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.