The rise and fall of Full Throttle: a conversation with Bill Tiller
First posted on 26 August 2008. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
Some images are courtesy of Bill Tiller © 2000-2008.
About the interviewee
Bill Tiller is the founder and creative director of Autumn Moon Entertainment.
Autumn Moon Entertainment is the developer of A Vampyre Story, an adventure game published by Crimson Cow that is scheduled for release in 2008.
For more information, visit Autumn Moon Entertainment.
Playing Full Throttle is like tasting a rich bowl of roadhouse chili filled to the rim with biker gangs, chick mechanics (covered in engine grease too), and truckers with badass tattoos. An action packed, comical (albeit short), animated graphical adventure set in the backdrop of an apocalyptic future, Full Throttle touches on the subculture of motorcycle gangs and their steel horses. It is also a story about Ben, a renegade biker who lives and dies by his own rules. Ben's voice (played by the late Roy Conrad) is every bit as gravelly as the Old Mine Road where he does battle. In this alternate world, cars hover, transport trucks are armored, and desolate towns like Melonweed are sinking fast into the sand. It is a land with many strange locales and even stranger inhabitants.
Released by LucasArts with much fanfare, Full Throttle was an instant hit among critics. Over time, the game grew to become a cult classic and developed a huge fan base. Yet, behind the success of Full Throttle was a detracted story of developer heartbreak. Since the game's initial release, LucasArts had twice attempted to develop a sequel for the game, but both ended as abruptly as they began. Very little was known about these sequels behind the scenes, except for their names—Full Throttle: Payback and Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels.
This is the story about the rise and fall of Full Throttle.
There was, however, a single person who could lift the veil of secrecy over this sad story: Bill Tiller—who, from 1993 to 2001, worked at LucasArts and was a member of development team for Full Throttle: Payback (which he also affectionately called Full Throttle 2). Much to our surprise, we were granted a rare opportunity to interview him about these events, where he spoke to us candidly about the truth behind the failed development of the Full Throttle sequels. He even granted us access to many artworks, most of which were previously unpublished, that he had created for the project years ago. So check out our gallery of concept art from Full Throttle: Payback sent to us by Bill Tiller himself!
The population is greatly decreased
And now the odds are greatly increased
That I may someday get a chance
To kiss your lips
I thank the Lo-o-ord each day
For the apocalypse
- - Increased Chances (by Chitlins, Whiskey & Skirt)
Full throttle was originally released for DOS in 1995. The game was packaged in a beautifully illustrated box, with the lead character Ben on his Corley motorcycle riding out of an explosion and the subtext “A Heavy Metal Adventure” appearing beneath the main title. As with other LucasArts games of the time, a number of special box set editions were released for retail sale. A limited edition box set included an additional mini-strategy guide by Jo Ashburn, and an even rarer bandanna edition included a real bandanna bearing the Polecats insignia. The original box set included 1 CD (in a case), a LucasArts catalog, a registration card, a troubleshooting card, a mail-in questionnaire, and a demo CD for other LucasArts games. A version of the game for the MAC was released later in 1996, and a jewel case version for Windows was released finally in 2001.
Full Throttle was built using a specially tweaked version (v7) of the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine. The game also incorporated the IMUSE (Interactive MUsic Stream Engine) system to synchronize ambient music with in-game actions and the INSANE (INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine) system to compress in-game moving images to optimize full screen playback. Because of the game's use of cartoonish graphics, INSANE's rendered environments had to be scaled down to maintain continuity of the vehicles that were then separately rendered and animated. This way, the engine was able to maintain visual parity for all the graphics in the game. Full Throttle was the 10th game to use the SCUMM engine. The development team read like a dream list of the greatest game designers, artists, and programmers ever worked at LucasArts—lead designer Tim Schafer (other credits included Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts), lead artist Peter Chan (other credits included Sam & Max Hit the Road, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, The Dig), lead animator Larry Ahern (other credits included Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, The Curse of Monkey Island), and lead programmer Stephen Shaw (other credits included The Dig, Outlaws). Some of them would eventually worked on the failed sequels years later.
The game starts with an introductory cut scene showing Malcolm Corley, President and CEO of Corley Motors (the last manufacturer of motorcycles in the country), and his Vice President Adrian Ripburger (voiced brilliantly by Mark Hamill) riding down Highway 9 in a hover limo. A biker gang suddenly passes by, and the gang's leader ostensibly rides his bike over the top of Corley's limo. Rather than being annoyed, Corley is quite impressed by the bikers' rebellious demeanor and decides to seek out the gang's leader. To the eccentric owner, Corley Motorcycles represents more than just lifeless machines but a way of life, and who better to show off this ideal to the company's shareholders than real hardcore Corley bikers. Corley follows the gang to a local biker bar called the Kick Stand, puts on a mean face, walks into the bar, and asks, "Which one of you ran over my car?" He spots Ben, who immediately dawns a guilty look on his face. Just as Ben and Corley are putting aside their quarrel to enjoy a few drinks together, Ripburger enters the bar and insults the gang by trying to hire them as petty thugs. Ben commands Ripburger to step outside to settle their differences, but once outside, Ripburger tells Ben about Corley's failing health and asks Ben again if he and the Polecats are willing to escort Corley to the shareholders meeting. When Ben again refuses, he is knocked out by Ripburger's thugs and left for ruins in a dumpster. This is where the game begins.
Full Throttle employs a novel combination of third person and first person perspective gameplay that is unlike any previous LucasArts game. To speak to another character, you select from a list of fixed responses (usually 4 of them at a time) for Ben from a third person view. When you need to fight, however, the camera automatically switches to a first person view with Ben behind riding the bike. When he drives up to an opposing gang, the camera again changes to a third person view looking from the front of the bike. A small fist icon then appears in the bottom left of the screen. This is the weapon selection interface, where you can access all of Ben's weapons in his arsenal. To change weapons, you simply click with the right mouse button. The more fights you get into, the more weapons you will accumulate.
Full Throttle also introduces a new graphical verb coin interface which is used to guide Ben's actions. You interact with a puzzle by accessing the new action menu with the left mouse button (all the while you can listen to Ben's endless reticule over the object or character in front of him). The menu resembles an animated skull tattoo and has several icons to depict the different functions (an eye, a mouth, a fist, and a boot). The inventory menu is accessed by clicking the right mouse button. Both menus can be accessed seamlessly at anytime during the game. In addition, the menu allows you to save your game at anytime (and anywhere) by hitting F1, unless Ben is on the Old Mine Road.
With Full Throttle, LucasArts has created a cast of biker characters that are both colorful and original. There are the Polecats (a moral gang of bikers led by Ben), the Rottwheelers (a brutal gang of petty thugs), the Vultures (a tough gang with biker women), and the Cavefish (a deadly gang of nearly blind bikers). The story shifts into high gear when Ben embarks on his quest to save his gang and Corley Motors, and only then does the story noticeably take on a more humorous lighter comedic tone. The tension between Ben and Maureen is particularly well played and shows off a softer side of Ben's personality. The game is very short and can be completed in just a few hours of play. Most of the puzzles are quite easy to solve and are utilized mainly to complement the storytelling. However, a few puzzles impose unnecessary time limits that exist solely to extend the game through repetition. Still, the overall gameplay is so all encompassing that it is easy to forgive the game's few minor flaws.
Full Throttle: Payback
Understandably, the development of Full Throttle: Payback had been a sore subject for many workers at LucasArts. In fact, it was not until almost a decade later that those who had been involved in designing the game were willing to speak out about the ill-fated project. While LucasArts had never released an official statement regarding the cancellation of this sequel, it was eventually revealed that all development on the game had completely ceased by 2000. Bill Tiller was named as the Art Director, and Larry Ahern was named as the Project Leader. Larry Ahern had previously worked as a lead on Full Throttle, making him an excellent candidate to assume responsibility for the franchise. According to Larry Ahern (whom we also contacted), the project was only officially known by the working title Full Throttle 2, but the name Full Throttle: Payback had been suggested and seemed to have become its title after the fact, if for no other reason than to differentiate its development from the others. By this time, Tim Schafer had already left LucasArts and was not involved in the project. It was unclear how turbulent within LucasArts was during the game's early development. It was known, however, that both Larry Ahern and Bill Tiller left LucasArts in 2001 in great frustration about the project, so it was conceivable that the game was already in jeopardy long before that time.
We asked Bill Tiller to compare the production environment of today to that of the past when he was still at LucasArts during the early preproduction phase of the project. He said,
"I didn't work on the first Full Throttle beyond training Gordon Baker, the special effects animator on Full Throttle, how to use dpaint animator. But the biggest difference in the development environment between when I worked on *FT2 Payback* and now is that we had a lot more time for preproduction than we did now. Seems like publishers really want the developers to hit the road pretty quick, which can be a good thing sometimes. If you're given too much time, sometimes it gives you too much time to second guess your initial decisions, which may actually have been correct. Nowadays you have to make decisions fast, so that is where having a lot of experience in game development really pays off. Plus, you are forced to get right into production, which is more fun than waiting around."
The internal feedback within LucasArts towards the sequel was generally positive early on, as he recalled,
"When we first starting working on the sequel, we got a lot of positive feedback from other people inside the company, especially the marketing department, because we used their conference room a lot to do brain storming and we left the sketches we had done on the marker board for the next day, so the marketing people would come in and give us positive feedback of the ideas we left up the day before. It's always a good idea to get marketing on your side early, and this was sort of a serendipitous way of doing just that."
However, there was always an exception, as he went on to explain,
"One bummer thing that happened was that one of the big mucky mucks in management was reviewing the game design and said they didn't like it. When pressed for more specific criticism, this person pointed out that the Cave Fish gang, saying that the "Cone fish" - which is what this person called them - didn't belong in the Full Throttle franchise. This person was criticizing the game design without clearly having played the first game! That was a bummer."
The storyline for Full Throttle: Payback was never officially made public, though it was widely rumored that its descendant would form the basis for the storyline for Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels. This was refuted by Bill Tiller, who instead told us a synopsis of the original story pitched for the sequel,
"The story line we wanted to be similar in them to FT1, so it revolved around a large corporation and the territorial governor concocting a plot to replace all paved highways with hover pads to help make the hover mini vans and family hover cars safer and faster. Of course, this plan didn't sit well with the bikers and truckers, who were going to unit to fight this plot at a rally. The evil governor had secretly hired the Rotwheelers to assassinate Father Torque, the leader of this new alliance at the rally. Ben is in hiding, after being hounded by the media incessantly after he was acquitted of Ripburger's murder, a charge trumped up by the governor because Ripburger was part of their plot. So the first half the game Ben tries to stop the assassination, and the second half he teams up with a persistent undercover female reporter to bring the governor down and uncover his nefarious secret. The story would include a bunch of new locations in that area: a abandoned power plant, a ruin freeway under construction, a dam, a train, a gated community, the territorial capital, the capitol building, a refinery, a police station, a new motel/bar, the cave fish colony and grave yard, and even a hippie commune. I thought it was going to capture the feel of the first game yet expand upon the milieu."
Sadly, despite the early positive progress, production of the sequel did not proceed far, as he vividly remembered,
"I started work on FT Payback in the Spring of 2000 and was off the project by November. We got as far as detailing out about 25% of the levels and doing about 40% of the preproduction art, and we had just started on the 3D character models when it was canceled."
We then asked him to explain, in retrospect, why the project fell apart in the end and what the circumstances were that led to his own decision to leave LucasArts. He replied,
"My opinion is that there existed some major difference of opinion between the team and a particularly influential person, who didn't like the direction we were going. And in the end those differences could not be resolved. So in the end instead of a team that had worked on Full Throttle 1 working on the sequel, LucasArts went with a team that hadn't worked on the first game instead. And again, in my opinion, that was a mistake. After that I just happened to have gotten two calls from two ex LucasArts friends of mine to come work on Guild Wars and EA's Two Towers game. So I decided that it may be time to leave - nine years is a long time at any one company it was time to learn about developing games at other companies. So that is why I left. LucasArts is a great company to work for and I never regret working there. It was awesome. Though I may not agree with them always, I still respect them and have great memories of the place, so I easily say 'Thanks George! It was a load of fun.'"
Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels
By contrast, much more was known about the official but canceled sequel Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels. In mid 2002, LucasArts announced the development of a sequel to Full Throttle for the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. This was the first time that the franchise would appear on the consoles.
Simon Jeffery, then president of LucasArts, said in a press release,
"Full Throttle is one of LucasArts' greatest and most beloved original games. We can't think of a better brand or character to lead LucasArts' charge into a new era of original game development. Ben so perfectly symbolizes our legacy and yet has just the right mix of attitude and edge to appeal to a new generation of game players."
Details about the highly anticipated sequel emerged quickly. It was to be a 3D action adventure game. This time, Sean Clark was named as the Project Lead. Unlike Larry Ahern, he had not worked on Full Throttle previously, though he was ready to make the critical transition in genre for the franchise. The game was in full development over the ensuing months, to the extent that both a trailer and a hands-on demo were revealed for the first time at the 2003 E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo).
Bill Tiller, who was not involved in the development of this sequel, was surprised that Sean Clark had agreed to take on the project. He said,
"To be honest, I was surprised Sean wanted to do FT2 because, while working on The Dig, he didn't seem all that impressed with FT1. A friend of mine always had that impression of his opinion of FT1, so I don't think it was just to me that he expressed his pessimistic view. So you can see why I was surprised when he took the job."
In Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels, Ben discovers that the roads of his old stomping ground, El Nada, have been mysteriously dug up and destroyed. His pursuit leads to the discovery of a rival gang called the Hound Dogs, whom he believes to be responsible for the wreckage. However, Ben also uncovers a more sinister and murderous plot that is in operation. In the end, Ben agrees to join forces with his old friend and mentor Father Torque and his ex-love Maureen, in order to foil the hideous plans of a nefarious villain and protect the freedom of the open road.
The gameplay in Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels is to be changed dramatically from the original. The game will be more action than adventure oriented. Whenever Ben engages in a fight, the game is switched to an action mode where you can control his actions by pressing on an attack button in rhythm to generate combo attacks. A power meter dictates how powerful Ben's throws will be against his enemies. During a melee combat, you pick up nearby objects, such as chains, chairs, bottles, and even pool cues and use them as weapons. About 40 weapons are expected in the game. Ben can even switch motorcycles with Mo to ride on an old cargo blimp. The game will be played over 35 levels set in around 20 different environments, including the old Kick Stand biker bar from the original game.
Little was known about the reasons behind the cancellation of the project. In late 2003, only a few months after the game's debut showing at E3, LucasArts abruptly announced that Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels had been canceled.
Simon Jeffery responded to the press only with a brief statement,
"We do not want to disappoint the many fans of Full Throttle, and hope everyone can understand how committed we are to delivering the best-quality gaming experience that we possibly can."
No further explanation was officially given by LucasArts. The cancellation took both fans and critics by surprise. Rumors surfaced that LucasArts was unhappy about the graphical look of the game, especially when compared to other 3D adventure games in development at the time. The lack of involvement of Tim Schafer in the sequel might have also irked many diehard fans in the adventure game community, attracting too much unwanted negative publicity. Lastly, Roy Conrad, who did the original voiceover for Ben, had died in 2002, so that his role had to be recast for the sequel.
When we asked Bill Tiller that, judging from what he saw in the promotional materials released by LucasArts, how much of Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels he could recognize as having been recycled from Full Throttle: Payback, he replied,
"I don't think any of it was used to be honest. I think the new team had a completely different idea and direction they wanted to go in, so I don't think any of what we did was in FT Hell on Wheels. I talked to some people who worked on that game but I never got a lot of story details, but I didn't really ask. I had kind of gotten the whole thing out of my system so I wasn't too interested in the game design details. I was more interested how the game went so far down the road to being finished when the plug was pulled. I hate wasted time art and effort so I was pretty shocked by that. Usually publishers release games even if they aren't happy with them to try and recoup some of the money they spent on it, so I was surprised Lucas hadn't done the same."
The future of Full Throttle
With LucasArts' focus now firmly away from the adventure genre, it is unlikely that another sequel of Full Throttle will ever be developed as a pure adventure game. The twice failure of developing a sequel as an action adventure also means that the chance of another hybrid sequel is minimal. Furthermore, given that most members of the original development team for Full Throttle are no longer working at LucasArts, any new project related to this franchise will be led by someone at the company who has not played a major role in the development of the original game title. It may be true that the third time is a charm, but in the case of Full Throttle, this is more likely an exception than the rule.