Developer Diary: The Design Process

by on Mar.08, 2013, under cognition, developer diary

We recently got this question over at the Cognition Steam Community Group: “Where do you get your ideas?” And that’s as good a place as any to start talking about the process of developing a game! With due warning, there are some very mild spoilers for Episode 2 in here–nothing the trails don’t already hint at or say, and nothing you don’t find in the first chunk of gameplay. I wouldn’t ever spoil the big moments!

One of the original scenes done by Romano; this was eventually adapted into Robert's Alleyway

For Cognition, when we started creating the plot, we had some gorgeous art from Romano Molenaar to go from, and we knew that Erica Reed was in law enforcement. Apart from that, however, the world was our oyster.  The artwork has a fantastic noir feeling to it from the get-go, and as soon as we saw it, Cesar and I were primed for a creepy, moody thriller. And admittedly, after nine years of working The Silver Lining, we were overdue for something more “adult”!

We started by refining what we had–we went with her as an FBI Agent instead of a cop, since we figured that was done less often. We set the game in Boston instead of New York, for another change of pace from the usual (and t my delight, being a Boston native). Then we began throwing out ideas that quickly became refined: she was hunting down a serial killer–or maybe several. What kind of pattern would there be to the kills? What did that say about the killer, what was their motivation, their psychology behind this? Did we want to keep it entirely grounded in reality, or did we want to add a paranormal twist by giving her some kind of ability? An earlier version had a number of killings based on Shakespeare in addition to Erica’s post-cognition ability, but the Shakespeare idea we discarded thanks to some sage advice from Jane to pick one of the two themes and focus in on that.

Strong-willed leading ladies

What kind of person would Erica be? We each had our inspirations for her; you can read about Cesar’s here. Some of my inspirations included characters like Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars. Both strong young women, in very different ways, with strengths, flaws, and events that traumatically change their lives. But something you don’t get to see from either of them, simply due to the nature of TV shows coming and going, is how their lives play out years after the fact, out in the “real world.” Erica is in her early 30s, rather than her teens or early 20s. I wondered how something like her not-quite-controlled power would affect her in the long term.

Once we had the overarching plot laid out, it was time to breakdown the episodes and flesh them out. Each one focuses on a particular serial killer Erica is tracking, and delves into the background of who this killer is, why they do what they do, and from there, we build up the steps she takes to find them, the trail of clues left behind. For the Wise Monkey, I was working with a killer who had focused on the eyes, ears, and tongues of their victims, and I thought about why someone would do something like this. I was also interested in changing things up (again, notice a pattern here?) by having Erica pursue a female serial killer, so I researched what makes female killers different from their male counterparts.

As you can imagine, we did some rather grisly research for this game.

With the main characters (or at least, personalities) settling into place, it’s time to examine what kind of rooms and side characters fit into the story. I’d decided to make the Wise Monkey’s victims people with musical talents in connection with what was being done to them, and with Boston as the setting, the next natural step was to make some connections to Berklee College of Music (and I must emphasize that apart from its existence as a music-focused college, everything else about it is completely fictional in Cognition!). The characters were fleshed out, with their personalities and connections coming from both what felt natural to the plot, and thinking about what kinds of twists I wanted to add both to this story, and to the overarching plot. Sometimes this will include coming up with an idea and dismising it–because it’s not much fun if the solution to all problems is the very first thing you think of!

Another of Romano's original works, this was used in the prequel comic, "Provenance"

Then, finally, I focus on the puzzles. Some puzzles emerge in the process of fleshing out everything else, but this is where the nitty gritty details happen. For this episode, we were planning on introducing a new power for Erica, so incorporating that power into a good amount of the puzzles was important; as well as making use of the powers players were already familiar with. What I really like about this is that we can make puzzles that aren’t just about what you see, but you could see–leading people to make connections between objects on screen, in their inventory, and between people they encounter as well. At the same time, Erica’s visions are rarely a solution or a full answer to what’s going on, so it’s a constant task of leaving breadcrumbs to lead the player to the final stages of the Episode.

And that final stage….hoo boy. I won’t spoil that here, but suffice to say I wanted to make it challenging on a number of levels, incorporate a lot of the Cognition-specific gameplay, and really make a memorable final moment for Episode 2.

So that’s the quick overview of the steps of the design process. From one point to the next, the ideas we build on often inspire what comes next, and connections spring to life as you go. It’s an exciting moment whenever I get a flash of inspiration that ties everything together, and I crack open a Word doc or grab a notebook to get it all down. I’ve got about 5 pages of notes at least from a brainstorming session with Cesar during GDC last year, and those are especially fun since we’re an online company, when we’re able to get together in person and dive into the creative process together.

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