Ryan Wilson

Restore, Restart, Quit: An Interview with Phoenix Online Studios (Part One)

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Earlier this month, I reported about Activision’s unfortunate cease-and-desist of long-term fan project The Silver Lining, which was meant to act as a spiritual King’s Quest IX.  As a long time follower of the project, it was upsetting to see such a high profile project have the rug pulled out from under them so ruthlessly.

Thanks go to the Save the Silver Lining Movement for setting up an interview with not one but four core members of The Silver Lining team, and to the TSL-Game forums for supplying some of the questions.

MediaWhoreNetwork: Adventure games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest were some of our staff’s favorite games as kids. Why do you think point-and-click adventure games have such staying power?

Michael Fortunato, Assistant Art Director, Lead Texture Artist, and Voice Over Director: The birth of the adventure game was sort of the birth of mainstream PC gaming. It was the next evolutionary step to text adventures – GRAPHICS! There’s a nostalgia factor involved. We remember these games we grew up with, because for many of us, those were our first (PC) games. The reason why I would still pick up and play those games starts with the nostalgia factor. However, the reason I would FINISH it is because of the game’s story. Many of those adventure games were very well written.

Katie Hallahan, Co-Designer and Project Coordinator: Definitely a strong nostalgia factor, point-and-click interface was what we had in the heyday of adventure gaming, but I think it’s also because it’s game interface with a wide appeal. Unlike text adventure games, you don’t have the frustration of going through dozens of verbs and nouns and typing the command eight different ways before you’ve got the right one, or trying to get your character to pick something up when you have no idea what that odd-looking cluster of pixels is supposed to be. Not to mention spelling errors for some people! You’ve got these basic commands, with recognizable icons, and the game is intuitive enough to know what you want or need to do. Click the eye on that cluster of pixels and discover it’s a lump of coal, click the hand, you pick it up. At the same time, it’s still got enough challenge in it to require some thought from the player. It’s more than just find a hot spot or move towards the flash and watch the game play itself. Best of both worlds, really.

Neil Rodrigues, Web Director and Project Coordinator: The ease of use with point-and-click is something that a player of any age can learn quickly. The cursors are associated with exploratory actions, requiring some thought process, as opposed to non-adventure games which are more based on instinct and hand-eye coordination. Modern adventure games tend to just use one cursor, which certainly simplifies things even more, but then run the danger of feeling too easy — like a “pixel hunt.”

Cesar Bittar, Project Director and Co-Designer: I’ve many times heard “I used to play these games with my mom/dad/brother.” I think that the slow-paced nature of point & click adventure games lends them to being a family experience or something you can enjoy with buddies. I certainly remember playing many of these games with some of my closest friends. It was easier to stop, discuss, and think of the next step to take/try.

MWN: Besides King’s Quest, what are some of your favorite games, point-and-click adventure games and otherwise? Have any of these games influenced the development of The Silver Lining?

MF: From the Sierra canon, I would say the Quest for Glory series was my favorite with Gabriel Knight a close second. From LucasArts, I loved the Monkey Island series, with Curse of Monkey Island being my favorite. My favorite games are not adventure games, however, but Western role-playing games. Currently Bethesda’s Oblivion and Fallout 3 are among my favorite. I just finished playing Mass Effect and cannot wait to play the sequel – it was amazing!

KH: The King’s Quest games were my personal favorites, so yeah, big influence there! I also really like Space Quest and Gabriel Knight. I’ve played a few of the Monkey Island games, and those are great silly fun. Plus, pirates, who doesn’t love pirates? The more recent game I’ve liked the most in this style is The Longest Journey, I’d have to say, although that’s a few years old now. I also played the Kyrandia games, which were similar to the KQ series, and some of the Final Fantasy games.

NR: Like Katie, the King’s Quest games were certainly my favourites, with KQ6 being my personal benchmark during the development of TSL. I really enjoyed the Monkey Island games, as well as the Leisure Suit Larry franchise. I’ve often found myself comparing TSL to Tales of Monkey Island, as that has influenced many decisions made in the past year or so. As for non-adventure games, Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of my personal favourites. I would love to make a game with those kinds of production values someday.

CB: The Gabriel Knight series is an absolute favorite–The Beast Within is probably the best game I can think of. I also loved Phantasmagoria and King’s Quest, of course, and funnily enough, I started cooking a story for a King’s Quest series since I was 14. That became our Dreamworld chapter in the game. Final Fantasy and The Longest Journey were source of inspirations when writing TSL. Also movies like Finding Nemo, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.Other games on my favorites list are: Beyond Good & Evil, the latest Prince of Persia, Mass Effect, and Demon’s Soul was crazy fun. The Xenosaga series was incredible. I also love the Megaman series!

MWN: With the current resurgence of point-and-click adventure games (such as the Telltale Games revival of the Monkey Island and the Sam & Max series), do you think the current market of gamers would love to see a return of the King’s Quest series with the ‘next gen interface’?

MF: There are a lot of KQ fans out there that are looking forward to playing The Silver Lining. Whether the interface uses the older Sierra staple or the newer Telltale style. What they want is a KQ game and I feel they will be very happy whatever the interface is because we have taken great care to make this a KQ game.

NR: A single-cursor interface certainly has its advantages, however many of our fans like the fact that we stayed true to the KQ6 five-cursor interface. Moving forward though, we are constantly researching modern games and considering what sort of gameplay people would like.

CB: Absolutely. We wanted TSL to be completely true to the series and that’s why we chose the regular interface from the old times, but if I were to move ahead with something beyond TSL, I’d definitely push to modernize the interface. I think an interface should not get in the way of your gaming and should be extremely natural. I feel the old Sierra interface gets clunky at times.

MWN: The King’s Quest series had some of the funniest and well thought out deaths we have ever seen in video games. Could you describe to our readers your favorite way to die in The Silver Lining?

MF: And spoil the fun? Better to have the gamers discover it on their own. But, yes, there are definite KQ-style deaths complete with “punny” death messages.

KH: There’s one with the narrator telling Graham in a very deadpan tone thanks for wasting everyone’s time that I enjoy, and another that involves some plane crash sounds effects. We stuck to the status quo on death messages for this game: a little fun, a little pun, and a little hint about what you did wrong!

NR: There’s one that involves falling down some stairs that I really like. It really reminds me of that old commercial from the 90’s with the old lady that says: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Classic.

CB: I have a few favorites, but I think the silliest one is trying to remove some flying shoes while flying. You can imagine how that fares for Graham. ;)

MWN: Were Roberta and Ken Williams supportive of your efforts to revive the King’s Quest series? If so, in what ways?

MF: While legally, they could not assist in any way, they were very supportive to see a team putting together a new KQ fan game. Early in production, they even sat in on a large chat we held, mostly as moral support.

NR: They got a sneak peak at the screenshots we were going to release to the public later on in that same chat, and they did seem to like them. But as Mike said, their support has mainly been in the sense of cheering from the sidelines rather than having any kind of direct involvement with development.

KH: Like the others have said, they have expressed moral support for what we’re doing. Which, honestly, has meant a lot. When I was a kid, working for Sierra was one of those crazy pipe dreams I had, and getting to work on this game has been like an amazing close second to that. Roberta Williams has been an example to so many women of how computer and video games are not a boy’s only club, and to even come close to following her example and footsteps is a dream come true opportunity. Their support alone means so much, both personally and as a team.

MWN: I know its difficult to pick favorites for a series that you feel so passionate about, but which King’s Quest was your favorite and why?

MF: While KQVI has the best story, KQIV is by far my favorite as it’s the first game to introduce multi-timbral music. Even though I only had a Game Blaster card with FM Synthesis, the music drew me into the game like none before. And when I got the MT-32 soundtrack, I was blown away.

KH: KQVI was the peak of the series–the story, the graphics, the music, the voice acting, it was a really fun and involving game. I also really loved KQIV for its introduction of a female main character. I liked it for that when I was a kid playing it, I had a big thing for stories with girls going out and having adventures (not to mention unicorns, of course), and I didn’t realize at the time how unusual that was in a game! And KQIII is up there with KQIV. I’m also a sucker for ‘underdog’ stories and family reunions–the slave boy who became a prince is right up my alley.

NR: KQVI all the way! KQV was very good, despite its dead-ends but KQVI was like the perfect “upgrade” to that in terms of storyline, memorable characters, and music. Even though I didn’t have a sound card at the time, I still loved all the simulated PC speaker beeps and blips!

CB: You start to see a pattern here… and thus the reason why what we were about to release takes place in the Green Isles :) To me, what I loved about it was the freedom to do so many things in whatever order you wish. That’s what I love most in any game I play, that sort of freedom of accomplishing tasks in a different order, and there was a lot of that in VI.

That wraps up part one of the two-part interview with Phoenix Online Studios.  Come back tomorrow for part two of the interview, where the team discusses the future of the project and themselves.

If you would like to help in the fight to get Activision to overturn their cease and desist, please don’t hesitate to sign the ongoing petition or visit the Save the Silver Living Movement website for more information.

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