Bill Tiller Discusses Monkey Island Inspired Adventure, Duke Grabowski

with Greg Micek


Cliqist : Who are you, and why are we talking to you?

Bill Tiller : We are three experienced game developers and we are making a short graphic adventure comedy. I’m going to guess you are talking to us because the game looks cool and might be a good one. Also we have worked on some popular games like it before, such as Steven Spielberg’s The Dig, Curse of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, The Godfather, Force Unleashed 2, A Vampyre Story, Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island, 1954: Alcatraz, and Perils of Man.


Cliqist : You and your team have quite a bit of experience.  Why go to Kickstarter for money, aren’t you all millionaires?

Bill Tiller : Gene and I are not, though I’m not so sure about Jeremiah. I have a suspicion he might be a millionaire – he’s frugal and hardworking and he won’t show me his bank statement. Not many companies share their profits with their developers, if and when their games do actually make a profit. Adventure games tend to be expensive to produce and have smaller profit margins than other games, so it’s tricky to find a way to get rich in the game biz, despite the notable exceptions. So if fans like our game idea, Kickstarter allows them to preorder the game, and instead of working for a publisher, we work for the fans.


DukeGrabowskiconceptbyBillTillermedCliqist : What is Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler?

Bill Tiller : Kind of a spoof and homage to the Monkey Island series that I was fortunate to be a part of. It’s a graphic adventure where the player controls a protagonist as he explores various locales to solve problems that move the plot forward.

Duke Grabowski is a freakishly big and strong pirate who is a bit slow on the uptake. He badly wants to fit in, and thinks by being elected captain, he will get respect and admiration from his fellow pirates. But the villain in the game, Old Slewface, wants to be captain, too. He convinces our dimwitted hero that he (Duke) doesn’t fit the bill for captain because he hasn’t proven he is a true swashbuckler, and to do that he has prove he is a ladies’ man, and seduce three women.

Duke doesn’t want to do that. He likes women, though they do scare him a bit, but he badly wants to be respected by his clearly wanton crew. So reluctantly Duke agrees and leaves the ship. Slewface knows there is no chance he will succeed and is confident he (Slewface) will be elected the new captain. The player controls Duke as he struggles between doing the right thing and trying to impress his crew. Not to spoil anything, but following his heart proves to be the best way to go.


Cliqist : The Monkey Island inspiration is evident, and stated.  Were you nervous that people would call you out with accusations of copying?

Bill Tiller : No, I think most people realize I’m kind of just continuing doing the thing I did on Curse of Monkey Island, but I’m doing an original story which is my own take on the premise. I am a fan of those games, too, and this is kind of a fan game, but I wanted to make new characters, puzzles and a completely original plot. If I were making a game about a young wise-cracking pirate that fights a ghost pirate in order to save his girlfriend, I could see that being a rip-off. But I want to write about a humongous brute with a heart who wants to be someone important, to impress his peers and become the new captain of his ship. No cracking-wise lanky pirate nor villainous ghost pirate captains anywhere. If anyone should be accused of ripping off Monkey Island, it should be the crew who made the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

I really enjoyed working on Curse of Monkey Island and I am not going to stop making beautiful and fun pirate Graphic Adventures just because I don’t have enough money to buy the Monkey Island IP. Isn’t one of the keys to happiness doing what you love? Making pirate games like this just happens to be one of the things I love to do.

DukeGrabowskicharactersinprogress_medIf I were suddenly rich enough to buy the Monkey IP, I still probably wouldn’t do a game with Guybrush because I think that character has been fully explored by others pretty much already. I might want to make a game based on Murray the talking skull, or Stan the salesman or the Voodoo Lady. What is their story? They are interesting characters.

I was watching AMC one night and a 1940’s pirate movie came on called The Spanish Main, and I was blown away by how much it looked like the Pirates ride at Disneyland, which was built decades later. It was clear that Disney was inspired by that movie – one pirate even tells fiery redhead Maureen O’Hara that she would fetch a high price at a bride auction. So Ron Gilbert rode the Pirates ride and read a pirate book called On Stranger Tides and used that to inspire him on Monkey Island. Then the Pirates moviemakers were inspired by the Monkey Island game. I worked on Curse of Monkey Island and was inspired by that experience to make Duke Grabowski. But the character was inspired by the Hulk, Mongo from Blazing Saddles, and by NFL player Brian Urlacher. The plot I just came up with on my own.

The character of Duke Grabowski himself inspired the plot. I kept thinking, what would happen on a pirate ship if one of the pirates was pretty indestructible, had a bad temper but really was an overly-sensitive, decent guy. How would that dynamic play out? I figured the big brute would run roughshod over all the crew unless he was inspired by and respected a great leader. In this case, Duke works for a charismatic pirate named Captain Amerigo. But what if that leader died? He was the linchpin that kept the peace. Now there’s a power vacuum. Pirates are pretty democratic, and vote for their leaders, so now politics come into play. How do rivals for the captaincy deal with the almost literal 500-pound gorilla in the cabin, big Duke Grabowksi? This guy is no longer held in check and could beat to death the entire crew. And that is where the plot for Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler was born.

So, setting-wise, it is similar to Curse of Monkey Island, and the look is very much like the style I came up with for that game as well, but the characters and plot are, I think, very original if not unique.


Cliqist : Your Kickstarter campaign page and video give a lot of info on what you’re hoping to accomplish with Duke Grabowski.  Is there anything you’re specifically trying to avoid?

Bill Tiller : The most important thing we are trying to avoid is failing to get funded. The second thing is to make it clear this game is not about seducing women, and the gameplay is not at all like Leisure Suit Larry. The trick the pirates come up with to get rid of the dim-witted Duke is to convince him he can’t go from pirate to captain. He has to first prove he is a swashbuckler, and one of the qualities all swashbucklers share is being a ladies’ man. The crew won’t respect him as captain unless he can prove he is a true ladies’ man. Duke is a bit slow and doesn’t see that this is clearly a wild goose chase, and happily accepts their challenge. Problem is, he is a good guy and not a smooth talker in any way. The players get to help him find an alternative route to success that doesn’t involve being a ladies’ man.


Cliqist : Duke Grabowski is slated to be a fairly short game, 2 – 4 hours according to your Kickstarter; are you nervous that people won’t want to back such a short game?  Any chance of making it longer down the road?

Bill Tiller : I think fans are cool with short games as long as the price is right and the quality is high. But if we were suddenly funded for 700K, we would make a bigger game, sure. The character is brand new and hasn’t been fully explored, so it’s a fertile situation that has a lot of room for expansion.


Cliqist : I realize this is addressed on the Kickstarter page, but it’s worth revisiting.  In the game Duke is tasked with seducing three women. A bit sexist isn’t it, and a potentially explosive plot point given today’s gaming environment?

Bill Tiller : Well, like I said earlier, the villains in this game trick Duke into thinking this is what he needs to do, and pirates aren’t the most sensitive or fair-minded of people to begin with. So the task they give him is sexist, for sure, but they don’t care – they rob, kidnap and kill people for a living, so political correctness is not really in their nature. Plus, Duke is not smart enough to realize how sexist this task is. He’s a good-hearted guy and just by his very nature would never intentionally disrespect women. He just so badly wants to be respected by his crew that he is blinded to the idiocy of this quest, and doesn’t initially think too deeply about the consequences.

Duke ends up finding other ways to win the admiration of three women, who in turn end up helping him out. So the game isn’t Leisure Suit Larry at all. Duke is just being tricked by sexist pirates into thinking this is what he needs to do, but Duke is such a nice guy he just can’t act that way. He is caught between his conscience and his desire for acceptance by his peers. I think we have all been there at one time in our lives. We want to do the right thing but we also want to impress our friends and be accepted into the group – we will do dumb, dangerous and morally questionable things just to fit in. This is the main quandary of the story. I could see how someone might come to that conclusion if they didn’t look more into the plot, but I think once it is explained to them it should be clear this is a story about peer pressure and the trouble it can get us into, and about how doing the right thing ultimately leads to success and happiness.


Cliqist : You made the slightly unusual choice of doing a 60 day campaign, something that goes against the grain a bit.  Was there anything specific behind that decision?

Bill Tiller : Really it was the opportunity to make a game for OUYA. We were going to launch our campaign a bit later in the year, but the good folks at Cateia Games said OUYA would pay us to make a game for their very cool console and we jumped at it. It meant our PR wasn’t fully prepared, and by going for 60 days that would give us the time we need to promote the campaign better. There is a lot of work that needs to be done for a Kickstarter campaign and 60 days gives us time to get it all done without killing ourselves. So far, I think that has worked out, and hopefully it will continue to do so.


Cliqist : Is Duke Grabowski a scam or unattainable pipe dream?  What assurance do backers have that they’re not throwing their money away?

Bill Tiller : Man, there are such better scams out there than doing all this work to make a successful KS campaign, such as starting a celebrity cult or bottling tap water. But we did want people reassured we can do what we say and that is why we have already made a small part of the game using Unity and Adventure Creator. That was our plan- don’t start a Kickstarter till we have a working tech demo, and remove the question about technology development from the equation. Also, we now no longer need to ask for money for engine development because the engine already works, nor do we need money for game design, writing, background art, rigging and scripting. The money we are asking for will go to mostly 3D animation, voice acting, the rewards and some 3D models, stuff we can’t do on our own. It’s a great way to keep our Kickstarter money goal low, which we hope will increase its chances of success.


Cliqist : Can you close us out with a Duke Grabowski inspired haiku?

Bill Tiller :

Duke, red with fury

Terrifies men and women

No one sees his heart


Me Duke, Proud Pirate!

Soon me be Swashbuckler

Help make me Captain!


Me mustache tingles

More backers on Kickstarter!

Thank you, me hearties!

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer our questions!  If you’d like to learn more about Duke Grabowski: Mighty Swashbuckler you can head over to the games’ Kickstarter page.  If you like what you see consider backing it.


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About the Author

Greg Micek

Greg Micek has been writing on and off about games since the late nineties, always with a focus on indie games. He started DIYGames.com in 2000, which was one of the earliest gaming sites to focus exclusively on indie games.

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