Bill Tiller

Autumn Moon Entertainment

Posted by Igor Hardy.
First posted on 19 September 2008. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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Bill Tiller
Bill Tiller stands with unidentified man while modeling the new Autumn Moon shirts. We asked that this unidentified man and his army of lawyers not sue us over this obviously faked photo, and we meant no harm to this unidentified individual. It was just a joke, besides we don't have any money and you have all the money in the world so please don't sue us. And in no way is this image supposed to infer that the unidentified man is in anyway endorsing Autumn Moon or its games, though if he played one of our games I bet he'd like them. But this is purely conjecture. He probably doesn't even know who I am. Again please don't sue us, it's just a joke. Please...
Bill Tiller
An artwork from A Vampyre Story shows Mona resting in a vampyric sleep and dreaming about her past life as an opera starlet.
Bill Tiller
A screenshot from A Vampyre Story shows Mona trying to play nice with the kids who will not go to sleep!

All images are courtesy of Amy Tiller and Bill Tiller, Autumn Moon Entertainment © 2008.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the creatures of the night is certain to be drawn to A Vampyre Story—the superbly stylized, morbidly humorous point and click adventure game to be released in 2008 for Halloween by publisher Crimson Cow.

Yet, there is little rest for developer Autumn Moon Entertainment—the studio behind this vampyric project—it is already far into working on the game's sequel. Such rapid development schedule can be attributed to the fact that the design team has already perfected the game engine which it has long been developing for both its premier title and sequel to follow.

As the release of A Vampyre Story draws near, we have been given an opportunity to interview Bill Tiller, the game's creator and founder of Autumn Moon Entertainment. In the interview, Tiller speaks to us in detail about some of the unique elements of A Vampyre Story, the growth of Autumn Moon Entertainment from its difficult beginnings, and his views about art, fiction, and gaming (also in reference to his own creations). His candid answers show a rich and uncompromised picture of a game designer's struggles, triumphs, and inspirations.

Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art and screenshot from A Vampyre Story!

Mona is quite a heroine. Despite being an undead, she is a real lady, who worries a lot about her appearance and cares deeply about the consequences and morality of her actions onto others. She also has big, unfulfilled dreams about becoming a famous opera singer. How do you think the player will feel accompanying such a character on its adventure?

I think we all can relate to someone struggling and working hard to make their dreams come through. I know I can. Making this game is my dream and it was a struggle from beginning to end. Bad things happen to Mona in the game, tripping her up, either just cause by fate or by the villains in the game who want to stop her. And so we all have had a hard time reaching some of our goals. Life just isn't easy. So I think people will really connect with her because they can relate to her struggles. At least I hope so.

The story of A Vampyre Story takes place in a strange land called Draxsylvania. What can you say about its history, its sights, its topography, and its climate? Also, are there any unique local customs?

It is obviously a take off of Transylvania, Romania. But I didn't want to annoy the Romanian people with more vampire stories! To them, Dracula is their George Washington. Imagine if they turned our first president into a blood sucking zombie! And yet I still wanted to pay homage to all the universal Studios horror movies that took place there. So I invented my own country that was similar. And like Transylvania, Draxsylvania is populated by a mix of Romanian, Hungarian, Gypsies and Saxons. Luckily for some reason they all speak the exact same language Mona does - funny that, and convenient. The land is also populated by a wide variety of monsters, most notably vampires - of course, werewolves, ghosts, insane killers, mad scientists, and inky looking lake monsters. The denizens of Draxsylvania are pretty much use to these creatures, sort of how people in the country get used to mosquitoes and annoying raccoons, or city people get use to sirens and traffic. Nobody liked those things but they tolerate. The geography of the place is heavily forested and very treacherous, with lots of high pinnacle mountains and extremely sheer cliffs and ravines. The clouds always form into monstrous shapes, and it always seems to be dark. It is a beautiful but foreboding land, perfect for an adventure.

What kind of a... person... is Mona's lil' buddy Froderick? How helpful will Froderick be to the player during the game? Can the player take control of Froderick or influence how Froderick interacts with Mona?

Froderick is a feisty yet level headed smart-alec who does a great job of getting out of all the trouble he usually starts. He has a good heart, though he'll never admit it. Froderick will be a very integral in solving a lot of puzzles and will be even more pivotal in A Vampyre Story 2. He likes to joke with Mona a lot, but has serious skeptical side that comes in handy when Mona's naïveté causes problems.

As Mona, what vampire powers and weaknesses will the player possess? How will these new elements add to the gameplay experience?

Mona has been purposely kept in the dark about her vampire powers and limitations, so after she is freed from captivity she has to learn about them on her own, and with some help from Froderick and Gypsy seer named Madame Strigoi. As the story progresses through AVS1 and AVS2 Mona will learn new vampire powers and be able to solve puzzles with these new powers. With the vampire powers comes her vampire limitations and weaknesses, and a great many of the puzzles revolve around overcoming those. In AVS1 she starts off with the ability to fly around as a bat, and then later to she can bite peoples necks and drain them of a little blood - not enough kill - but enough to make them pass out. Mona isn't a killer and really doesn't want to hurt people, unless of course they are rude, mean or boring.

What are your favorite fictional characters (from games or otherwise)? What attributes make for an unforgettable character?

In games, my favorites would be Guybrush and Ben Throttle, because they are both classic heroes who are able to use their wits to overcome their enemies, but they both have their own distinct styles of solving puzzles.

In books my favorite characters are Hazel from Watership Down, Ulysses from the Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, and of course Bilbo Baggins. I am drawn to epic adventures with everyday people sucked into extraordinary circumstances. We all wonder how we'd fair on a grand adventure, so I think that is why these characters appeal to me.

I am also a big fan of Sherlock Holmes from the books and the BBC tv series starring Jeremy Brent. Like me, if he is not doing something interesting that engages his mind, he gets really bored and becomes troublesome and intolerable. Just ask my wife! And I love his use of logic, acute observation, imagination and science. If I hadn't gotten into a creative field I might have followed my grandfather's footsteps into the FBI.

I think a great character has to be human, and suffer human frailties. I like to give my characters motivations that stem from their flawed personalities. Their goals generally are related to these flaws. Like Joseph Campbell said in his books, characters suffer when they are not following their bliss. But it's hard to know what your bliss is, so we throw darts at the dart board of life, trying all sorts of things we think will make us happy, and in the process we discover who we are. Almost all the characters in my game have some sort of motivation that got them where they are today and define them as person. When that part of the character is established, it is very easy to write the story. For example, Monsignor, the vampire hunter in the game, hates losing because he is insecure and he has a hard time controlling his anger. He joined this vampire hunting organization in order to become a hero so he could prove to people in town who picked on him that he is a hero. He isn't really after Mona. He is after self esteem, and he will do anything to protect his ego, almost to point of self destruction. So when I write his dialog and try to figure out how he will act I take his motivations in mind and it makes it very clear what he will and will not do. It almost like once a characters personality is established there is no altering fate.

What is the level of difficulty and complexity you are aiming for in the puzzles in A Vampyre Story? What is the idea behind the inclusion of abstract ideas as inventory items? In your opinion, what are the key ingredients that make for a memorable puzzle in an adventure game?

I think challenging puzzles are the way to go but they can't be silly and arbitrary. That just annoys people. Having said that I am sure I have a few of those in there. But at the same time I like to have a few easy ones in there evenly dispersed so that the puzzle difficulty isn't the same throughout the game. But to be honest I have a hard time figuring out if a puzzle is too hard or not, so I can just go on my gut and rely on my LucasArts experience to help me design puzzles.

The idea icons are just a way to get around characters carrying ridiculously large objects, like a ladder, in their pockets. And they can also represent pieces of knowledge or information that can be used to solve problems. This was a great idea Brian Moriarty and Bill Eaken came up with for the second production of The Dig, but is was dropped from the final game. Also with abstract ideas you can broaden the types of actions a player can do, and create interesting puzzles. I think we will have them in all our games in the foreseeable future.

Development of A Vampyre Story has been turbulent, to say the least. Yet, you have been able to triumph in the end to succeed in the project. Looking back, what lessons have you learned about developing your game and securing funding for it?

Our biggest two issues were finding a publisher and developing an engine. Our first efforts to find a publisher were disappointing for sure, but we learned from that and moved on. Now I feel like an old pro. And the other problem was assuming an adventure game engine would be easy to develop. It wasn't, we had to get a lot more help in that area than I thought we would. My bad! But I'm glad it is done now.

What aspect of the production proved to be most challenging during the game's development?

Another issue that was tough was hiring people well suited for the job. I'm proud of the fact we ultimately found people and solutions to all the tasks that are required to deliver a top notch game. So we learned to be very picky when hiring and not to be timid once a mistake has become obvious. With a limited budget you can't afford to have a team that isn't working well together or don't have the right skills. I established the company in the San Francisco bay area to take advantage of the LucasArts Mafia (My term for ex LucasArts employees) to help me find good team members. I may have made some mistakes on this first project, but this one I definitely got right.

Although you had chosen to use 2D hand-painted background arts for A Vampyre Story, you had decided to abandon 2D character animation (used in classic LucasArts games) in favor of 3D character animation. What led to this design decision? What are the differences in what you can achieve through each technique?

Game artists and game engine technology were all moving toward 3d graphics over the past ten years. So if I did the game in 2d and I wanted to hire an animator, finding a 2d sprite animator would have been tough, and 2d engines have not kept up with 3d engines for obvious reason. Plus I had just come off working on a 3d Indiana Jones game and Lord of the Rings game and I saw the great versatility of 3d characters and 3d effects. So I wanted that power in my game as well. But 3d low poly environments were very unappealing to me and I feel even the best 3d environments rely heavily on their 2d textures for appeal. Take a look at the phenomenal World of Warcraft for example of that. Plus the level of detail I wanted in the game would cost a ton of money to do in real time 3d, so I felt 2d was the best solution, plus I really like to illustrate 2d backgrounds. And 2d painting have a visual appeal that 3d just doesn't have - I like to think of my games as living paintings that you can interact with.

You have often mentioned that, as an artist, you pay special attention to colors. How do you choose a color palette for a game? How do you describe the color palette used in A Vampyre Story?

I try not to repeat myself too much and if I do I at least try and give a new twist to whatever art I am doing. So I may start off thinking I am going to do the art similar to how I have done it in the past but then I'll start experimenting, and looking at other artists and art or films to see what worked and what didn't there, and to get inspired. Then I sort of incorporate the idea I have been mulling over in my mind into my art and hopefully I can come up something similar to what I have done in the past but hopefully better and something with its own style.

Generally you won't see radical changes in my art, but occasionally I'll try something different, and as long as it retains the same appeal as other stuff I have done, it seems to be successful. The game is about a vampire so it has to place at night which is obviously dark. But a game that used a lot of black and was dark I felt would be too gloomy, which would be great if the game were serious and not an animated comedy. So I had four or so color schemes that might have worked for the fell of the game: brown, blue, green, or purple. Red, yellow and orange would be great for day or sunset but not really for nighttime. Most night scenes are blue and I felt that had been done a lot before and was pretty safe. I had used a teal green in Curse of Monkey Island and I didn't want to repeat myself. Brown, or earth tones, has worked for evening skies before but I thought it wouldn't be vibrant enough for the feel of the game. Purple is a color associated with goth kids and vampires, and is the darkest color temperature on the color wheel, so in the end I decided purple was the best way to go.

So I stared with that basic hue and then added color they I felt were related like magenta, red and pink. Then to complement those colors I used yellow and orange. And occasionally I used a muted blue, which kind of looks purple, for some highlights. That being said I wanted each location to have its own color scheme so that the player wouldn't get sick of seeing the same thing over and over again. I hope I succeeded. But that is basically how my color schemes for this game came about.

The smooth, curly clouds you drew in The Curse of Monkey Island have become your artistic trademark. Do you feel they really embody your drawing style? Do you like to be equally remembered for another style in your work that is completely different?

I didn't invent the curly cue clouds; they have been around for a long time. But for some reason people really dig the ones in CMI and I think that is great! Originally I just did them to cover up any banding in the gradients of the sky because we didn't have enough colors to make the sky look smooth. But I will still do them on occasion although I don't want to do them exactly the same. I would get bored if I had to do them over and over. But they are still fun. So in the future I am still going to do them but in a slightly different way.

I think people really like my art not for the clouds but for the color and lighting. When I paint light I really think about the physics of light and the light source. To me it is almost like science. In real life I'll observe weird reflections and shadow patterns on the ground, and wonder why it works that way. Why did the light get fuzzy there, and not there? Where is that light coming from? And then how light affects the color of objects. I'm always curious about that, and about what makes a scene or a location or a particular time of day pretty? What about a sunset actually appeals to most people? Why do shadows of clouds flowing over hills pretty? So I think a lot about the psychology of beauty, and try and learn lessons from my observations and then apply it to my art and art direction.

I do that and then sometimes I just draw what I like and people seem to enjoy that too, ...not always, for sure, but I'm lucky that most people seem to. But it isn't all luck. It's a lot of work and thought goes into it.

Many adventure game developers had tried in vain to follow the footsteps of LucasArts, copycatting elements that they perceived to be the source of its quality. What made LucasArts so successful as a developer that had eluded so many imitators?

Well, I don't think we purposely tried to make a game that would sell the most unit and appeal to the broadest number of people. And what I mean is we do what we think is funny and is fun. What we come up with seems to appeal to a lot of people. Now having said that, it all starts with Ron Gilbert. He set the tone, and then his successors have made sure people they have hired after him fit within that style he created. It starts with his sense of humor, that silliness and irreverence that he had in his games. And the people who followed just adopted that style and infused it with their own humor and ideas with varying success - sort of like picking up some LucasArts DNA and splicing it with one's own if that analogy makes any sense.

Also I think we have grown up watching a lot of TV and going to see a lot of movies. Maybe that has had a lot to do with our sensibilities and storytelling as well. I know watching a ton of Disney films and reading a ton of books has definitely influenced my story telling ability.

Designers and artists once worked at LucasArts during its prime are worshipped as almost demigods by classic adventure game fans. In consequence, expectations are very high for A Vampyre Story to revive the spirit of classic LucasArts adventures. How do you deal with such high expectations of your work?

Well, let's be realistic; adventures are a good solid market, but they have suffered a bit from the variety of genres out now that weren't there 12 years ago. So consequently the sales and budgets have been affected. So if people expect us to have the same size and scope of Grim Fandango or Curse of Monkey Island, it just isn't going to happen on half or 1/3 of those game budgets. But on the other hand 3d makes creating assets go a lot faster and look better. So some things will be better than those old games and some things won't. That's just the reality of today's market place. And that is fine; we just have to take that into consideration when making our production plan. And if the game sells really well then who knows? Maybe we will be back to selling the same number of units we did in the mid to late nineties, and the next game can be even bigger.

As far as the design and humor go I just stick to the hope that my training under Brian Moriarty, Hal Barwood, Larry Ahern, Jonathan Ackley, Sean Clark, Peter Chan and Bill Eaken pay off. I'm pretty sure it will. I don't know how it will measure up to those classic titles, but I think we have created a really fun game that people will enjoy.

About the wee bit of fame we get, I enjoy it because generally I am a shy person and am a little nervous meeting new people. But when I meet LucasArts fans they already seem to like me so I am not so nervous, which is a nice change. Though I could still make a bad impression but I am at least not as nervous about it. But trust me I am so full of insecurities that I'm pretty sure no amount of fame will ever go to my head. I'm just happy people are looking forward to my game and like what they see so far because I want to keep making it for them. It's sort of like I have a bargain with the fans: I will work my ass off and do my best to make a fun, beautiful adventure game for you, if you just buy the game and help me pay the bills. It's a good deal for me and the fans I think.

All artists take great pride from establishing a lasting and influential trend in their domain. Many adventure games from the 1990s are already perceived as belonging to a retro period with its own distinctive art style. What do you think is the secret for a piece of art to leave a true mark in our collective memory, especially in the current times, when all of us are spoiled by the quantity and variety of accessible amenities?

I was lucky to have gone to a school that had such great story tellers for teachers, and one of them was the great Disney animator Glenn Keane. And during one of his classes he brought in a clip from an animated movie done by this Japanese director named Miyazaki. The scene was this beautiful bus stop in the rain where two girls are waiting for their father to return. It is so quiet and peaceful and serene, yet still mysterious. Then along comes a big furry bear thing called a Totoro, who silently walks up and stands with them waiting for the bus like they are. It is this unique and wonderful scene, the likes of which I had never seen before. And that was Glenn Keane's point, that there is no one way to make beauty, and to make beauty. To make something of beauty truly lasting and influential one must find a unique way of expressing it, a way that hasn't been tried before. That requires taking risks and experimenting, failing, and then trying again, and being constantly on the lookout for what is unique and unusual. It helps to look at things differently than most people. I think that is the best way to have lasting influence.

In your many years' experience as a game designer, what was the craziest design idea for a game you came across? What chance did such a concept have to make it through to the final product?

I don't think I have heard of any games that were too crazy to get made. Most game proposals I have ever heard were based on other games but with a few variations, which is not a bad thing as long as those variations are unique and fun, and build on what was good in the previous game.

Games similar to previous games have a better chance of getting funded for sure, but if the game designer is famous then a unique idea will more likely get through the approval committees, like Sims or Spore. Ask yourself, if you had a million dollars what would do with it? Ok after all the partying, travel and mansions. Would you invest in a unique game idea or one that you think would sell easier? Remember all your money is in that game. And if it fails you are sunk!

That is what publishers do every time they decide to fund a game or not fund a game. They ask, "Can I sell this?" Not "Can I make art and a unique vision and lose my shirt?" But at the same time they know if their game doesn't stand out it will get lost. So there has to be a hook or something unique about that game that no other game has or can do as well that will appeal to gamers. My advice is design something you like, that has unique elements but make sure other people like it too. You will more likely get your game funded that way.

To be honest, what publishers want to see from game developers is the ability to deliver the product. If you want money for your next game, then deliver the good on your first game - get it in fairly on time and as close to on budget as possible and publishers will love you, because everybody has the ability to come up with an idea. What is special is when people have the ability to just get the game done. It seems like it is easy but life has a way of making things ten times harder than you expect. If you have the ability to weather a few tough projects, publishers will be more open to your new unique ideas. My advice to anyone wanting to do a truly unique game is to fund it themselves, and make a small version, then give it away. If it goes viral, publisher will take notice. But it will be tough to come up with something radically new and have investors pour money into it unless it has proven itself. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that just seems to be the law of the jungle. One cool thing is the kind of games you can make on your PC now are going to look great. Cost for high end software and equipment has plummeted so making independent games has gotten a lot easier and at the same time a lot more challenging. So this is an exciting time in the development of this interactive art form.

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