Wadjet Eye - Dave Gilbert interview
Dave Gilbert is a self-proclaimed short, bespectacled, frizzy-haired New Yorker who gets through life by his wits and a variety of confused expressions. He is also the founder of Wadjet Eye games, whose first release, The Shivah, has received critical acclaim. According to Gilbert, he has been interested in adventure games ever since 1986, when his mother made the mistake of buying him a copy of Wishbringer. Fifteen years later, he took his first dip into game creation when he discovered the Reality-on-the-Norm amateur project and wrote his first short game. Since then, he has authored over six successful freeware games, including 2004's popular Two of a Kind, and Gilbert has become renowned in the Underground community. We recently caught up to Gilbert for a chat about going commercial, the success of The Shivah, and his upcoming games.
Bestowers of Eternity
Two of a Kind
So, Dave, you've given up the day job and are trying to make a living as an independent adventure game designer.
I have? Crap. Yes. Yes I have.
My first question is: ARE YOU NUTS?
YES! Well, not entirely. I worked as an English as a Second Language teacher in Asia for a time, and saved up a lot of money while I was over there. When I came back, it seemed like a good opportunity to try doing this. I knew I wouldn't have an opportunity like this again. I mean, an opportunity to live off my savings and concentrate on making games.
The Shivah has had loads of press since its release. What has been most exciting for you?
The most exciting part has been going to game industry events here in New York City and having people know my name. Well, not my name, but they know who I am. I get, "Hey, you're the rabbi game guy!" a lot. It is weird having people recognize me.
What is your aim during your period of self-supported full-time game design? Is it to get noticed enough to get a job offer, or to be able to support yourself indefinitely if possible? Or something else?
Honestly, I really want to see how far I can take this. I love making these games, but I know how difficult it is to make a living doing it. That's why I'm concentrating on shorter games. If I can get enough profit from one to last me a couple of months until I release the next game, then I'll be happy. I'm not interested in being rich (although I wouldn't sneeze at it!), but I really just want to make a living doing this. I really do love it.
I can understand that. What kind of hours are you putting in?
It varies. I typically try to put in 7 hours a day, whether it's actively working on the game or chatting with the team members about stuff or just trying to generate publicity. There are no set hours like a 9-5 job, so it can get very surreal at times. Like I won't get started until noon, but I'll still work till 7-8 at night.
Are you your own toughest boss?
You bet. Sometimes I dock my own wages. Then I threaten to quit. That'll show me!
Have you met any adventure game indies? Like Britney Brimhall or Cindy Pondillo?
Not in person, no. I've contacted many people online to get their advice, though. Like Amanda Fae (of Aveyond fame) and David Rodriguez (who helped market Morning's Wrath). They've all been very helpful and more than willing to answer all my stupid questions. I'd love to meet more adventure game sellers in real life.
Maybe you can have an "Underground Sell-outs" conference!
Is that what I'm doing? I know you're joking, but you're actually not the first one to accuse me of that. I have gotten some hate-letters. Especially over Shivah. I made the Deluxe version as a way of seeing if I could manage the whole deadline/selling/marketing thing, and I soon realized that the only way I could see if it would honestly work is if I removed the freeware version from my website.
There was the expected outcry. People still wanted the game for free, and were disappointed that I was charging for games now. It was a difficult decision to make, but after a lot of soul-searching and a lot of talking with other indie developers here in New York, it seemed like the best course of action. So I removed the freeware version and dealt with the consequences. Fortunately, it seems to be a vocal minority that was upset. As for the whole commercial endeavour as a whole, people have been overwhelmingly supportive, which was a surprise. And very much appreciated.
Do you think many people are distributing the free version? Or that piracy will be a big issue for you?
I'm sure they are distributing the freeware version. The freeware version exists, and while I know that's the main reason why the Shivah sales weren't so good, it's water under the bridge. It wasn't a "mistake" per se, since I didn't plan on making the game commercial when I started on the game, but it goes without saying that Blackwell won't be freeware!
As for piracy, yes, I'm worried about it. People joke with me about pirating the game and I'm like... "are they serious?" I don't like those kinds of jokes. But piracy can't be helped. There are ways to deter it, but nobody can stop it completely. I can only hope that people realize that by pirating the game you are taking money right from my pockets and discouraging me in the process. If I saw my games being pirated, I'm not sure how I'd react.
I am looking into various protection methods, but nothing established quite yet. I'd like to think I'm too small a fish for pirates to go after.
So, enough of the sad stuff. Tell us about your new game, The Blackwell Legacy.
Right! Let's stop talking about all the doom and gloom. Let's talk about a game about dead people!
The Blackwell Legacy is the first case or episode in a series of games that stars a medium called Rosangela Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey Mallone. Their mission, it seems, is to investigate supernatural phenomena and assist tormented spirits.
The duo's first case involves a series of suicides at a local college. Something is strange about the suicides, perhaps something supernatural. Rosangela is surprised to discover she is a medium and even more surprised to find herself the unwilling detective in this gruesome mystery.
The characters are the same ones who featured in my freeware game Bestowers of Eternity a few years back, but the story is about 90% new and the puzzles are all fresh.
What more can you say about Rosangela and Joey?
Rosangela is kind of a loner. Doesn't get out much. Strong-willed but not really confrontational. She's one of those "struggling writer" types, although she hasn't exactly made the strongest effort. Joey is Rosangela's spirit guide, although he can't tell why. He's the "connection" between Rosangela and the spirit world, introducing her to wayward spirits and making sure she gets the job done. He doesn't really talk about himself much, so there's not much I can go into right now. But he's very much the product of the jazz era. Dresses well, charming, but very rough around the edges. He's quick to throw a punch as well as a glib joke.
There've been "supernatural detective" games before. What makes Blackwell Legacy stand out?
Well, the first thing that I think distinguishes it is having a ghost as the "sidekick." Having a ghost on your side that can slip through walls or observe things you can't hasn't been done too often, or so I think. Also, even though Joey could be considered a sidekick, he's hardly a "trusty" one or even a very nice one. He was thrust into this position against his will, and does it more or less because he has to, instead of because he wants to. Neither Joey NOR Rosa asked to do this, which leads into some interesting character conflicts later on. The backstory is long and, I believe, interesting, which I hope will set it apart from the rest.
And none of those other supernatural detective games take place in New York!
The Blackwell Legacy
You tried to do Bestowers of Eternity as a commercial game once before, right?
Haha. You had to bring that up.
What went wrong?
I did, and I learned a lot from the process. There were a few things I did wrong. First of all, I made the all-too-common mistake of being too ambitious. The game was huge, with a massive backstory and about 80 rooms. It took place over four days, and I wanted all the characters to wear different clothes for each day. I wanted the weather to change. I wanted super deluxe, high-res everything. All in all, I behaved almost exactly like every 13 year old wannabe game writer who pops up onto a forum to make the BEST GAME EVAR!!
I was just coming off making Two of a Kind, which was one of the few team-based projects to actually work. So, high on my own success, I thought I could achieve it. It wasn't long before I realized how big and daunting the game was going to be. Over the course of the first three months, about ten artists had come on board and flaked out. I couldn't afford to actually PAY anyone till the game was done, so there was no motivation to do all the work required. I was spending most of my time trying to find loyal artists to work on the project. It was extremely discouraging.
Plus, the game was a bit of a mess. Since the backstory was so large, most of the game was about researching the backstory. This, in retrospect, wasn't very interesting. So it's not surprising that the game died a slow, lumbering death. I was not ready to handle such a monster. I don't blame the artists who flaked out. The fact that I couldn't pay them, coupled with the amount of work involved, would send any sane person screaming.
So this time round you're paying up front?
Not entirely. Since the development time is so short now, people are more willing to put in the work: they'll be seeing fruits of their labors in a few months, instead of a few years.
When did you get the idea to try again?
I got the idea while making Shivah, actually. It was a short game, with a very short development time. Most attempts at commercial games are huge epics, but I thought to myself, why do they have to be epics? It seemed more practical to make shorter games to sell and release them every 4-5 months then make a huge epic every 3-4 years.
How many episodes will The Blackwell Legacy have in total?
I prefer to be a bit vague about that. I have a number planned, but the exact number depends on how well the series sells. And if I'm able to support myself doing it.
Have you written all the episodes already?
I've plotted them all out, yeah. I haven't written the dialog yet, though. Some of the episodes are more complicated than others, so I want to see what we're capable of doing first.
Is each going to stand alone, or do you really need the set?
Yes and no. To refer back to what I said before, the original BoE was a mess because Rosa and Joey would spend most of the game researching the backstory, and not enough time doing what makes them interesting to begin with. So the episodic format works in the story's favour: each episode will focus on a case that Joey and Rosa have to solve and the backstory details will be revealed over time. So yes, each episode will stand alone. But there will be a background "story arc".
You've used AGS for all your adventures so far. Have you looked into other game creation programs?
I've looked into things like Torque and Ogre, and I'll probably make the move to something else in the future if this takes off. But for now, I'm sticking with what I know.
If you could take one commercial adventure game to a desert island, and the means to play it, which game would you take?
I think I'd have to go with the Gabriel Knight box set. And when I get bored with it, I can use the packaging as a life raft...
And one freeware adventure game?
Difficult. I haven't actually been playing many games at all recently. I think I'd go with Da New Guys. It always cracks me up.
Finally, have you got any special messages to any fans out there reading this?
Buy low, sell high, don't take any wooden nickels, don't sweat the small stuff, and thanks for thinking my little efforts are worth something.