Adventure-Treff: Hi Cesar. It’s a pleasure to welcome you on Adventure-Treff.de. Please introduce yourself and your role in the development of The Silver Lining to our readers.
Cesar Bittar: I’m Cesar Bittar, born in a small town in Venezuela, and now living in the US. I have a degree in Digital Media and I came into the development of The Silver Lining in 2000. I was looking about for news about a next King’s Quest, when I came across this page of people looking for volunteers to help with a fan effort. I’m a writer at heart, and they were looking for people to help with that, so I jumped to apply and was accepted. Things were really slow in the early years, and I kept nagging our project leaders for things to move faster. Eventually, our then Project Manager stepped down and left things in my charge. This was in January 2002. Since then, we’ve been working very hard on this.
I have the roles of Producer, Designer and Director. I’ve had my hands in possibly every part of the development of this game, some I love more than others. TSL has in many ways been my real career and taught me most of what I know today. I learned how to script, the basics of animation, how 3D works. There are things I really love like the writing, working with the cameras and directing the music, and I also have a knack for looking at big lists and figuring schedules and marking things as ready. I love it when my list is all green and everything’s done!
I know this game inside out and love it to pieces. It’s been incredible to see things I wrote taking shape, coming to life in the hands of such a wonderful team. It’s been a blessing to have had the chance to work with them, really.
A-T: You’ve also been working for Telltale for quite a while. Please tell us about the projects you were involved in over there and share your experiences of working for this company.
Cesar: I do not work for Telltale anymore, but while I was working there as an Assistant Producer, my main roles were on Wallace & Grommit and Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, and I also supported Tales of Monkey Island and Puzzle Agent. I dealt with the scheduling and coordination of every department, and overall made sure things were rolling the way they needed to. During Sam & Max, my last full project at the company, my responsibilities grew and I found myself in charge of later episodes for periods of time while our producer handled the current episode. I also dealt with external partners, handling things such as submissions to companies like Nintendo, the manuals, the different ratings boards for every major region of the world, helping with the materials for publicity efforts, etc. With Telltale being a small company, I had the opportunities to get my hands on every area of game creation, to help wherever I wanted to for the most part.
Because of that, I found it an incredible experience and I grew a lot as a professional. My former boss, Franklin Alioto, is hands-down the best person I have ever had the chance to work with, and just seeing him in action was truly amazing. I learned a lot of what I’ve used in the last year in The Silver Lining from him, and because of that, production rate has increased like crazy. Really, everyone in the company was always a joy to work with.
A-T: Please talk about your “career” as an adventure game fan that turned you into a developer at some point of time. Which games left such a strong impression on you (for what reasons) that you decided to take that route?
Cesar: I grew up playing Sierra games and I’ve always been in love with their games, moreso than any other company. The first Sierra game I played was Leisure Suit Larry (when I was only six—needless to say, a lot of the jokes went over my head!), and then I went onto many other games in the series. I always dreamed of having the chance to work with Sierra. I used to write poems and stories about some of my favorite games, including a very bad fan fiction on my favorite series, Gabriel Knight (I think you can still find it on the net if you look hard enough!). Incidentally, there were two games I always dreamed on making a sequel for. One of them was Phantasmagoria, and I actually once emailed Ken Williams with my idea and received a “great input!” from him *grin*. The other was King’s Quest. The funny thing is that the story I had for King’s Quest, eventually turned into one of the chapters of the original story for The Silver Lining, and it’s now where the final episode takes place.
Phantasmagoria did a lot as well in terms of what I wanted to see in terms of sequences that raise the tension for the player–I still believe the final chase sequence of that game remains untouched as one of the most exhilarating sequences ever to grace the medium.
The Longest Journey was crucial as an influence for The Silver Lining because of how epic it felt. I had just finished playing that as I was working with the other writers in TSL, and I raised the question, “Is it time to take King’s Quest to this level?” Which is why the story of The Silver Lining fleshes the characters out and gives the character arcs throughout the story. It was to be the final episode of the saga, and we wanted it to be epic, we wanted to spend time with these characters. It was and is, in all the senses of the term, a fan game, and it was made to cater to the fans because we never dreamed that we’d have the success we had with it. We were making a game for us, because we were fans, and if we enjoyed it, others would as well.
When Sierra and adventure games started to die down, I looked into other genres to fill the hole that it had left. I found a place within the Japanese RPG genre, and I highly enjoyed the Final Fantasy and Xenosaga series, among others. More recent games like Heavy Rain and its predecessor, Indigo Prophecy, have really been an influence for what you will see next from our studio.
A-T: In addition to the last question: People will not be surprised to hear that you have a strong bond to King’s Quest. On the other hand the Gabriel Knight series left quite a strong impact on you as well. In fact, I heard you had a very special encounter with Jane Jensen and Robert Holmes recently. Please tell us in what ways the Gabriel Knight series shaped you and talk about a dream that recently came true for you.
Cesar: The first night I spent at Jane’s farm, I sat quietly in my room trying to take in what was happening. After that, I started sending messages out to my childhood friends, excited like a kid in a toy store. I had, for many years, dreamed of meeting her, and I never thought I had the chance to not only talk to her, but spend time with her as if we were really old friends and I was spending a weekend at her place. I’d come down in the mornings, find her in the kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and sat there in front of her to talk about things, just like I would at a friend’s house. It was incredible.
We shared many moments, and you can read more in details in the
A-T: Let’s move on to King’s Quest now. What are some personal highlights of the long King’s Quest history for you and which moments and which game of the series especially stand out for you for what reasons?
Cesar: I have a funny story with King’s Quest. I only played King’s Quest III briefly when I was a kid, and I didn’t touch them again until I was about 14 years old with King’s Quest VI. I remember I ordered a collection of about 7 games, and I dropped King’s Quest in because, well, I’ve never tried the series so what the heck, but I wasn’t excited over it. And then I decided to try it first for whatever reason. The other games I ordered sat gathering cobwebs because I couldn’t put KQ VI down! It’s pretty much my favorite in the series, and I believe that has a lot to do with my preference for exploring bits of different worlds, and having those worlds fully at your disposal right from the beginning, so you choose where to go, when to go (as opposed to a more structured level by level system). That’s why I enjoy the Megaman series so much and that’s why I also loved Demon’s Souls. That’s also why whenever I go to a buffet style restaurant, you see tiny bits of pieces of everything on the menu in my plate *grin*.
King’s Quest VII reminds me a lot of Christmas, and a new very cold AC I got for my room that year. I played more than half of the game on a 1X CD-ROM! Screens took literally 5 minutes to load. I would go load a screen, then go do something else, and then come back to play it. It was painful, but at the same time, it was special.
A-T: Let’s talk about the birth of Phoenix Online and the decision to make a sequel to King’s Quest now. How did things start for Phoenix Online and how was the idea born that the King’s Quest legacy would need another installment?
Cesar: I don’t exactly remember how the original team came to be, because I wasn’t involved in that. I came in the first batch of hired volunteers. But I do know that the decision to make a sequel to King’s Quest came from our love for these games and our disappointment that Sierra was no more. We wanted to go back to the Royal Family, we wanted to spend more time with those characters, and Mask of Eternity didn’t really give us that, so rather than ending on that note, we wanted to do something really epic to end the series.
Phoenix Online used to be Phoenix Freeware. We just needed a name to represent us back then, but as things started to get more serious, we looked well into the name we wanted and registered the company. This was back in 2004.
A-T: The birth of The Silver Lining was a very complicated one. Please share some of the pleasure and pain you went trough in the last years and share a comprehenisve overview on the ups and downs that occured while you were working on the return of King’s Quest. I’d especially like you to share the story of how the legal situation developed throughout the years.
Cesar: You know I could write a book on this, right? *grin*
When we came together, we had absolutely no experience whatsoever on what took to make a game. When we were writing the script, I kept throwing characters and lands and pages and pages of design. It ended up being a 1500 page script and we were very proud of that. I wish I had the time to go back and tell myself, “You are CRAZY!”
But it was that inexperience that also made the history of The Silver Lining so special. We never stopped. We never gave up. Yes, there were fights and each one of the directors quit at one point or another over stress or silly arguments, but we remained together through the years. We had the blessings of always receiving the attention of the fans and press and that was one thing that kept us going: We had made a promise, and we were stubborn enough to never give up.
Because this was so long in development, we saw people going from being in school with a lot of time, to having jobs and wife and kids, and not having any more time for TSL. It all was reduced at one point to a smaller, core team, especially from 2007 through 2010, and then we grew again like crazy to be able to make the beast that is Episode 3 happen in a decent timeframe.
From a legal standpoint, we always knew we were in murky waters at best. We had asked many people for advice, but we were always uncertain of what could happen. We knew that if Vivendi wanted to shut us down they could. And they did. But something incredible happened there. Fans rallied for us, and the media paid attention. Suddenly, without expecting it, without asking for it, we found ourselves in this sea of publicity, receiving emails daily about the big media outlets wanting to interview with us. It was surreal, to the point where Vivendi agreed to grant us a non-commercial license, and asked us very nicely if we could please stop the fandom from sending letters and talking to the press. We really have to thank Matt Compton and Catherine DaCosta for that one!
And then, we thought we had it secured. And it happened again when Activision shut us down for the second time. I said to myself, “this is it.” With Vivendi, there was always hope and communication, but with Activision it was a little different, they were harder to reach, because of how they are structured. But our fans really came to bat for us, a second time, and once again between their dedication (this time led by Adrienne Elliott and David Reese) and the attention of the media, I was pleasantly surprised when I received a call from Activision saying that they had reconsidered and wanted to let us release the game. It was one of the best days of my life! Activision has been great to work with once this happened, and we’re still thankful and thrilled that the situation worked out the way it did for our company and theirs.
A-T: The creation of The Silver Lining must be a totally different experience than what you experienced at Telltale, considering that you are working with people from all over the world who have to do this in their free time. How hard has it been for you to keep things going, keeping in mind you have a very different structure than a commercial developer and that you are depending on the motivation of people who have to stay focussed without getting paid for years?
Cesar: It’s been hard. A lot of people sign up to make a game without knowing the amount of work and discipline needed to really pull it off. We always took all the help we could get, and we are always doing recruiting campaigns to bring more people in as we need them, and we have managed to come across some very key people that glued this project together, that always grabbed the slack of the people that came and went.
I think we are a really stubborn bunch. After a while it became more of a situation where we said, well, we’ve put this much time into this, we can’t give up. Then, it was our promise to our very loyal fans that had saved us from being shut down.
I use different methods to keep people excited about what we are doing. I always remind them of the great product we are creating and always make sure they are watching videos and concept art of the work of others and doing the best to keep communication going. We used MSN Messenger for a while, but then we started to use Skype and that has helped immensely–we agree on things much faster now that we can talk instead of having to type!
But really, what is more important is to remind them this is a labor of love and it really shows. And the proof is that after so many years of work, others realized that as well, and the work put into this game managed to impress not only the fans and the media, but also the creators of the series themselves.
A-T: Please tease the plot and setting of The Silver Lining with your own words. What expects those of our readers that have never played an episode of The Silver Lining so far?
Cesar: The Silver Lining was intended to be the last episode in the story of the King’s Quest saga, and because of that, it was written to be a very epic experience. Because it was written for fans, we wanted to bring them back to familiar places while at the same time offering them something new to explore, so we decided to set it in the Green Isles, where King’s Quest VI took place, but at the same time add new areas to what we already knew along with completely new and different locations.
The story begins when the wedding of Princess Rosella and Prince Edgar goes awry, and finds King Graham once more with a quest to rescue his family. But, unlike previous King’s Quest, the story of this one takes us to a darker, grittier, more realistic angle, in which bold steps were taken with the story that turn the universe of King’s Quest upside down. The combination of that, and the fact we are releasing the game in episodes also makes for great cliff-hangers. The reactions we’ve had from fans to the closing of Episode 3, for example, has left them astounded and eagerly awaiting more.
We also made sure that if you are not a fan of King’s Quest, you will be able to enjoy this game regardless. Of course, having the background information will always make it better, but even if you haven’t played it, go ahead and give it a try. It’s free!
A-T: How was the idea born of turning the return of King’s Quest into an episodic format and what are your thoughts on this platform in general?
Cesar: Even before I started working at Telltale, I had been looking at their model for our next game. And then, having worked there, I had the chance to see what it took to make one of these episodes. From a production standpoint, they are a wonder because they allow you to focus on one chunk of the game, and then put that behind you and move on to the next chunk, allowing for faster development. From a marketing standpoint, it’s beautiful because your game is constantly on the news for the full duration of production. Also, you get feedback as you are releasing these products and have a chance to make them better as you work on the following episodes–that is an incredible thing!
But we had never thought of doing TSL in an episodic format until I arranged a meeting with Dan Connors and Kevin Bruner, owners of Telltale, to show them our work on the game. From the feedback we got from that meeting, I asked the question “Can we turn this into an episodic game?” The initial reaction, even from myself, was, “no, no we can’t,” but, as I continued to think about it, more and more ideas popped into my mind, and we eventually found a way to make it work. It was really the best decision we could have made!
A-T: When can we expect the release of the next episode and what can you tease about what will happen in the newest installment?
Cesar: Episode 4 deals more with the plans of the main villain and explains part of the reason why the spell was cast on the twin children. More importantly, however, it’s the role of Queen Valanice in the chapter as it will delve more into the concepts we explored in the last episode.
As for when it will be released, we can't give a timeframe right now. After investing so many years into this project, our team is committed to making the concluding episodes as strong as they can possibly be, and we've realized that to be able to do this we need to keep our heads down and get the work done and not worry about what the date will be. Luckily, since this is a volunteer project and not a commercial one, we have the luxury to be able to do this. And we have awesome and very dedicated fans who have stuck with us every step of the way—we want to give them the best game we can make, not one that was rushed out the door.
A-T: Obviously, when people think about King’s Quest they think of Roberta Williams. How has her reaction on the game been and in how far is her feedback important for you as you carry on the legacy she created?
Cesar: Roberta’s feedback has, of course, been the pinnacle of our achievements with The Silver Lining. We always had more contact with Ken Williams, and Roberta had always stayed away from commenting too much. We received an email from her in the early years, where she said she would be “cheering from the sidelines,” and later when we released in screenshots in 2005, Ken said that she sat down to look at them and was amazed.
Then, last year, she played the first episode of the game. To us, that meant the world, especially because of her comments on it:
“…I am deeply honored that a group of devoted fans have dedicated themselves to reviving the characters, lands and quests of my adventure game series, King’s Quest. Without the bravery and persistence of these volunteers – and it should be stressed that this game was developed by fans over ten long years without pay and in their own free time -- it is almost certain that King’s Quest would have been relegated to a forgotten obscurity – its story left untold. Now, there is a chance that many can truly find out what happens to the royal family of the Kingdom of Daventry.
This game is very true to the original series and features many of the storylines and characters, especially, of King’s Quest VI. I found it beautiful and fun to play. I, too, like many other fans, would like to see how this story unfolds!
A-T: Telltale recently announced that they will bring back Sierra, beginning with their own return of King’s Quest. What are your thoughts on this whole situation and do you know already if Telltale will do their completely own sequel – ignoring the story of the Silver Lining – or if they will pick up some of the elements you introduced to gamers throughout the world.
Cesar:I am personally very excited about Telltale having picked up King’s Quest, and I like to believe the work we’ve done had a lot to do with their decision to pick up the series commercially. They have crazy talent in that studio and I’m sure they will do the series a lot of good. I’m sure they are listening to what the fans want.
I think that Telltale should do their own thing, independently of what we did in The Silver Lining, because our game was catered in many ways to the fans. To do it commercially, King’s Quest would need sort of a reboot in my opinion, and the most important thing in a new adventure in the saga would to stay true to the simplicity of it, so new fans and old can both enjoy it.
A-T: How does your current view on the adventure game market look like? On one hand we have Telltale who is doing extremely well while most other commercial developers of adventure games are heavily struggling. Please share some of your views on this issue and also tell us how you see the future of adventure games.
Cesar: I believe that the reason why Telltale is doing so well is because they understand well their place within the market. They do wonders with their productions and they know where to put their money by handing well the scope of their games. It’s not about the quantity of scenes and characters, but the quality behind them. Also, their episodic model is probably a big reason why they are so successful, and the fact that they keep doing games that are based on well-established franchises. Another reason is how accessible their games are–this can be frustrating for hardcore adventure gamers, but it makes the games accessible for everyone else who is put off by the hard puzzles we normally find in adventure games.
They also know how to still make good challenges given their simplicity. I recently played Lost Horizon, and although the game was beautiful and with great production values, I dreaded the “MacGyver” part where you had to keep trying to combine everything you had in hope it would get some results. That put me off from enjoying it more.
A-T: What can you tell us about the future of Phoenix Online? I’m sure you have plenty ideas for future things to come and perhaps there is something to tease. I’d also like to find out if The Silver Lining will definitely be the last non-commercial project we have seen from Phoenix Online.
Cesar: The Silver Lining will be our last non-commercial endeavor. From here on, the future is looking bright for Phoenix Online and we have a lot of cool things in store. We cannot announce anything at this stage because we are still deciding what the best direction will be, but I can tell you we are working hard on the prototype for our next game, and it’s looking and feeling extraordinary. We have partnered with Pixeltek, an outsourcing 3D artwork company, which is owned by one of the co-owners of Phoenix Online, and we’re looking into other opportunities as well. We have a few different possibilities that we are exploring, and as soon as we know for sure what direction we are taking, we’ll let everyone know!
A-T: Cesar, thanks a lot for the time you invested, we appreciate it and we want to wish you all the best for The Silver Lining and other projects that you’ll be working on in the future.
Cesar: Thank you very much to you, Ingmar, and Adventure Treff for this interview. We hope you enjoy what we have in store for everyone in the future!