Features & News
Interview: Phoenix Online Studios
July 14, 2010, Author: Ray Willmott
Some stories within the gaming industry can be described as truly inspirational and one such story is that of Phoenix Online Studios; a group of like-minded individuals who shared a dream. After eight years of unpaid labour, including two cease and desist orders, POStudios were finally able to realise that dream this past weekend and bring The Silver Lining to life. The Silver Lining is a five part episodic adventure game experience inspired by the previous eight instalments of Kings Quest as foreseen by Roberta Williams and Sierra back in the 80’s to the 90’s and features the continuing story of King Graham and his family in the Land of the Green Isles.
I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Katie Hallahan, Co-Designer and Cesar Bittar, Project Director, about the game and get their thoughts on how they finally reached this point. In this exclusive interview, Katie and Cesar talk about fan passion, hard work, dedication, determination and resolve. They remind us why none of us should ever surrender in the face of adversity and why you should never give up on your dreams. This is the story of Phoenix Online Studios and how they came to find their Silver Lining.
Q. Thank you both for taking the time to do this interview. My first question has to do with the game’s central protagonist. I wonder, what was the reasoning behind choosing King Graham as the games lead character when the series has also seen Alexander and Rosella as protagonists as well? Had you always envisaged Graham for the role?
KH: “Originally, when we had planned for nine chapters, you were going to get a chance to play all three of those characters. However, when we condensed to game down to its current form, we decided to cut those parts. While the plot does have the twins under a curse in the game, we also felt that while the entire Royal Family has been the core of the King’s Quest games, Graham has really always been the star. He’s had three games where he was the main character already, he was the very first character we played in the series, and even in the games where you weren’t playing him, his presence was still felt. The fans of King’s Quest have taken a long journey with King Graham already, and it was only fitting that he be the character they play in our game as well.”
CB: “Just like Katie said, Graham is the star. He’s the one that began it all. The good thing is that if we ever did something else in the universe of King’s Quest, we have a great story starring Alexander, Rosella and co-starring so many great and original characters!”
Q. The fan campaign was the most important reason behind the rebirth of this project and this is not the first time we’ve seen an online fan campaign tackle developers head on. How were you able to maintain such passionate and dedicated fans and keep them interested in this project for so long?
KH: “Our fans fervor has often surprised even us! We’re extremely grateful for it, or we wouldn’t be where we are now. The fanbase for King’s Quest has always been a strong and active one, even though it’s been a long time since the games were popular and still being published. I think one reason is definitely that they’re eager to have a new game to play. As well, we’ve always tried to maintain a strong connection with our fans; we’re fans ourselves, after all! We all have that common interest to bring us together, and they know how hard we’ve worked over the years to make this happen. I think they appreciate that, and we in turn appreciate them.”
CB: “I also think that we wanted to go beyond what is normally expected from free game or fangames. We are crazy like that; that’s why it took so long to make! We are so blessed that we have such a great support from them! To them; thank you, thank you, a billion times thank you! I will never grow tired of saying it!”
Q. Have Roberta and Ken Williams, the series original creators, had much involvement with you throughout the course of the campaign? Have they been able to see the new game and offer their thoughts?
CB: “Yes! They recently played the game! Ken mentioned that Roberta “seemed to be smiling” while she was playing the game. Hours later, we received the most incredible words from Roberta. She had finished the game and sent us an email. I woke up to that email and it brought a tear to my eye! We’ll post the whole thing later on our site, but she called the game “Beautiful and fun to play”. It’s amazing because from what we know, Roberta has never played any of the fans games, and much less made any comments! So, receiving the approval from the game creator is amazing. As I was reading the email, I realized nothing would ever top that: That was the moment I worked so hard for!”
Q. I followed your campaign before I became a journalist for This Is My Joystick and as a fan of the Kings Quest series. I know this has taken you a very long time to put together, have you lost many staff members along the way, or did you maintain almost everybody who worked on the game from day one? How many people are currently working on ‘A Silver Lining’?
KH: “I think in total we’ve had at least seventy staff members working on this project over the years! A lot of people have come and gone, and sometimes come back. The time they worked on it and their commitment levels have varied a lot. Some people have done one sketch for us and that was that, some worked a few hours a week for years, and others have worked at it like a full-time job. Right now we have about twenty active staff members.”
CB: “Working with a volunteer team has been the most difficult challenge I have ever faced, but also the most gratifying one. People always ask me… “So how did you get that guy to work for free?” I think we are masters of working people’s passions! A lot of people come into the project and see such a talented and dedicated team, that they are more than happy to do anything to help out. Of course, there’s always the core team that have stuck together for years, but we are ever grateful of everyone that ever helped us!”
Q. The game will be released episodically, which I understand to be different from your original intentions with the project. Do you feel this is the future of adventure games and that the days of a full 20 – 30 hour in one package are over?
KH: “I don’t know that those days are entirely over, but the times are changing, the technology is changing, and the games have to change with those things. The rise and fall of the adventure game genre definitely shows that the genre has needed and has been looking for something new to revitalize it. I’m personally of the opinion that it was never dead, it just wasn’t the most popular genre out there after a certain point. Episodic games are starting to become more prevalent, for adventure games and others, and I think we’re going to see a lot more games and companies using that model in the coming years. Adventure games in particular are well-suited to it because they are story and character-driven. You can divide them into chunks or chapters or episodes fairly easily, you can have multiple dramatic cliffhangers, rising and falling action, and so forth.”
CB: “I think getting a story in chunks is sometimes better than a full story because it gives you little pieces and keeps it fresh. When I play a new game, as awesome as it can be, by the 10th or 15th hour it loses that “freshness” and you start giving everything for granted. With something that leaves you wanting for more and coming back every month for several months, you get to appreciate it a bit more. Just like in TV series, where you get more attached and feel you know these characters better than in a two hour movie.”
Q. Kings Quest 8 was a far cry from what Sierra had done with the series before and went on to become the most unpopular entry in the series. Have you ignored its presence entirely or tried to synch The Silver Lining with it in some way?
KH: “We have made the effort to sync up The Silver Lining with all of the past King’s Quest games, including Mask of Eternity. Though it wasn’t popular with the fans, it’s still a game in the series, and we aren’t ignoring that. The events of that game don’t necessarily play a huge role in our game, but Connor is mentioned and what happened to Daventry is taken into account.”
Q. During development time, which of the Kings Quest games would you say you’ve drawn the most inspiration from and why?
KH: “King’s Quest VI has been the biggest influence. For one thing, our game takes place primarily in the Land of the Green Isles, where KQ6 took place. As well, that was almost unquestionably the most popular and beloved game in the series, the real peak of storytelling, music, voice talent, graphics, etc. That game really brought them all together in a fantastic package. We want TSL to be as good as that game was, if not better.”
CB: “The combination of Roberta Williams and Jane Jensen made for the best King’s Quest ever, and that’s something every fan appreciated. Because we were going with a more mature plot, we didn’t completely want to alienate people, so we gave them something familiar and something very new to the king’s quest series (a dramatic, dark tone). I think we found a great balance between the two.”
Q. At one point, A Silver Lining was to be a standalone project with its own characters and story with all Kings Quest related themes removed from it. While developing that, do you feel the game still could have worked with all new characters or would it have proven difficult seeing as how much of the premise hinged on KQ lore?
KH: “This was more of a back-up plan in case we ever got a C&D. Which of course happened, twice! When we said we would keep that as a fall back plan, we didn’t fully understand how much work that would’ve been. While extracting the storyline would’ve been technically possible, it would’ve been extremely difficult. A lot of work would have been scrapped, redone, etc, and taken a long time to do as well. On top of that, I don’t think the story would pack quite as much of a punch without it. It would’ve much harder to get people as interested in it as they are now.”
CB: “Like Katie said, the story would have just not worked as well. This was a story written with King’s Quest in our minds, and trying to break apart from that was extremely difficult. We did start working on it, and we had an outline as to how to save the original material, because there was no way we were just going to throw everything out the window. That said, I’m so glad we didn’t have to change it! I was dreading the idea so much as we continued working on the new story.”
Q. How much involvement are you having with Activision at present? Are they just allowing the game to go ahead and giving you full creative control or are you bound to certain restrictions?
KH: “We have a few restrictions, but largely they’ve allowed us creative freedom. They’ve been great to work with, and since we started renegotiating with them, it’s been an open dialogue and we’ve built a good relationship. We’re very glad that they reconsidered!”
CB: “We’ve built such a great relationship with them since then. They are now very fast in their responses and in working with us in matters that involve them. Of course, they are not really endorsing the project or really involved with it. This is all us, and we are happy they are allowing us so much freedom and opportunities to get The Silver Lining to as many people as possible.”
Q. Why do you feel Activision so openly challenged your intentions to release A Silver Lining, a license they’ve not touched in so many years. Do you feel there are plans to rejuvenate the series much as Lucasarts have done with Monkey Island? Were they just washing their hands clean of Kings Quest?
KH: “They have in the last year released the old games on Steam and GOG.com, so they were doing something with the license, even if it wasn’t developing a new game. They were protecting their copyright, which we understand; it’s their right and responsibility as holder of the IP.”
Q. For someone who’s a fan of the series, can you give us a brief idea as of what to expect from A Silver Lining and how it ties in with the KQ series?
CB: “The Silver Lining picks up right where the previous game left. We try to answer many of the questions that were left open through the series and try to tie it all up into a series of events that are all correlated.
One thing that they can expect are characters that break away from the “fairy-tale” mold from the previous games. We questioned how would these characters be if they were more close to real persons, and so we deal with things like Alexander’s traumas because of being raised as a slave, Rosella having grown as an only and overprotected child, etc.”
Q. For people who have never heard of Kings Quest or this project before, why would you say they need to experience the Kings Quest games and A Silver Lining? What makes this series so special?
CB: “King’s Quest is a different kind of story than those we normally see out there. With the dark tone, we made it more adequate to the current generation of gamers, but we maintain the whimsical aspect of it, the tongue-in-cheek magic that made it so distinct without it becoming extremely comical like other games such as Monkey Island. Plus, it’s free! What can you lose? Give it a chance!”
Q. Have you ever considered working on an entry in another Sierra game of old such as Space Quest or Police Quest?
CB: “Gabriel Knight! That is my absolutely most favorite games series ever and I would kill to be able to work alongside Jane Jensen on it. We at Phoenix Online Studios are going to try our best to bring back all these series in the future, and hopefully, we can work something with Activision to convince them to let us do so. We firmly believe there is still a market for these games out there, and we know many fans have been waiting for a long time for this to happen. The Silver Lining being so prominent in the news is clear proof of that!”
Q. Knowing that your game will finally be released, knowing what you know now, would you do it all again?
KH: “Absolutely. Even if it weren’t going to be released, I’d still say yes, but I’m thrilled it will be released! There are things I might do differently, but they all have to do with hindsight, knowing now what we didn’t know then about what would take up our time unnecessarily and so forth. This has been an amazing and life-changing experience. Our team is fantastic, our fans are incredible, I’ve learned so much and made great friends, and together we made something we believe in. This is a dream come true and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
CB: “Yes! Especially with the experience we now have, we could have done it so much faster. I think that’s also part of the magic; everything that we learned in the process, all the people we had the great opportunity to work with, and all the doors that this project has open for us, both in our company and in our personal careers. There would be no best way I could have personally spent my last eight years!”
Q. Are you working on another project now that The Silver Lining is finally starting to see the light of day?
CB: “Right now, we look towards the future. We have a commercial game coming called “Corridor 9”, and we are very excited by it. It tells the story of a scientist woman in a post-apocalyptic world, and it explores themes of Religion vs Science and Man vs Machine. You can get more information about it at our company page at www.postudios.com“
Q. How much have companies such as Telltale influenced your direction on The Silver Lining? Have you reworked the control interface to make the adventure resonate with something that is popular and current?
KH: “The gameplay interface is the same point-and-click, five icon interface that was seen in KQ5 and KQ6. Companies like TellTale have been an influence in our decision to make the game episodic, however.”
CB: “It’s not a secret I used to work for Telltale. What I learned there was invaluable, but we had looked at the Episodic model for our next games before that happened. They do a great job at Telltale, but they are more in sync with the Lucasarts adventure games. We want to do the same but with the Sierra games, because we know them by heart.”
Q. Why have you stuck with this for so long when this has been a non-profit offering for the most part? There must be a real passion and belief in your team regarding this project and a hope of seeing future licensed Kings Quest products?
KH: “You nailed the reasons pretty well, actually! There’s a lot of hope and belief in this project. By the time we were getting into years of work on it, we already felt we’d come too far to just give up. We knew we had something great on our hands, and we weren’t about to throw in the towel. There was never an expectation of being paid involved with this game, so hearing that over again was never discouraging or surprising.”
CB: “I think these past two weeks are the answer to that question. Seeing the passion of the fans, the recognition from the creators, the attention from the media, it has been so overwhelming in such a good way. Also, like I mentioned before, the experience and the talented people we got to work with. It has paved the road for the future of Phoenix Online Studios, and so far, that future looks very bright!”
Q. Do you have any advice for like-minded individuals such as yourselves? If they have their own ideas of recreating a classic game or even working on their own IP? What would you say to them?
KH: “It’s going to be a lot of work; a lot more than you probably think it will be! You have to be dedicated to work knowing you aren’t getting paid, or that if you are going to be, it won’t be for a while. If you’re not working with your own IP, try to work out an agreement with the person who does own it. If you’ve got a good product and you believe in it, you may be able to work something out, and you won’t have to go through a C&D later! Never underestimate the power of your fans! Connect with your community. Fans are great, supportive, fun, and it just helps you feel good about what you’re doing and helps keep up your morale on a project like this to know someone else is cheering for you, too.”
CB: “I can probably write a book on this, but the most important things are to know your limitations. It’s great to want to do great quality, but know what you can do, and understand that there is a reason why high quality projects cost millions of dollars to produce. Do the same, but smaller! Also, as much as the reason why we are here today is because we decided to work on King’s Quest, go ahead and do your own license. We got shut down twice and the fear of seeing your work going down the waste is too big for me to wish that on anyone. More importantly, believe in what you are doing, dream high (but keep your feet on the ground), and work hard towards that goal. When it comes to fruition, you’ll see how worthy it is!”
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and we wish you all the very best with The Silver Lining.
POStudios have done a summary for each of the Kings Quest games in turn. This serves as a great introduction for anyone who isn’t aware of the Kings Quest games or for anyone who needs a refresher as to the story of the first eight games. I’ve listed them here individually. Kings Quest I, Kings Quest 2, Kings Quest 3, Kings Quest 4, Kings Quest 5, Kings Quest 6, Kings Quest 7 & Kings Quest 8.
You can download the first episode of The Silver Lining (What is Decreed Must Be) right here free of charge!