While at New York Comic Con 2013, I had the chance to talk with New York based indie developer Dave Gilbert.
Dave is the founder of Wadjet Eye Games which specializes in point and click adventure games. I talked to Dave about how his career got started, what influences him and for good measure, about Bioware games.
How did you get started [making video games]?
In September 2001. The towers went down and it was a really horrible time. I was unemployed after being laid off from this really awful office job and I was looking for something to keep my mind off everything. I discovered this freeware engine called Adventure Game Studio that enabled you to make those old school point and click adventure games. I loved those when I was younger so I picked it up. I made this little dinky game in a weekend, I uploaded it to the forum and I asked people what they thought, they seemed to like it so I kept making them.
Five or six years later I was unemployed again and had money saved up this time so I thought “you know what? I can’t really envision doing anything else with my life,” so it was now or never and I decided to start selling my games commercially. I did, it’s seven years later and I’m still doing it.
This is how you currently make your living?
Yup. Me, my wife and our new baby daughter.
Do you make a decent living now?
Yeah. We’re managing to sustain our family and we bought a new apartment in Brooklyn so we’re doing pretty well.
What kind of games did you like when you were growing up? What games influenced you to make the sort of games you make now?
I was a big fan of the point and click adventure games. I cut my teeth on Infocom. My first real adventure game was Wishbringer by Infocom way back in the 80s. From there I discovered King’s Quest and Monkey Island, and all of those. So I kind of came of age in that golden era of adventure games in the early 90s.
Those are the type of games I wanted to make. I don’t know if they necessarily influenced me so much as that is how I liked telling stories. In terms of what influences me, it’s just generally the media I consume like television, movies, books. I’m a huge mystery fan, big sci-fi fan. In the last several years I’ve gotten into urban fantasy. I’m a huge fan of The Dresden Files.
I love The Dresden Files, man.
I’m reading it right now, I got my Kindle loaded up with one. I’m reading Changes. Re-reading the entire series. This is my third time reading them. Anyway, I’m very influenced by all of that stuff and that influences the games I make.
I noticed that New York is also a big influence on your games.
You write what you know
Which one of your games is the one you’re most proud of?
Well, there’s the games I’ve made and the ones we’ve published. In terms of something I’ve made, it’s always whatever I’m working on. Whenever you look back on anything you’ve done all you see are the flaws. I felt like the last Blackwell game I made was like the best game I ever made. Gameplay, story wise, everything came together. Now I look at it and I think “yeah…I could do better” or “I really didn’t focus on the atmosphere or the graphics at all. It was just pure story”. The game I’m doing now Blackwell: Epiphany, the fifth and last game in the Blackwell series, I feel that the story and gameplay compliment each other really well and I’m really focusing on the atmosphere of it.
The funny thing is that you say that a lot of my games take place in New York and a lot of the reviews mention how I like to show off the city. It’s funny how they say that when most of the games take place in offices and apartments and stores, a lot of interior shots…I don’t really show off the city at all. For this game, I wanted to show more exteriors. I wanted to show a lot more of the city, a lot of different types of buildings like brownstones, those new glass skyscrapers, that kind of thing. I wanted to show off variety so you need to see them from the outside, so there’s a lot that takes place outside. I’m also setting it in the dead of winter which is kind of a dick move when you think about it.
New York is a really interesting place in the dead of winter. You can get really moody with that.
Yeah, that’s what I love. I read this article recently about how snow is the new rain in terms of noire so I’m like “Yeah…I’m ahead of that. I’m ahead of that trend”. I would say that the game I’m working on now is the one I’m the most proud of. It’s hard to say which one of the games that currently exist is the one I’m most proud of because I feel that I do better with each game I make.
Well, you’re an artist and you only see the flaws of your old games.
I’m a temperamental artist
What’s it like being a video game developer in New York? You’re separated from most game developers who are typically out West.
There’s a big scene in Boston and there is an indie scene here in New York but it isn’t cohesive. There’s not like, a big group for all of the indie developers in New York. It’s like there’s this group here and this group there and it’s all kind of splintered. That’s fine, that’s New York. That’s the way we do things here, we do our own thing.
Someone said that the way I do business is “very New York”, the idea that you just made it work, somehow you had this idea and you made it work. I guess that’s how it happens. I started making these games and I liked doing it, I wanted to keep doing it, I knew that I had to get more games out in order to really keep doing it, so I started publishing as well and that sort of became a thing we’re known for. I say the games that we’re REALLY, really known for are the ones we’ve published so that’s definitely brought a lot of clout to our company. So I guess that is a very New York way of doing things.
It totally is.
I don’t know if that really answers your question at all…
It answers it for me, I don’t know about the readers. That’s your answer, people! Accept it!
“Just accept it!” That’s another New York thing too.
How involved are you in your games? Do you do the programing, art design? How involved are you?
I do the design, I do the writing, write all the dialogue and do most of the programming, depending on the game. The only things I really hire out are art and music and of course the voice acting since I can’t do all of that myself. I outsource the PR now, as you know.
I do the core design, our internal stuff, I do myself.
Was it easy giving up control of some of those things to other people?
Yeah. I don’t know if this is true or not but I have this way of thinking that the way a company grows, is by hiring people to do the stuff you no longer want to do yourself [laughs]. I didn’t hate doing PR but it just took up so much time and I wasn’t very good at it.
As things got bigger there were a lot of emails that I had to answer day to day so I hired someone to take care of that. There’s things that I’m thinking of like hiring full time testers and things like that. Things that I don’t want to have to do myself anymore.
Yeah. The less of that that you have to do, the more time you have to focus on making games.
Exactly. Anything that enables me to make the games is to the good.
What’s it like to be in your position? You make a living off your games yet still have a certain amount of freedom. You’re not beholden to anyone but yourself for the most part.
There is a lot of freedom and that is why I do it. You don’t do it for the money. Well…the money’s nice but that’s not why you get into it in the first place. There’s a lot of freedom. I love going to the cafes and working there. I can work on what I want. I don’t have to answer to anyone. I think that anyone I ever had a day job with, any boss I ever had, they would probably not believe that I’m working as hard as I am now. I am at my worst when I am doing something for somebody else.
Yeah. There’s no passion behind it.
There’s no passion behind it and also I secretly resent it. You tell me what to do and I just bristle. “I know you’re paying me for it but I’m resenting it”. This is why being an indie works really well for me. I can go to the Starbucks, I can go to the Cozy’s or I can go wherever and work or I can work from home if I want to.
The downside to that is that you never really have the security that you do from having a regular paycheck, where you know how much money you’re making every month. Like, if you want to make a plan, you want to make vacation plans for several months from now but you’re not sure how much money you’re going to make between now and then. It’s really hard to make long term plans, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen in the future. Right now there’s more at stake. We have a new apartment, we have a baby, things are a little more nerve wracking because it’s no longer just about us anymore. We really need to sustain ourselves and we have, things have really taken off in the last 2 or 3 years so we’ve been very, very lucky but we’re also very well aware of how easily that could change.
The market changes. When I first started, the casual games were really big and then that kind of died. Things changed to the point where the average indie couldn’t really earn their living from there anymore. Now with Steam and everything, indie’s all the rage right now, I kind of came in at just the right time and we’re doing really well from that. Will the market change again? I don’t know. Point and click adventure games are a hot item right now thanks to the Tim Schaffer Kickstarter and a lot of high profile developers coming back. Suddenly everyone wants to talk to me, which is awesome but I’m well aware that things could change. Until then I’m trying to rake in as much as I can.
There you go. Keep riding that wave.
I want to ride that wave as long as I can, yeah.
All of your games are available on Steam right now?
Yup. All our games are on Steam and our upcoming games will be on Steam as well.
Do you have any plans to bring your games to consoles since point and click adventure games are doing so well on them these days?
Those games are designed from the ground up to be on consoles. Mine would need significant updating because they’re really mouse driven. We put them on iOS and that works fine because you can just point and click. With an analog stick that’s a lot harder. It would be a lot harder to gauge where the character is going and what to click on. It’d be a lot harder. It’d be much, much harder.
Have you actually thought about bringing your games to consoles?
We have but when you’re small you can only put your time and effort and money into stuff that’ll give you the most bang for your buck. That’s why we went to mobile, because we felt that could do the most for us. We put Gemini Rue on mobile and that’s done really well. Now we’re putting The Shivah on mobile and we’re also redoing the graphics for that as well. We decided to do The Shivah because it’s our smallest game and we have a baby so it seemed like the most logical thing to do. That’s coming out by Hanukkah. I’m working on the fifth Blackwell game. Mobile’s our next step. I generally tend to be behind the rest of the world in terms of new platforms because adventure games take so long to make or even port that I need to be sure that what we’re doing will be successful. I don’t want to just say “okay yeah…consoles could work let’s spend six months doing that,” I can’t do that. I’d rather spend six months working on something for PC that I know I can sell.
The PC market has grown a lot so that kind of helps you out.
Steam is the big forefront there because…everyone buys their games on Steam. It’s funny, because getting on Steam is quite important and I think they realize that now. It’s not a matter of people buying your game because it’s on Steam it’s just…people JUST buy their games on Steam. It’s like, if a game wasn’t at Gamestop you’d probably never buy it…because that’s where you buy games. Same with Steam. Even if you can just go to the developer’s website and buy the game there, people just don’t want to…they want to buy it from Steam, it doesn’t seem to count unless it’s in their Steam library. Before I was on Steam that used to infuriate me. I’d be like “what’s wrong with you?” but now I get it. People just like having it in their Steam library. So yeah that’s kind of helped a lot there.
What are your thoughts on the Steambox?
It’s interesting because generally I don’t play games on the PC…because I’m spending all day working on the PC that I don’t want to play games on the PC so I will play on the console. If there’s a PC game that could be played on the console I think that’s a neat idea. So people can have it in their Steam library and get their Steam achievements and still have the experience of playing on a console. I think that is kind of a neat idea. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.
What are some of your favorite console games right now?
Right now I’m playing GTAV, which I’m enjoying. I’m a big RPG fan. I’m a huge fan of Bioware. They’ve had a few slips but I still have faith that they’ll…
Dragon Age II huh?
You know…funny thing is that I played Dragon Age II twice and I only played the first one [Origins] once. I didn’t mind [Dragon Age II] as much as other people did. I see what [Bioware] were trying to do but they didn’t quite succeed. They were basically trying to make an episodic series within one game…and that didn’t work because there was no real strong overarching story to tie it all together. It’s like each quest line was its own separate story and taken by themselves they were actually quite interesting but altogether it was just this big mesh of stories. It was like tuning into a new episode of a TV show every week which, if you think of it like that, it was quite cool. I liked the characters, I liked the combat—it was a lot of fun to play. I see what they were trying to do. I think they were under pressure to get another Dragon Age game out quickly and so this is how they did it. I like how they’re taking their time with the next one [Dragon Age: Inquisition] and I’m really looking forward to it.
Yeah it looks really nice.
Yeah. I know I’ll be the first in line buying it. I had no problem with the Mass Effect 3 ending. I know a lot of people other people did.
I did. I was very upset.
I wouldn’t say it was the most satisfying ending but I wasn’t like, signing petitions or anything. I feel that the ending to Mass Effect 3 was the end of Mass Effect; the whole game was saying goodbye to the series. That’s how I thought it of it but I’m obviously in the minority there.
You mentioned episodic games and how it seemed like Bioware was trying to do that with Dragon Age II. I actually felt that Mass Effect 2 did that better because to me that felt like a season of a television series.
You had your individual episodes but it all tied together.
It was all in the service of one greater plot which was interesting. What I love about Mass Effect is that they did such a great job building that world. It was all in the service of a bigger backstory. There was this one area in Mass Effect 2 which I kept going back to where, it was a Quarian and a Turian talking. The Turian was obviously in love with the Quarian and…you knew they had such cultural differences and they were both saying things that they didn’t mean. It worked because you knew about these two races. It took everything you knew about the series and it had this very little side dialogue but it was so ingrained in that world, in that universe, and it worked so well. That’s why I love Mass Effect, it’s just such a well fleshed out world. You encounter something in that game and it has to do with the greater picture which is what I loved about it. Dragon Age II didn’t have that. It was all about your band of characters and the people you meet, not about the bigger story which is why people didn’t like it so much and why it didn’t work so well.
I’m always thinking about episodic games and how they should work. Blackwell is kind of episodic and I think if I had my druthers I would not do another episodic series again quite like that because I didn’t have it as planned out as I should have when I first started and seven years is a looong time. The great ideas I had back then I think are crap now…but I’m stuck with them because I’ve started it and I have to finish it. That’s a problem. You always think stuff you did earlier is not as good and if you’re doing an episodic series that takes years and years to finish you’re stuck with those ideas. That’s one reason I’m ending it, among other things.
Do you want to say anything else before we wrap it up?
All I can really say is that I started this company seven years ago when I was unemployed and not sure what I was doing with myself. I kind of did it as a way of avoiding getting a job and I’m really, really happy that I haven’t had to get a real job yet. I’ve been doing this for seven years, I hope to continue to do it for seven years and maybe longer than that. I’m just really happy to still be doing this.
It’s that cliched thing: if you find something that you love doing and you can make money off it, then you’re not really working.
Yeah that’s the funny thing, this used to be my hobby and it’s seven years in and I keep thinking “I think I need another hobby…” because this is all I do.
And you still haven’t lost the passion for it.
It comes and goes like anything. When it’s a hobby and you’re doing it for fun, you have all the passion in the world, it’s easy, it’s fun but when you wake up and you just don’t feel like doing it and just getting in front of that computer and writing it and encoding it…it just feels like a slog, then it becomes work. No matter how much you love your job you’re going to have days like that.
I can sympathize.
I’m sure Playboy photographers have days when they don’t want to go into work and they hate their job.
Dave Gilbert, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you and goodbye.
You can visit Wadjet Eye Games’ website here. All of their games are available now on Steam. You can buy Gemini Rue now on the Apple App store. The Shivah wil be available on the App store this Hanukkah.