Family Business – Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert publishing, adventure games, and life after Blackwell

Blackwell Epiphany Wadjet Eye Dave Gilbert

When I caught up with Dave Gilbert at GDC, he looked like he’d been through the wringer since we talked at PAX East last year. He was still wearing his regulation uniform of jeans and a slightly faded hoodie, but he looked like a guy who is in the last mile of a marathon.

Little wonder: Gilbert spent 2013 making the final installment of the Blackwell series that formed the foundation of his Wadjet Eye Games. As if that wasn’t enough, he and his wife, Janet — who is also the technical brains behind Wadjet Eye — had a baby. Then they moved house four times.

It was a tough year, Gilbert conceded. “But we make it work. Somehow.”

PCGN: You’ve been working on the Blackwell series for a long time. Are you glad to be shot of these characters? Is it tough to let them go?

Dave Gilbert: (laughs) Bit of yes, bit of no. I’m happy to move on to new things. I love the characters, I love writing for Rose and Joey. I’ve learned a lot about game development, game design, and game creation from this series.

And that’s also part of the problem: I still feel like the first game is not my best work, but I’m still kind of attached to my earlier stuff. So it’s nice to make a complete break from where I got my start, and move on to new things.

But at the same time, I’ve had these characters in my head for so long that it is weird to say goodbye. They’ve existed in my head in some way or form since almost 2002, so that’s 12 years at this point. That’s a long time.

PCGN: Did you write a conclusion, or did you leave yourself an open door?

Gilbert: It’s pretty conclusive, but I guess since it’s Blackwell, if I wanted to, I could return to it. But for the most part, it’s a pretty definitive ending.

PCGN: A lot of your games seem to come from what’s on your mind at the time. So what are some of the issues you’re thinking about exploring next?

Gilbert: It’s hard to say right now what I want to focus on next. It’s whatever speaks to me at the time. What do I want to get across? What am I trying to say? Usually that comes from something in my life, something I’ve gone through or that I’m dealing with.

I know with Blackwell Epiphany, weirdly — I kind of went through my own epiphany back when I first started in the industry where I wasn’t happy where I was. I went to Asia, travelled for a long time, tried to find myself. And in the end, I sort of found myself writing these games.

So the idea of epiphanies, and how people move from one thing to another, interests me. And this was my way of exploring that. It got a little weird, but you’ll see when you play it. But that’s sort of where that came from.

I think anything you create has to come from something, or else it’s just shallow and not very interesting.

PCGN: From a business perspective, tell me about the future of Wadjet eye?

Gilbert: We did Primordia two years ago. And we’ve got two more that are slated for — One is definitely coming out this year, the other, probably not.

I definitely like working with other developers, it kind of spreads out the risk in terms of if one flops, there’s others there to take up the slack. Builds up our brands. The more games we come out with, the more people remember us. That was sort of the problem last year: we had nothing new. We had a baby, and we moved four times.

The apartment we were moving into — It was just issues with the people living there. They kept pushing the move-out date. But in the meantime, we had already arranged for the people who bought our apartment to move in. We ended up having to move four times. With a newborn baby. It was not fun.

But fortunately, we were kind of running on autopilot. We had such a good year in 2012 that we could kind of coast on that in 2013. We got away with it for one year. Now we gotta produce something.

PCGN: You wife is your engineering and programming lead, right? Being an independent developer and having a newborn… those are two full-time gigs. How you make that work?

Gilbert: Well, right now Janet works part-time. And we have a nanny come in for five hours during the day. And during that time Janet works. And I’m pretty much full time. I go out to the cafes.

Because as much as I’d love to be home all day, I just know I’d get very little done with the baby and everyone. So I go to the cafes or I go somewhere else to work. So that’s how it works. It’s kind of drastically lowered Janet’s output for now.

But you know, we didn’t want to be that kind of parents who shunted the kid off to daycare all day. We wanted to take advantage of being self-employed. We work from home, we want to see our kid. It’s very important to us.

Fortunately we’re in a place where things can run on autopilot. Because we’ve got a long-tail of games that can continually earn money for us. So right now we’re working on putting everything on Humble Bundle. We had Gemini Rue up there in December, and now we’re working on getting the other games up there. Shivah’s next. We’re going to put the Blackwells up there. So it’s a nice long tail that will continually earn money for us.

But I think the one thing I did sort of slack on was the the more face time in terms of social networking and twitter and all that stuff. I haven’t updated my blog in over a year. That kind of stuff. So I feel a need to get back out there again. That’s why I’m here. And that’s something I’ve gotta kind of work at right now. Catch up to where I was before we were parents.

PCGN: For a developer / publisher like yourself, I’m curious: when you took your foot off the gas, what’s your revenue like when you’re not making new stuff? How much can you coast?

Gilbert: Ehhhhh. It depends. It’s not as much as when we release something new. For sure. But it’s definitely more money coming in. And that’s the important thing. We don’t want to rely on just one game. I learned that early on. If I rely on just one game to earn my livelihood, all it takes is one flop and we’re done.

The problem with game development is it takes so long to make a game. That you can’t just think, “Okay, do I have enough money for one month?” Or two months. It takes so long that you gotta think, “Okay, what will my position be a year from now?” Because that’s how long it will be before I get this new game out and it will earn money.

So you gotta think a year ahead, and it’s sometimes hard to gauge. So I know that we’ll be good for a year. If I didn’t work at all, I’d be fine for a year. But after that, I’d be screwed. Because I’d have nothing coming in.

PCGN: From a personal standpoint and then a business standpoint, what do you feel have been your most successful games?

Gilbert: Business standpoint? Without question it’s Gemini Rue. If only because we pretty much — it was handed to us on a silver platter. It was this game that was almost perfect. And we just added the voice acting and some art, gave it a lot of QA love, and handled all the marketing and sales and everything. And for the developer, Josh Nuernberger — it worked out pretty well for him because he just didn’t want to deal with any of that. He just wanted to be done with it and handed it to me and said, “You take care of it.”

And we have. But from a business standpoint, it was great. Because it was very little personal investment. Maybe four or five months of voiceover and art and QA and stuff. And meanwhile it’s earned so much money that it really put us on the map. So in terms of, like, business success? Nothing can compare to that.

Personal success? I think in terms of games that exist, I’m very proud of Blackwell Deception. If only because I took almost every lesson I’ve learned and I put it into that game. I just got a lot of feedback and reworked things and kinda scaled back on the graphics a little bit so I could spend more time on the game itself. I think the result is something I’m extraordinarily proud of.

And I put all of that as well into Blackwell Epiphany. I think this is the biggest, “bestest”, most ambitious game I’ve ever ever done. And I’m a little biased, but I think it’s really really good. Just visually, if you want a soundbite, I feel like I’ve finally made the Blackwell game that exists in my head.

I was never able to do that before. Whether it was just a little too colorful or a little too cartoony, or something. I always found it — I always thought it was a lot more dark and gritty than what was actually produced. And this is the first time that I see the game, and it is what I had in my head. So I am very proud of Blackwell Epiphany.

PCGN: One of the striking things in your games is the voice acting is really strong. But I have wondered, when you’re working on a game that you haven’t written, when it’s someone else’s, are you still doing lots of notes and voice direction?

Gilbert: Yeah. I work with the voice actors. I’ll send auditions to the developer. It would be very hard, unless they lived in New York, to work remotely with the developer

And usually by the time the voice acting happens, I’m familiar enough with the game and the characters that I can pretty much handle it. And if the developer doesn’t like it at all, and it’s something really important and I’ve completely missed the point? We’ll redo it.

But usually I have a pretty good instinct for that kind of thing. I’ve done it enough times that I just say, “Look, I’ve done 12 games. I’m not a professional studio, but I have 12 games’ worth of experience. Just trust me.” And usually it works out.

PCGN: You have two games you are publishing in the next year. Catch me up on those.

GIlbert: One is called The Golden Wake. It is, are you familiar with Franciso Gonzales? Grundislav [Games]? He did a freeware series called Ben Jordan. He’s doing this game set in the Twenties in MIami, and it’s about a guy who comes down to join the real estate boom and gets involved in lots of corruption and dirty dealings.

It’s kind of a mob story; it’s kind of a rise and fall story. It’s really, really neat. I like it because you think about the 20s and 30s and you think of Chicago or New York. But instead it’s like Miami, during the day. And it’s just a unique style. I really enjoy it.

The other one is called Techno Babylon. It’s more sci-fi, cyberpunk. And it’s just about murder and conspiracy in the near future, with robots and VR. And it’s really fun.

PCGN: It does sort of seem like all the Wadjet Eye games have this theme of urban crime fiction running through them.

Gilbert: Kinda. The funny thing is that, it’s what I like. So one of the things people say is in reviews is how, yeah, they’re all from different developers, but they all look like they came from the same wheelhouse. Because it’s all Stuff That Dave Likes. And I wouldn’t take on something that I didn’t really like myself.

Sometimes we’ve deviated from that, and sadly, they don’t do as well. But it’s all just down to my tastes. I just happen to like them, and I publish them. And I’ve found that whenever I find myself thinking about a game, and it’s like, “How will I market this? How will I tailor it to this audience?” — Inevitably it’s shallow and it fails horribly.

PCGN: Are those guys working on stuff for Wadjet Eye right now? Do you talk about what’s next?

Gilbert: They don’t really work for me. It’s more that they’re working on a game. Sometimes a developer just doesn’t have the time or motivation or experience to just get it done, and that is where we’ll step in and say, “We can’t really give you a lot of money, but we can give you full-time involvement.”

Like, Resonance, we didn’t pay [Vince Wesselman] to take on the game and publish it. But my wife spent a year of full-time work making the game happen. Primordia, same thing. It was more of a production head capacity where I was making sure everything got done, trying to help them prioritize.

That’s the one thing I’m good at: just getting things done. That’s a lot easier to do when it’s not yours. I found that when I’m publishing something, it’s a lot easier to be like, “No, work on this. Don’t work on this other thing that you think is cool. Work on this, because it needs to be done.”

But when I’m working on my own thing, it’s a lot harder. So it’s sometimes easier to produce. When I’m publishing, it’s sometimes not as creatively fulfilling, but a little easier in some respects.

I would never say, “This is what makes a game good.” But I think we have some experience in what doesn’t work. What makes a game bad, or what people haven’t been responsive to in previous games.

But at the same time, 2012 was all publishing and I really missed working on my own stuff by the end of it. Now, after a year and a half of working on my own stuff, I’m all burnt-out and the idea of producing someone else’s game is really appealing right now. A year from now, I’ll be saying something different. So it’s nice to have the best of both worlds.

PCGN: When I’ve read reviews of your games — and I think Resonance is where I saw it the most — the reviews can be very mixed. People complain about puzzles all the time. To what degree does that correlate with sales?

Gilbert: Oh, Resonance did very well. A lot of people like the hard puzzles. I was really surprised, because I’m really not that kind of guy. There was one puzzle in Resonance that was completely optional. Sadly, it doesn’t really show that it’s optional. It’s a wiring puzzle that you can bypass very easily. But there’s an achievement for solving it. And I was really surprised: like 60% of the players solved that puzzle. I was really surprised that that high a number solved that puzzle. People like them.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. If a game is too hard, people get frustrated. If a game is too easy, they’ll complain it’s too easy. I think it’s okay for a game to be easy if you don’t condescend. Like, Gemini Rue: very easy game. But it at least respects your ability to solve the easy puzzles.

There’s some games that are easy but will have giant flaming arrows telling you where to go. It never feels good to be called stupid. You want to be able to figure it out yourself. Or at least, have the illusion of figuring it out yourself. And I think Gemini Rue did that very well.

Resonance is a puzzle game. It just is.

PCGN: Adventure gamers are impervious to that kind of thing?

Gilbert: The truth of the matter is, the average adventure gamer plays with walkthroughs. They get stuck, they will look for help. I do it. Everyone does it. When I design my own stuff, I feel like if you have to leave my game in order to enjoy it, if you have to exit out and go to Google, I have failed. I feel like you should be enjoying it. If you make the experience immersive and fun, then some people will complain it’s too easy. There’s no way to please everybody.

Resonance, the characters are strong and that carries you through that. If you get really stuck, you check a walkthrough and you’re on your way. If you are really enjoying it, the puzzle is there for you.

Blackwell Epiphany was just released on most major digital distribution platforms. It is the final chapter of the Blackwell series, which follow the paranormal adventures of spiritual medium Rosa and her ghost-partner, an old-school hardboiled detective. Our friend Richard Cobbett spoke very highly of it over on RPS.