Dave Gilbert - Wadjet Eye Games interview
Adventure Gamers last chatted with Dave Gilbert back in 2006 when he'd only released one game commercially (The Shivah). Since then, he's put out two well-received games in the Blackwell series and started venturing into new ground as both a developer and fledgling publisher. With the release of his first externally-published adventure, Emerald City Confidential, just around the corner, I recently caught up with Dave again to find out what he's been up to and learn a little more about his upcoming releases and the future for his company, Wadjet Eye Games.
Adventure Gamers: Dave, for those not familiar with you or your work, can you give us a brief profile of yourself, please?
Dave Gilbert: Sure thing. In a nutshell, I'm an indie game designer from New York City. I run my studio, Wadjet Eye Games, from my apartment in the east village. The studio has released three games so far, and two more will be released this year. Only two that I can confirm. We are working on others, but I can't confirm that they will be released this year.
AG: So the next game in your pipeline is Emerald City Confidential (ECC). Tell us about it.
DG: It's basically Oz meets Raymond Chandler, or an "Oz Noir", if you will. The Emerald City is a shadowy, dark place full of enigmatic characters all with their own agenda. The main character is Petra, a detective in the city who accepts a case from a mysterious woman named "Dee Gale", and in the course of her investigation she uncovers a plot involving an old enemy.
AG: Ah, so it's THAT Emerald City. Will there be any singing?
DG: Hah. No. No musical numbers in this game!
AG: So what made you choose Oz? Those of us who only know of it via Judy Garland may see it as a strange place to set a noir game.
DG: I loved the Oz books as a kid. There were 14 of them written by L. Frank Baum and I couldn't get enough of them. When I got older and started making games, I always had the thought of making a game based on Oz but never could find a good idea. Then I got into noir movies and detective stories, and one day I found myself imagining the Scarecrow being portrayed by Peter Lorre. The rest fell into place from there.
AG: That's obviously a much different vision of Oz than Baum's. Did you have any reservations about taking such a revered world and characters and taking it in a totally new direction?
DG: Not really. If you read the original Oz books, you’ll find a lot of dark edge to them. This is my way of expanding upon that.
AG: What was it about Oz that you felt lent itself so well to a detective story and noir setting?
DG: Anything can lend itself well to a detective story, really. As for noir, it’s not just about the shadowy streets and trenchcoats and fedoras (although those are certainly cool!). The real essences of noir, for me, is the blurred line between right and wrong. The characters can do really good things for bad reasons, and vice versa. In the original books, there was quite a bit of that.
AG: The books are beyond copyright now, right?
DG: Yep. The books are public domain now.
AG: I guess that saves a licencing fee.
AG: At the time of this interview, we're just about a week away from the release of the game. As it’s your biggest release to date, how do you feel?
DG: It's a crazy feeling! Before this game, the most I ever worked on one project was 4-5 months. I've been involved with Emerald City Confidential for over a year now, and it's weird to be saying goodbye to it. But at the same time, I'm excited. I'm eager to see what people think of it, since I've never done anything this ambitious before.
AG: As an adventure for casual gamers, did you have to make any changes to accommodate them? Or is it a casual game for adventurers?
DG: We added a few enhancements to the game to make it more casual friendly, but nothing that detracts from the gameplay. For the most part, it is an adventure game as us die-hards know it. The biggest enhancement is an in-game clue book. If the user gets stuck on a tricky puzzle, they can consult the clue book for help (with the clues getting more and more detailed the more you consult it). It's a great way of easing the usual frustrations of adventure games without taking away what makes them challenging and fun.
AG: If you had to choose a single label, is ECC casual or adventure?
DG: Casual games are such a broad term, since there are so many types of casual games. Emerald City Confidential is story, dialog and puzzle driven and there isn't an emphasis on action or random clicking. So if I had to choose, it would definitely be an adventure game.
AG: Adventure Gamers recently commented that casual gaming may pose a significant threat to the adventure genre. Do you think that's a problem?
DG: I don't think there’s any reason to be concerned. In fact, I'd say the opposite is true. The first two Blackwell games were not casual friendly in the least, but did phenomenally well in that market. It might have been a fluke, but it's an audience which has been known to love adventure games. The truth is, it's hard to lump ALL adventure games into one category. It's like lumping all movies into one category. If you don't like comedies, you aren't going to like Sam & Max. If you don't like science fiction, you aren't going to like The Dig. If you really like westerns, you will probably love Freddy Pharkus. It's all about finding the right audience for your work. Just trying to appeal to "adventure gamers" is too broad.
AG: Have you got any of the traditional casual game features in ECC like Escape-the-Room pixel hunts or Badges for achieving certain things?
DG: Badges are the casual equivalent of Xbox achievements, and you'll definitely be receiving some in Emerald City Confidential. There is a little hidden-object like side game where you have to find shiny buttons in each location, and each one rewards you with little extras like concept art and sketches, but they aren't necessary to complete the game.
AG: How did you get involved with PlayFirst, the publishers of ECC?
DG: I met them at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco in 2007. At these conferences, all the big companies throw a party. A friend of mine snuck me into the PlayFirst party (it took place at a diner and was called the "Diner Bash", to celebrate their game Diner Dash), and I was introduced to Kenny Dinkin, the creative director at PlayFirst. He told me he really enjoyed The Shivah and offered me a publishing deal. At the time, I wasn't familiar with PlayFirst and their types of games. When I later checked them out, I looked at their games and thought "I don't know anything about making games like this!" and then kinda forgot about the offer. Then, several months later, Kenny got back in touch again. This time, he made a point of saying that he wanted a "real adventure game, like the kinds on your site." I agreed, of course. I came very close to blowing it!
Adventure Gamers: So how did the actual game making process work with PlayFirst: was it just like your early days as an AGS freeware developer?
Dave Gilbert: It was very different! At the beginning especially, there was a lot of back-and-forth with the art director at PlayFirst before we nailed down the style. With my internal games, I had to do everything myself. But in working with PlayFirst, I had a lot more resources to help out. There was an entire QA department pouring over the game. They had testing sessions with video cameras, watching the players and gauging their reactions to various aspects of the game. It was a fascinating process.
AG: What advantages has using PlayFirst's engine given you?
DG: Since PlayFirst made the engine, they know how it works. It can be altered easily for distribution on any affiliate, it's very portable (the game already works on the Mac with no problem), and it's very easy to localize. As for me, I was so used to making games with AGS that there was a bit of a learning curve. Andrew (the programmer) and Dan (the engineer) took a LOT of the heavy lifting off my shoulders and enabled me to just concentrate on writing the dialog, which was a nice change from my usual way of working.
AG: As well as a Mac version, can we expect to see the game on any other platforms soon?
DG: PlayFirst has ported some of their games to the DS and other handheld devices, so those are a possibility but it's too early to say.
AG: How long is ECC to play through; is it longer than your previous games?
DG: Significantly. I'd say the first chapter of ECC is longer than the first two Blackwell games combined.
AG: And how many chapters are there?
DG: There are four chapters in the game, as well as a prologue and epilogue. You follow Petra as she tries to find a missing person, which leads to a big conspiracy that takes her all over Oz, the brink of war, and beyond. She’s also struggling with a loss, and she’ll have confronted and dealt with that loss by the end of the game.
AG: Can we expect to see the characters from the movie in the game? Any avoid-the-flying-monkey minigames?
DG: Most of them appear, yes! The main cast members like the Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Dorothy appear, but they share the spotlight alongside other major Oz book characters like Tik Tok, Scraps, Woot the Wanderer, Mombi, Ruggedo the Nome King and others. I also invented a few other characters just for the game. And no, there will be no flying monkey minigames.
AG: How much will ECC sell for when is it available, and where can we get it?
DG: ECC will be sold for $19.95, and will be sold off the PlayFirst site. It goes on sale on February 19th, and will be available for PlayFirst Playpass members on the 17th.
AG: You've also got the third game in your existing Blackwell series coming up. Tell us about Blackwell Convergence.
DG: Blackwell Convergence returns to its roots by returning to the present day. It stars Rosangela again, and it's been about 6 months since the first game. So she's been at the medium thing for awhile and a lot less weirded out by the whole thing. The game starts out with Rosa and Joey investigating an actor's spirit in central park, and as they search for the reasons behind the man's death they uncover much more than they bargained for. A lot of the questions from Unbound are answered, and a few more are raised. I'm very proud of the game so far. It's a lot longer than the other games, it's a lot prettier, and it tells a much more satisfying story.
AG: It’ s been a while since you released the demo for Blackwell Convergence. Has much changed since then?
DG: Oh, yes. The game looks completely different than that original demo. The deal with PlayFirst took me completely by surprise, and I was less able to concentrate on two projects than I thought I would be. Eventually I figured, "Well, if the fans are waiting this long I might as well make it worth it." So I scrapped all the artwork that was done (which wasn't much, at the time) and hired a full-fledged studio (Luminous Arts) to do all the backgrounds, and I hired Shane Stevens to redo all the character sprites. ECC was a huge project, so I wasn't able to work on Convergence very often, but I was earning enough to be able to pay Luminous Arts and Shane to work on the art. Now that I'm free to work on Convergence again, I have all these art assets ready and waiting for me.
AG: How long will it be compared to the first two games?
DG: It's much longer than the previous two. Maybe longer than both of them put together. The problem with the first two games is the story could be summed up by: "Investigate, investigate, investigate, BIG CLIMAX, game over." Convergence has a number of exciting things happening over the course of the game, so you don't have to wait until the end to see something cool happening.
AG: What price are you aiming for and when is it due out?
DG: It will be sold for $20. I know that's higher than my previous games, but I wanted to match the prices that the games were sold for on the game portals (they sell every game for $20). I am aiming for Convergence to be out by the end of April, but as usual I don't want to commit myself yet. Definitely before the summer
AG: Still using Adventure Game Studio?
DG: Yep. For Blackwell Convergence I am still using AGS. Sticking with what I know, and all of that. AGS is a great tool, and I love using it. If I ever did switch to something else, it would be due to the lack of portability. It's been a major issue for me.
AG: Now that you've been selling games for a while, any regrets?
DG: My only regret is that I did not try doing this sooner! I put it off for years because I didn’t think it could possibly go anywhere. Then one day I found myself unemployed and I started making and selling games as a way of putting off getting a real job. Come to think of it, I’m still doing that.
AG: Do you (or your characters) get any fan mail? Or hate mail?
DG: The fans have been great! Occasionally I see a forum post where folks are all “That Dave Gilbert has totally sold out, dude!” but they are a very small minority. The support from the fans and the indie games community at large have made this so worthwhile and gratifying. As for the characters, you wouldn’t believe the number of women out there who have confessed their love for Joey Mallone. It’s kinda creepy, but also kinda cool.
Adventure Gamers: Which of the games that you've already released has done the best?
Dave Gilbert: This is a difficult question. They each did really well for different reasons. The Shivah didn’t bring in much in terms of sales, but it gave me more publicity and press than I could have hoped for. The Blackwell series has done much better financially, but I also spent a lot more time doing marketing and sales. Emerald City will have an entire marketing department behind it, so it’s unfair to compare it to my other games. As esoteric as it might sound, each new game has been built on the shoulders and mistakes of the last one. I learn so much with each project, and I still have a lot more to learn.
AG: Those who've played your existing games know that they've got great characters and dialogue. Can we expect to see more of the same in both ECC and BC?
DG: Yes and yes. ECC has almost 40 unique characters to speak to, and while some are more important than others, they all have their stand-out moment. Blackwell Convergence has less characters (about 15), but you can expect to hear the same kind of dialog and character interactions you’ve seen in the previous Blackwell games. Joey and Rosa have some particularly funny interactions with each other.
AG: What does the future hold for Wadjet Eye? Will there be more Emerald City? More Blackwell? Anything else?
DG: My long term goals are to get into the publishing game myself. Wadjet Eye Games has been funding the development of a game led by Erin Robinson, of Spooks/Nanobots fame, and it’s turning out great. In the future, I hope to publish and fund many more independent developers and have a lot more games available on the site. Eventually, I want to have enough going on to have a new game released every few months, instead of only once or twice a year.
As for more Blackwell, definitely! I’ve planned for the series to have 6 games, so after Convergence there will be three more to go. There’s always the possibility of more Emerald City. The game as it stands definitely has a concrete ending, but this is Oz after all. No official decision has been made about a sequel to ECC yet.
AG: Do you think that you'll stick with the adventure genre? No chance of a “Super Blackwell Bros”?
DG: Good question! I love adventure games but I’m also a huge fan of character based RPG games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment. When my company is in better financial shape I plan on making one.
AG: I hear you've been travelling to the UK a lot recently; tell us about that project!
DG: Hah. Very subtle. I've been travelling often to the UK to spend time with my lovely fiancée, Janet, whose only fault is that she lives across the Atlantic ocean from me.
AG: Can we expect to see some adventures set in the UK in the future?
DG: Who knows! But I've visited the future in-laws on their Somerset farm and that locale always seemed like a sweet place to set a game.
AG: You've met up with Steve Ince of So Blonde fame; was that a matter of seasoned game developers comparing notes?
DG: We got in touch through a game forum. I had purchased his game Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso and I wrote him to tell him that I liked it. Somehow, the subject of me visiting my fiancée came up and it turned out he doesn't live far from her. So we try to meet up every time I'm over there. It's a bit surreal talking to him, as I am a huge fan of Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky. But he was so laid back and easygoing that it put me totally at ease.
AG: Did you give him any tips for So Blonde?
DG: Hah. No. If anything, he gives me advice.
AG: How do you manage your work/life balance? Will marriage make a difference?
Dave Gilbert hard at work
DG: Well, as you say it’s a balance. When you work for yourself, it’s very hard to separate life from work. That’s why I bring my laptop to cafes and work from there, most of the time. It’s my way of separating my work life from my home life, and it’s been crucial to my emotional well-being. Although I can’t say the same about my caffeine intake.
I’d say that marriage will have a stabilizing effect on me. It’s not that I won’t be able to work until 4am anymore, it’s that I won’t WANT to. I love my work, and it’s very fulfilling, but at the end of the day what’s more important? My fiancée has helped me realize that.
AG: Compared to when you first started making commercial games, are you busier or less busy?
DG: It’s funny. I joked earlier that I started this company as a way to avoid getting a real job, but I’ve ended up being more busy and having more responsibility than in any “normal” job I ever had! The games have become more expensive, much larger, more ambitious, and require more team members and administrative details to sort out. Regardless, I wouldn’t have it any other way! I am very proud of the way things have turned out.
AG: Has the economic downturn impacted your sales that you can see? Are Wadjet Eye in imminent danger of going bust? I hope not!
DG: It’s hard to say, since it’s been almost two years since we last released anything. All I can say is that two games are being released this year, and two others are in-the-works. The company has never been more productive. So I remain optimistic.
AG: What do you use for inspiration?
DG: Old movies and mystery books! That should come as no surprise to anyone. I’m also inspired by New York City, and the quirky people that have lived here throughout its history. One of my goals of the Blackwell series is to show off the city, not so much the beauty of it but the people and the lifestyle.
AG: Have you taken any advice or insight from any other indie game developers?
DG: You can’t get anywhere in any business if you go it alone, and the game biz is no exception. When I started out, I made a point of talking to as many people as I could. I chatted with Amanda Fitch (of Aveyond fame) quite a bit at the beginning. Her work is a total inspiration. I also went to many many game industry events here in NYC and spoke to everyone about everything. Even if 90% of the advice or networking is useless, rubbing shoulders with other game developers is so inspiring. There’s only so far you can get if the only networking you do is over the internet.
AG: Do you get to play many adventures yourself, or other games?
DG: Unfortunately, not as many as I’d like. Now that I’m making adventure games, when I have the free time to play a game the last thing I want to play is an adventure. Whenever I play one, I find myself thinking either “Oh, I could do better” or “I could never be that good!” and get frustrated. When I’m in-between projects I plan on catching up, but in the meantime I’ve been giving my new Xbox 360 a workout. I have recently become obsessed with the new Prince of Persia game. That’s a blast.
AG: Thank you for your time, Dave. Have you any closing comments?
DG: Only to thank everyone in the adventure and indie game community for being so awesome and for making the last three years worthwhile. It’s been a pleasure.