Bill Tiller, Gene Mocsy - Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! interview
Bill Tiller may not be the biggest name in the adventure genre, but his work is surely among the most recognizable. The acclaimed artist and designer broke in with classic LucasArts titles like The Dig and The Curse of Monkey Island before launching an independent career. A close collaboration with Gene Mocsy (who also created 1954: Alcatraz) began with A Vampyre Story and continued on through Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, before the two joined forces once again for a new pirate adventure series named after its main character, Duke Grabowski. With the debut installment now squarely in the rear view mirror, I had the chance to chat with Bill and Gene over Skype a while back to discuss their partnership, the new game, and what the future might might bring – and of course share more than a few laughs while we were at it.
Ingmar: Welcome! In your last interview with Adventure Gamers, our editor said that “the genre needs a new Bill Tiller game.” Today I have finished the first episode of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! and I must say that he was absolutely right…
Bill Tiller: Thanks! It’s not just a Bill Tiller game, though, as it was designed by Gene Mocsy and I. Well, we also had a little help from Dave Grossman… very little help. (Gene laughs) No, no, don’t get me wrong. (Bill starts laughing too) He gave us some tips in the beginning, so his influence was very helpful, but it’s pretty much Gene and I who did the design work on this. I roughed up the story beforehand and the basic plot and puzzles, but Gene and I sat down hashing things out over several meetings, going back and forth on writing the game design document until we came up with the final design. And then Reed Knight [also known as Reed Derleth] helped out a little bit. He was a game designer on Jedi Knight, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and Republic Commando, by the way.
Ingmar: You were too fast for me, Bill! The full version of my opening about needing “a new Bill Tiller game” was supposed to be “and I would add the name Gene Mocsy.”
Gene Mocsy: Oh, thank you! Of course, the art direction is all Bill, and it looks beautiful. Everything he’s worked on is just amped, and increased the quality. The characters and settings and effects are all melded together to a beautiful monkey experience.
Bill: It was a lot of fun to work on it. I think we’re gonna get the effects, the models and the characters working even better in the next episode. I’m one of these people that’s critical of anything I worked on. After working on something for a long time I begin to get sick of it, see all the flaws, and feel like “I never want to see it again!” But, yeah, I look at Duke every now and then, and I’m pretty happy with it.
Ingmar: One thing I particularly liked about the first episode was the interaction between Duke and other characters. I mean, I often felt like people were talking to each other that don’t speak the same language. A lot of that was very funny, and made me realize what a likable character Duke actually is.
Bill: Gene is mostly responsible for that. He did around 80-90% of the dialogue.
Gene: Yeah, but Bill prototyped the idea that instead of a wise-ass, smart kind of hero, Duke is a different kind of guy. He’s just used to fighting and yelling, and he’s not used to negotiating or wooing, so that’s of course a great comic premise, and, you know, a big obstacle to romancing. He’s afraid of even talking to women in the first place, but we force him to. He finds out that women are just as capable of conspiring with him to pull off tricks or go on missions with him. He might have come to the island just thinking “let’s woo some girls,” but then he kind of learns a bit about the way the worlds works.
Bill: Obviously, the pirates he’s with are the true villains of the game. They’re kind of jerks and don’t like him, and you can kind of understand it because he can beat them all up, and does a good job of doing that. So they just want to get rid of him, and give him the task of making three women fall in love with him. They know he’s not very smart; he’s a pretty young guy who never had a girlfriend. They know he is socially awkward, and is not going to do well trying to get three women to fall in love with him. It’s just never going to happen. So they send him on this wild goose chase thinking “oh, get the hell out of here!”
What you realize is that Duke is a really nice guy, actually. He’s got a heart to him, and if he just shows that part of himself, people start to like him. He’s a bit of a brute and has a bit of a temper, but if he’s just helping people out, and being a good guy, he tends to get a lot more accomplished, and the villains underestimate that. He actually has a good moral center, so they don’t understand him at all as they’re just mean jerks who like to steal and rob. They fear Duke, but they don’t understand him.
Ingmar: This game has a very fun and clever way of turning Duke’s “violent behavior” and enormous powers into a puzzle element…
Bill: Thanks! In each game I work on I try to put in some kind of skill or new element. Like the vampire powers in A Vampyre Story or the voojoo spell powers in Ghost Pirates. In Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbucker! we have Duke’s strength. He’s kind of inspired by The Hulk and… what’s the name of the guy from Blazing Saddles?
Bill: Right! I love Mongo! He’s just, like, punching horses, crushing five guys with a piano and stuff like that. He’s kind of cartoony, you know, and Duke was inspired by that guy. So, yeah, that’s kind of a challenge because we have given Duke this strength, and had to make up puzzles for why he can’t just like punch through a door or a wall. We needed enough puzzles that involve his strength to solve them, but at the same time strength alone doesn’t solve everything.
Gene: I think that was one of the reasons why we set up Sheriff Nancy Steele as a foil to that, so Duke can’t just run around rampaging on the island.
Ingmar: (laughs) You know, that’s exactly what I thought Duke was going to do when I started playing, and noticed the option of punching other characters.
Gene: (laughs) Here we go!
Bill: (laughs) Yeah, at the same time we wanted to have fun with the character, so he gets into a good-natured brawl with some rivals, punches some bad guys and tosses them around. We definitely wanted to have some action in, but not overly violent action worse than a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Ingmar: Right. After all, he is a very likable guy.
Gene: I think a lot of that also has to do with [Duke’s voice actor] Erik Braa. He made him really human.
Bill: Yeah! Our biggest struggle was to figure out how to write Duke so that he didn’t sound like a caveman, which initially was what we were going for. After a while, that caveman got on everybody’s nerves, so we decided to make him a little more sophisticated, and thought he should have a little better ability to express himself.
Gene: I think we upgraded him to an orc! (Bill and Ingmar laugh)
Bill: A caveman orc! (everyone laughs)
Ingmar: The Kickstarter campaign only covered one episode. However, some new things have happened since in the meantime. Please give us an update.
Bill: We worked on this ourselves for about a year before we started talking to our publisher. We asked for the money we needed on Kickstarter to pay other people to do work for us, because we were gonna work for free, you know, being true indie developers. So we had enough money to pay people who did animations, music, effects, character design, models, voicing and that kind of stuff. We put together a pretty decent demo, but things were rather slow going.
Then Matt Sughrue – a friend of mine who works at Alliance Digital Media – heard about the game and saw the demo, so they signed us. They’re rather small and just expanding out into doing bigger games. I told them that this was actually designed so that it could possibly be a series of five episodes for the full character arc and story. It was designed in a way, though, that episode one will work perfectly fine if you only play that one episode. Duke has a quest and he fulfills that quest, so there won’t be any cliffhangers, but the character still has a lot of growth and a lot of things to learn, so that’s where the other episodes come in. I talked to Matt about that, and he was like “great, we want to do all five episodes”, so I wrote out the basic rough stories for all five episodes, and designed puzzles for a few of them. Digital Media Alliance loved that stuff too, so five episodes are the current plan.
Ingmar What can you say about the release timeframe of the next episodes?
Bill: We’re trying to get them out every 5-6 months, but we’ve got to see how that goes as this is the first time we’re doing an episodic game.
Gene: Who can say. This is still in the future. I’m working on the Razer port of episode one right now, so we’ve got a lot of things going on.
Ingmar: In the first episode, Duke has to “seaduce” three women. Can you tease some of his future quests?
Bill: Sure! I’ve just got to be careful that I don’t say too much. Let’s just say that – since Duke is pretty slow – it takes him a while to figure out he’s being used. So he’s still gonna be sent on a lot of wild goose chases. But he doesn’t realize until later that all these goose chases are garnering him a lot of good will with the people he’s interacting with. In the beginning he really wants a lot of respect and acceptance among his peers, but he doesn’t quite realize that his peers are a bunch of jerks in the first place, so he still wants them to approve him. He doesn’t necessarily want to be captain, he just wants to win this popularity contest, so he can feel less insecure.
You know, throughout his entire life people made fun of him for being slow and big, and Duke’s grown sensitive to it. We’re hoping to tell a story about a character who realizes what he originally wanted may not necessarily be what’s best for him. But also, it’s a pirate game, so there’s a lot of pirate plots and intrigues. There’s also a secret intriguing storyline that is interweaved into Duke’s quests and a few other sub-plots that are related and have been set up in the first episode. They also hint at what’s going to happen in Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, so I would say this is kind of a prequel to Ghost Pirates, and occasionally some of those characters will make cameos. So, yeah, there’s a lot more going on throughout the series: there’s the character arc, a bigger plot that goes through all five episodes and climaxes in episode five, and then there’s a little bit more of a world-building story as well.
Concept art for Slew Face
Gene: Slew Face [one of the other pirates] is still the villain, and I think as he is putting up all these barriers against Duke, and sends him on all these wild goose chases, Slew Face doesn’t realize that Duke is learning to become a swashbuckling hero. So, Slew Face is actually creating the hero he never really wanted of Duke.
Bill: That’s a good point, Gene! Gene makes good points!
Ingmar: The first episode was released an while ago now. What can you tell me about the early reception?
Bill: I haven’t read all the articles in detail as we’ve been very busy. I have gone through our publisher’s database, though, which features a synopsis of what people have been saying. The synopsis has been pretty good so far, and I’m very happy about that. Basically, they said what you said. They like the characters, the plot, the interactions and the idea of this huge slow-brained character. The only negatives were that they wanted more jokes and they wanted it to look a little more polished, which is exactly what we want. You know, with this first episode we’re pretty much learning how to do things on the fly, so hopefully we can take that experience and improve on it in future episodes.
Gene: It’s important for me that the Kickstarter backers are happy with the game, and it seems like most of them are. A lot of them have been sending us compliments, and feel like Duke Grabowski is a spiritual successor to Monkey Island, which is great as this is what our target was. People are happy with the money they pledged to us, and they believed in the game when it was just a couple of line-drawings, so I’m very happy that they’re happy!
Ingmar: For someone like me who grew up with all the graphic adventure classics, it’s easy to tell that this game is a labor of love from people who have a lot of respect for those classics.
Bill: Yeah, I played a lot of the Apple II Plus adventures in the early ‘80s, but my mind really got blown back in 1992 when I saw Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2. When LucasArts wanted to hire another animator for the second version of the endless The Dig project, I ended up at the company I enjoyed playing games from, which was great fun. And so I ended up going through their archive, and played all their other games. You know, I was able to watch Day of the Tentacle getting developed, and I would go over to the test room pit once in a while and played the game there as I couldn’t get it running on my computer. I remember when they finally put the voices in and I was just like, “Oh my god. This game is just SO great and funny!”
So yeah, I guess I’m always trying to recreate that feeling that I had when I first started playing games like Monkey Island 2 or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. They were just a lot of fun. I felt like I was there, and you know, that sense of adventure to me was just really strong. I want to kind of recreate that feeling if I can, and get better and better at it with each game.
Ingmar: There’s an enormous amount of games getting released on Steam nowadays. It has become pretty much impossible to keep track of them all as there’s just so much stuff out there. How difficult is it for a niche game to get noticed these days?
Bill: Luckily, Alliance Digital Media has good people, so we’re kind of relying on them. But I still think it’s a bit of a struggle, and I think you need a good marketing budget to get people interested. I mean, I worked on a few games that have gotten great reviews but just didn’t sell well, mostly on the iTunes platform. I worked on one called Snuggle Truck which did well because it was kind of controversial. So, that’s one way of doing things. You do something that’s controversial, everybody will hate it, and it ends up on the news. (everyone laughs)
Ingmar: I remember when Snuggle Truck was launched that reading your press release was quite funny by itself! (everyone laughs)
Bill Tiller and friend (not Gene Mocsy)
Bill: It’s a fun game, you know. People took it the wrong way, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Some people totally got it, though, and got the whole irony in it. But then we did a follow-up game which we thought was better, and it didn’t sell well. It’s just hard to stand out. Then I worked on another game which was kind of a kids-friendly, funny first-person shooter called Bounty Bots. It got good reviews, and people who played it loved it, but while there was some marketing for it there just wasn’t a lot of it. So it’s not enough to make a good game, you’ve got to make a good game and then go to town, pushing it and pushing it.
This whole month, I thought I’d be working on just [Kickstarter] rewards and episode two. But now it’s like I’m working half-time on PR and marketing and working half-time on rewards, artworks, and game design. I should have known that, but it kind of struck me as a surprise and I was just like “D’oh! Come on! You’ll also have to do PR and marketing!” That’s fine, as I like doing everything that helps the game, but yeah, it’s a struggle, you’re absolutely right!
Gene Mocsy: Not-so-mighty swashbuckler!
Gene: At least there’s a really solid adventure community, though. And – of course – sites likes yours and KickstartVentures that celebrate these games constantly keep us in the news, and continually help kickstarting adventure games, so there’s some great support. Actually, discovery isn’t so hard if you know your niche, and you’re friends with your niche. I think that’s a blessing!
Bill: I also think that adventure games don’t age in my opinion. I could still play Grim Fandango – even the old version…
Ingmar: … or Monkey Island 3!
Bill: Exactly! Monkey Island 3 doesn’t look that old. These games are like cartoons. You know, you can still watch Warner Brother cartoons from the ‘30s, but if you’re watching a melodrama from the ‘30s, you might feel like, “what the hell is this?!” So cartoons tend not to age. Maybe you don’t need to be a big-splashy success to be a success, and you just need to have a good game that’s solid and steady, and that becomes a hit through word-of-mouth and reputation…
Gene: … and Bill Tiller art on your screenshots!
Ingmar: Never a bad idea!
Bill: We hope that our screenshots make you go: “I want to adventure there!” I mean, that’s kind of my goal when I draw the artworks. I want to make something where I would like to go and explore. You know, sometimes I compare this to designing an amusement park. You want to create an environment people want to explore and just immerse themselves in. That’s the goal, and it doesn’t hurt the screenshots either.
Ingmar: That’s also something I remember of the time when A Vampyre Story was announced. There wasn’t that much visual material available back then, and you didn’t even need to know much about the actual game. Looking at the artworks was enough to feel like this was something to look forward to; something with a unique selling point.
Bill: That can be a curse and a blessing at the same time. You know, the hype for A Vampyre Story got a little out of control. I got a little worried people started to expect a new Tim Schafer-Grim Fandango kind of thing. That’s a lot to live up to, and it can make things a little more difficult at times. I think with Duke we’re very clear about what this is. This first game, and all the episodes, are short games, around nine locations and about 2-4 hours of gameplay each. You know, basically inspired by… a spoof of… or just a straight rip-off of the Monkey Island franchise.
Gene: (raises his voice) NO! A parody and homage! (Gene and Ingmar laugh)
Ingmar: Of course!
Bill: (cheerful) A parody and homage, okay! (short moment of silence) Well… I stole some of it! (Gene and Ingmar burst out laughing) Just for fun, you know, like… the jail house. Tim and Ron didn’t seem to mind, though. They seemed to get the joke.
Ingmar: I think everything is fine as long as no one from Disney reads this interview! (Bill and Gene laugh)
Gene: Oh my god, let’s turn off the recording right now!!!
Ingmar: (laughs) Probably a good idea!
The Curse of Monkey Island (any similarities in Duke Grabowski are purely intentional)
Bill: I don’t know how much they care. (Gene seems to gasp for air) I changed it like 30 percent or so. I think it’s fine. Well, I hid some stuff in there. (laughs) Don’t know if you saw it.
Gene: Is there a Max in there?
Bill: There is a Max in there!
Ingmar I didn’t realize Max was in it, but I definitely noticed some other references like the jail house. It was also cool to see that [LucasArts veterans] Dave Grossman and Larry Ahern both appeared as characters in the actual game. Watching the two of them getting mad at each other was a lot of fun!
Gene: (laughs) Larry wrote a lot of that dialogue, by the way.
Bill: They know each other very well, so that was probably the best way of doing it.
Gene: It’ll be a challenge for your readers to find more easter eggs!
Ingmar Sounds like a good idea for a neat competition. (Gene laughs)
Bill: Max only appears in a video for two seconds or so, by the way. I was trying to get hold of Steve [Purcell] to get permission to do it, but I could never reach him, so eventually I said: “I’ll just hide it in here, he won’t get mad!”
Gene: (gulps) Uh, oh!
Bill: I just saw him the other day, he’s cool with it. I’ve got a verbal OK. (Gene takes a deep breath)
Ingmar: (laughs) I don’t want anyone to get into legal problems here…
Bill: Nah, I think we’re all good! I think we’re all good, Gene?
Gene: Everything Bill said is on the record!
Ingmar: Speaking of legal stuff… I know people ask you about this a lot, but of course we can’t do an interview with you without discussing the potential future of A Vampyre Story.
Bill: I think Crimson Cow has a new management. They’re probably not interested in doing it, but I don’t think they’re against selling it, so I guess if I came up with the right money I suppose I can get the rights back. I’m concentrating on Duke Grabowski right now, but once Duke’s over I’m totally open to talking to Crimson Cow. But I’ve also been discussing the idea of animated shorts with our animator Romero. I love these characters, you know, and I don’t want them to die off just because of the distribution rights.
It’s a pretty long and epic story, so it could easily be turned into an episodic game with around eight episodes before the whole story arc wraps up. So, yeah, I’d love to do it, but if worst comes to worst I have the rights to do animated shorts, books, or comic books. When the time comes I’ll definitely explore the options.
Gene: At least it’s not like an actor who might age out of a part. No matter how long it takes you to get back you can always pick up where you stopped because of the digital character models.
Bill: Yeah, but right now we’re fully concentrating on Duke’s story. I like him, too, and he’s not too dissimilar to Mona in that they’re both no geniuses…
Ingmar: … and they’re outcasts…
A Vampyre Story's Mona and Froderick... gone for now but not forgotten
Bill: Yeah, they’re outcasts. And, you know, they both have these powers they don’t fully know how to control, but they have a goal and are very driven. In one way or the other they’ll figure out how to get what they want. Along the way they learn that maybe what they originally wanted wasn’t exactly the best thing for them to begin with. They’re very similar, just one is a big, strong, and dumb pirate whereas the other is a little more sophisticated opera singer who just wants to sing, and doesn’t care about monsters, vampires and that kind of stuff.
Ingmar Adventure Gamers has a tradition of doing interviews with you every couple of years. I’ll come back to A Vampyre Story in the next interview. (Gene and Bill laugh)
Bill: The next 1½ years or so are going to be about Duke. I’ll be sick of pirates in 1½ years, though. It’s not like I’m going to hate them, but I’ll feel like it’ll be time for a break from pirates. The funny thing about that is that the pirate idea was just gonna be a little demo, and me and Gene were working on another game altogether. Then we realized it was really expensive to start a game from scratch. We already had all these assets, pirate character models, pirate backgrounds, pirate sound effects etc., so we thought, “it might be better if we go in this direction. We love that big-buffed pirate guy, so let’s focus on this other idea!”
A lot of people were like: “Oh, you’re just ripping off pirates and Monkey Island!” That wasn’t our original idea, though. I mean, we like pirates, and they’re fun to work on, but our first idea was to do something completely different in the science fiction genre. Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler! made the most sense, though, and we really like the character.
Ingmar: We talked about some of the old games that left an impact on you. Have the two of you played any recent games that left an impression on you?
Gene: I really like Kentucky Route Zero; a new chapter came out last year. A beautiful and very atmospheric game. I just want to live in that game! (everyone laughs)
Bill: What is it called again?
Gene: Kentucky Route Zero. Check it out, it’s amazing! It’s a surreal point-and-click travelogue through an alternate Kentucky at night with magical realism. The art direction is amazing, the music just gives you chills, and the characters are just as amazing!
Bill: Cool, I’ll have to check it out. The biggest game I really enjoyed over the last year was Alien Isolation. I don’t know if that counts as an adventure game. I guess it kind of does, and it kind of doesn’t. It’s not really a shooter… well, you shoot a little bit, but you can never kill the alien – you drive it off, you know. It’s kind of a puzzle/resource management/hide-and-seek kind of game. I really liked the fact that it scared the crap out of me, and I was just addicted to being scared all of the time, so I played the hell out of it. And then I finally got around to playing the first episode of The Walking Dead, which was pretty fun. Also been playing Broken Age on and off. Gosh, what else have I played? Gene, we were just talking about this before the interview…
Gene: I was playing Michonne, the Walking Dead spin-off. It had amazing voice acting from the main actor Samira Wiley. Her voice was so good and personal; it humanized everything in an inhuman situation. It was just great that Telltale did this short summer game instead of an epic series that continues on forever. I guess they sandwiched it in between elements from the comic books and the TV series. It was a just a great short segment that showed what Telltale can do. Also played the first episode of Batman, which was fun. You know, as people keep saying: “You should always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then you should always be Batman!” (everyone laughs)
Bill: I’ve been playing Knights of the Old Republic a lot throughout the last five years, so I’m really invested in that game. And my kids finally talked me into playing Minecraft. It’s an amazing little game. Very time-consuming, though! I just downloaded a new adventure game for iOS, called Bayou Island. I love the artwork in it; it’s got a beautiful flat painting style, so I’m gonna be exploring that game.
I was just looking on your website, by the way, and I was like, “Man! There’s a lot of really cool adventure games out there.” So I might check out some of them. My biggest problem is time, having a wife and three kids. (laughs) There are just so many goddamn games on your site that I want to try. Maybe I can learn from them a lot. I’m sure my games are up-to-par, but I also want to check these games out because they look so beautiful and have these great environments.
Ingmar: Bill, given the fact that you’re a brilliant artist, there’s one new game that might be right up your alley. It’s called The Little Acre. It had beautiful animations, and was full of charm. Some of the animators are from Ballyfermot college in Dublin, which was set up by Don Bluth Studios [creator of All Dogs go to Heaven, The Secret of Nimh, Dragon’s Lair etc.].
Bill: Cool – thanks! When I was at Cal Arts [California Institute of the Arts] I had a few opportunities to meet Don Bluth. Actually, everyone in my class was a big Don Bluth fan in the late ‘80s. There was a rivalry between our class which liked everything from Don Bluth, and another class that preferred Disney. I’ve learned a lot about Don Bluth in school, and I’m a fan, so I’ll check the game out for sure!
Ingmar: Guys, thanks a lot for taking so much time for this interview. It was a lot of fun, and I’m very much looking forward to the next episodes of Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler!
Bill: Cool! Thank you very much! (suddenly, crows can be heard in the background)
Gene: Thank you! I can hear birds in the background…
Bill: I don’t know, but for some reason my house seems to attract a lot of crows, which is cool.
Gene: It’s very dark and gothic!
Bill: (laughs) Yeah, perfect end!
Gene: Thanks for talking to us!