Interview: Phoenix Online Studios & Jane Jensen

The adventure game scene never went away. Perhaps it hasn’t enjoyed the limelight of the Sierra, Revolution and Lucasarts days, but its always been there, continuing to entertain and inspire.

In 2013, amazingly, interest levels have once again spiked. Broken Sword V has been funded through a Kickstarter. Dreamfall Chapters in The Longest Journey series is receiving a wealth of coverage, and Phoenix Online Studios are working with Jane Jensen on several exciting projects.

Jane Jensen is working as a story consultant on Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, and Phoenix Online Studios are overseeing, developing and publishing the project. In addition, Jane has designed a new game, Moebius, and has contracted the development of it to Phoenix. Jane’s company, Pinkerton Road, will oversee Moebius and handle voice recording and art direction.

We spoke to Katie Hallahan, designer of Episode 2 and Emily Morganti, PR at POS and Jane Jensen about Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller and Moebius. Here’s what they had to say…

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. First question is around the use of females in lead roles. It amazes us that, even in 2013, there is still a distinct lack of strong female leads in major games. How does Erica Reed contribute to that landscape?

Katie: I love Erica! She’s a great character, and also a strong female lead. She’s a very determined person, capable, intelligent, and tough. We really put her through the ringer physically and emotionally, but she refuses to quit. She has emotional connections, including romantic ones, and while we designed her to be an attractive character, she’s not at all sexualized. We also made sure she was realistic, too—she has plenty of flaws and personal issues. That same determination makes her rash and stubborn, and while her ability to see the past is very useful in her job, her powers cause problems for her, too. They make it hard for her to get close to other people as well as making it hard to let go of the tragedies in her past.

It all adds up to who she is, and I definitely think she’s a noteworthy contribution to the female lead characters in video games out there. In other games, there are some female characters that I start to feel uncomfortable about, especially when you examine their design or their stories closely, and it was important to me that Erica not fall into that category. I’m very proud of how she’s turned out. 

Jane, how much involvement have you had in the story of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller? How different is it working with a central female protagonist as opposed to a male?

Jane: I acted as story consultant for Cognition, which means I reviewed the story and design docs, had some story calls with the designers, and helped them to shape the story.  I have worked with female characters before — Grace in Gabriel Knight 2 and 3, and Sam in Gray Matter.  I like writing both genders.

Has the pay-what-you-want model been a success for POS? Have people been inclined to purchase a season pass due to their enjoyment with the first episode?

Katie: We recently had a pay-what-you-want sale of Episode 1: The Hangman on IndieGameStand, and it was definitely a success! I think Cognition ended up being in their top five sellers for number of copies sold, and there are plenty of people who got the first episode there and went on to buy the rest of the season at our store, so that’s been great for us. This is one reason we created a “Season Upgrade” bundle, so people who purchased Episode 1 as a standalone, from IGS or elsewhere, could get Episodes 2-4 at the same cost as the regular SeasonPass. (Or even lower than that, if they bought Episode 1 from IGS!)


Jane, what challenges have you and the team faced in the development of Cognition (or the other projects you’re currently working on) compared to Gabriel Knight?

Jane: I am currently working with Phoenix Online on my own game, Moebius, also. That development process is going very well. It’s been great because since we (Pinkerton Road) are acting as publisher, we really don’t have anyone else to answer to and we can do what we like with it. Though I really had a terrific amount of freedom at Sierra with GK as well.

Do you find the need to patch elements of episodes once they’re released or are most potential problems ironed out before release?

Katie: Our QA team and programmers work very hard and long to get as many bugs fixed as possible before we release an episode. They’re a great team and they put in a lot of extra time just before launch days! We do take a lot of great feedback from the community and make sure that we implement it for future episodes, and if necessary we will of course patch our previous episodes. 


Do you feel an episodic gaming structure enables you to have more creative freedom or does it simply create a whole other line of thinking? Do you feel this model could have benefitted Gabriel Knight or Gray Matter in any way?

Jane: It’s not that different than thinking of the game in chapters or days, which I have always tended to do anyway. The main thing is that you need to be conscious of creating a bigger hook or cliffhanger at the end of each episode. The main advantage of episodic, of course, is that it allows smaller developers to put out bigger games, because you can get in some income from early episodes to put into building the end of the game.

How different is it working with mobiles and tablets to PC? How has the engine translated between formats?

Katie: We have to optimize like crazy. PC offers you different settings that any user can tweak depending on their machine, but for mobiles there’s a benchmark you have to hit no matter what. So, thanks to mobile devices, we have been a lot more careful with optimization from the get-go than we might have been if we were only developing for PC.

Thankfully, the Unity engine makes it extremely easy for us to port to most devices, so we don’t even have to worry about what’s going on in the back end. All we had to do for Cognition was to make sure it was optimized to run on mobile devices and to change the interface to something more user friendly for mobiles (get rid of the mouse functionality, if you will). We had initially built the games with mobile, in mind so it wasn’t that big of a hassle. In about two weeks of a couple of people working on it, we had our builds ready to go. Episode 1 should be out for iPad in February.

In relation to development ‘then’ compared to ‘now’, how much easier is it to release a patch and improve a game? Do you feel standards of boxed copy/digitally distributed games have lowered overtime because some developers know they can patch in a niche area of the game if they think it might prevent them meeting a deadline?

Jane: I know for me, it’s a huge priority to get it right the first time, because often you will have one shot with reviewers or the public, and that first impression is everything. You can’t afford to put out something sloppy and ‘fix it later’. But, of course, if you do find a bug you didn’t see before releasing, it is a good thing that now you can fix it and get an updated build to new buyers right away.

Jane, you’ve previously adapted a game from a book. Would you now considering doing the reverse with Erica Reed or Moebius?

Jane: I did publish two novels based on Gabriel Knight.  I would like to do one for Gray Matter and Moebius, but it’s always a matter of time. Right now, my focus is on creating great games.


It’s a common question, I’m sure, but why do you still work on stories for point and click adventures when there are now several genres which also accommodate stories and are explored by more players. I know budgets are a massive factor in, but I wonder if there is more to it than that?

Emily: I think you hit the nail on the head by saying other genres “accommodate” stories – more and more, this is true, but accommodating a story and being built around a story are two different things. I think the symbiosis between story and gameplay in adventures has a lot to do with why people who like to tell stories are drawn to them..

Jane: I have worked on other types of games in the past, such as hidden object games and puzzle games.  But in terms of an adventure versus action or RPG, I prefer to work on games that I, myself, would want to play.

Katie: Point & click adventures are the genres we grew up loving, at a time when those really were THE games for story. We started off with The Silver Lining, our King’s Quest inspired game, so naturally that was a point & click. Similarly, it only made sense to make our first commercial game one as well. But more than just that, the particular style of gameplay is one that I love and that a lot of our team loves — emphasizing not just story and character, but the kind of puzzles that come with it are also are a huge part of it. Logic puzzles (hah, or sometimes slightly illogical!), investigation, inventory, paying close attention to the setting and people you interact with, and playing at your own pace. 

Personally, I’m not much of an FPS or MMO gamer, but I love getting pulled into a story. Even in modern games of other genres where the story is really strong — and there are a lot of them now — I tend to view the parts where you’re playing through a firefight or an action sequence as the things I want to hurry up and get through so I can get back to the story. I hate having to go level a character just so I can keep playing the game. Games like that, like Mass Effect for example, it’s fantastic to see how much they put into the story development and involving the player in crafting that world through their choices. But there’s still an avid audience who are looking for a style of game that they can play at their own pace, whether that means less action or less violence, or just not feeling the pressure of a timer. Yes, we obviously also don’t have the budget for a game like Mass Effect, but that’s one of the great things about how strong the indie scene is today, there are tons of different genres of games, there’s something for everyone, and that variety only makes the industry stronger as a whole.

Final Question to Jane. With the benefits of technology now, what would you change about the Gabriel Knight games? Would you change anything?

Jane: It would be nice to remake, say, Gabriel Knight 1, with the latest and greatest art and retrofitted for iOS, for example. But overall, I don’t think about changing the games of the past, but more about what we can do next time.

We thank POS and Jane Jensen for their time.

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Episodes One and Two are now available. We’ll have reviews of both very soon.

About the author

Ray Willmott

Ray is the founder and editor of Expansive. He is also a former Community Manager for Steel Media, and has written for a variety of gaming websites over the years. His work can be seen on Pocket Gamer,, Gfinity, and the Red Bull Gaming Column. He has also written for VG247, Videogamer, GamesTM, PLAY, and MyM Magazine,