IncGamers’ Peter Parrish has been talking to Bill Tiller, the man responsible for most of the art work in the iconic point and click games, from Curse of Monkey Island to more recently A Vampyre Story.
Hello Bill, thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions for IncGamers. You may be sick of this first question by now (apologies in advance!), but to kick us off with a little background information could you give the readers a summary of your work in the industry?
No problem! Well, I didn’t really think about doing games until my final year of animation school when Collette Michaud of LucasArts showed me some early work on Indy Fate of Atlantis and I was blown away. “Games actually look almost like animated movies! Wow!” So that convinced me games might be cool to work on. I started on Brian Moriarty’s The Dig. That was a troubled project already before I arrived. Then Brian left so I helped Sean Clark finish the version of The Dig that got released. By that time I was lead artist on the project.
Then along came Curse of Monkey Island and I got to do all the backgrounds for that. That was fun because I really like Larry’s and Jonathan’s vision on that game. Also, the team was very talented and great to work with. After CMI, I wanted to do art direction for a 3D title so I jumped on Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine with Hal Barwood. It was a good game but my artistic vision was hampered by an old engine. That was disappointing. Then Larry Ahern and I teamed up for Full Throttle Payback. It was very unfortunate when that version got cancelled because it was a really cool gig and I liked the direction the game and art were going in. Soon afterwards, I got a call from a friend up at Guild Wars and worked there for about six months. Great guys but Seattle was too dreary for me. Then I got a call from another friend to work as art director on EA’s Lord of the Rings game at Stormfront. I did that for a year but I was really missing the old adventure games, so I quit to start work on A Vampyre Story. I took about 8 months off and then when my savings ran out, I had to go get a job at Midway as a 3rd party art director. I travelled around and supervised various developers working on Midway games like The Suffering, Spy Hunter: No Where to Run, LA Rush, Happy Feet – too many to count. I learned a lot but it wasn’t for me. So that is when I decided the time was right to start my own company. That was in 2006.
The process of creating backdrops for adventure games is clearly very different to working on titles with rendered graphics. Could you take us through the artistic process for drawing/painting a scene in A Vampyre Story? Did it differ from when you were working on Curse of Monkey Island or The Dig?
Nah, it is pretty much the same. The big difference is now I make multiple layers for the backgrounds so that they parallax when the characters move. The resolution and color depth is much higher now, too. First, I rough a basic deisgn for the room that I think works for the puzzle. Then I do a clean line drawing of that, scan it and then start painting it in Photoshop. When done, I break it into multiple layers and check it in. Technically it isn’t that difficult. It is much faster than building it in 3D, although 2D has its drawback because we can’t tilt or swivel the camera.
What creative barriers did you come up against when you were working on Lucasarts titles in the 16-bit and early PC eras? Was it always a hindrance to have a restricted palette, or did it help focus the mind in some ways?
The restricted palette could be overcome if we had high resolution like in Curse of Monkey Island. CMI, The Dig, Monkey 2, and Fate all had the same number of colors, about 224 (16 saved for GUI and HUD, 16 for animations). But CMI looks so much better because the pixels are smaller and you can blend colors together. We painted in 24 bit and then used DeBabelizer to get it down to 224. It was fun and not too difficult to do it that way. On occasion it was a pain but not too often.
The angles and perspectives used in the Vampyre Story artwork reminded me of some of the wilder Curse of Monkey Island concept art I’ve seen (specifically, one very bendy windmill!) Had you been itching to use that style all this time?
Absolutely. I love that style. It combines what I love the best- cartoons and traditional Brandywine school of illustration. So I will probably use that style quite a lot. I love doing it and on all those other games I didn’t get a chance.
You’ve apparently had the characters of Mona and Froderick doodled in a notepad since 1995(!), did you ever imagine it would be thirteen years before you saw them in a game?
I thought it would take five years, and that I would be doing it at LucasArts. But it didn’t work out that way. Plus, I am too hesitant to jump out on my own. Looking back, I should have quit LucasArts right after CMI and started AVS then. I had no kids, my wife was working, and CMI was a big hit. But we wanted to save for a house so I chickened out. It took me a few more years to get so fed up working on movie licenses for me to finally do it. Too often, fear stops you from pursuing your dreams as much as you should.
A final art-related question. You’ve cited Edward Gorey as an influence and the visual style of A Vampyre Story is recognisably, well … yours. So did it bother you at all that the box blurb had references to Tim Burton all over it?
Did it? Well he and I are very similar, very similar. We both grew up in suburbia in southern California and watched the same movies and TV shows. We both like Disney cartoons, Edward Gorey, Dr Suess, Halloween, Christmas, Hammer Horror films, Oingo Boingo. Where we differ is I liked role playing games and Tolkien, so I saw the Hildebrandt Brothers Tolkien calendars and just ate their artwork up. I also loved computers. He didn’t have a computer growing up. Tim and I even went to the same art school. But after school he went into animated movies and I went into games. He likes a ton of black, I don’t. I like dark royal blue. He is a little more stream of consciousness with his stories, which is not my style. I like traditional story telling. He likes wacky, chaotic plot lines that don’t always make much sense. I love some of his movies (Beetle Juice, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood) but hate others (Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks). So yes and no to the question that it bothers me. Artistically we are related, but we are very different at the same time.
The rather sudden ending suggests there came a point where you had to split A Vampyre Story in two (or more?), was this a tough call? Or had it always the plan to split it into chapters?
Yes and no. I wanted to do the whole story in one game. But the adventure game market doesn’t support the budget I would need to do it. So I had to split the game up. The advantage is I don’t have to trash all the cool ideas we came up with. The bad news is we had to have a cliff hanger ending like Empire Strikes Back and Fellowship of the Rings. Sometimes authors need more time to tell the whole story but market pressures force them to split it up. Same story here.
Can you give us any exclusive juicy details about A Vampyre Story 2? Will we be meeting Shrowdy’s creepy mum, or the sinister chap from the painting in Mona’s bedroom? Come on Bill, don’t make us use the IncGamers torture chamber …
We won’t get to meet Shrowdy’s mom until A Vampyre Story 4, though she makes a brief appearance at the end of the credits in A Vampyre Story 3. And we will definitely be meeting Jack the Gimper, the creepy chap in the painting. He plays an important role in AVS2. We’ll also meet Carpathia the Wolf-Woman ™, the Mortus Monster, and we will get to change Mona’s costumes for the first time. And trust me, seeing the outfit she has to wear will be worth the ticket of admission. Also, in the first half of the game the player will be playing Froderick exclusively while Mona is incapacitated. But I should say no more…
While we’re being greedy for information, I’ve heard a whisper about another project Autumn Moon are working on. Can you share anything about this yet?
Nope. I apologize. But plans are to announce it in early 2009.
The game’s soundtrack/score is rather splendid. How did you decide to use Pedro Macedo Camacho’s work in the title, and is he on board for the sequel?
He is on board whole heartedly on the sequel. I love his music. He contacted us through email and the phone one day and aksed if he could write some musioc for the game as an audition piece. I said sure. He took three days and made basically the final AVS theme you hear today. When I heard it, I just about cried because it was perfect for what I wanted. He was a great find!
Are there any Vampyre Story easter eggs we should be looking out for (I’m thinking of things like being able to slide Manny down the bannister of his club or chanting strike slogans with the Sea Bees in Grim Fandango)?
We hide things in all the games just for fun, as long as they don’t violate any copyrights held by a certain movie maker, but nothing as cool as that I am afraid. Have Mona look at the calendar in the stable twice.
Hindsight is a marvellous thing. With A Vampyre Story now officially released, is there anything you would have done differently?
Certainly. I would have cut back on the dialogue a lot more. Originally, I thought more is more. But I think less would be more in the case of the dialogue. So expect to see less lame jokes, and less dialogue altogether, and expect us to just keep the best jokes and tighten up the dialogue. With AVS 2, less will be more in the case of our script. Our localizers will be happy to hear that. And I will direct Mona’s voice over work more. Some people had issues with it. I directed the FMVs and the in game pick ups and re-records but not the bulk of it. I figured the actors could handle it themselves. But they need direction. So I’ll make sure they get it for all of AME’s future voice recordings. And last, I would have bought an entirely finished game engine instead of developing our own. That seemed much too expensive to do in the beginning, which is why we didn’t go that route. But building our own engine took way longer that we had hoped, and slowed production down way too much. The good thing is now that it is done, all we need to spend money on is improving it.
On a technical note, will there by a patch released to clear up a couple of lingering bugs (getting access to the stadium too early and being trapped is probably the most serious)?
Yes, the patch is out now. Our retailers wanted the game in the stores before Christmas. So we had to ship with a few bugs that we knew we could patch quickly a few weeks later. The patch is up and available on the Crimson Cow web site. Again, market pressures sometimes force your hand and you have to let a few bugs slip by. Or testing sometimes doesn’t catch all the bugs in time. But, this is quite common in the game industry and we knew we’d be able to make a patch quickly.
Finally, A Vampyre Story seemed to consciously adopt a classic adventure game interface and atmosphere. Do you think it’s a strength of point and click titles that they’ve seen little change in format over the years, or can you foresee a time when they must necessarily ‘evolve’ in some way?
Well I just don’t see the need for them to change. Some people like only having one action. I myself like the multiple options, and I definitely prefer point and click over steering like in Escape from Monkey Island or Grim Fandango. But I bet if got a killer budget like Sims3 has we could make the perfect interface. It isn’t the interface that is so important to me but the game design and content. If I have to prioritize, I prefer to keep the interface the way it is and improve the other things about the game. But I am open to any ideas that are better. But they really need to actually be better, not just different.
Bill Tiller, thanks again for speaking with us!
Sure. No problem. It was fun.