Bill Tiller Talks Duke Grabowski and More

Interview conducted by Jason

First of all, congratulations on Duke Grabowski. This is the first adventure game release from this team since Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island in 2009, although I know it wasn’t for lack of trying. Can you catch us up on what you’ve been up to in the intervening years?

Being the bread winner of the family, I had to think of them first, which meant I had to get a job. The best one I was offered was at a start-up in Boston that was making a guitar game called Power Gig. It was a fun and difficult project because the company was trying to break in to the music game market which was dominated by some well-established game franchises. But I love rock guitar and wanted to make an Xbox 360 game, so it was a cool project to be on. The team I worked with was awesome, fun, and talented. Many of us are still close friends today. In fact, that is where I met Matt Sughrue, who is currently the executive I work with at Alliance. Back then he was the studio head on the guitar game.

That game didn’t make any money, and the studio was going to close down, so I started doing some freelance work for a friend who made iOS apps. The two games I did art for were Smuggle/Snuggle Truck and Jack Lumber.

Then I started talking with Munky Fun, the Lucas Arts spinoff that was started by the guys who did The Force Unleashed. We had worked with them at AME and on the guitar game. They were doing a 3d multiplayer shooter for iOS and Android devices and they wanted me to be a part of the company.

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At about that time Crimson Cow was shopping for investors in A Vampyre Story 2, but they weren’t able to find any. So I asked if I could do an episodic prequel. And that’s when I got interested in Kickstarter. But I was working full time at Munky Fun and had to put that off.

I art directed a game called Bounty Bots which was a free to play multiplayer shooter on the iOS. The goal of the game was to run around an old west town and gather up as many coins as possible and deposit them in the bank before another player shot your robot, causing all your coins to explode out like those Lego games. It was a fun game to work on, and I was very proud of how it turned out. I highly encourage everyone to try it out.

The gameplay for Bounty Bots was actually inspired by working with Hall Barwood on Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Hal wanted to make a multiplayer mode for Indy and one idea he had was to take place at an Aztec ruin. It was going to be flooded with lava from a nearby volcano. The players were archaeologists who had three minutes to run around and save as many artifacts as possible. The one with the most treasure won. The player could fight other players to get their relics or set traps to slow them down.

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The three crew members are afraid of Duke, due to his prodigoius strength and his inability to control his anger.

I like that idea, but I wanted to make a non-Indy version where adults and kids could play a first person shooter together, and one way to do that was to replace gory violence with cartoon violence or silly mayhem, and replace lethal weapons with fun weapons like an ice cream gun that froze you, or a bubble gun that trapped you in a bubble for three seconds, then dropped you at a random location of the map. At Munky Fun we took those two ideas, combined with robots and the old west, and that is how we ultimately got Bounty Bots.

After that, Munky Fun started doing a game that I wasn’t interested in, and I slowly transitioned from in-house art director to freelance artist. I did that and started work on A Vampyre Story Year One, the episodic prequel that Crimson Cow said I could do. The Kickstarter campaign turned out harder to pull off than I thought and I didn’t reach my goal. Crimson Cow said they would fund A Vampyre Story 2 and I’d get to work on that. Then that didn’t happen, and I still don’t know why.

So Jeremiah Grant and I decided to work on a little project together and that led to Duke. I had to make money to take care of my family, so I did a lot of concept art work during Duke production and that slowed me down way too much. That is the primary reason Duke, a short episodic game, took so long and why I was so relieved that we signed with Alliance. The deal with Alliance allowed Gene Mocsy and me to work on Duke full time. The game is so much better because of them for sure.

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Lady Aziza, who enlists Duke's aid, is inspired by Algerian noble ladies of the 16th century.

I still think of you guys as Autumn Moon Entertainment, but now you’re operating under the new label Venture Moon Industries. What’s the distinction?

I own Autumn Moon solely. When Venture Moon industries was formed, I was just one of three owners; it was Gene Moscy, Jeremiah Grant, and I. I had worked with both of them at Autumn Moon and with Gene on Perils of Man. Currently it is just Gene and I because Jeremiah wanted to focus more on his rigging career - Duke was taking too long to finish for him. Gene has decided to leave after we ship because he wants to focus 100% on writing. So now I own two companies. But I am most likely going to bring in more partners very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Duke Grabowski is a spinoff of Ghost Pirates, which means you’re actually licensing the IP to yourself (kinda). In what ways are we going to notice that they share the same universe?

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Originally, we weren’t planning to make a pirate game at all. We were going to make a Raygun Gothic game inspired by the film Forbidden Planet. But we did the budget and realized it would be too tough to raise enough money on Kickstarter to get that game made. I owned all the assets from Ghost Pirates, so we decided we had more of a chance to get the game made if we based the game in the same ‘shared universe,’ and add to the whole mythology or canon of the Azurbbean™, as we call our pirate milieu. We have a few characters from Ghost Pirates actually in the game, most notably Jane Starling, Governor Derrick and his fiancé Muriel the Mermaid. And we made a lot of new characters as well - so you will see a good mix of new and familiar character models in the game. It takes place on the Island of San Pendejo, one island south of Merry Cay, the home of Blue Belly. And other aspects of the Ghost Pirates story will be mentioned in the game, like the evil Vooju god of destruction, Baron Ogu, and a cult of marauders called the Ogu Raiders, who worship Baron Ogu and play a major role in the game.

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Papa Misery is a Vooju Bokor and pirate who controls a group of pirates made up of zombies, skeletons and Vooju priests. They are called the Ogu Raiders, and they are bad news, though nothing Duke can't handle.

This week will see the release of the first episode, which was originally all that the Kickstarter had financed. How did you turn something initially self-contained into an opening chapter of a bigger story when you had the opportunity to expand?

Pretty much everything I write can be expanded. I plan for possible sequels at the very beginning of writing. I drop in hints and sub plots that can lead easily to sequels. What also helps is creating an environment or a situation that lends itself to further exploration and more adventures. For Duke, I had always written it as either a one shot, or part of a large story arc just in case a publisher wanted to expand it. So when Alliance got in touch, I pitched a six-episode series, and then whittled it down to a more manageable five-episode series.

On that subject, can you drop any hints about Duke’s wider story arc? Will the game still consist of three-to-five episodes, depending on sales?

Sure. It’s all based on Duke’s becoming more savvy and self-assured. Right now he is a pretty young, naive man who is very trusting and very easily fooled. The story is how he goes from being a slow, simple annoyance to a wiser and more self-assured person. Like almost all of us he learns through getting hurt, and by doing things the hard way. But because he never gives up and is very driven, he finds a way to succeed. Duke is kind of like Mona de LaFitte in that way; two characters who have dreams and persevere and stubbornly stick to their plan. Both end up getting what they want in the end, but not in the way they thought. I guess that kind of story intrigues me; the one where the freak or the outsider tries desperately to become accepted and even admired, though in the end they discover happiness and fulfillment were found in places they didn’t expect.

The Duke series will be five episodes, but if you play just the first one it is a complete story with no cliffhangers.

It was a pleasant surprise when it was announced that you guys had found a publisher and that the project had grown in size. Did it feel like validation to reach that partnership after toiling independently for so long?

Yes, absolutely. Jeremiah Grant had the concern that if we didn’t succeed in the Kickstarter campaign it meant no one wanted the game. I very much disagreed, citing that the people who go to Kickstarter to fund projects represent ten other people who would want the game if they knew about it. So having Alliance publish the game felt like confirmation that there was a wider audience out there.

How did the relationship with Alliance Media come about?

I got hired by Matt Sughrue at 745 Studios after Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island™, and after the guitar game ended we kept in touch. Matt just happened to be looking for indie games at the same time we happened to be looking for a publisher. Thanks to our Kickstarter backers, we had a pretty good work in progress game to show off.

I believe this project began its life as a tech demo when you guys were converting your proprietary adventure engine to Unity for the A Vampyre Story prequel. What flexibility does Unity give you?

Jeremiah Grant and I took the same bus from San Francisco up to Petaluma where we both live. On the rides up he told me about the Unity Store and his desire to make an adventure game engine for the store to make some money. Jeremiah is driven to retire before age 30, and he has his hand in a bunch of projects. The guy is indefatigable! So I said I’d love to help out, and that is when I came up with the idea to make a pirate adventure game with just one puzzle and one location as a demo for his engine. That ended up being the location for the bar the Gnarly Narwhal. I figured it would be the pirate version of an exclusive downtown club with a waiting list to get into and exclusive pirate singles mixer. The goal would be how to sneak past the bouncer. For our main character, I wanted to go with someone who stood out, and that is when I thought of the character Mongo from one of my favorite movies, Blazing Saddles. I thought it would be funny if a huge, super strong but slow-witted character wanted to find a girlfriend and thought this pirate singles mixer would be the perfect place.

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Now this whole scenario was just going to be an example to show off Jeremiah’s new engine. But he discovered that there was already a really good one in the Unity Store. So we decided that our demo would be for publishers, to convince them to fund our game; a way to prove we could make a high quality good game. But we had another game in mind to make that was not pirates at all, but the Raygun Gothic game I mentioned earlier. We worked on that for a while then just said ‘heck with it,’ we’d make another pirate game because the idea of this big, slow-witted but good hearted pirate just grew on us.

We decided at that point to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds, and as I learned from past experience, we’d have to set our goal pretty low, and raise enough money to pay people to do the work we couldn’t. We had the game take place in the same setting as Ghost Pirates, during a time just before the events of that game. We’d reuse some assets, but also make plenty of new ones, keep the game relatively short, use animation from Mixamo for a lot of it, but still create a lot of new animations as well. I brought Gene Mocsy in at that point, because he has a ton of experience and can do a lot of things: write, script, rig, create 3d models, act and produce other voice actors.

So this whole thing morphed from tech demo for an engine, to tech demo for a publisher, to stand alone episodic sized game funded by Kickstarter, to now also being funded by Alliance and plans to do a series of five games.

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Queenie is a gorilla that Duke has to wrestle.

I’m sure you get this a lot, but the game is gorgeous. Naturally, the background artwork itself is the showcase, but there appear to be some tasteful lighting and particle effects employed as well. Can you talk a little bit about those and other technical enhancements the engine might boast?

Thanks. I am glad you like how it looks. We experimented with a few things in Unity that helped make the game look better than our previous game. The lighting and shadow tools are pretty amazing, and we plan on doing more with that for Episode Two now that we know the tool better. It has better shaders and antialiasing, though again we are going to do more of that in future episodes, and its UV scrolling and particle effects are very easy to use. The speed of the engine allows us to put in a lot of crowd scenes and more animated objects, all while handling high resolution graphics easily without increased load times, and that alone makes the graphics look a lot better.

A Vampyre Story and Ghost Pirates were interspersed with full-motion video cutscenes. Will that be the case this time out?

Originally we were only going to have slightly animated comic book-looking cutscenes because our Kickstarter money would not fully cover the cost of fully animated videos. But when we signed with Alliance, that was one of the things they wanted to add to the project. My animation partner, Romero Alves, animated about a total of nine minutes that we use for the opening and closing scenes. We had worked together on Ghost Pirates, in Boston on the guitar game and on the A Vampyre: Year One pitch video. I wrote the script, storyboarded the scenes, painted the backgrounds, and lit the 3d models. Romero did all the animation, rendering, video and sound editing. Gene Mocsy and Audio Godz recorded and edited the voice lines, and directed the voice actors. These are the scenes that were scored and composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson.

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Your post-LucasArts adventures have taken a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” philosophy to the gameplay, which is in the classic style of Monkey Island 3. That said, AVS had the twist of the vampire powers, while Ghost Pirates had the ability to swap between characters, similar to Day of the Tentacle. Can we expect such spins on the formula with Duke Grabowski?

The only really new element is the emphasis on puzzles that involve Duke’s prodigious strength, but being a mere human we didn’t need to tinker with the interface. It’s just written into the puzzles. We still do use idea icons to represent large and bulky things Duke encounters and to represent abstract ideas like talents that other characters have that you can take advantage of. But that is about it for the changes to game play functionality. Other than that, is runs almost exactly like Curse of Monkey Island and Full Throttle, with a few minor changes.

You were able to enlist fellow LucasArts vets like Dave Grossman and Larry Ahern for part-time work on the game. What was their contribution, and what was it like to reunite with them on an adventure project?

I lucked out in that Dave Grossman also lives here in my home town (seems like everybody lives here for some reason), and he had just moved on from TellTale to help start at a new company. He’s currently at Earplay.

So I asked him if we could trade skills: I would do art for him and he would help me with my game design, and just for fun I thought it would be cool to have Dave and Larry both in the game, sort of like how Lucas employees Steve Purcell and Mike Stemmle are in the SCUMM Bar. Dave read our design and helped us shape the plot and puzzles.

Duke was also intended to be a bit of a spoof of and homage to the Monkey island series, which was clearly our inspiration. So through the game I’ve hidden some references to previous Monkey island games. I plan to do that throughout the series. I’m NOT going to be like the Pirates of the Caribbean movie writers and claim I was not inspired by Monkey island. I absolutely was inspired by Monkey island.

Speaking of Disney, Larry Ahern is working on Star Wars land (The dude cannot get away from George Lucas properties!) and was looking to do some freelance writing at the same time I needed someone to help Gene and myself with the writing. So we got him to give us feedback on the game design and write dialog throughout the game, especially the lines he and Dave have in the Ben Plunder Inn, where they are having lunch.

Tell us about some of the voice cast.

We did a good combo of professional voice actors and local actors we had worked with before. Alliance is very familiar with Lani Minella and her company Audio Godz, and wanted her help in editing, recording, casting and directing the established voice actors along with Gene Mocsy. And Gene handled the VO work with our local actors.

- Eric Braa, starring as our Duke, is the voice of League of Legends' Jax and Draven. You can also hear him in Telltale's Walking Dead: 400 Days and Season 2.
- Lani Minella, queen of a thousand voices, returns from Ghost Pirates. You may know her from The Last of Us, Starcraft I & II, Nancy Drew, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. She doubles as Captain Jane Starling and Lady Aziza.
- Dave Fennoy was the award-winning leading man in Telltale's Walking Dead Season 1. Also heard in The Wolf Among Us, Starcraft II, and Minecraft: Story Mode. He plays LLSweetT, a silver-tongued rogue.
- Lauren Synger, from Star Trek Online, Heroes of Newerth, and Neverwinter Nights, voices our Sheriff Nancy Steele.
- Cyrus Nemati plays the villainous Slewface. Cyrus is in many indie adventures including Her Majesty's Spiffing, Jason the Greek, and Quest for Infamy.
- The talented artists Sam Mowry and Eric Newsome also return from Ghost Pirates. - Jon St Jon, famous voice of that other Duke -- Duke Nukem, plays several dramatic roles.
- Lucasarts' veterans Dave Grossman and Larry Ahern play themselves(?) at Ben Plunder's Inn.

The soundtrack will consist of new music by Jared Emerson-Johnson as well as some reprisals from Pedro Macedo Camacho’s score for Ghost Pirates. What can you tell us about Jared’s contributions to the music of the Azurbbean Sea (if that’s still the setting)?

Yes, it is. Originally as part of our push to keep costs down we intended to reuse as much of the Ghost Pirates music as we needed, but the FMVs were going to need their own original music. I wanted to work with Jared so I contacted him and he was available. I had heard so much of his music in other games that I thought his work would add to the great stuff Pedro did for us on Ghost Pirates.

What stage of development have you reached on the series as a whole?

I have the plots for all five done, though I am sure they will change a bit when we enter production, and I have about one and a half fully designed and ready to go.

Since the last time we spoke, both AVS and Ghost Pirates have made their way to Steam. Have the games exhibited any kind of half-life, sales-wise?

I don’t really know. DTP hasn’t contacted me about sales or anything to do with Ghost Pirates. So I know as much as you or maybe even less. I know it was made for Windows Vista and may have issues on subsequent versions of Windows, but that is all I know about it. I’m not sure DTP is even in business currently. Same can be said with Crimson Cow, I just haven’t heard from them. They recently got new owners whom I haven’t had any contact with, so I don’t know much about their future plans. I hope to someday get the AVS IP back and get back to working on the series.

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You’ve had one unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign followed by a successful one. How do you account for the rebound, and do you see crowdfunding continuing to play a role in future projects?

You learn from your mistakes. Being new to crowdfunding, my strategy was to put a lot work into our fully animated pitch video. I figured people would prefer seeing Mona pleading for money in the video than myself, And I didn’t know one needs to do updates, additional content and PR for 30 days, not just one video.

Now I know if you do a crowdfunding campaign, you work 24/7 until you reach your goal. We also paid for some limited advertising, which I think helped significantly. Also, I had Gene Mocsy and Jeremiah Grant helping this time. So having a team of people working those 30- 60 days doing PR helped considerably. We also did a live action video pitching our project, which works better than animation. Also asking for the bare minimum you need to get the ball rolling is going to increase your chances of reaching your goal. Just raise the money you need to pay others to do work you can’t do. So the second time around, we were much more realistic and informed about how to succeed.

I know AVS2: A Bat’s Tale has been benched since 2009 because the rights are tied up. Is there a point where the distribution rights lapse, or will the game only move forward once you guys can come to an arrangement with Crimson Cow?

We can only make A Vampyre Story games if Crimson Cow lets us. If the Duke series takes off, my hope is we can go back to Draxsylvania and resume the story of Mona and Froderick. That would be awesome. There have been times where we have gotten close to getting it restarted, then something happens and we’re back to square one. In the meantime, Romero Alves and I were contemplating doing an animated short starring Mona and Froderick. There is nothing in our contract that says we can’t do books or films. And who knows? It might make the IP popular again, and Crimson Cow or another publisher, maybe even Alliance, will want to make the sequels.

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Slew Face, the main villain of the game.

Additionally, there’s been an unfinished AVS prequel, a pitch for a Ghost Pirates sequel, and a few original pitches that you’ve hinted about over the years. So there’s evidently lots of ideas kicking around. Do any of these come after Duke Grabowski’s final episode?

I hope all of them do. I have more ideas than I have ability to get them produced. It’s a side effect of my hyperactive attention deficit disorder; the creative process doesn’t stop. That is why I like refereeing table top role playing games so much, it gives me an outlet for telling my many story ideas.

Thanks for your time. We hope Duke Grabowski is an immense success!

Duke Grabowski will be available from Steam October 6th.