An Interview With ‘Star Billions’ Creators James Tillman and Matthew Taylor

I recently finished playing through the second season of the narrative space adventure game, Star Billions. As with my previous interviews, I had been chatting with one of the creators and learned some fascinating things about the game that I thought my readers might be interested in. So below, I present to you an interview with developers James Tillman and Matthew Taylor.

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Appunwrapper: Hi James and Matthew. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about Star Billions. First off, I understand that this is your first game together? What did you both do before and what brought you together for this project?

James: Matthew and I are brothers, so we’ve been collaborating since day one! You’re right, though, that Star Billions is the first game we’ve made together. Before this, we spent years making music as a duo called Poppy Brothers. I had a lot of programming experience, and we were already accustomed to writing together, so the transition from music to game development was an easy one.

We never really expected to become game developers. I was a few weeks away from graduation when Matthew came to visit me and found my scrawled design document for Star Billions. EIN was an AI named ‘Doc’. LACIE was ‘Lin’. They didn’t look like animals yet. He saw the potential in it and convinced me to develop it with him. Six months later, Star Billions was on the App Store.

Matthew: I remember saying “make them look like animals”. At the time I felt silly, but looking back it made a huge difference. The original design was a lot more “robotic” and RPG-influenced. The cute style didn’t start to take shape until a couple of weeks into the process.

AU: Ok, I had no idea you two were a band before this, and I of course had to look you up on YouTube. Catchy stuff! Although, it does feel a bit weird listening to you sing. 😉 Writing a story-centric game isn’t too far a stretch from writing songs, so I can see how one might lead to the other. Do you still play together?

Since you mention the cute animal robots, let’s discuss that a bit. I like that the game is kid-friendly but smart enough to appeal to adults. Almost like a Pixar movie. What was your inspiration for that and did your target audience change when you decided on animals?

Matthew: Thank you! We still actively write and record music as Poppy Brothers but have cut back on live performances in favor of working on Star Billions.

As soon as James explained the original idea to me, I started to form this picture in my head. We were combining a sci-fi game with something cuter and more accessible. The first thing we came up with when we were writing were the personalities of each artificial intelligence. From that point on it became our goal to make people care about these crazy little AIs on the screen, and a lot of that meant making them funny and relatable.

James: We do love Pixar movies, but our inspirations were more from the realm of video games. Some of our favorite games manage to be charming without being childish: Psychonauts and Pikmin come to mind. We didn’t really take a “target demographic” approach, but I remember describing Star Billions to a friend as something like a Telltale adventure with a Nintendo personality.

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AU: Star Billions does make me think of Telltale’s games, not least because of the episodic layout. Telltale is one of the few developers that’s able to sell premium games at premium prices on iOS, while most developers are turning to free-to-play. Was it scary to make a premium mobile game in this climate and has it been successful enough for you to continue making them? Can you also talk about your decision to do so, since your game is rare in that it has timers that can’t be sped up using cash?

James: We just want to be open and honest as developers, because that’s what we like as players. I think it’s equally scary to make a premium game or a “freemium” one; I don’t feel like F2P is a guarantee of success either. The response to the first season of Star Billions really exceeded our expectations, so we already knew we could make a second season from day one.

Oh, the timers! I can’t think of a more controversial design decision we could have made. When the first season was in development, we approached publishers with it. Most of them refused to consider publishing Star Billions unless we agreed to monetize it by letting players pay to skip the timers. Not in a million years. The timers are there to pace the story and build anticipation. Other games like Lifeline have taken a similar “real time” approach, but I think Star Billions is the only one that explicitly tells you how long it will be until the next event and gives you a way to hurry it up. Some people see the timer and put their phone away. Some people see it and play mini-games until they get to the next event. As long as both crowds are looking forward to the next adventure, I’m happy.

Matthew: I completely agree with James. On a funny note, I once saw a review for Star Billions where someone said “Great game, super funny and charming. If season 2 is an in-app purchase I will change my review to 1-star”. I had to do a double take on that one!

AU: We saw that happen with Monument Valley, where a lot of players thought any extra content would be included for free and left negative reviews when it wasn’t. I think because of the race to the bottom, a lot of players expect the world for very little, so if it’s not 100% clear what they’re buying (and maybe even then), they’ll get upset at being charged more. I can see both sides and do think it needs to be very clear what a person is getting with their purchase. Was there any confusion with the release of season one about what players were buying?

That said, I think it’s silly to get hung up on a few dollars if you enjoy a game. Obviously no one likes wasting their money on a game they didn’t like. But if you did like the game, it doesn’t seem right to change your mind because the developer asks for more money for their work. I guess it all comes down to how much a person values the game. It’s all relative. But I’m glad to see some developers releasing premium games and fighting the trend to monetize every little thing. I’m one of those who isn’t a big fan of the timers, but I can still respect them here because they were a pacing decision, not something born out of greed. I might question their value and effectiveness like any gameplay aspect, but I can’t accuse you of breaking the game out of greed as is so common these days.

I also appreciate that you improved some things based on player feedback (including my own). The shortened timers on the second play-through and additional arcade game are two that come to mind. What else did you add or change in season two based on feedback?

James: Great question! The biggest player question we’ve answered with season two is, “Why isn’t Star Billions available on Android?” When we were developing season one, we had no way to predict everyone’s level of interest in the game. We were soon confronted by people who had read about the game, but couldn’t play it. The first version of Star Billions was programmed in a way that made it very difficult to port to Android. Around New Year’s Day, I scrapped everything and started over. The result is a game that’s much easier to expand and to release on other platforms.

Matthew: That one review was the only person I heard from who thought that every season would be included in the initial price. A lot of our marketing materials mentioned “Season 1” right from the start, so I hope that helped people make an informed decision.

The key when listening to feedback is recognizing when you should just agree to disagree with the player or swallow your pride and say “Wow…Why didn’t I think of that?” A big addition this season was what we call “choice summaries”–a brief description of each choice so players feel more confident about their selection. It may sound simple, but it required some careful writing on our part to not spoil where the choice will take you, but still make it as informative as possible.

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AU: I didn’t realize it at first, but I think the lack of summaries in season one did bother me subconsciously. I’d sometimes choose a character even though I forgot what they said. So I’m glad someone thought to recommend that. It did help a lot in season two without spoiling anything. And one of the reasons I haven’t really been able to get into the Telltale games is that the split-second decisions stress me out. So I like that it’s more relaxed in Star Billions.. That said, I did speak to James about choices in season two and found out I missed out on some things. That’s actually what sparked this whole interview. So let me ask you both: does it bother you at all that some (most?) players won’t see all the different branches in the game, since it would require playing through it several times?

James: It doesn’t bother me, but I do think more linear storytelling is a better business decision: there were times when it felt like we had written season two ten times… not to mention the mess that testing becomes to try to make sure we’ve debugged every outcome! But storytelling is my greatest joy as a developer, and we spent enough time planning and outlining season 2 that the many paths didn’t present too much of a challenge. Matthew and I both read a lot of screenwriting books near the start of the process that really helped us organize our ideas.

Nothing would make me happier than to know two friends played Star Billions and then surprised one another with the different things they saw. That would make the time spent on rare branches worth it.

Game dev is full of philosophy. I won’t pretend that my answers are the right ones for everyone, but with the name “Catch & Release” we wanted to reflect this feeling of a really nice but ephemeral experience, like a great meal or a concert. I’ve spent so much time (100+ hrs each) on games like Metal Gear Solid V or Persona 4 that involved a great deal of ‘recycled content’ (like very similar side ops or dungeon crawling), but I feel equally impacted by games that I finished in an hour or two like Gone Home. I know the experience we’ve created with Star Billions has a lot more in common with the latter than the former. I hope lots of people feel the same way and will let our story have a small but significant place in their hearts.

Matthew: I agree with James in that it’s sort of the nature of the game, so I don’t think about it too much. We do make sure in the writing process to test every scenario separately in order to make sure they’re all entertaining. Sometimes you’ll make a decision and it will turn out poorly, but instead of the game just saying “oops, you messed up! try again!”, we’d rather the player learn something about the story or the characters or maybe, in the absolute best case scenario… about YOURSELF!

AU: I love the idea behind your studio’s name. And I agree, some of of my favorite gaming experiences were short and sweet but felt very special.

Since your choices in Star Billions can teach you something about your own personality, do you each have a favorite character? And do they remind you of yourselves?

James: My favorite character is Ebu-Ishi, the extra-polite alien that looks like a goofy boulder. I want to be best friends with that guy.

I’m not objective enough to say which character reminds me of myself, but Matthew is definitely a ROSIE. If it wasn’t for him pushing me, I’d never get anything done.

Matthew: I could take a jab at James and say he’s a NULL, but in reality I think James is really good at writing for EIN so maybe that’s more of his personality. Personally my favorite character has always been SARGE. I think he might be the funniest character in the game, but a lot of people don’t pick him because they’re afraid of what he might do… that makes it even funnier to me!

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AU: Haha that’s true — I rarely picked Sarge because I didn’t want him to destroy everything. I loved the introduction of NULL in season two and how his gibberish played a part in certain episodes. And also how a lot of his seemingly nonsensical lines are just Shakespeare quotes. 😉

Gil was a great addition, too. Really clever way of introducing the new season.

Do you have any numbers — at least from season one — that court tell us which characters were the most popular among players?

James: In season one, ROSIE edged out the others by a small margin: players chose her just 5% more than second place EIN and LACIE. SARGE was chosen half as often as the others, likely for the reasons you and Matthew discussed. He was very popular when the crew’s backs were against the wall, but not many people wanted him to serve as the ambassador of humankind.

NULL was extremely popular among beta testers. I’ll be curious to see if that holds true for the public release. Another character was a surprise hit in season 2, but my lips are sealed about who that might be!

AU: That’s really encouraging, that so many people choose war and destruction only as a last resort. Do you have any idea why that might be? Are people worried it will lead to a bad ending or does the game simply attract a very empathetic crowd? Or maybe something else entirely?

James: Maybe both. The character designs were intended to be as inclusive as possible. The year before we started writing Star Billions, I had some of my first experiences running a game of Dungeons & Dragons. I noticed four types of players at the table with me:

1. A person who approached every situation as logically as possible, as if he was trying to take the game apart and put it back together again.
2. A natural leader who tried to take charge of the other players.
3. A person who liked to start trouble to see what would happen.
4. A person who wanted to please everyone–even the non-player characters I’d written–and who cried when one of them died during the course of the story.

Those were the four “player types” we had in mind when we came up with EIN, ROSIE, SARGE, and LACIE. It isn’t a stretch to say that NULL ticks the box of the “start trouble and see what happens” player, too. But you’re right–it seems like the average player is more comfortable with the kind of “trouble” that NULL starts than the kind that they think SARGE might start. That probably points to our players being a little more empathetic than the general population. That makes me feel oddly proud.

Matthew: I don’t get many chances to pander, so let me take this time to say “our players rock!”

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AU: That must be a good feeling. 🙂 The game touches on some important subjects without getting too preachy or heavy, and I really like that about it. So it’s great to hear that it’s attracting a crowd that can fully appreciate it.

As much as I’m enjoying this conversation, I should wrap it up. But before we end, can you reveal anything about your plans for season three? Is there anything you wish you could have done in the first two seasons but didn’t? Maybe something that can only work for the final chapter?

Matthew: I hope we’re able to fulfill people’s expectations for season three. It’s a strange feeling to know that we have started a story that people are interested in, and yet even we don’t know exactly where it will go! It’ll be a big weight off when James and I can finally sit down and start outlining season three.

You’re right that this being the final season will open a lot of doors for us. It’s a game about choice, so I expect to leave players with their biggest choices ever.

In terms of a hint, I would strongly encourage players to unlock all the data entries they can. Some of those will give you a good idea of where we’re headed with season three.

James: Season two is already a lot more ambitious than season one was, but I don’t think I’ll ever be content to leave it at that. My personal goals for season three are to give players monumental decisions about how to conclude the story, to do things that surprise everyone (present company included), and to add a third mini-game to the ExquisiVision lineup.

Thank you so much for giving us a chance to talk a little bit about the game and its future. It’s been a blast!

AU: Thank you both for taking the time to discuss the game with me. I hope the current sale brings you lots of new fans and I can’t wait to see what you come up with for season three!

If you haven’t played Star Billions yet, you can currently download season one for free here.

Also, enter for a chance to win a Star Billion prize package!

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One thought on “An Interview With ‘Star Billions’ Creators James Tillman and Matthew Taylor

  1. Sarah

    I liked season 1, and it was free, I just can’t afford buying the other seasons right now. I would rate the app 1 star, but it sucks I can’t get the next seasons. I guess I’ll never be able to know what happens next.

    Reply

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