INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)

By Marty Mulrooney

Cognition - An Erica Reed Thriller

Phoenix Online Studios (creators of freeware King’s Quest fangame The Silver Lining) recently announced that they had partnered with Khaeon Gamestudio and would be collaborating with renowned game designer Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight, Gray Matter) and art director Romano Molenaar (X-Men, Tomb Raider) to launch their first commercial game – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. Alternative Magazine Online is therefore delighted to present an interview with two members of the Phoenix Online team: Katie Hallahan (PR Director for Phoenix Online) and Cesar Bittar (CEO of Phoenix Online)!

Hello Katie and Cesar, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves please?

KH: Sure! I’m Katie Hallahan, PR Director for Phoenix Online, and one of the designers for Cognition.

CB: And I’m Cesar Bittar, designer and producer of Cognition and CEO of Phoenix Online.

How and when did Phoenix Online Studios first come into existence?

KH: Back in 2000, some King’s Quest fans formed a team to make an unofficial ninth game in the series. In 2002, Cesar took over as the project director along with Richard Flores, and the name Phoenix Online Studios itself came some years after. We’ve been a freeware company until now – our first game, the King’s Quest fangame The Silver Lining, is non-commercial – and Cognition will be our first commercial project.

CB: It’s interesting to think of the way we came together. For a long time, it was only for the creation of The Silver Lining, but ever since 2004, I’ve been pushing to go for a commercial company. It is now we are finally in the right position to do so.

Where is the studio based?

KH: Everywhere and nowhere! Currently, we have no physical offices, but exist as an online team, so we’re spread out all over the world. We have team members mostly in the US and Canada, but also Europe, Australia, Asia, you name it. I myself live in Boston, Massachusetts in the US. And Cesar is in San Jose, California.


Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is the studio’s first commercial game. What is the premise of the game?

KH: Erica is an FBI Agent in Boston, and three years ago she lost her brother to a serial killer who was never caught. During the manhunt, she developed the ability of post-cognition: by touching an object, she can see its past and things that have happened around it.

CB: Such a premise allows for very interesting puzzle content. There are going to be several ways in which you can use Erica’s ability, so it should be very fun. And the story has twists and turns all the way to the end!

What does the word ‘Cognition’ in the game’s title refer to?

KH: The supernatural ability Erica has is called post-cognition; it’s a reference to this.

CB: The game used to be called “We are Darker”. As we started to develop the new story, one night, it occurred to me to call it Cognition. I ran it by Katie and Jane and they loved the idea.


How – if at all – will this new game differ from you previous non-profit games?

CB: To start with, we are out of the fantasy realm, and into a very real world and gritty game. If anything, this is the antithesis to our work on The Silver Lining, and I’m very happy to have the chance to expand our horizons into a different style. We are also trying to modernise the interface as much as we can, but with a system that we think adventure gamers will love.

From a production standpoint, now we really have a chance to dive into the episodic model. Because this game was started by Khaeon, it gives us leeway in the number of assets we can use, but I’m excited to finally have a mostly full staff to work on the game. Everything’s happening so quickly that we barely have any time to breathe!

You have partnered with Khaeon Gamestudio for this project – how will this partnership work?

CB: We are currently taking on most of the development. Khaeon worked extensively on the game for a few months before they shelved the game. Because of that, a vast amount of assets were made, and we are doing our best to make sure everything created gets reused. For the current work, we are working with Romano Molenaar, who is employed by Khaeon, and maybe some of their engineers. Then, of course, Khaeon has more intensive experience when it comes to publishing, so they are going to be helping a lot with that as well.


Jane Jensen is being credited as a ‘Story Consultant’. How did she become involved with the project and what does her role entail?

CB: Jane and Phoenix Online met in March 2011 after I decided to give her a call to talk about the possibility of working together. Jane took a look at the work we had been doing with The Silver Lining and was highly impressed at the quality of the work put together by an all volunteer team. We visited her at her farm earlier during the year, and we immediately clicked. We started working on a few prototypes for a few different games, and in the end, we decided to go with Cognition as a small project that could be a great test for us as a first collaboration.

She’s been revising the full story, puzzles, interface, and she will be playtesting the game. She wants to make absolutely sure that this game is good enough to carry her name on it, and she’s been very nice to share with us the years of experience she has. I personally love working with her, we get along great!

Is it fair to say that comparisons can be drawn between Cognition and Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series of video games?

KH: Definitely!

CB: Yes! Everyone that’s seen what exists of Cognition at the moment has been drawing comparisons between the two games. A couple of weeks ago, I met with Ken Williams and showed him what we had, and the first thing he said was “looks a lot like Gabriel Knight”. Which is mainly the reason why, when we saw the art from Khaeon, we all jumped on the opportunity. They both deal with paranormal themes, although both in different ways, they both have gruesome murders taking place, and they both have stories that have some basis on the flavour and the culture of the town they take place in.


What other games would you cite as sources of inspiration?

KH: Other games we’ve taken inspiration from include Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy, both in atmosphere and gameplay – we’re working on an interface that mixes up the classic icon interface of adventure games with some of the innovations seen in these games.

Romano Molenaar’s artwork looks incredible! How will the finished game compare to the concept art that has been shown so far?

KH: Most of what we’ve shown so far have been an example of the cutscene artwork; the game itself will still have a very graphic novel feel, though. It’s 2.5D: 3D characters on 2D backgrounds.

CB: We wanted to keep Romano’s art intact, and that’s why we decided to go with 2D environments. For the characters, we have a 3D pipeline, so it’s easier for us to do 3D characters, but we are still making them blend well with the environments. Cutscenes will have a very 2D graphic novel feel to them, and again, that’s mostly because Romano’s artwork is so beautiful, we didn’t want to change it by turning it into 3D.

How would you describe Erica Reed? What makes her a compelling character?

KH: Erica’s been through some tragedies, and like anyone who goes through that kind of thing, it’s hard for her to let go of the past and move on. She’s pretty serious and focused, and there’s a definite sense of someone struggling with a loss, with what she sees as her own failings, and trying to figure out how to move past those things and find happiness again.


Will the game be fully voice acted?

KH: It will be, yes. We are going to be hosting auditions soon in northern California.

Is this intended to be the first in a series of Erica Reed video games?

KH: This is the only planned game right now, but we’d love to turn it into a series if things go well!

CB: There are so many possibilities around the powers Erica has, and what other people out there could also have, that it makes it very exciting to think of the possibilities as a series.


How much will the game cost? Is it only going to be available as a digital download?

CB: We haven’t figured out the price tag yet. At first, the game will only be available as a digital download. Later, once all episodes are out, we’ll see about releasing it on retail.

What platforms will Cognition be releasing on?

KH: Cognition will definitely be on PC and Mac, and we are very interested in doing an iOS version as well. We’ll also be looking at doing platform releases – XBLA, PSN, etc – but those aren’t definite right now.

Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)

Thank you for your time and good luck with completing the game!

KH: Thanks! We’re looking forward to completing it and getting it out there!

CB: Thank you! And thanks a lot for having us here!

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Filed under Alternative Musings, Games

3 responses to “INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)

  1. Pingback: Cesar & Katie interviewed by Alternative Magazine Online « Phoenix Online Studios

  2. Pingback: - The Weblog Indie Game Links: Monaco Is Mine, Yours, His and Hers

  3. Pingback: On Puzzle Design | The Mental Attic

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