Established in 2004 and previously known as 'Phoenix Freeware Online', Phoenix Online Studios began as a fan group of King's Quest fans coming together to create an unofficial sequel to the series.
Their first project, The Silver Lining, got the attention from publications such as PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, GameInformer, Edge Magazine, GamesTM, Kotaku, Mtv News and Joystiq. Today, we've been granted an IP license by Activision to publish all 5 episodes free to play.
Phoenix Online Studios is currently working on their first commercial endeavors - Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, recently released Episode 1 last October, and Episode 2 is about to be released Jan 30th, 2013. The game follows a Boston FBI agent, who lost her brother years ago to a serial killer who was never caught. With post-cognition abilities, Erica Reed is able to see the past of the objects just by touching it, adding a twist in this paranormal adventure game.
More information about Phoenix Online Studios or any of our projects can be found at www.postudios.com
Cognition Episode : The Oracle just around the corner, meaning we’re officially in crunch time: long hours, nights and weekends, all hands on deck and everyone’s neck-deep in testing and bug fixing to make this Episode ready and looking good. So this past weekend, I stepped into the role of playtester and finally got in my first full playthrough of Episode 3.
Episode 3 has been designed & directed by Nick Bryan, our assistant designer, and Cesar, so while I helped outline, edit and review the script for the Episode 3, I haven’t been as deeply involved with its development. And it was really fun to play a game I both knew and didn’t know for the first time!
Much like The Hangman and The Wise Monkey, The Oracle has its own unique feel and pacing. This time around, I found myself thinking of it more and more as a haunted house mystery. It’s got all the classic highlights:
- A new death reopens an investigation into a building with a bloody past
- Betrayal, secrets, and family drama lie at the center of this mystery
- Everyone has something to hide and no one can be trusted
- The past is intricately tied to Erica’s present in ways she couldn’t have anticipated
- Ghosts! (Well, Projection ghosts)
- There’s even a suspicious-looking butler! I mean, come on, look at this guy!
As soon as you enter the haunted house , the Enthon Towers, you know something’s changed. It’s subtle, but the whole tone of the game shifts as Erica digs into the grittiest of details here. Her post-cognition is really worked into every inch of the design in this Episode, which is so very steeped in discovering the secrets from the past of this place. So get out that sleuth hat, and you’ll want to bring a notepad and pencil for this one, too, because there’s a lot of detail to review and all of it is important. Get ready for some old-fashioned true detective work and an intriguing mystery; you’re not going to want to stop until you’ve figured it out!
I can’t wait for Episode 3 to be out there and to hear everyone’s reactions to the puzzles, new characters, and the mysteries in this one. Not to mention their theories on Episode 4, of course!
On Thursday May 16th, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller continues in Episode 3: The Oracle! In this episode, you won’t just be playing as Erica, but also as the killer who’s been playing games with her. Meaning we’ll finally know the answer to one big question: [i]Who is the killer?
Plus! Join us on May 16th at 11 AM PST/2 PM EST for a launch day livestream! We’ll be on Google Hangout, taking your questions, talking about Episode 3, and doing some exclusive giveaways at our YouTube channel. Just go to to http://www.youtube.com/postudios and hangout with us!
Today’s post is written by Gavin Greene, Production Coordinator for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, taking some time out of his very busy day to tell us about his role on the team!
Coordinators are the harbingers of red tape and re-prioritization, a bureaucratic middle man that can be respected, but never entirely liked. And that’s exactly where you need to be.
Also known as an Associate Producer in teams that can afford such titles, a Coordinator’s lot in production is one of constant readjusting. The proud owner and operator of the master schedule, every week brings subtle transformations to your perfectly planned testing passes and animation blocking schedules. Game development is a process of constantly revising your prospects, as a thousand little variables are always in flux: Unity crashes and stubborn shoulder rigs, re-exports and complex renders. Add the fact that your entire team is satellite and around the world, and it makes the film production background you come seem like the most refreshing of breezes.
Luckily then, the day job of the Production Coordinator is to be everywhere at all times, or as close to it as humanly possible. One of the earliest things I learned is to remove the sound of Skype pings, my first few hours on staff was riddled with tiny chirps from a dozen conversations. You have an ear in every department during office hours, ready to rush in to solve any number of daily problems that can arise.
In between arranging and hosting all manners of department meetings and dailies (where everyone shows off their days work for their respective leads), you can be called upon to help get a recently approved prop into a character model’s hand or confirming a logic editor has the latest 3D layout of the scene he’s working on. It’s being on call on a phone line that’s always ringing. Given that we have departments in Italy and India, it also means daily midnight conferences on modeling procedures and approval processes.
Redmine: "From up here, you all look like little, compulsively organized ants."
Once (or if) you manage to quiet all immediate concerns for a moment, you shift from the microscopic back to the macroscopic. And at my position, that means going from firefighting to data entry. We at Phoenix Online use the SCRUM style of scheduling on a milestone delivery schedule – for at least one of our projects – all of which means a lot of organizing and updating spreadsheets and scheduling software documents. While each staff member sees their individual priorities in a shared “To Do List” Google doc, I primarily employ Hansoft for the grander plan. To my eyes, a game looks like a massive array of nodes and interconnected lines long before it takes manifests into something playable.
Once we establish a foundation of logic and everyone has a foothold in their department, minute bugs and polish assignments can be tracked using Redmine, a program which helps store and prioritize everything from a character with a spinning chest to a background that needs final shading. An average game project can run anywhere from 600 to a couple thousand of these little tasks, all of which come through your inbox at each stage of being fixed.
It’s certainly a mountainous amount of information to take in and process, be it day 1 or 1,000. But all Coordinators (or Associate Producers) learn fast on their feet, and I was impressed just how quickly I was employing a unique bag of tricks. Despite my intimidating introduction, my greatest asset is my team. If you have a wonderful assortment of people, your job becomes a whole lot smoother (if not less complex). The staff at Phoenix Online – my little schedule nodes – are a wonderful, truly dedicated bunch, with their own little brand of insanity that I’m proud to be contributing to.
Social Media Intern, Phoenix Online
Last May, composer Austin Haynes wrote a guest blog about composing the music of Cognition–music that went on to win the Adventure Gamers’ Aggie Award for Best Music 2012, AND win the Reader’s Choice poll for the same category! So I think it’s safe to say the man knows his music. ;) Here’s what Austin has to say about composing for Cognition.
Hi, I am Austin Haynes, the lead composer for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. I also did the music for The Silver Lining, which was a fan game based off of King’s Quest. When I got involved in Cognition, the first point to discuss was what kind of music would fit the game? I had seen the lovely artwork designs and after discussing with Cesar Bittar, the project director and CEO of Phoenix Online, we both came to the conclusion that electronic elements along with some acoustic instruments would be a good fit. In our discussion, I learned that the game had dark imagery so the textures of synthesizers and otherworldly sounds would fit nicely along with dynamic instruments such as piano and strings. It is dark, mysterious, but also personal and heartfelt too. The setting was clearly different in comparison to The Silver Lining. This would be our first commercial game but as with the rest of Phoenix Online, we welcomed the challenge.
When making the music for the trailer, the visuals were so rich and strong, that it was quite clear in what emotion was needed to capture the moment. It had to be creepy, scary, gritty, and compelling. I used drones and processed sounds to achieve this along with screams I recorded to emphasize the pain and fear these victims were experiencing from these killers surrounded by the city.
There are a few different ways music is used in Cognition. There are some themes used for main characters and also of places that the player may visit quite a bit to make it special and memorable – nothing like music to set the mood. There are cinematic scenes that have to have the music timed and locked in with the visuals. This is very much in the same way that music is scored to film. I like to watch the video and get the sense of timing to start the composing process. This helps me set the pace for the music. Because a lot of changes happen in these videos, the music needs to reflect that so it can be challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Another different use of music is during gameplay. How long will Erica be in certain areas? What is the mood we are looking for here? Because things can change while you are playing and as you progress, we have certain music layers that can come into the mix when needed, making it a very immersive experience. For example, I have some distortion running through large ensemble percussion that comes in as the tension increases during a moment in Episode 1. Being able to have these layers is possible do to the Unity Engine we are using. For intense scenes, distortion was a great way of getting that gritty sound which brought a whole other level of dimension musically to the experience. This is exciting and different from movies that are always locked and set with how everything will go.
There is also the question of implementation. Because a player can spend a long time in a certain area, how long should this music be? Should it be looped or come and go? When it comes to in-game music, I sometimes need to imagine what it is like during early development because the objects, animation, graphics are still being implemented. Most of the time artwork, music examples, or descriptions are provided which gives a good indication of what is needed.
Every game needs logic–and that doesn’t just mean the story and puzzles making sense! Logic, or logic scripting, is a part of the programming in the game engine that tells the game what to do. Logic is how the game knows what interactions are available to the player, and what should happen when they activate those interactions.
For Cognition, Moebius, and TSL Episode 5, we use a visual logic scripting tool in Unity that looks more or less like a flowchart. This is great for people like me, who know nothing about programming, as it’s much easier to follow, work with, and even put together. So no longer does a scripter need intimate knowledge of a programming language to help put the game together!
So, how does it all work? Let’s take an example from Episode 1. Now, as you can clearly see here….
Just kidding. :) That’s a little look at how complicated the logic can get, however, and this is tiny peek at all the things the game looks for when you walk into the FBI Main Station every time!
For real this time, let’s look at something a little simpler. :) Clicking on the image below will make it easier to read and follow along.
These are the interactions for the gate in the opening scene of Episode 1. What we first do is identify for the game what object we’re referring to–the gate–which is done in the scene itself. That purple lozenge labeled “GateDoor_InteractionMesh” is tied to the gate itself. From there, we tell the game to build an action wheel for available actions with the gate. In this case, Erica can Look at the gate, try to Open the gate, and Use her Gun on the gate. When a player clicks on one of these interactions, the game then checks for variables, also called Booleans, with the “Compare Bool” box. In this case, it’s checking whether or not Erica has already shot the padlock on the gate.
If she hasn’t shot it off, then the game gives specific reactions that are defined in the cinematic sequences. If she tries to open the gate, she struggles with the lock and has a conversation with John about it. If she looks at it, she’ll notice that the lock is still there. If she uses her gun, she’ll pull it out and fire a round into the padlock to break it. This action will change the variable, so that the game now knows the lock has been broken and the interactions change. These variables are also called “Booleans”, so “SetBool” is the logic that switches that setting.
At this point, if the player tries to open the gate, Erica will do something different–she’ll remove the chain and padlock, push the gate open, and enter the cemetery. This also changes the scene, something else that is set in the cinematic sequence.
Other actions that are defined here are the hints in Erica’s phone. After Erica tries to open the gate once, she can text her dad for a hint about how to get inside. Once she shoots the lock, that hint is removed (regardless or whether the player has looked at it or not), as she no longer needs it.
These variables are constantly being checked in a game–anytime something changes, like the topics you can talk to someone about, whether a particular location is available yet or not, whether a character is in a scene or if they walk out and leave that scene. This is the logic of the game–and like many things, without logic, it just wouldn’t work!
Social Media Intern, Phoenix Online