Bill Tiller was graphic artist at LucasArts for many years and responsible for the visuals of Monkey Island 3. Now he got his own company, Autumn Moon Entertainment, which just finished its first project, the classical comic adventure A Vampyre Story. We talked to Bill about his vita, the time at LucasArts, and his current projects.
Adventure-Treff.de: "Hi Bill! Before we get to your current projects, let's dig a bit deeper into your past. How did you get into gaming business in the first place?"
Bill Tiller: "I thought I was going to be a novel writer when I was in school, then a game designer, then a movie director. I wrote a novel, I programmed a few little games, and I directed a handful of black and white 16 mm films. I walked around all the time with a sketchbook of course, and skipped class to go and read novels in the library, Ray Bradbury, Lord of the Rings, and Ursula K Leguin. I found this copy of Smithsonian magazine with an article about Cal Arts in it, this art school started by Disney, and they accepted you on portfolio alone, not grades, which was important to me because in many subjects, like math and economics, my grades were horrible. I ditched those classes to go read in the library.
Cal Arts was great because I got to hang out with some great animators and artists and writers and I got to learn the Disney method of telling stories. I also got into animating on the Amiga with Dpaint and filled my portfolio with computer art and 2d computer animation - never got in to 3D art though. It wasn't for me.
LucasArts came to my school to hire some animators for Brian Moriarty's version of The Dig. Since I already knew DPaint I got the job right away. I wanted to play some LucasArts games before I started work and I went to Egghead Software and asked for the new Fate of Atlantis game. It was out so I asked for any other games, and the guy recommended Monkey Island 2. So I took that home and fell in love with it. It was animated, it had great background art, it was funny, told a good story and was a game all at the same time. So it was then that I decided to make games a career instead of film, animation or writing."
A-T: "You've been with LucasArts for quite some time, but you were not part of the guys who laid the company's foundation, like Ron Gilbert, David Fox or Aric Wilmunder. Was it hard in the beginning to establish yourself within the company as part of the "second generation"?"
Bill: "Well, I got there on July 13 1992, so Ron was gone along with David Fox before I even got there. And LucasArts had two buildings, A and B building. So when I first started I was in B building with all the artists. I’m kind of shy so it took a little time for me to get to know people. But they were all very cool and being artists we had a lot in common, so that was pretty easy. I didn't see the project leaders or programmers at all because they hardly ever came over and we hardly went over there.
I met Dave Grossman one day when he walked by while I was playing Monkey Island 2, and he helped me with some puzzles. And I went to lunch with Tim Schafer and Larry Ahern quite often so I got to know them pretty well. And I played softball with Aric quite a bit, so we became friends too. But that was about it. Never met the other old guys because they left to form their various companies so I never got a chance. But I fit in with the new crew just fine, in fact a lot of them are still friends and we keep in touch."
A-T: "As far as I know, the first project you were assigned to was The Dig. At least one version of The Dig. What were your personal experiences with the Steven Spielberg game?"
Bill: "I was excited to work on “a Spielberg” at George Lucas' company and in Marin country right next door to ILM. But there were problems with The Dig I discovered. Lucas wanted to dump SCUMM and use a new engine called either Landru or Storydroid. But whatever the name, it wasn't working, so we never saw any of our art in the game. Next, Brian and Bill Eaken had some of those traditional creative differences and after about a year both parted ways and got good offers to work on other projects that were less troublesome. So I thought the game was going to be cancelled. And I was pretty bummed because I had done a lot of art and animation.
But George Lucas said no, get the game out, so then I worked on the third version of the game the one that got out in stores, lead by Sean Clark. But this time I got to paint many of the new backgrounds and I was the art director on that. But even then everybody at the company was sick of the game, so we weren't all that popular - artists would refuse to work on the game. We had to hire almost a whole new crew to do the game. It was tough on both versions of the Dig. If I had to do all over again I think what I would have done is had us rescan the art to high-res and get a good lead animator and character designer in early on, that would have helped that game be a bigger success. It is a good game, but looked old when it came out because much of the art was old and we were using the old version of SCUMM."
A-T: "You've been credited for many Lucas games, but the one most readers will know you for is Monkey Island 3. Does it still occupy a special spot on your portfolio or is it, more than 10 years later, just some game you did the background arts for?"
Bill: "No, Monkey 3 - or as we called it: CMI - was a breakthrough game for me. I got to finally do some whimsical cartoon art as opposed to the more realistic Dig. And I didn't have to deal with animation or character design. Larry Ahern took care of that. What was also cool is that Larry and I wanted the environment to be unique and we had quite a few months to come up with the final style. I think that extra time really helped. But if I hadn't worked on CMI I didn't think I would have ever gotten A Vampyre Story off the ground. As far as the actual art, I look at it as being pretty messy now. I see nothing but mistakes in it. I can do a lot better now and want to go back and repaint large portions of it. I still like the style but it could have been painted a lot better."
A-T: "When talking to former LucasArts employees, it often comes up that the company was a pretty special place. How was it when you were there? Was it still that way or did it already change to "just business and work"?"
Bill: "No, when I got there it was cool because it felt like doing films at school except we had better facilities and were paid for doing the work. But it was a relaxed place where guys would play Street Fighter at lunch in the conference room, or we'd stay late and have cartoon jams, cartoon drawing parties, or stay late and play role playing games. It was fun. While I was there, that never went away.
What went away was the creative games as opposed to the Star Wars and Indy games. Also we got so big we had to bring in producers and had to meet deadlines. That kind of killed some of the fun, but games were getting more and more expensive, so business did creep in, but the attitude was still there. We just lost the relaxed atmosphere that encouraged creativity and we couldn't do any original game ideas any more.
Back in the old days we did Star Wars games because we wanted to, not because marketing asked for it. But that changed, and then George Lucas ruined Star Wars with his new films, so the whole foundation of working for a company responsible for great movies kind of disintegrated - The Phantom Menace did not help morale. So those changes hurt quite a bit."
A-T: "Why did you leave LucasArts?"
Bill: "Lucas hired an EA exec who didn't fit in with that great creative LucasArts culture and made making original games very tough. So I saw the ship was probably on its way down if this guy was going to have influence over all the creative processes at the company. I thought Simon Jeffrey was a great president and did his best to bring back what was great about LucasArts’ old days, but this new EA exec just didn't get it. He should have been a Hollywood agent, not game designer. So I said time “to move on”. Nine years is plenty of time at one company."
A-T: "You then worked on several non-adventure games like EA's "The Two Towers". Did anything fundamentally change at the new companies or did you basically do the same stuff, just for other games?"
Bill: "I went to work at Arena.Net on Guild Wars. But they weren’t ready for an art director yet, so it was fun but tough because there was no game design yet, so I didn't know what I was making art for, plus I was being art directed by a very good programmer who didn't know anything about art, so that was not a good fit for me then. But I had nothing but respect for their business acumen and programming talent. It didn't surprise me they have been successful. I could tell the company as going to do well. But I was searching for something and it wasn't there.
Then I went to Stormfront and worked on the Lord Of The Rings movie game which I thought would be fun. Stormfront was very cool and EA actually was very helpful in leading that game to success. So I actually appreciate the EA producer Neil Young. He made that a great game. But the project was huge and nothing could be accomplished without a committee meeting, and I found almost all my direction under constant scrutiny and open for changes on a whim. So that got frustrating real quick.
I finally blew up and threw my coffee cup across the room and stormed out of Stormfront. I have since been to anger management classes and now I just storm out of meetings and not throw my coffee mug. But that was the day I said "I need to make my own company." That was May 2002. I cashed out my savings and created a 2D demo of AVS. I ran out of money and got a job advising on the art for a bunch of Midway games till I finally found Crimson Cow."
A-T: "What did you do for a living in the years before founding Autumn Moon Entertainment, when you were a freelancer?"
Bill: "My freelance art career kind of didn't take off. I didn't have any connections so the few jobs I had were not really things I was good at, like working on rappers' web sites. I almost helped LucasArts with selling online episodic adventure games with Mike Levine and Dan Connors, the origin of Telltale. Lucas had this idea to do adventure street, a web page where you'd go and download the old games and get episodes of new adventure games. I wanted to do that too, except I wanted to give them away for free and fund the development with ad revenues, but ads alone could not support the cost of development, I figured out pretty quick.
I had to get a job to pay the bills after my savings ran out, so I worked for Midway for three years, helping with The Suffering and Spy Hunter and a whole bunch of other games, too many to list. It was not a great job but I did learn a lot about the business end of game development and I got to see how a lot of game companies worked and I made many life long friendships."
A-T: "When did you have the idea behind A Vampyre Story?"
Bill: "I like to doodle a lot in a sketch book, now I just use my laptop for doodles. When I was a kid I read this scary book called The House with the clocks in the Walls – a great book, I highly recommend it - and the illustrations were great, done by artist Edward Gorey. So while I was sketching in my sketch book while on a cruise ship back in 1995, I decided to draw a vampire woman in Edward Gorey style. And that is how I came up with Mona and her companion Froderick.
Then I thought of a story behind her, what she was like and why she was a vampire. Vampires are usually bad villains but I was curious if you could write a story about a woman who didn't know anything about being a vampire and didn't want to kill anyone. I had read a creepy comic back in the 70's about a woman who didn't know she was vampire and her husband brought her blood in the form of medicine. I thought that would be a cool idea for this character.
But then I thought what if it was obvious she was a vampire but just tried to ignore it. I mean it is obvious, but she just wanted to ignore it and pretend to be human. I saw a lot of opportunities for some funny scenes in that situation. I also read a book by Edward Gorey called The Guilde Bat about a ballet star in Paris. So I wanted Mona to be like that but an opera star instead. So the story just kind of grew from those ideas."
A-T: "Why a classical adventure game? I mean, we're really happy about it, but the market is a pretty tough one..."
Bill: "Well I am not making this game to get rich or make a lot of money. I just hope the games makes enough money for everyone who invested money into it to get their money back and make some profit on it. If I wanted to make a game that made money I would have made a RPG or FPS. I wanted to tell a story and the adventure genre was the best way in my experience to do that.
Movies are just non-interactive adventure games really. You have characters with problems to overcome, and they solve these problems by being clever and heroic. Sounds just like and adventure game. To me it is just the best format for telling my story."
A-T: "The first time we heard about A Vampyre Story was more than four years ago. This doesn't mean the game was in production for so long, but why did it take such a long time until production began? Does it have to do with that publisher whose name I completely forgot?"
Bill: "Two words: 'money' and 'engine'. So I took a bit of risk here, I guess it paid off but it does have its downside. So I have been working on AVS since 1995 really. Just didn't tell the press till 2004, and I didn't get money till August 2006. So it took from July 2004 to August 2006 to get the money to make the game. And then it took two years to write the AVS engine. If the engine had been completed before we did any art I think the game would have been done in 16 months. But like my experience on the first Dig, writing an adventure game engine from scratch is no easy task. It takes time and money.
The reason I went public with the game is that I was having no luck finding a publisher behind the scenes. I had no office or engine, nor anything that gave publishers any confidence I could get the game done. But I knew fans of Lucas adventures would love this game and the story and art, so that is why I did the big Inventory article. It just took two years after that to find a publisher willing to pay for the full production. We found one “publisher” who wanted the game but never paid any money so that clearly wasn't going to work."
A-T: "How did you finally find your way to Crimson Cow?"
Bill: "They found me. They called me up and we started negotiating. There were a few other publishers talking to us first but Crimson Cow offered me what I was looking for so we thought they would be the best fit for us. And that has proven to be true. The development has been rocking due to the uncertain scope of the engine development, but it is done and working really well now so things are going great now. But my experience on both digs taught me that if you have the fundamentals down - good story, appealing characters, good game design, your game will turn out alright. Games don't fail due to programming, they fail because the basic idea is either a hit or not. There are games that had great engines and millions of dollars but failed because the basic idea was crap. I think our basic idea was good so during the time when things were frustrating I kept going knowing that fundamentally we had a good product."
A-T: "You are not the only former LucasArts developer involved with A Vampyre Story. Bill Eaken, for example, joined you. Was it hard to convince your ex-colleagues to work on your game? I guess they all had other jobs in the meantime."
Bill: "Well I think the same thing that excited adventure game fans about the game excited the team as well. So it wasn't that hard. Really only money stopped me from hiring all the ex LucasArts people I wanted, that and the fact that many were busy already on their own projects. But I got quite a few like Paul Mica, Anson Jew, Kyle Balda, Livia Knight, Julian Kwasneski. And I found a bunch of new guys who love adventure games and wanted to work on the game too like Zeno Gerakinis, Jeremiah Grant, Gene Mocy, Marc Brownlow, Alan Sperling. Alls these guys are very talented and love working on the games we are making because they are new and creative, funny and easy on the eyes."
A-T: "Autumn Moon Entertainment has several similarities with Telltale Games. It's also a North American adventure developer - although they are doing 3D and episodic - and they also employ some former colleagues of you. Are you in contact with them?"
Bill: "No, not really. In the beginning we talked about them helping with our tech, but the cost was too high for us at the time - in hindsight that would have probably been a good move - but in the end we now have a very good engine that does exactly what we want and we can use it for multiple games.
We also pitched them a game idea but they didn't want to make it for some reason. They never actually told me why. But the door is open at AME, so who knows, maybe some day we will."
A-T: "It's not a secret that A Vampyre Story is a lot like those 90's LucasArts adventures, although there is some new stuff like the idea inventory. What did you keep and what did you change?"
Bill: "I have no imagination when it comes to interfaces and GUIs. I simply like the CMI and Full Throttle GUI and wanted it for our game, simple as that. I wonder if I should have come up with something new and more experimental, but I just didn't have a great new idea and really don't want to take the risk on something that may or may not work. The GUI worked fine for CMI and it should work fine for AVS. We may tinker with it a bit here and there but I don't ever see it changing majorly anytime soon.
The idea inventory was an idea that Brian Moriarty and Bill Eaken came up with for The Dig because they were making a serious game and they wanted the player to be able to use large objects like a ten foot long metal beam. So they came up with this idea of examining the object and getting the idea and then applying the idea to a problem and then we'd see the character go back and get it and then apply it. I just though it might work better than just grabbing a dog and stuffing it in the characters coat like in Monkey Island 2, It works great there but that kind of thing I didn't think would work for our game. Plus I wanted to use some abstract ideas for puzzles and idea icons are good for that."
A-T: "In the game, Mona is accompanied by the bat Froderick. My impression is that Froderick is to Mona what Max is to Sam. Am I right?"
Bill: "Well more like what Sophia Hapgood is to Indiana Jones from Indy Fate. But not too dissimilar to Max in Sam and Max Hit the Road. I didn't want Mona to be by herself, and talk to the gamer and break the fourth wall all the time, plus I thought that we could have some decent comedy team like jokes similar to the great stand-up comedy like Abbot and Costello or the Smothers Brothers. We have Froderick as another object in your inventory that you can use to help solve puzzles. Plus he gets all the funny lines. So the game really should be called A Vampyre and her Bat Story, but that doesn't sound as cool."
A-T: "When looking at the game, the beauty of the art style is striking. Can you tell us something about the process in which those images are created?"
Bill: "Thanks. No I can't tell you, it is a secret AME process that if released would be snapped up by our competitors. So no I can't tell you that I draw the backgrounds in rough blue pencil first, then put a piece or marker paper over that and draw a nice clean line over the rough. I can't tell you how I scan that drawing in and then paint in the rough colors using Photoshop.
I would love to tell you all about how I use analogue but complementary colors in the color rough phase, then select out certain elements of the image and putting each element on its own layer so I can individually adjust them and then also use them for the 3D sets we make. And that the whole thing takes about a week and a day to do. I would love to tell you all that but if I did, then everybody would do it. So, sorry."
A-T: "Where do you take your inspiration from?"
Bill: "Well the props and locations I get from a lot of books and images found on the web or from movies. I don't have one source of inspiration. I find it best to look in a lot of places for ideas. I buy lots of books. If I see a book that has some cool pictures that I might want refer to later, I'll buy it. Same thing with surfing on the web or doing Google image searches, I'll save the ones I think are cool and might be useful."
A-T: "Artistically we were never worried about A Vampyre Story, but we were concerned a bit about the technical side. Crimson Cow told us that the game engine programmer was replaced in the middle of development. Why was this step necessary and how well did you cope with the new situation?"
Bill: "In the beginning we hired a good programmer who unfortunately was too inexperienced to pull it off alone, so we had to hire a lot more. So the engine is all good now and for future games we are going to add more features. So the basic engine is done thanks to Geoff Goldberg, and Nick Pavis' awesome team at Munky Fun, and now all we need to do to the engine after AVS 1 comes out is add new features. This engine development is pretty on par with my experience on The Dig and my observation on the development of Grim Fandango: whenever you have to create a new engine for games double your production time. We are glad that is over for sure."
A-T: "We were also told that A Vampyre Story is just the beginning of a larger story. What is the current state of part two? Can you already tell us something about the sequel?"
Bill: "We designed AVS1 and 2 at the same time, so a lot of the art and preproduction art was already done for it. So it is under production now and I hope will be out this time next year since we don't have to make a new engine. But I have reportedly been wrong about release dates sometimes in the past, so don’t consider this a release date announcement or anything like that."
A-T: "It's also no secret that you are working on something besides A Vampyre Story, which will be announced by a German publisher. I guess you can't say anything about it before the announcement?"
Bill: "You’re right - It’s still under wraps, sorry."
A-T: "I guess when developing adventure games it is important to keep up with what the others are doing. So when not developing, are you also playing adventure games? Which ones do you like?"
Bill: "Nope, I really don't. Founding and leading your own company is very, very time consuming. Odd as that may seem but I really am too busy to play other games. The only time I play games is with my kids on the weekends, so right now it is Lego Batman, World of Warcraft, Sims 2, Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. We do play Putt Putt and Freddie Fish, too, and now as my daughter is getting older we play the Nancy Drew adventure games. But that is about it.
Other teams members who don't have kids or who aren't super busy get to play all the cool games and they tell me about it. And we have all the major adventure games in the office, and we do look at them from time to time, but I unfortunately don't have the time. I am kind relying on my experience of playing Lucas Arts games and making to help make our games."
A-T: "Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to answer our question. We wish you
good luck with A Vampyre Story and your other projects!"
Bill: "Thank you it was fun, and sorry for the typos. I'm a bit dyslexic so I make a ton of mistakes, plus I ditched English class too to go read Lord of the Rings and it shows!"