Dave Gilbert – Wadjet Eye Games interview
Intricate storylines, nuanced characters, and beautiful 2D environments. When you think of Wadjet Eye Games, all of these elements spring to mind. So it was with some surprise to hear that the latest sci-fi production they’re working on, Technobablyon: Birthright, a sequel to James Dearden’s 2015 Technobablyon, would be in 3D. Curious to find out more, I sought out acclaimed writer/designer Dave Gilbert at EGX Rezzed in London to chat about revising people’s perception of his studio, Unavowed’s huge success, and what indie developers should be doing in this day and age to get their games noticed.
Laura Cress: Hi Dave! So, you’ve announced that Technobablyon 2 is going to be in 3D. Can you tell me more about the decision behind that?
Dave Gilbert: It’s just another way of making a game. We’ve been doing the same type of game for a long time. I feel like we’d kind of plateaued; even though Unavowed did do much better than expected, that was kind of an outlier. I was kind of fighting the constraints of flat 2D environments with Unavowed and so this just seems like the natural progression. We've been doing the same thing for 13 years, and the tools to do 3D are much better. Ben [Chandler, Wadjet Eye artist] has learned how to do it and it looks pretty good, and so we've figured, well, now's the time since we have money in the bank from Unavowed. The retro label is something that's been given to us; it's something that we haven't sought out ourselves. I never think of our games as retro. I always consider our designs quite modern in terms of design. But some people say they're retro or throwbacks to nostalgia or love letters to the golden age. I'm like no! They're not!
Laura: Are you annoyed that people say that?
Dave: I'm not annoyed, it's just that that's not what we're trying to do. But, they look like that. And I can't deny that's what they look like, and these two things I haven't been able to reconcile. So I thought, well, maybe it's time to try to do something a little more modern, a little less retro in presentation at least. I do know in Unavowed I was struggling with that a little bit, because I wanted to have this feeling of travelling with these companions, your friends, and they'd banter and talk around you as you did things, but it didn't really work because of the 2D. Sure, they would talk, but they would just stand still while you wandered around the screen, and as soon as you did anything, it would interrupt them, and that did annoy a lot of people.
Laura: So part of the reason behind the change was to rectify that?
Dave: Sure. If it was a more 3D environment where you could walk and explore while your friends are chattering around you – that's what I was going for. And so I was talking with Ben and thought, why don't we just do that?! (laughs) It's sort of scary because we've been doing this one specific thing for a long time, but I don't think our games are successful because of the 2D. I think if you're only playing our games because they have the retro look then that makes me sad because there's a lot more to them than that!
Early work-in-progress screenshot from the upcoming Technobabylon: Birthright, Wadjet Eye's first adventure in realtime 3D
Laura: When it was announced that you were looking to make Birthright in 3D, people started throwing up the old comparisons of adventure games that moved to 3D but didn’t do as well, like Escape from Monkey Island…
Dave: Yes, I was like, oh sure, bring up Escape from Monkey Island. I'll try and make my game like one of the most reviled games in existence. Thank you! (laughs) The tools are different now. You can make good games in 3D very easily now. Most adventures are in 3D and they look great. I think Escape from Monkey Island came out literally twenty years ago – we can do better now. I joke that in 2006 I made a game that looked like it came out 15 years earlier and we're technically doing the same thing now: making a game that looks like it came out in the early mid-2000s!
Laura: Whereabouts are you in terms of development for the game?
Dave: It's hard to say because there's so much to tweak and change. We're about a third of the way through the design. There's a lot of recurring areas that we reuse. It was a big learning curve in terms of how to get everything made. At GDC Ben described it much better because he's the artist, but basically at one point he realised he'd learned so much that the way he was doing things was completely wrong – it was taking too long and looked ugly and so he re-did it all in a month!
Laura: Will this be a direct sequel to Technobablyon?
Dave: Yes. You only play as one of the three characters though; Technobablyon had three characters and you bounced between them. In the sequel you just play as Latha, who has just joined the police force, and so she's kind of finding her way. She's a cool character. And now that we're using 3D, there's a lot more we can do with The Trance as well. That's what I loved about Technobablyon – whenever I give James [Dearden, of developer Technocrat Games] feedback, it's just "more Trance!"
In the Technobabylon sequel, the protagonist Latha will have full freedom of movement at the range
Laura: Will the sequel have a branch of endings like Technobablyon did?
Dave: Yes it will, and we've managed to do something clever where you can choose which ending you had originally chosen in the original. There's some very subtle branching paths.
Laura: Can you tell me anything more about the "Birthright" part of the title?
Dave: I can't really say without spoiling it! I don't want to speak for James; I think I know where he's going with the title because I know the story, but I don't want to spoil it!
Laura: You were talking about Unavowed there and it sounds like the success of that almost took you by surprise?
Dave: Yeah!! I was saying now it's time to move to 3D and do something else, then the game comes out and it outsells everything we've done by far! And it gets an IGF nomination and people are flying me out to events and having me speak about the game…So now I'm second guessing myself – maybe I spoke too soon; should I be going back to 2D?! But I think again it's more that it succeeded because the game was good rather than it was in 2D. It's all voodoo to me. I don't know why games do well and why other games don't. I'm just grateful and lucky people like our stuff! Whatever we're doing right, I just have faith and keep doing it.
Laura: What do you think it was about Unavowed that so captured an audience?
Dave: The RPG aspect of it might have been a reason. I call it an RPG because it's got elements of branching, the party stuff – that's interesting and it hasn't been seen in an adventure game. I was actually inspired by Jen Hepler, who was at BioWare at the time and who gave this interview in 2013 where she talked about how you can skip narrative in combat-based games, but you can't do the opposite. And in BioWare games she really wanted to do that, because the meat of the game was narrative – the talking to your characters, deciding which one to bone, that kind of stuff! I thought, that's a great idea! Why isn't anyone doing that; someone should do that! Nobody did. So in my fit of hubris, I was like...I'll make that game!
Laura: So you made the game, and then what happened?
Dave: Suddenly it got a lot of names interested – people that people respect were talking about Unavowed. I also designed it for streaming, and I think that helped. Often when you watch a stream of a narrative game, you've gotten the experience, and that's it! But with the branching and choosing different party combinations, if you're watching the stream of it you haven't gotten the experience and there's a good chance you might want to go and buy it later. Also I pushed it a lot. I always say to developers, if you're not tweeting about your game every day several months before launch, you're doing something wrong, because it's free!
Even Gilbert was surprised by the unprecedented success of the urban fantasy Unavowed
Laura: What else inspired Unavowed?
Dave: I always say, if there's a big Triple-A game that you like and it has some little aspect that you really like, take that and make that your game as an indie. And so I took that aspect of BioWare titles that I liked – that I choose my party and I go out and they react to things around them and to things that I did. I knew I wanted to make that kind of mechanic, but in terms of the actual setting I'm just a huge fan of Dresden Files and Hellblazer, and I always wanted to make an urban fantasy and there's not really a lot of them!
Laura: What do you think about the shift even in larger titles towards narrative in the last few years?
Dave: Visual novels are so big so a lot of companies are focusing on narrative because they see, oh, this is important. You know, there's a narrative summit at GDC now – people are talking about it, more than they used to. And that's always been my bread and butter, the narrative aspect.
Laura: You can see just from Rezzed the amount of small indie developers out there now. What other advice would you give them?
Dave: Well, when I started out things were so different, so all my advice and tricks I learned were relevant ten years ago. It's important to stand out in some way. Because there's so many games coming out, the ones that stand out and do well have something interesting and unique about them. I will also say start small. Don't make that big game for your first one. You'll burn yourself out, and you'll run out of money and you'll really do damage to yourself. There's a reason why my first few games were very, very small.
Latha's avatar can once again meet up with Cheffie in The Trance in Technobabylon: Birthright
Laura: When will Technobablyon: Birthright be out?
Dave: It might be close to being done at the end of this year, but I doubt it’ll be ready. It looks really good; I'm kind of amazed! I can't wait to get the voice acting in there and see how that plays out. I don't know when that'll come out – or Nighthawks for that matter. We're hoping for next year.
Laura: Thanks for chatting with me!
Dave: No problem! I will say: I don't know how I managed to get this far but I'm very grateful that I have. The fact that I can do this for a living and support my family on it and live a fairly comfortable life while doing something that I love is an amazing blessing, and I'm just grateful for that every day. Especially to Adventure Gamers, because you guys were supporting me from the beginning and I'm always grateful for that; you guys have always been behind me and you reviewed my stuff from day one and that's awesome. But also to our fans and everyone that's played our stuff – since 2006 – I owe you all so much because I'm here because of that, and I'm grateful and thankful every day.