefully not be the last list I send her, though I have promised and committed to keeping the interviews shorter from now on!

Warning – Spoiler Alert: The last two questions (19 & 20) contain spoilers, so if you haven’t played the game, please skip them!!

1. How (and when) was Cognition first conceived?

At E3 in June 2011, we were approached by another company, Khaeon Gamestudio, about the game. At the time, they had some art assets for a game that hadn’t been completed. We ended up acquiring the assets and wrote an entirely new story using those. The only things that carried over from the original game they had worked on were the basic look of some characters, mostly Erica and her partner John, and that Erica worked in law enforcement.

2. In general, what were your influences in terms of gameplay and storytelling?

Cesar and I both wanted to do a grittier story than we had done with The Silver Lining, and we took a lot of inspiration from shows like Dexter and Fringe, and games like Heavy Rain and, later, The Walking Dead. And obviously, Jane Jensen and her games were big influences! Jane was our Story Consultant, and Cesar and I are both big fans of her games, especially Gabriel Knight.

3. Did the game’s original concept change during development? If so, could you provide an example?

The main story was always the same, though some details changed here and there. We also went back and forth on a few major themes—we wanted to develop the Cognition powers, of course, but we at one point considered having a serial killer with deaths based on Shakespeare plays. But on the advice on Jane, we dropped that and opted to stay more focused on the powers, basically telling Erica’s “origin story.”

John used to be a lot meaner. (early concept art)

John used to be a lot meaner. (early concept art)

4. Jane Jensen is credited as Story Consultant. Could explain what her role was?

Jane read and reviewed all of our story outlines from the early stages, and gave us some very valuable feedback like I mentioned above. She also read and did an editing pass on the scripts for each episode. Overall, Jane did her passes and offered advice and we ran some ideas past her, but the story and game are still very much our creations.

5. What was it like working with a legend such as Jane Jensen?

It was great to work with her, and still is, as we’re working with her on Moebius and the Gabriel Knight 1 Remake. Her advice on keeping the story focused was very valuable, and her feedback on the writing was as well. Her experience and her games speak for themselves—when you’re working with her, you know it’s with someone who knows what makes a good story!

6. What made you choose to develop Cognition as an Episodic Game? What do you think are the benefits of Episodic Games vs a “Full game”?

We had worked on The Silver Lining as an episodic game and found it really helped the development cycle to break it up into episodes. Structuring Cognition that way from the start worked well for us here, because the kind of story we were telling fit naturally into episodes. Story-wise, with episodes, you can easily have smaller plot arcs that also feed into the main plot, and you can work with multiple cliffhangers that keep the story exciting. Production-wise, the release and sales from earlier episodes help support the development of the later episodes, which was also very helpful for us as a start-up company.

7. What advice would you give other developers seeking crowd-funding for their projects, based on your experiences with Kickstarter?

Have a solid plan in place, both for the production of your game, and for the marketing and promotion of your crowdfunding campaign. Do your research on other campaigns to see what works and what doesn’t, plan your updates and announcements and stretch goals. It helps a lot to have a demo available during your campaign, and a good pitch video is also very important. Factor in the cost of your rewards, too. And finally, make sure your goal amount is both an amount that will allow you to complete your development but is also a realistic amount to raise.

8. Were there any features you had to cut from the released game?

There weren’t any major features we had to cut, but there were some scenes and smaller plotlines we had to cut for time and budget reasons, particularly in Episodes 2 and 3. There were some more scenes with Terence and a plot about investigating the drugs used on the Oracle’s victims in Episode 2, and some more side characters planned for Episode 3. In the end, though, it made sense to focus on certain things more central to the plot.

9. Cognition’s puzzles combine both the traditional “inventory + environment” approach and Erica’s unique powers, was it hard to find a balance between them?

Not really. It’s always tricky to come up with good puzzles in general, but we designed Erica’s powers to work well with the adventure game interface and the story we were telling. Some uses were of course more complex than others, but the balance wasn’t too difficult to maintain. We actually found that the puzzles involving her powers were more well-liked by the players since they tended to relate to the storyline more.

One of the first puzzles in the game, completely Power-centric, very clever and thoroughly entertaining.

One of the first puzzles in the game, completely Power-centric, very clever and thoroughly entertaining.

10. Was the “Trust” mechanic from Episode 4 something you’d planned specifically for that episode, or was it conceived during that episode’s development?

That came about during the writing of the script for that episode. In writing that one, Cesar and I realized the episode’s focus was more on the relationships and dialogue choices being made. Plus, we’d both played The Walking Dead by then and really liked how dialogue choices affected relationships in that game. The “Trust” meter came out of that and wanting to apply a game mechanic to it that let the player see the effect their choices had. The end result wasn’t perfect, but we’re hoping to refine it for the future.

11. How did you choose the game’s visual style? Was Cel-shading your first choice?

The art assets we acquired from Khaeon were done by comics artist Romano Molenaar, who’s worked on some great titles such as X-Men, Birds of Prey, Witchblade and more. So the look was more or less established there, and we loved the look of it. The cel-shaded, graphic novel style fit perfectly with the mood of the story, and using comic book panels for the cutscenes also worked really well. We did update the look from being a straight 2D style to the 2.5D—3D characters and objects on 2D drawn backgrounds.

12. Could you describe how the casting process was for the game’s voice actors? (Did you hold interviews, or did you already have a list of whom you wanted performing the character’s dialogues)

A little of both! Most roles were cast from a live audition session we held. A few roles, however, we cast from people we knew beforehand. Cordelia was played by Amy Browne, an actress who played Cassima in The Silver Lining, and Robert’s actor was Jason Victor, who plays Graham in TSL. Finally, there’s Raleigh Holmes as Erica. Once we saw her demo reel, Cesar and I both knew she was perfect for Erica immediately!

13. Did you commission “The Taking” from The Scarlet Furies, or was it something they contributed, on their own, to Cognition?

We commissioned it—we asked Robert about writing a song for the game, told him about its themes and so forth, and he and Raleigh wrote “The Taking.” Which is fantastic—I love that song, and it really is a great fit for the game!

14. The Cognition Theme Song includes some beautiful harmonies; did Raleigh Holmes perform those?

No, those were actually done by our main composer Austin Haynes. He’s very multi-talented!

15. What made you choose the Unity Engine for Cognition? How did you find the Engine for creating Adventure Games? (Were there any limitations? Did you have to build your own tools to use with it?)

We had worked with Torque when making TSL, but that engine was unwieldy for adventure games and no longer supported in any case. Unity, on the other hand, is very flexible and very user-friendly. It can easily port to different platforms, which is a huge bonus, and yes, we’ve developed our own tools to use with it. The only real limitations are what platforms we can port to, but that’s mostly because right now we’re still working in Unity 3 and haven’t yet upgraded to Unity 4.

16. What tools (software) did you use for the different areas of development, such as Environment Design, Character Models, Sound Editing, etc.?

The art was drawn and colored by hand by our 2D art team, and we use Maya for our 3D models and animations.

17. How large was the Cognition team? Did it change from Episode to Episode?

The team is roughly 20-30 people, mostly full-timers, but a few team members are part-time. It fluctuated slightly depending on our needs or the time available from the team members.

18. How spread out around the world is the Phoenix Online Team? How do you deal with Time-zone differences?

We’re mostly located in the US, though across all time zones. We also have a few people in Canada, and some European members. We have core hours for the team based on US time zones, since that’s where most of us are located, and we all stay in touch throughout the day on Skype—basically our office!

One of my favourite characters in her admittedly painful youth: Rose

One of my favourite characters in her admittedly painful youth: Rose. This was a powerful and emotional sequence

19. With all 4 Episodes released, and with the full picture now clear, did Keith know about Erica’s powers, and is that why he chose her and Scott as victims?

Spoiler alert! Keith didn’t know about her powers when he choose Scott and Erica initially—he found out Erica was investigating him and that she had a brother. That’s why he went after them, but after Cordelia trapped him, he did learn about what Erica could do.

20. Is there anything you can say about Season 2? For example, what’s Erica’s new profession, after leaving the FBI?

We’ve got a few ideas of what Season 2 may include, but there isn’t a definite outline yet.  We do plan to explore the idea of other psions more, though, and yes, Erica is no longer with the FBI at this point but we haven’t determined exactly what she’ll be doing, or just how long after the first season it will be.

I’d like to thank Katie once more for taking the time to answer these questions for The Mental Attic, the first of hopefully many more conversations with the awesome people at Phoenix Online Studios.

You can follow Katie and Phoenix Online Studios for more information their upcoming collaborations with Pinkerton Road, Moebius and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition, which you can be sure I’ll be following intently and pestering them for information!

Until next time!

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One response to “Phoenix Online Studios – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

  1. Pingback: On Puzzle Design | The Mental Attic·

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