By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman, describing it as “a good old-fashioned adventure game like they used to make, offering a fresh twist on the cop drama, with production values that rival the big names in adventure gaming.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Cesar Bittar, CEO of Phoenix Online Studios!
Hi Cesar! Thank you for your time and welcome back to AMO!
Thank you, a pleasure to be here again!
How have you been since we last spoke in December 2011?
It’s been quite a year! Since then, I’ve assumed my full on position as CEO of Phoenix Online, and it’s been a great experience. And it has been an amazing year as well, we’ve since then released Cognition Episode 1, we’re about to release the second episode, we are working on Moebius, and then we are in the middle of a deal to get a third project going that I just cannot wait to tell people about, but of course, can’t right now!
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman has finally been released! For those who haven’t yet heard about the game, what’s it all about?
You play the role of Erica Reed, a FBI Agent with a particular ability to touch something and see the past of it. Erica’s a very flawed character, haunted by the death of the brother she could not save, and now she’s facing new challenges with serial killers that seem to be targeting everyone she loves.
What sort of gamers do you think Cognition will appeal to most?
I think anyone who likes a great story will be able to enjoy the game. Obviously, if you like point-and-click adventures, that’s a big plus, but everyone that has played the game has really great things to say about it, even those that dislike point-and-click.
What can you tell us about Phoenix Online Studios?
We are a very passionate studio that loves to make games that are all about the story and the characters, without forgetting the importance of having a great gameplay challenge. I love the team, and with each day they prove that Phoenix Online will have a very bright future at the hands of a very dedicated team.
How many people comprise the Phoenix Online Studios team at the moment?
We are close to 30 people right now, plus a team in India of around 10 people, so we’ve been growing and we are going to be expanding very soon, as we need more people on deck. 2013 is going to be a heck of a busy year for us!
And that’s only on the commercial side of Phoenix Online. We also have the team that is working on Episode 5 of The Silver Lining. Though they’re still working part-time and on a volunteer basis, so the team size fluctuates more, the episode is making progress.
Cognition is the studio’s first commercial endeavour – what challenges have you faced along the way?
I always said that I wish I had the money to do this for a living, and now it’s happened, and what I thought was going to be simple, has become a lot more complicated. Our challenges came from working with a completely new engine, for which we developed a new set of tools to work with, and finding the right way to really manage a full-time team, which is very different to managing a volunteer team, because you have to stay on top of everything so that there are no wasted days, or wasted resources.
On a personal level, I find it harder and harder to do any kind of work myself, and I’m busy the whole day and beyond, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
The voice acting is fantastic – especially Raleigh Holmes as Erica Reed. How did the voice acting recording process work?
We held auditions in Sacramento, California, and we recorded at our voice director’s place in that city. We set up a small studio in one of his rooms, and I was actually there for a few of the recordings from Episode 1, and Skyped in for others. For Erica, we actually recorded her over at L.A., Skyping from Sacramento, and that worked nicely.
The music was also superb! Austin Haynes did a great job with the soundtrack and I can’t seem to get the final credits song with Raleigh Holmes on vocals out of my head – how does it feel as a game designer when you finally see the gameplay and the music/voice acting come together?
It’s a wonderful experience. I have a special place in my heart for the music side of things, and that’s still one thing that I control fully on the episodes. I work directly with Austin telling him exactly what I’m looking for, and that’s a synergy that works greatly.
Raleigh was awesome for Erica. Ever since I heard her for the first time, I went “that’s Erica.” And she’s a sweetheart to work with, very professional, very on top of everything.
What’s your favourite moment in Episode 1?
I have to say that it’s either the whole intro section or the Interrogation Room puzzle. I think that we really nailed it with the intro – I feel it’s strong, it throws you right in, and it’s very well paced, and makes for an awesome demo. As for the Interrogation Room puzzle, I’m very proud of how it came together, the whole section is really cool, and that’s definitely one of my best pieces of work.
What has it been like working with Jane Jensen?
A dream come true! You know, I consider Jane more than just someone I admire, but more of a friend now. We meet when we happen to be in the same city, and go to lunch, or dinner, or we talk on the phone and she tells me what she’s going through, and I tell her what’s happening with us. So it’s grown from that fan/developer relationship into a more developer/developer relationship. I have a lot of admiration still for her work, and she’s been a great mentor in terms of helping me with the stories. What’s wonderful is that at the same time, these days Jane also comes to me with questions, and looking for my opinion on things, and how to approach things. That’s something so valuable, and I keep feeling so thankful that I had the chance to really connect with my idol and develop this friendship and work relationship with her.
How much input did she have into the game?
She really drove the story home by giving focus to our ideas. We were working with two different ideas, and she made us focus on just one. After that she’s read through the whole of the first three episodes and gave very detailed feedback, and even wrote some lines herself, and she will be doing the same with the final one.
What would you say the game’s main themes are? I was pleasantly surprised by how emotional the story became as it went on – to me, that’s where adventure games have the edge over any other genre of game.
I would say the main story of Cognition is a story of learning to let go of the past. You know things sometimes happen to you and you get obsessed over something to the point where it’s not healthy, and that’s exactly what Erica and some other very important characters in the story are going through. And in this case, it’s reinforced by having our main character possess a power that keeps launching her into the past. So Erica hasn’t been able to let go of the guilt she feels over Scott’s death, and hopefully she will at least learn to cope with it, by the time it all ends, but we’ll have to see where the story goes.
In my review, I said how Cognition “is a good old-fashioned adventure game like they used to make, offering a fresh twist on the cop drama, with production values that rival the big names in adventure gaming at the moment such as Telltale Games.” How well has the game been received in general by players and critics? Do you read reviews?
I know I shouldn’t read reviews, but I cannot help it. Yes, the game has been very well received. I keep seeing scores of 7, and 8, and 9 all over the place, and that is a really gratifying thing to see that people are enjoying this so much! That’s why I worked so hard, to make sure I delivered a great quality story for people to really enjoy it!
How many episodes are there going to be? Do you have all of the stories for each episode already planned out?
There are four episodes. Initially we had the full outline for the four episodes, and a lot changed while the full game design docs were written, but they mostly stayed within the original ideas. We knew exactly where we began, and the big beats and where we wanted to end, and we had some detailed info of the small steps along the way. Right now, we have the first three episodes written and recorded, and we are working on writing the final one.
It was recently announced that Phoenix Online Studios is working with Jane Jensen and Pinkerton Road on her upcoming adventure game, Moebius! Congratulations – what more can you tell us about this exciting development?
It’s simply amazing to be able to work on a project with Jane. She sometimes drives me bonkers with how detail-oriented she is, but that’s exactly why her games are great. If you saw all the work that she puts into designing each piece of her game, all the detail that goes into that, and how she directs every piece with a lot of precision, you’d be amazed. I’m more of a “here’s the vision, do your thing” kind of director, so I can appreciate having the energy to do so much as she does, because from a developer standpoint, it’s all very clear when it lands in your lap and you have to implement it.
So yeah, Moebius has all of that hard work from Jane, and the story, and the characters all have that great Jensen touch, and it feels very fresh and new. When you find out what the story is really about, and how it plays into historic events, you will be as amazed as I was the first time I read it.
Do you have a release date yet for the second episode of Cognition?
Right now we are closing the episode so that we can release it sometime in January. We’ll have more news towards the end of this month.
Can you tell us anything about the story of the next episode?
Episode 2: The Wise Monkey is actually Katie Hallahan’s debut as a Director/Main Writer, and I’m really proud of how she’s pushed this episode to feel as great as it does. You will be facing a new challenge as Erica, as she is following the steps of a serial killer that takes people’s eyes, ears and tongues, and it becomes very personal to Erica because this time around, they kidnap someone very close to her.
It’s a very exciting episode, and has a few great twists, aside from being very dark, and very powerful.
What’s next for you Cesar?
Sleep? Please? Nah, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I’m going to be producing two games next year, so I’ll step down from my designer role, but that’s also going to be good, because then I may have time to write my next game. I’ve been wanting to do a game called Corridor 9 for a while, and I think next year is going to be a great opportunity to sit down and write it while I act as a producer of these other two titles.
Corridor 9 is a sci-fi story that has themes about concepts of religion and science and how they come together. It’s a story that has been in my mind for a while, and has also therefore taken many shapes and forms, but recently it hit me with a great idea to bring it all together, and I cannot wait to have some time to finally work on it and hopefully make it my best work ever!
Thank you for your time and I shall look forward to the next episode of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller!
Thank you very much, I hope you enjoy it!
GAME PREVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman (PC)
GAME REVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Pinkerton Road Studio)
GAME REVIEW – Gray Matter (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)