Bill Tiller - A Vampyre Story interview
"I'm hoping A Vampyre Story will prove that you can pay a decent budget for a cartoon adventure with higher quality, and it'll still make money. In fact, it helps it make more money."
Bill Tiller was in a good mood at the Games Convention in Germany, despite just having faced a bit of a setback. He was happy to finally be able to show off his pet project A Vampyre Story, which left us with only positive impressions. Unfortunately, Bill lost his luggage at the airport after his flight from San Francisco to Leipzig, and if that wasn't bad enough, it had his prized LucasArts jacket inside. Publisher Crimson Cow had asked him to bring the jacket along for A Vampyre Story's first big showing to the press, given the game's firm rooting in the LucasArts tradition of adventure game design, but now it's lost somewhere, and Tiller is wearing a shirt from a German store.
It's an entirely ridiculous yet oddly appropriate metaphor for the journey that his project has taken. Tiller worked for many years at the company that used to be synonymous with adventure games, providing art direction and occasional game design to such titles as The Dig, Rebel Assault and The Curse of Monkey Island. When it came time to start his own project, however, LucasArts lost interest in adventure games as their eye turned towards the luscious udders of the Star Wars cash cow. Several years later, Tiller's A Vampyre Story ends up getting funded and published by a company in Germany, where the adventure genre is once again thriving.
The game is now a couple of months away from being finished, targeting an early 2008 release for most territories. Since development of A Vampyre Story started, developer Autumn Moon's ambitions have grown from creating just one game to creating a trilogy. With Sam & Max's recent episodic return in mind, I was curious why Tiller opted to already plan for two sequels...
(For the basic gist on A Vampyre Story, as well as first our impressions, be sure to check out my preview posted earlier.)
Since you just said that A Vampyre Story is the first of three chapters, I'm wondering: if you had complete freedom to choose, would you prefer to make one really big game or multiple smaller games?
Well, we designed so much of the game and then the story became so big that we realized we are probably going to have to make three games to tell the whole story. The budget and the time we have are also much shorter than we had at LucasArts, so we have to do it that way. It isn't episodic like the Bone or Sam & Max games. I think A Vampyre Story is probably a good size, about Full Throttle size. And it'll feel more like how The Lord of the Rings had been divided up into three books, or like Star Wars. It's an epic story so it just makes more sense to tell it in three games. But preference-wise? I don't know. Either one is probably fine. But if we did a bigger game I would want a bigger crew. Ten people for a medium-size game is about right, but you really need about twenty people if you are going to make a Curse of Monkey Island size game.
You are working together with other artists on A Vampyre Story now, right?
It's mostly me and Bill Eaken, who is known for doing the artwork in Fate of Atlantis and The Dig, and he did the 256 conversion of The Secret of Monkey Island. He's a friend of mine and he did a lot of the drawing and also some of painting, like the bridge that you saw, the stable, the monastery and the castle. He's really good, and he's learned to adopt my style.
Yeah, that was exactly what I was going to ask about. It must be easier to work with him given he worked at LucasArts as well.
Yes, and he also worked on The Curse of Monkey Island. He did some of the cutscene backgrounds in a pinch, when we needed another hand. The only difference between he and I is that his art tends to be more painterly with a lot of paint strokes in it, and mine tend to be a little more sharp. I can't really see too many paint strokes, so my work is a little sharper. When his work is a little too painted I go in and tighten it up a little bit, so that it all kind of looks similar. I create the color palette too, and we've got basically the same art style, so it's easy for him to do. Then we have two other artists who come in once in a while in a pinch to help with cutscene backgrounds.
In your presentation you mentioned that the villain will be actively involved in the story. Can you elaborate on that? In Monkey Island, there was always the "meanwhile, at LeChuck's secret lair..." going on.
It's not exactly like that. What happens is that the vampire hunters are actively trying to hunt down Mona. They know there's another vampire in the castle and they're in the castle for a reason, which I won't reveal. They kind of make it difficult for Mona, they ruin some of the stuff that she needs. That's one way they get involved. Second, there's another villain, which is Shrowdy the vampire, who is so obsessed with Mona that even after he's killed, he's still obsessed with her. So he comes back in the form of a ghost. He's constantly spying on her and trying to thwart her at every stage, as well as kind of annoying and thwarting other people who are helping Mona out. So that's how another villain is sort of monitoring what's going on and staying involved.
Is Froderick (the sidekick character) going to be present at all times like Max in Sam & Max, or is he going in and out of different scenes?
He's going to be on Mona's shoulder all the time. It's been a real pain in the ass to program it, but we finally got it down. He kind of pops around sometimes so we still have to fix that. At one point we went "oh, let's just put him on her arm" and I went "no way, he has to be on the shoulder". One of the negative aspects of him being on her shoulder is that he has to be kind of small. We're going to have to cut to a lot of close-ups so that you can see him. Also, his eyes are black and it's kind of a dark game so we've had to put permanent lights on his eyes for it to read.
Originally we programmed it the way you would any SCUMM game, but sometimes we take it to a close-up. We'll take a section of the background and blow it up and then sharpen it and paint it, which usually takes three or four hours to the point where it looks really good. I think what I discovered is that in a long shot there's so many little details that take a whole week to paint, but if you cut to a closeup there's usually a wall and a few other elements and painting it turns out to be really quick. So it's not just taking it and blowing it up in Photoshop, but it's blowing it up and painting it again to put all the detail back in that got lost.
You know, you might as well do close-ups. It's 3D and you can zoom in and if painting the background doesn't take too much time, why not do it?
It does make it more dynamic.
Yeah, and that's really the goal. We've all grown up with movies and TV so we know the language of film, and that language really needs to be adapted into games.
I'm curious about the idea icons. Can they be manipulated the same way as inventory items? And can you use them with inventory items?
Yes you can. Let's say I have the idea to put Froderick in a dress. He will say something like "yeah, great, I'll put on a dress if you need me to, but not until you absolutely need me to". Suddenly you will have an idea icon of Froderick with a dress on. Generally Mona can then slowly but surely solve puzzles in her head before finally enacting them.
We did think at some point that you could do this to such a degree that you could solve any puzzle just in the inventory, but we thought "that's lame, that's not fun, so let's not do that". You could take it that far but we want people to walk around and explore. 'Cause you could have an idea icon of the problem as well as the solution and put those two together.
That's one way it worked in Brian Moriarty's The Dig [an earlier version that was never released], where you had a cliff and you had a metal pole, idea icons of the metal pole and the cliff, and then you would have to use them together to climb out of a pit. That's how that worked. Also in Brian Moriarty's The Dig you could use the pole except it was slippery, but Lowe had magnetic boots, so if you somehow used a magnetic battery -- this is where science comes in -- with the metal pole you'd make it magnetic, and then you could climb up. You did that by using the battery idea with the pole idea. But it started getting really crazy, so we decided in the final The Dig to throw it out.
I thought this is a good solution for A Vampyre Story, but we'll make it just objects that are big enough that you wouldn't carry them around. And a few abstract ideas, like maybe a song title or password or something like that. Things that are not physical but that you can still use.
Sounds pretty sensible. Normally if you would have to remember a song title, you'd probably have to take a lyrics sheet of the song or something like that and have it in your inventory, which can get a bit contrived at times.
If someone gives me an address or something then maybe you can keep it in there and maybe examine it and say what the address is, but yeah, exactly. I don't think we have fully explored the ultimate extent of this idea but I think in future games we will come up with more interesting things to do with it. But I like the way it works and we will probably use it in most of our games. I don't know why we didn't use it before. I think it's because at LucasArts they took it too far. But it's not a bad idea, you just have to work on it.
How do you feel about the whole process of getting A Vampyre Story funded and published?
Big pain in the ass. It's fine, going to college is also a big pain in the ass. It's been a learning experience. Everyone goes to college and they volunteer to go to college because it is rewarding. So it's been a little like going to the gaming business college. It's definitely been rewarding and I feel strongly that the next games we do we will definitely feel more confident about how we do it. I understand the business more. I understand European business more, which is different from American business.
In what ways?
Well, you have 300 million people in one place, but there's 12 different cultures and 12 different markets. You have 250 million people in the United States, and it's one market. So in the US you deal with just one publisher and you've got all of North America or the world covered, and here you have to deal with each one. So I didn't know that and had to slowly but surely learn that. I go "hey, [French publisher] Focus Home, do you want to do my game?" and they say they would love to, so I go "alright, here's the budget". And then they say, "we can pay for one fifth of that, can you find four other publishers?"
How was that ultimately set up?
Focus Home have been interested for five years. But funding close to a million dollars -- that's a lot of money. They can't really afford to do that. They can do it for their territory but they can't do the whole thing. Crimson Cow had gotten funding, and they wanted to take a chance and buy the worldwide rights and then sell it to each local publisher. That's good for me because then I only have to deal with one publisher and I only have to hire my expensive $300-an-hour lawyer to do one contract rather than 12 different contracts.
What are your future prospects now? You've got funding for this game, and you're already thinking about the sequel?
Well, we over-designed. That's what we tend to do anyway, you always over-design and cut down to fit your schedule, but we were designing so much that we cut 50% and realized we can actually make another game out of it. There were such cool ideas, like fantasy monsters and werewolves, and all these other characters and locations and puzzles we thought would be great. I'd hate to just throw it out to fit it into one game. So we were thinking "hey, why not do this in a sequel?" Our plan is to do one pretty quickly, within a year or 16 months after the first one comes out.
Like a one-two punch.
Yeah, it only takes maybe a month to gear up to do that, because it's almost already designed. We've already done the models and art for it. We wrote cutscenes and wrote some of the dialog and it's partially finished.
It's great to see a cartoon style like this game come out again. They're pretty rare.
I've seen a number of them but it seems like the publishers are afraid they might not sell and gave them only small budgets. Then you're stuck making games that couldn't have quite the high values that you wanted. So I'm hoping A Vampyre Story will prove that you can pay a decent amount of money to get quality higher, and it'll still make money. In fact, it helps make it more money. Maybe if this game sells really well, bigger publishers will go "hey, that's a market we need to tap into" and then maybe LucasArts would decide to do more adventure games. You might see a Monkey Island game one of these days. Or Full Throttle 3... umm, 2?
Earlier today I saw So Blonde, and I'm also reminded of Runaway, in that your style seems to have somewhat made it into those games. How do you feel about that? When I see a palm tree in those games I'm thinking "hmm, that looks kind of like Monkey Island 3".
Yeah and they even have Brian dress up as Guybrush in the second Runaway. Actually, there's some Monkey Island in a lot of things, like that one movie, I don't know what it's called... Pirates of the Caribbean?
Hmmm, nope. Can't say I ever heard of that one...
I've seen certain things that were in our games end up completely on the screen. It's pretty fun. You go like "hmm, Orlando Bloom, he kinda looks a little like Guybrush".
Indeed he does. Well, it looks like we have to wrap up now. Thank you for the interview and good luck with the production of the game.
Thanks. We're almost done!