The last few days of any game project are hectic. We know it, we have to work hard, and it’ll be long hours. Yet it seems that every time we reach this stage, I feel so overwhelmed by things that I always think that we’ll never make it.
Episode 3: The Oracle is a special one for me. Even though Nick Bryan took more care of the episode than I did, I always wanted to stay close to this episode because I knew it would be my favorite of the bunch. It’s such a critical one because this is the episode to reveal it all, the one where all the story comes together before the frantic ending that will be Episode 4: The Cain Killer.
To me, The Oracle has the better plot twists and some of the most gut-wrenching stuff in the series. It’s the episode that will make you torn about the motives behind the killings, and will make you see that everything is not as black and white as it seems. If we did our job right, by the end of the episode you might feel sympathetic towards characters you never thought you would feel sympathetic for.
So this episode needed the utmost care, and that’s why I never let it drift out of my hands too much. I was there when puzzles were being designed, dropped in the general outline for the episode, designed some of the puzzles myself, and took care of Act 4 (the ending section). I put it the hands of the very capable Nick Bryan, and stepped back to take care of Moebius or some non-fun business stuff that always requires my attention. (continue reading…)
I hope you’re ready to put on your sleuth hat!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
I hope fans of The Silver Lining will like our newest creation and enjoy the music I’ve created! I am excited for everyone to hear the soundtrack and play the game!
I often forget how much I really love GDC. Yes, it’s exhausting, yes, by Friday all you want to do is go home and have sometime for yourself. Yes, the driving in and out from San Jose to San Francisco wears you out (Remind me to stay in a hotel in the city at least one day next GDC, I think I said that one last GDC). But, all in all, you get to meet so many interesting people, and rekindle the friendships you’ve made at past conventions. It’s a celebration of all things video games, and because it’s more business oriented than something like E3, it is my kind of place.
This time, Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye Games contacted a bunch of us in order to throw a party! It was the first branded “Adventure Game” party, and I wanted to recount a bit of how it went and the great people in it.
Vitek and myself were late to the party because we were stuck in the G.A.N.G Awards, where Cognition’s “The Taking” by Robert and Raleigh Holmes had been nominated for Best Song (Pop) in a Videogame. It was very exciting to see the game get a nomination on a big screen among so many other great songs. Of course, Journey won EVERYTHING (even the stuff it wasn’t nominated for!)
When we arrived the party had already started. The first puzzle: Apparently, even though Dave confirmed twice with the place, somehow GDC rejected our party (we are still scratching our heads about this one) and the booking was off. So we didn’t have a space and we had a bunch of people coming in. How do you fit that many Adventure Gamers in a place taken up by the normal crowd? Easy, you just “Take on the World” a-la Day of the Tentacle. And so, we slowly started to dominate the place. Part of that involved just eating random patrons French Fries. (Oh, you are not in the party? These fries are good, though).
We had celebrities! So, the day before Agustin Cordes from Senscape’s Asylum and myself were randomly walking in San Francisco when we bumped into Ron Gilbert (I swear to God I wasn’t stalking him! Maybe). Long story short, we introduced ourselves and felt awkward and so we invited him to the party, and he made it! Which was awesome! I didn’t get much chance to spend with him, but I hope a lot of people came by and said “hi!”
We also had Ragnar Tørnquist in the party. Now, everyone that knows me also knows that I LOVE The Longest Journey and that I was greatly influenced by it when I was
writing The Silver Lining. So, my excited self sent an email (or maybe a thousand) to Ragnar a while ago asking if he was going to be at GDC to meet. And out of the blue, the week of GDC, he replied to (one of) the email(s) and asked us to meet over at the Lobby of the W. I have to say I randomly get the chance to meet with such nice developers. Dag Scheve (co-writer of Dreamfall) and Ragnar, are really two of the nicest people I have ever met. Aside from trying to get as many revelations on “Chapters” as possible, we also invited them to the party, and they showed up with all the team that was here for GDC before heading over to the Nordic Party! Ragnar invited me over there, but I had to decline as I was hosting this party. Next time, bud!
I even had the chance to meet some of the people from my own team an the forums. Seeing Kelsey (Rosella from the forums) and Wayne (from our QA team) as well as Gavin (our Production Coordinator) was great. I really felt like part of a big family.
All in all, it was great to see so many Adventure Game enthusiasts in one place (including the girl who told me she was a big fan of our work and couldn’t wait for Episode 3 of Cognition, Hi!) was a feeling you don’t get too often these days. I call for a repeat for GDC 2014. Bigger, bolder, and with more inventory items.
Thanks to everyone for hosting the party! Wadjet Eye Games, Senscape, Skygoblin, Los Munditos, Irresponsible Games, Grundislav Games, Freebird Games, Floating Hands Studios, Autumn Moon Entertainment, and Emily Morganti!
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!
One of the really fun parts of being a game developer is getting to attend gaming conferences and events and call it ‘work’. This weekend is PAX East 2013 here in Boston — gamers of all varieties are coming in from far and wide to celebrate gaming in all its forms in a huge weekend-long convention. How awesome is that?!
PAX East has a special little place in my heart — not only is the biggest gaming conventions in Boston, but the first time I attended was in 2010. Following the C&D from Activision, PAX EAst 2010 was our big chance to talk to some members of the press about our story, and fellow director Richard Flores and I did exactly that, getting interviews with Kotaku and Joystiq among others that became a part of the momentum that carried us through to working out an agreement with Activision and releasing Episode 1 just a few months later. So from the get-go, for me, PAX East is always linked to promoting and talking about what’s going on with Phoenix Online.
Back in 2010, those were my first in-person interviews, and with the feeling that so much was on the line, I was so nervous I barely slept at all the night before! Thankfully, most of those nerves are long-gone, but the excitement about getting to meet people from the gaming press and getting to talk about what the projects I and so many others love and pour a crazy amount of time and hard work into hasn’t gone away at all!
Plus there’s being surrounded by the whole of gaming culture, distilled into a concentrated dose that you just get to soak in for three days straight. There are awesomely detailed cosplay costumes, line games played with total strangers while waiting for panels, trying out new games in the exhibition hall — there’s just something welcoming and even a little magical knowing you’re standing in a huge convention center with thousands of strangers and you’ve at least one thing in common with every single of one of them.
This year will be another memorable one! I’ll be meeting three of our team members in person for the first time, talking about our current projects–Cognition Episode 3, Jane Jensen’s Moebius, Mad Orange’s Face Noir–fitting in some interesting panels (I’m especially looking forward to this one about story in indie games, featuring Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert), and being a part of this celebration of games, gamers, and gaming culture.
And if you’re interested in keeping up with what I’m up to over the weekend, follow @katiehal16 or @POStudios on Twitter for pictures and more! Going to be at PAX East? You can check out and play Cognition at two booths! Our demo will be at the IndieGameStand booth(#797) and the Indie Royale folks at the Born Ready Games booth (#1121). And say hi if you see one of us around wearing our red Phoenix Online shirts!
This time we are looking at how all the wonderful models and sets are created. Creating all the models is time consuming as they go through many, many drafts before we find the one we look feels like the one the script is describing.
In Episode 5 script, there aren’t any direct words telling us how the character looks however we do have their personality based on their name as well as how they speak and what actions they take during the game itself. From this we are able to do a base sketch. Let’s look at the character Rosella.
As you can see this is a rough sketch of how we think the character should look like. Based on what we know about the character of Rosella we have dressed her elaborately for her wedding. The proportions are off but that is not important at this stage of the character design, all the artist is concerned about is getting the general vision of the character down. Once the general idea is agreed upon, the next stage of design can begin.
In this picture, Rosella has been fleshed out more. The lines are cleaner and the designs in her dress are defined to the point where they could be created to the next stage. Also included are different views of how the character would look. You have the front view, side, and back. All three views are important in a 3D game because you will be able to see the character from all angles. Each angle must be as clean as the others. The close up on her face is required because again of how the camera moves in TSL. These images need to be as detailed as they can be because after this step they go to a Character Artist who will build the character in Maya. If details are not added in at this stage, the Character Artist who works off the design will run into issues that could end up having them scrap the character they have been working on for several days, and those days would be considered lost and mile stones will not be made pushing the entire project back.
In regards to TSL, the torque engine limited how much we really could do with the character in terms of poly counts (how smooth they look). Now that we have switched engines the world of characters and sets have opened up to us greatly and our characters have gone from blocky to smooth geometry. In TSL this process takes us several weeks to complete as most of the team is part time but Noelle, Ting and Tom are able to create amazing things from a simple 2D image and create a 3D character that walks on our screen. To show you how amazing TSL is going to look, here are before and after images of Rosella, the first peek into the art of Episode 5!
This past Sunday, we wrapped up the recordings for our voice actress for Erica Reed, the extremely talented Raleigh Holmes. After four episodes, I felt a little sad as we wrapped the last few lines of the episode and called it done. For us, we still have to walk this road until we release the episode to all of you, but for Raleigh, today was her last day on the job.
One of the most satisficing aspects about game development for me as a designer is the joy of hearing the lines I wrote take life in someone as talented as Raleigh. Extremely professional and completely dedicated to making things as perfect as possible, in this episode Raleigh just flew through her lines. And although Michael Fortunato, our voice over director, plays a big role in such a great performance, Raleigh was so comfortable by now that you could feel her transformation: She has actually become Erica!
And to bring a character to life through voice overs is not an easy task. Actors normally always have the energy of the stage, the set, or other actors to bounce off from. In voice-overs, they are alone with their microphones in a little booth, and everything happens in their imagination. So kudos to them!
We recorded in two sessions. On Saturday we went through the first two acts and part of act three. We skipped all the sections that would be hard on Raleigh’s voice, such as some of the skin-crawling screams you’ve heard from her in previous episodes, or sections that were so action-oriented they would put a strain on her voice. We saved all of that for Sunday, towards the end of the recording, in case they made Raleigh lose her voice. We have to be very careful in general, as Raleigh’s other passion is singing and she has an upcoming gig at Jane Jensen’s Open House event, so we definitely didn’t want Raleigh to hurt her voice for that! So we took it slow, while Raleigh took sips of her tea to help her keep her voice in check.
Katie joined us as always to make sure Raleigh kept her Bostonian flare. I normally just keep quiet, letting Michael do the direction and sometimes taking over for him when baby Sebastian, his son, needed attention. In those occasions, I would normally ask Raleigh to go to a safer place (such as the inventory lines) because I really prefer Michael to work with Raleigh to get Erica down to the great character we all love. He has such an easy way to get people to read the lines the way they are meant to be written, that I feel nervous that by taking over the more dramatic sessions, we wouldn’t get the best of the best. In those cases, I normally keep to myself unless I feel really strong about how to read a line, or when I need to come in to explain the motivation behind a particular session, behind the character’s thoughts or history that helps the actor understand the characters better. And, sometimes, also as lines are being read, sometimes they don’t feel quite natural once we hear them aloud, so Katie and I are normally there to go over the script and try new lines that feel better for the character or the situation.
To round out the team of people behind the recordings, we had our own Austin Haynes under a different hat, on the technical side, running the recordings in L.A. with Raleigh, and setting everything up so that the rest of us can listen in from our locations in Boston, Montreal, and California. Technology allows us to do this the same way as if we were in the studio with them! Austin especially takes care of things so that the volume doesn’t peak and distort as Raleigh screams or is not too low when she’s whispering, making sure that everything is balanced.
In film, there’s a term called “The Martini Shot” which refers to the last shot done before it’s a wrap . I called it as Raleigh was doing her final screams. I hope (and beg) that we can share many more of those Martini Shots with Raleigh in many productions to come! Talents like hers are rare, and we are very lucky to have her helping make of Erica such a compelling character. Thank you, Raleigh!
Chances are good you’ve had a conversation before. But have you ever thought about all the things you do during a conversation? You look at the other person, or sometimes look away. You smile, or nod, or frown and shake your head. Your brow narrows in slightly different ways when you’re upset or confused. You shift your weight. You blink. You react to the what the other person is saying, and they react to you. And then you talk, and you do all those things in addition to speaking. And all the while, the other person is doing those same things, but in their own way.
More complicated than you thought, isn’t it?
While animators make the movements that are seen in the game, putting those animations into the game falls to the Cinematic Artists. These folks have the distinguished, nit-picky, detailed-oriented task of putting together every sequence in the game. What’s a sequence? Everything! Any reaction the game makes beyond simple walking requires a sequence: talking to another character, looking at a specific item, picking something up, using an item, and so forth.
Let’s take a closer look at a brief sequence from Episode 1:
From changing camera angles to Erica crossing her arms to even the timing of Sully walking over in the background, every action, gesture, and audio line is pieced together by a cinematic artist. When John asks, “Do you want to good cop-bad cop him?”, he shrugs his shoulders, his eyebrows raise to indicate he’s asking a question. Erica says no, and shakes her head; at the same time, we see Sully approaching in the background. When we next see Sully, his arms are crossed, and Erica’s have shifted to being on her hips. Later, when Sully is talking about John, he points at him.
All of the gestures are a part of the body language of a conversation, and each one is specifically chosen and timed to make the conversation feel close to real life. Even the blinks and eye movements are specific! While these are most often assigned a routine animation that will have the character blink automatically, the place they’re looking is an assigned value. Notice how John looks in Sully’s direction when he joins the conversation–that shift in where John is looking and when is something the cinematic artist tells the game to do.
The camera angles, too, change to indicate who’s speaking, to show their reactions, to keep the pace of the conversation interesting, rather than relying on a single group camera for the entire time. These changing camera angles mimic the kind of camera work you would see in a movie — that’s why it’s called a “cinematic sequence.”
Just like we do for the animations, we have meetings where we review the cinematics each week, going through each and every sequence in the game, offering feedback to revise and perfect each of them. If I know that during a particular line of dialogue, Erica is meant to be acting aggressively, I’ll give that note to the cinematic artist so they can reflect this in her body language. If another person is hiding information, we may ask for them to be reluctant to make eye connect, something people often do in real life when they’re lying. Being a cinematic artist requires a LOT of attention to detail and putting up with the nit-pickiest feedback from the director you can imagine! And the end result adds to feeling of a character’s depth by giving what was a 3D model personality and physical character traits and quirks that the player recognizes and takes in just like they do in real-life conversations.
And sometimes, we find fun glitches like this!