A Talk with Dave Gilbert
by Peter Rootham-Smith
Dave Gilbert has recently finished the renowned “Blackwell” series, and runs a small game publisher -- Wadjet Eye Games.
GB: What kind of games do you play yourself now?
DB: I make point and click Adventure games. I certainly don’t play too many of them -- mostly because they’re on the PC... and I spend all day on that PC... and the last place I want to play a game is on that same PC. I play console games mostly. I’m really getting into “Dragon Age: Inquisition” and loving it. I played “Phoenix Wright” on the airplane on my iPad and enjoyed that.
GB: How has your approach to making games changed?
DB: I try to focus a lot more on tone, and what message, what atmosphere am I trying to get across. It’s not enough just to have a story. There are all kinds of things that go into creating a world. In the last “Blackwell” game I did, I really wanted to focus on the coldness, the winter. It wasn’t enough to say, “I want it to be in winter.” I wanted it to mean something.
I feel I missed an opportunity with “Blackwell: Convergence” because I wanted it to be rain, yet it really rained because I wanted it to rain. It didn’t add anything to the story or the world or anything. With “Blackwell Epiphany” I decided I wanted snow, but I wanted it to really mean something. So I really focus on atmosphere, on what you’re feeling, on a sense of place and texture. A lot of that goes into a world, not just pure story.
GB: You’ve used AGS (Adventure Game Studio) since 2001. What do you like about AGS and its community?
DB: I pretty much know I can pick AGS up and do whatever I want with it. If I have an idea, I pretty much can make it happen in AGS. Maybe other engines would be simpler, but I don’t know how to use them. AGS is geared perfectly to these kind of games. If you want to make them, there’s no other engine better. It’s a little old now, which leads to some minor incompatibility issues. But for the most part, it does 95% of everything I want it to do -- so it’s so much easier for me to use that than anything else.
GB: Do you see yourself as working in a niche?
DB: Yes I do. I don’t like to think of myself as purely making Adventure games. I like to think of myself as a guy who makes games. I’m aware they’re a niche thing, and as a result that’s why my budgets are still low -- why I haven’t expanded into high resolutions or 3D. I know what I’m capable of doing, and I know roughly what I’ll earn from that. So I typically don’t go any farther than I do.
GB: You know Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Games? He calls himself a bottom feeder with the RPGs he makes.
DB: Love that guy. Being Jewish, I love his self-depreciation. He’s well aware he’s serving a very small niche. He builds that niche with everything he’s got. I’m very much doing the same thing. Adventure games are showing a bit of a resurgence, but maybe not as strong as we would have hoped. But there are still people who like them, and I’m in a good position as an indie to fill it. So I push that as hard as I can. I expand in incremental amounts. Jeff doesn’t. The games he releases now look very similar, and play very similar to what he released five or six years ago. And that’s fine. That works great for him. I do things a bit differently.
I love him. I hang onto every word he says, because he’s been successful at this longer than most popular indies have been in business – since back during the shareware days, when you had to go around computer shops and bring them your game, and have them sell it in the store. He has been around for so long, and seen a lot, and I really admire him. He’s a big inspiration for me.
GB: Has it been a learning exercise with Wadjet Eye Games?
DB: Yes, I would say so. Publishing, I’m using more the other side of my brain for business matters. There are these two worlds where I’m working on my own stuff and I get very burnt out. I’m stressing creatively, and stressing to get it finished, and by the end I’m really burnt out. It’s nice to be able to work on other people’s projects -- help them get it finished, get it out the door. But after a few of those, I’m itching to do my own stuff again. I want to be creative -- I want to have ideas.
It’s been great. I’ve actually learned a lot from those other developers. I learned a lot from “Gemini Rue” and “Resonance” and “Primordia” and “A Golden Wake” -- and even “Da New Guys” and “Puzzle Bots,” which aren’t as well-known, but I learned a lot from them. I also learned by working on them. I’ve developed quite a good instinct for not what makes a really good game, but what makes a bad one. The mistakes that I or another developer have made, I can see that in upcoming projects and work to fix it. So I’ve learned a lot from publishing games, and it’s certainly helped us a lot financially to have more games coming out. That’s always nice.
GB: How did you come to publish the games you have published?
DB: “Gemini Rue” – he came to me. It was handed to me on a platter. It was almost complete. We added a couple of touches -- the portraits, the voice acting, the QA. We handled all the marketing and the sales afterwards. I always say you don’t need a publisher like me, but we do have an infrastructure in place to take out a lot of the grunt work. A lot of developers just want to finish a game and be done with it -- and we can take it from there and we’re happy to do so. We can do that on auto-pilot. We’re already doing that for a dozen games. We can do it for yours.
For a game like “Resonance,” we approached him -- because I knew the developer and knew he was struggling to get it complete. I always say we can’t offer money to publish a game, but we can offer full-time involvement. My wife took on programming duties full-time and got it out.
“Primordia” – I really liked the look of the game, so I wanted to see a build. Liked it, so I took the game on. We arranged deadlines and kept them on schedule – and made sure things got done. Took over programming where necessary and things like that. Basically getting it out the door on time.
Each game is different in terms of how we got involved. For instance Francisco (Gonzalez) moved to Brooklyn near me, so I’ve known him for a long time. So I offered to publish the game (A Golden Wake). Every game is different in terms of how we get involved.
GB: Good you’re porting some of your back catalog to Macs, etc.
DB: That is my wife’s department. Before we got married, she was porting games to mobile platforms -- that was her job. When she finished up “Resonance” she decided her next gig would be to port “Gemini Rue” to iOS -- and then she got pregnant. When she launched “Gemini Rue” on iOS, she was 7 months pregnant. That’s been her thing and it’s good for her. She can do it part-time. When our daughter comes home from daycare at three, she can stop working. She’s focussed on the porting right now. She’s smarter than me and knows how it works.
GB: Is there a trend now for retro gaming?
DB: That’s been the case for several years now. The indie revival has brought in a wave of genres of all types, not just Adventure games. You have “Braid” -- it’s proved you don’t need a triple-A budget to have a worthwhile experience. Rogue-lites came back, RPGMaker games are big now -- and the same with point and click Adventure games. That’s true across the board.
GB: What’s your view of the publishing scene now that Kickstarters are no longer as successful?
DB: It’s a harder sell than it used to be. I resisted doing Kickstarter because I like being sustainable -- and Kickstarter seemed to me to be a way to get one game funded, but not the one after that. It’s a business instinct to always think a few years ahead. It’s not enough to think about my next game -- it’s what about the one after that... and the one after that... Kickstarter was so unpredictable, so new, and so crazy and Wild West – I didn’t want to jump into it without knowing more about it. It seems to be slowing down, sadly. People have had success with it, but it’s not the magical money magnet it used to be – which is a shame.
GB: Can you say anything about what’s next for you as a game maker?
DB: We’re publishing three other games. I’m mostly involved with “Technobabylon.” Francisco Gonzalez is involved in a new game and spearheading a future project we’re calling “Automaticity.” But after “Technobablylon” wraps up, I’m hoping I will have arranged things so I won’t have to do as much – and I want to work on my next project.
I’m aiming for something more SciFi. Not something like “Gemini Rue,” but something more grounded -- something more personal, something different. I really wanted a clean slate after Blackwell. I’m hoping to try something new. It’s very easy for me to fall back into that urban fantasy genre because I’m very comfortable with it, but I want to try something different and I’m in a good position to do that.
After “Technobabylon” gets closer to being wrapped up. I’m going to jump into that.
GB: You’re still enjoying making games even with the stress of earning a living?
DB: Yes we’re doing pretty well. I’m very grateful every day that it can support me, my wife, my daughter, and our home in Brooklyn. That level of success has to be maintained. It’s been a year and a half since she was born and we’re still OK. Knock on wood things continue that way!
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