Bill Tiller worked as an artist at LucasArts between 1992 and 2001, then set up his own company, Autumn Moon Games, to develop LucasArts-style adventure games like A Vampyre Story (2008). This interview was conducted in person in 2007.
“Excuse me... I don’t suppose you know if—”
“Don’t ask me anything about this place,” said the gangly blonde woman with a limp cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other. “I’m just here for a facial.”
“Ah. Thank you. So kind.”
I turned around and began to walk back to the front of the cottage where Autumn Moon had established themselves. It was a lovely building and a lovely day. Small, old fashioned... wooden. Just the sort of place you’d imagine a gothic adventure game to be made. The only problem was finding a way in; they did, after all, share the building (small as it was) with four other businesses. Luckily I bumped into Bill Tiller outside, who was all smiles and glasses and beard.
“Hi,” I said. “We e-mailed? I do hope I’m at the right time. I am at the right time, aren’t I? It’s just that the busses...”
“Yeah, the time’s brilliant,” he replied, opening the front door and walking through a porch room, then through another door into the main office. I followed. There were, if I recall correctly, three people sitting in front of computers, and I shook hands with them all. One was working on a 3D model of a top hat. We went through into another room, which had a desk in it, a card-board cut-out of Guybrush and a shelf o’ games.
“Half of our team work at home,” explained Bill. “We might fill this room up a bit more, though. Maybe get a screenwriter in here.” He motioned vaguely at a corner of the room.
I looked at the games. They were a lot of LucasArts titles there, including some repeated in different languages. And as for Guybrush: “Yeah, I just took him when I left LucasArts. I don’t think anybody wanted him, so… yoink. I win again.”
Having been given the tour, it was time to move into the porch room for the interview. It’s a lovely room – very white, very homely. There were some Nightmare Before Christmas memorabilia, and a few art magazines on a small table.
“Please, have a seat.”
Thanks. Well. First of all... you’re making a demo for your publisher?
Yeah, I’m not used to doing all that; it’s a new way. I’m used to making a demo for the public. The whole process is a lot different from LucasArts, but then we had a lot more money and financial support. If LucasArts announces a game then it’s no doubt that it’ll get published – but here we’ve got 10-12 different markets, and we don’t want to loose the publisher’s money, so we have to make a demo to prove that the game will sell. We’ve already got the big markets, Germany, Britain... North America is still in negotiation, but it’s the smaller markets that are the most difficult.
What about downloadable games? Did you ever consider doing that?
In 2000 I had that idea, but the market wasn’t ready for it back then. I think it’s a good idea, but... I have a feeling that people like boxes… and of course you don’t get the casual gamer, if you don’t have a shelf presence. I guess you can get around that if you release the game later in the stores, though… um… also, the graphics might be constricted because of the need for low file sizes. I wonder if Telltale have that problem...
I think they repeat objects, or something.
Ah, yeah. That might do it. But yeah… being able to publish yourself is definitely an advantage. You get more money that way, too, though you also have to handle a lot of extra stuff.
Right, like PR, which you don’t do, right?
Yeah, right. Sometimes I have to be careful with what I put in the blog, which is why I don’t update it much. I try to limit the amount of information I give out, anyway. I’m also not a great writer – it can take me hours to edit something.
Funny about those publishers...
I did work at an independent games company, once, working on a game that later became Guild Wars. We were originally going to release it online, so the graphics had to be more basic so that the download wasn’t too big. When I played World of Warcraft, I thought it looked a bit familiar, because the engine was based on the engine that was in the original Guild Wars.
About the editing... are you dyslexic?
Yeah, a bit. It can be tough. I’m not so bad with reading – it’s the writing that’s the main difficulty. A lot of creative people have dyslexia, though... I guess it’s because you see things in a different way. I write a lot, anyway.
I wrote a lot of fantasy novels when I was a kid. Not wanting to get them published or anything: it was just for fun. Nothing major – just fifty or so pages. I took a lot of inspiration from Tolkien, to the point that I was copying his voice and tone. Then I’ve written quite a few game design documents and story ideas. I’m not the greatest at gags – more at funny situations. Dave Harris does most of the actual jokes.
Intermission: photos from Petulama, California, where Autumn Moon Games are based.
The next bit is all about fantasy. You can skip it if you're not a nerd.
About Tolkien... I believe you worked on a Lord of the Rings game. That must have been fantastic – to work on such great property, I mean.
Well it was a lot more fun in the beginning. The game design changed rapidly over the 16 months. Originally I was designing locations not in the movie, but then that changed. Electronic Arts saw some footage from the films and immediately became more interested in our project, since it was obvious that the movies were going to sell. They changed things to make the games much more like the movies. Before, I could be creative. After that, I had to look through thousands of stills from the films, because I had to get the look accurate. I had to phone up Weta and 3”6 to get them to send me stuff...
What did you think of the films?
I thought they were very good. I have a different picture in my mind, though. It generally lacked a bit of colour. The shire was a wee bit dark, and too wild. I imagined it more like, uh… where you live, I guess [referencing England]. I liked the way the Hildebrandt brothers did it.
And the film used John Howe and Alan Lee.
Right, and they’re a wee bit darker. Lothlorien was very monochromatic, in particular. In the book it’s described as green and gold, but in the film it was just... blue.
Is there a danger that A Vampyre Story will be like that?
I think it’s a mistake to go too monochromatic. I don’t like it, so no, A Vampyre Story won’t be. If you look at World of Warcraft, it’s very bright and colourful. They have a colour to match every setting and mood. I think that’s one reason it’s so successful. There are good monochromatic games, though… like Resident Evil, and... what was that one with the giants?
Oh. Ico. No... Shadow of the Colossus?
Yeah, that’s it. I don’t like working on games like that, anyway. I did once, on something called The Suffering, but I kept on trying to sneak more colour into it when nobody was looking.
You mentioned World of Warcraft?
Oh yeah. MMO’s can really suck up your time, so you’ve got to be careful. I really have to limit myself. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for two years, and it’s taken me that long to get to level 42. I was playing it recently, and I grouped up with some other people and they said: “Oh my God! You’re level 42 and you don’t need to group! Such a noob!” I had to work out all the party etiquette. I said: “I’m sorry, I solo a lot, that’s all.”
It lacks story, though. That’s the worst thing. It has the environment, but not the story. Dungeons and Dragons - that can have great story. MMOs miss this human element. Wouldn’t it be great to have innkeepers played by real people in WOW? It hasn’t achieved the level of tabletop RPGing, anyway. I think that’ll be the next step – artificial intelligence to replicate that.
Have you got your steed yet?
Oh, yeah! I got my skeletal horse.
Oh, you play Undead!
Heh, yeah. Obvious, I know – since I’m working on a vampire game, I figured I *had* to play the undead side.
I think the undead could have been cooler...
Oh, yeah, they could have made them much better, but I like the wraiths. I think it would be really cool to play as one of those. There’s some guys, though, who are level 70 already, and the expansions been out for only – what - [he pretends to check his watch] two months? They must be playing twenty hours a day. I can’t do that anymore – I have a wife and kids now, and they take up most of my time between five and midnight, when I go to bed. But I still manage to play a wee bit.
What do you think of the new races?
The Blood Elves are kinda neat, though it’s weird to see so many running around Ogrimmar. I’m thinking: you shouldn’t be here! Also, they all look like girls, which is strange to see. I mean, it’s not like you see many female Tauren. [He smiles and nods his head slowly]. But the Blood Elves are pretty, and popular. There’s a lot of them around.