With its promise of an adventure game in the tradition of LucasArts, Autumn Moon Entertainment has made quite a lot of fans in Germany, and A Vampyre Story may well be the adventure community’s most wanted. After finally finding a publisher, we talked to AME’s Bill Tiller about the game.
First of all, congratulations on finally finding a (reliable) publisher. What made it so difficult for AVS getting one?
Thanks a lot.
Three things made it difficult in finding a publisher: my inexperience with the adventure game publishing business of today, the budget, and the perception by the big game publishers that adventure games don’t make money.
So to address the first reason, I have only worked at or for big game publishers, such as Lucas, EA, and Midway. And also many friends who started their own companies also only worked for big publishers, and I paid a lot of attention to how they did things and learned from them.
So when I set about to do the demo and pitch it to publishers in Europe, where all the good new adventure games were coming from, I made the incorrect assumption that they worked the same way as American, big name publishers did. Smaller publishers generally want to buy a finished game and only for their territories, not world wide, which is what Midway and EA do. Plus I only had a small fraction of the money from my savings to do the game. There was no way to finish the game, then sell it territory by territory, unless I had a venture capitalist invest in the company. But most venture capitalist want to invest a minimum of 5 million US dollars: we needed much less. And they would have wanted to own equity in the company, something that we didn’t want to do if we didn’t have to.
These were all new concept for me, – I knew how to make a game, but I was just leaning how to make a company. So it took a while to adjust to this new way of thinking. But as they say, one learns best by doing, so I feel like a pro now. Plus ultimately I got a lot of business help and advice from some very talented and professional people that helped set me straight.
I was also used to big company budgets, with large overheads, with big offices and generous benefits. So I originally made the mistake of making my initial budget based on a Lucas Arts budget. But I quickly learned that was too high for 99% of publishers out there. So I went in and redid all my assumptions and reworked the budget till it was down to the bare minimum, and discovered one could do an adventure game for much, much less than what Lucas Arts was doing it for.
The last hold up was the perception adventure games don’t make money, which I thought was very odd because I had seen the sale numbers in the US and they were respectable. If the games were made with reasonable budgets, a profit would not be hard to make, plus they have great staying power, and generally age really well because they don’t relay on cutting edge graphic technology that looks dated in a few years. Curse of Money Island still looks good played on today’s computers. So we got a lot of interest from the five or so of the world’s biggest publishers, even the one that is owned by the mega rich nerd. But in the end they all got scared and passed.
So I knew that the game concept was good and they all loved the demo, it was this perception that it wasn’t going to make money I had to fight. I figured my best bet was to stick with publishers who had already made money off adventure games, because they already knew what I knew, that they do make money. It just took a while to find them and then a while to work out a deal that made everyone happy. I think it took Tim Schaffer of Double Fine three years to finally start production on Psychonauts, and I recall at the time thinking that was a long time. Now I know it wasn’t!
As more than a year has passed since the split-up with Bad Brain, have you ever lost hope for ‚A Vampyre Story‘ during that time?
No, not really. I knew everyone like the concept, the art and the story, and my team. And I had never gotten any bad feedback about any of that at all. So I knew we had something of value that eventually some one would want to develop and sell it. I definitely got frustrated and wanted things to move faster because I am generally an energetic guy and I hate waiting and delays. I just want to hit the ground running and create. I’m the happiest when I’m creating something. So that was hard, but I never lost hope.
Full production of AVS is said to begin shortly. Can you go a little bit more into detail? How many people will be working on the game, for example?
Well right now we have five, but it move up to ten in a few months. We have two more employees to hire and then my team will be complete. But right now we are finishing up preproduction, which we have been on for last two years, just not full time. Now that we are on fulltime, things are moving very quickly, almost too quickly. I am still getting used to things that sued to take a week to get done without any funding, to being done in a day. I’m thrilled, but at the same time my head is spinning. So I spend a lot of my morning time just staying organized and on top of things, and when that is all settled I finally get to jump into art and game design in the afternoon and at night after the kids are asleep.
So my writer, Dave Harris and I are finalizing the game idea with input from the rest of the team. My programmer Aaron St John is starting on the game engine. Bill Eaken, one of the artists is doing initial background work as well as concept art and character designs. My character modeler will be starting this month and will work on the characters already designed, and Mark Teal, my Producer, is setting up the data base and helping me write the production schedule. So we are small crew now, but in the fall another programmer will come on, my lead animator will start, and my musician will begin composing music. Others will roll on too around that time as well. So we are pretty small by today’s standards, but that is fine with me.
I keep referring to what Tim Burton told me once when he was giving a lecture at Cal Arts when I was there “I could work with the best people in the industry, but if we don’t know each other well we end up having conflict. So I just use the same people I always use because we are friends and we understand each other. It makes the whole filmmaking process so much easier and faster, and in the end you get a better movie.” This may explain why he uses Johnny Depp all the time. But I’m the same way too. I like working with people I am friends with, whom I understand well and who understand me and my vision for the game. That is how I went about filling my team.
Interestingly, the German adventure community seems to be looking more forward to AVS than anything else – even though there isn’t so much known about the game yet. Do you have an explanation for that?
Well there are at least two things I think A Vampyre story has going for it: the art and the story. The art looks a lot like two very popular games that adventure game fans seem to love, Steven Spielberg’s The Dig and Curse of Monkey Island. And that is because basically the two artists who worked on those games are doing the art for this game. So it just looks like a traditional Lucas Arts game. And that is a good thing. There were so many talented people who worked on Lucas Arts adventure games, all of whom are now working at bigger companies or working on movies and other things. So those games had an unusual amount of talented people working on them, and I think adventure games fans miss that and want more of it. Our game promises to give them more of that.
And second, it is about a vampire. Who doesn’t want to be vampire, I mean they are so cool. To have all that power and wear all those cool spooky clothes and live in huge forlorn castles. Who wouldn’t want that? I know I would.
The ironic thing about our story is that at first Mona hates being a vampire and doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, but life has come along and dropped all this in her lap, and now she has to deal with it. We can al relate to that. There is a famous quote from the eighteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ Doesn’t that happen to all of us at one time or another? You think you’re going somewhere, you plan for it, you get your heart set on it, and then BOOM! Life drops a bomb on your plans, and you end up no where near where you thought you’d be. This is a story about not giving up when that happens, about making the best of a bad situation, and actually turning it to your advantage and persevering. I think that also appeals to a lot of people and helps explain the popularity of the game, even though it isn’t even out yet.
The story of AVS sounds very sad — an ambitious singer turning into a vampire, having a hard time… Is it really that tragic? Because, I think, comic adventures are usually expected to be humorous.
A lot of comedies have dramatic even tragic stories but are still very funny, like Dr. Strange Love, Young Frankenstein, or even Tim Burton’s Batman (I know what you saying, “Batman isn’t a comedy.’ But it is actually pretty funny.). Airplane is about a plane crash, M*A*S*H* is about Vietnam war hospital, The Producers is about swindlers who end up in jail, Arsenic and Old Lace is about two old women poisoning their borders, but they are all hilarious films. It is because they have fun with the absurd situations, and characters. And the drama is resolved in a funny way. So I would be very surprise if people found this a tragic or morbid game. We want to have fun with the premise and pump it for all the absurd situations it will give us.
How does playing a vampire influence the gameplay? Does Mona have any special abilities?
The premise is that Mona is completely naive when it comes to vampires and black magic. Plus her master Shrowdy did his best to keep it that way, thinking that would make her more dependent on him and thus less likely to try and escape. So we wanted her knowledge of her powers and weaknesses to slowly come to her over the course of the story. So she will gain more vampire powers the longer they game goes on.
So we are still working out the final designs, but her vampire powers, and weaknesses play a very central role in the puzzles, which makes it challenging for us as designers but at the same time a lot of fun!. And w get to come up with funny alternatives to the typical vampire situations we have all seen in myriad Dracula and vampire movies.
What makes this all work though, and not game about being monsters is that Mona is inherently good, she has no interest in gaining power or using violence or any of the things we typically associate with vampire motivations, but she is a determined, stubborn and emotional woman, so she is not above doing typical vampire things to get what she wants, or to right a perceived wrong. But then again, she is a lot like us. We all want to be perceived as good, but on occasion we do thing we aren’t at all proud of. Mona is the same, except she now has vampire powers.
But she has to suck blood and kill people, doesn’t she?
She does what she has to eventually, but like a child he doesn’t want to eat liver for supper, she does her bets to avoid it. Plus she thinks it is rude and absurd to bite a perfect stranger’s neck and drain their blood, -it just isn’t done in proper Parisian society. She very much looks down on it. “A lady must act like a lady, after all,” is what she would say.
But this blood drinking is one of the problems she has to overcome. But like I said she is not evil. She has just has evil powers and had a foul curse bestowed upon her. She abhors what was done to her, so she does her bests not to perpetuate that same evil on to others, -unless they are rude or deserve it. Then is she perfectly happy to drain them till they pass out, but she would never purposely kill anyone. But accidents do happen.
Too short, unlikable characters, bad puzzles – that are the most common mistakes adventure games make these days. How do you plan to avoid them? Let’s start with the game’s length: What are you aiming for?
Well you hit the nail on the head with the major reason adventure games, though alive and well, are tough to produce. Well agree a text adventure can easily be made to run forty to sixty hours. But as soon as you start adding art, animation, sound, and music, all the money that went to the lone game designer now has to be divided up among all the other creative people. So it is a compromise; bells and whistle over breadth and length.
So I have thought long and hard about how to do this, and the best solution I have come up with is to make a quality game over a long game, but also to make long enough game for people to feel like they got their money’s worth.
In order to make the game fit my budget, I have had to, and still do, cut things out left and right. But at the same time, I am trying to figure out ways to keep cool stuff in but do it in a least elaborate way but still be effect. This is the same problem animated TV shows have. They have limited budgets so they have learned effective tricks and techniques that don’t take a long time to produce, but still are every effective. So it is balancing act we walk everyday. I’m not sure we will solve it in every situation, but I ‘m confident we will succeed enough so that people are very happy with the end result.
The simple truth is that this is not easy. I tell my friends in the animation industry, who complain to me how tough it is working at Pixar or at the Cartoon network, I tell them that that isn’t anything compared with making game. Once you add interactivity, it is whole new ball game, and a tough one at that.
The characters: One might think an 18-year-old opera singer who turns into a vampire is not exactly a character people identify with easily?
I’m 38 year old balding game designer with three kids, but I relate to Mona very easily. Like I said earlier she wants what we all want, to fulfill a dream. But something always stops us and her; something always gets in the way. We relate to that. So she does what we all do, we struggle on, compromise, and make due with what life has given us. Life is tough, but she gets through it the same way we do, with determination, humor and little help form our friends. We don’t always get exactly what we want, but if we try hard enough we get what we need. We all can relate to that, even if we don’t have fangs, and sing arias.
Heck, I’m not a Hobbit, but I relate to Frodo Baggins because fate has dumped a major responsibility in his lap. He didn’t ask for it, but it happened, and he is going to deal with it, because it is the right thing to do. He gets a lot help from his friends but untimely he carries the burden.
I’m not a 18 year old high school student bitten by radioactive spider and given spider powers, but I relate to Peter Parker because he struggles with school, longs to be with a girl who barley notices him. And deals with his new powers they way we all would. Again fate unexpectedly dropped this responsibility in his lap, which totally screwed up his plans, just like fate does to all of us. He struggles to reconcile what he wants and what he has to do, but he has fun and keeps his sense of humor along the way just like Mona does.
I guess my point is drama is about characters that are not like us on the surface, but are very much like us underneath, who have the same fears, hopes and desires we all have. The real difference is we have mundane problems; they have been put in much more interesting and dramatic situations and have much more dire problems to solve. So I think people will have no problem relating to Mona and her struggle for freedom and her desire to fulfill her dreams.
Finally, the puzzles: Especially for comic adventures it’s hard to find the right balance between ‘way too easy“ and ‘How the hell should I have thought of that?“, isn’t it? What can we expect?
This has been a struggle on all adventure games I have worked on, heck, ALL the games I have worked on be they shooters or adventure games. No one and I mean no one, have ever written all the puzzles for game and pleased everyone. There are so few consistent remarks on what is an easy puzzle what is hard one. It always surprised me what people would get people stuck on and what people found too easy.
They only way to mitigate that as much as possible is to test it while making the game, by bringing in people and watch them play the game, and hopefully you get kind of an average feel for the difficulty of puzzle. Also testers help a lot with that, but sometimes their feed back comes too late to change it.
At Lucas Arts we had a big party where everyone at the company played the game eating tons of pizza, and gave feedback in the form of questionnaires at the end of the night. We called them Pizza Orgies. So we plan to have those too so that we can get feedback early and often. That really is the only way to find those problems. And even then you never get all of them, some slip through, and you can also never please everyone either. Some people are just puzzle geniuses and will get through the game in a matter of hours, while other (like me) will take weeks to figure something out.
Bill, thanks for your time!