Adventure game devotees don’t have it easy.
Though there have been signs the story-driven genre is making a comeback, as evidenced by the success of Telltale Games, Double Fine Productions and the narrative-first approach of Quantic Dream, it’s a style of game still largely confined to the outskirts of crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter.
Just ask Bill Tiller, a veteran of LucasArts, where he was a principal on games such as the Steven Spielberg-endorsed “The Dig” and later “The Curse of Monkey Island.” Days before Kickstarting his newest project, the prequel game “A Vampyre Story: Year One,” Tiller was stressing that his decade-plus-long quest to make his “Vampyre Story” vision a reality was taking too steep of a financial toll.
“I need to start bringing in some income,” he said, noting that he’d spent weeks crafting a fully animated Kickstarter-pitch video that wasn’t going as effortlessly as hoped. Some of the jokes, said the former CalArts animation student, were falling flat, and the music still needed to be added.
The project, which follows the tales of reluctant vampire vixen Mona and her odd castle cohorts (Arachnea Rose, Poe Possumas), now has less than nine days left to raise its requisite funds. At the time of writing this post, it’s about $150,000 short of its $200,000 goal.
“Adventure games are more work than you’d expect,” Tiller said.
Though known for relatively simple mechanics — in the olden times of video and PC games, they were defined as “point and click” adventures, since that’s all that was required of the player — adventure games are populated with characters, dialogue and heavily interactive environments, many of which make only cameo appearances.
As much as game developers working on titles for the next-gen consoles such as the PS4 and Xbox One are emphasizing the increased graphic abilities of the consoles to show emotion in games, titles such as “The Secret of Monkey Island,” “Day of the Tentacle” and Tiller’s own “Vampyre Story” have long approached games as if they’re animated Disney films, full of narrative highs and lows and intensely drawn characters.
“In an adventure game, you have 30-40 characters who need unique animation files, and you will see them only once,” he said. “You can have the animator work on it for three days, and then we’ll never seeing it again. In a first-person-shooter, the animator can spend a week, and we’ll see that animation a billion times.”
Keeping Tiller’s adventure game dreams alive are royalty checks from “Snuggle Truck,” the iOS game that inspired controversy when it was known as the illegal immigrant-themed “Smuggle Truck.” Tiller was an artist on the project, and its success allowed him to curtail his part-time contributions to MunkyFun Inc., a mobile-focused game designer boasting a number of LucasArts vets.
Tiller was bit by the adventure game bug early on. Though his goal was to work in animated film, it was when a representative from LucasArts came to CalArts that Tiller had a change of heart. Tiller recalls that the students were shown storyboards and scenes from 1992 game “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis,” an original story set in the Indy universe.
“We all wanted to be Spielberg and [George] Lucas,” Tiller said. “What put LucasArts on the map was the fact that they would create original stories. We had freedom to create new stories and new characters. George encouraged it. We considered ourselves part of something like a Disney animation department, only our stories were games.”
Tiller, working at LucasArts throughout the ’90s and up until about 2000, also saw the studio move away from original content. Today, the company is basically a licensing house. Shortly after Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in October, the latter said it would no longer develop games in-house under the LucasArts banner.
During his tenure at LucasArts, Tiller shifted from adventure games to titles such as “Star Wars: Rebel Assault,” a shooter released in 1993, before ultimately linking with the team behind the on-again, off-again, on-again title “The Dig.” In an effort to create a sci-fi game that referenced such films as “Forbidden Planet” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the team’s ambitions sometimes got the best of them.
At one point, Tiller said, LucasArts’ marketing department suggested including a book on quantum physics in each box because the puzzles were too dense to be solved without it. While “The Dig” was eventually released in 1995, much of its artwork dated to 1992 and stood in contrast to “Full Throttle,” a relatively short, cohesive, game-as-story.
“We made the game a lot bigger — more rooms, more backgrounds, as long as possible,” Tiller said. “That increased the animation budget. We had a pretty big game. At that same time we came out with ‘Full Throttle,’ which is short, very polished, and it looks like a feature animated film. ‘The Dig’ was short on animation but massively long and had tons of game play. It did well but not good enough to do a sequel.”
Tiller moved onto the third game in the “Monkey Island” series, which was the first to not bear the name of its creator, Ron Gilbert. But by then LucasArts was increasingly investing more in “Star Wars” titles than adventure games. After the 1998 release of Day of the Dead-themed mystery “Grim Fandango,” the brainchild of Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, LucasArts would (with few exceptions) all but move away from adventure titles.
Tiller remained with LucasArts for a few more years, but he was starting to realize the difficulty he would have in ever again pitching an adventure game. The “Grim Fandango” budget was believed to be approximately $3 million, and Tiller recalls publishers grimaced when he brought them his idea for “A Vampyre Story.” They used “Grim Fandango” as reason to dismiss it.
“If I said, ‘Let’s do an adventure game,’ the response would be, ‘No “Grim Fandango.” Great game, no money.’”
“It wasn’t, to quote CEOs, something consumers could easily access,” Tiller said. “Tim, I know, would disagree, and I really do love that game. The mix of noir and Day of the Dead is genius. Genius. But someone walking down the aisle — these games used to be on shelves — would look at it and move on to the ‘Star Wars’ game with a bounty hunter on the cover.”
Since leaving LucasArts around 2000, Tiller has focused on creating original games via his own Autumn Moon. His major endeavor, “A Vampyre Story,” was issued for PCs in 2008 with help from German publisher Crimson Cow, although the project went over budget and a potential sequel remains only 30% finished.
Tiller estimated that “A Vampyre Story” sold between 30,000 and 35,000 copies, well short of the expectations to move 80,000 units. His Kickstarter project, “A Vampyre Story: Year One,” is pitched as a prequel, a short game designed to reignite interest in the project and ultimately allow Tiller to fund the proper sequel. A bid of just $8 will give players access to the beta edition of the game.
But why not just do a Kickstarter for the partly finished sequel? Tiller said Crimson Cow was worried a Kickstarter hurt sales for the project. “If you ask for $400,000 to finish the game, you’d give [contributors] a copy of the game,” Tiller said. “That wouldn’t give [Crimson Cow] any profit. It would just pay us.”
Right now, however, Tiller is facing the prospect that “Year One” won’t meet its goals.
“I still have reasonable hope,” Tiller wrote via email Thursday night. “But if we don’t get it, we will do the game anyway on our own and possibly do another [Kickstarter] a month or two later at a lower asking total. But we aren’t giving up. Got a PR firm in Germany helping and hoping to get one in L.A. this week too.”
In other words, Tiller will continue to do what he’s done since leaving LucasArts: He will piece things together until his adventure game gets made. But there’s a larger fight as well, and that’s keeping alive some of what LucasArts originally stood for.
That’s where Tiller’s optimism is most apparent. He hopes that Disney won’t let original properties such as “Monkey Island,” “Grim Fandango” and “Maniac Mansion” just die.
“They could sell the license to those games to companies like Telltale or Double Fine, companies that would keep the legacy going,” he said. “I was angry at first, but hopefully Disney realizes these [games] have a lot of cache to them.”
– Todd Martens
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