Wadjet Eye Games
First posted on 17 February 2009. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
|Dave Gilbert is an indie game developer and the founder of Wadjet Eye Games.|
For more information, visit Wadjet Eye Games.
As strange as it sounds, Dave Gilbert is both a veteran and a newcomer in the indie game development scene. He is a veteran because he has been developing adventure games and releasing them for free since 2001. He is also a newcomer because, in the short span of just a few years, he has risen from a virtual unknown to become the poster child of the underground adventure game development scene. In 2006, he released The Shivah—a point-and-click adventure game that received unprecedented mainstream media attention in the US because of its connection to the Jewish faith and instantly made him a celebrity among indie game developers.
Self-described as merely a "frizzy-haired and chronically befuddled chap whose past times include spouting obscure quotes", his rapid success as an indie adventure game developer is a rarity in the industry. His latest projects, Emerald City Confidential and The Blackwell Convergence, will see him expanding into the causal game market to feed an untapped appetite for adventure games.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Dave Gilbert, founder of Wadjet Eye Games. In the interview, Gilbert speaks of his colorful career as an indie game developer, the connection (or lack of) between his religious faith and his games, what gamers can expect from Emerald City Confidential and The Blackwell Convergence, and what holds in the future for him and his company.
Check out our photos of Gilbert as well as our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art and screenshots from Emerald City Confidential!
- What was the first adventure game you played that inspired you to create your own adventure games? Which game designers served as your role models as a game developer? Why?
- My mother made the mistake of buying me "Wishbringer" when I was 10 years old and that was that. I was constantly plotting out games and trying to code them. This was back in the 80s, so I coded them in BASIC on an Apple IIC. Fun times! As I grew older, I got into the Sierra/Lucas-Arts games and I fell in love with the stories and gameplay so much that I knew I wanted to make them someday.
As for role models? There are several. Jane Jensen, with her focus on research, was a huge inspiration. Blackwell is basically me trying to do Gabriel Knight. As for jumping into game development, I was mostly inspired by indie developers like Amanda Fitch of Aveyond fame. Folks like her started making games that were so retro in gameplay and style – and were meeting with such success! – that I felt that I could do it too.
- The Reposssesor, your first adventure game, was part of the Reality-on-the-Norm (RON) series. Why did you choose to participate in this shared game project instead of authoring the game in solo? How much collaboration actually existed between you and other RON participants beyond sharing a basic template for the games? How difficult was it to break into the local underground indie game development scene at the time (especially in New York City)?
- Mainly because making my own game was a very daunting prospect. Then I found RON, and it was a thriving little game community with its own world and public domain graphics I could use. Being a guy with zero experience making games, it seemed like a perfect place to get my feet wet. At the time, the indie game scene was very tiny, and there was nothing in New York City at all.
- The Shivah received unprecedented mainstream media attention (including CNN) in the US, in part because of the game's religious undertone, at a time when political tension was high between the US and the Middle East. At the time, how worried were you that this media attention might backfire and create unwanted backlash from religious fanatics towards you or your game? What misunderstandings, if any, had the mainstream media created about your game or your motivation (religious, political, or otherwise) behind its creation?
- I didn't think about the religious aspect at all when I made the game. The previous year I had been living in Asia, and it was the first time in my life that I was really consciously aware of my being Jewish. Most of the people I met there had never even met a Jew, and some didn't even know what it was! It was a totally new experience for me. So when I arrived home and got the "itch" to make a game, I decided to make something with a Jewish theme as a way to reconnect with that part of myself.
It didn't even occur to me that some people might react badly to the game. I just wanted to make the game, so I did. The game isn't very religious. Yes, the game stars a rabbi, but he never preaches or tries to convert anybody. The game just tells a story. As for negative media attention, there was very little. The only worthy outcry came from a Rabbi on the lower east side of Manhattan whose name was Rabbi Stone! It was a total coincidence, but it was extremely funny.
- Death appears to be a prominent theme in your games. To what extent is this tied to your own spiritual faith? In retrospect, how had your own games challenged your religious belief?
- Hah. There is a lot of death in my games, isn't there? I guess death is about loss, and I always loved stories about loss and people trying to overcome that loss. That's what the best murder mysteries are, really. It's not just about the trying to find the bad guy, it's also about helping someone find closure.
Does it tie into my faith? I'm afraid not. To be honest, I'm not religious at all. I feel a strong connection to being Jewish, but there's much more to being Jewish than the religious aspect. There're thousands of years of culture and tradition that come into play, and I like being part of it. But I'm not very religious.
- Both Big Fish Games and PlayFirst are publishers of mostly casual games. In what way, if any, do you see your own games, particularly Blackwell Unbound and Emerald City Confidential, being targeted for the causal game market? Why are adventure games particularly suitable for causal gaming compared to games of other genres?
- The fact that my games found a niche in the casual market came as a total surprise! Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound were not made to be casual friendly in the least, but they did very well there. I am at a loss to explain why or how it happened. The best I can do is say that they are both mysteries, and mystery games are very popular in the casual market. They both star strong female characters and those tend to be more relatable to that audience.
Emerald City Confidential is the first attempt by a casual publisher to be scientific about the adventure-game-in-the-casual-market thing. I have worked jointly with the PlayFirst team to take what makes adventure games good (the story, the dialog, the puzzles) and have done our best to fine-tune it for a more casual audience. Nothing like this has been done before, and it's so cool to be the developer behind it.
- You are a great proponent of Adventure Game Studios (AGS) as a development tool. What is its greatest strength? What is its greatest weakness? What are examples from your own games for which AGS has been a challenge to use?
- AGS is great! Chris Jones puts so much of his free time into this tool and it is a godsend. It is perfectly tailored for the creation of adventure games, and it takes a lot of the grunt work out of it. As for weaknesses, the only major issue we have right now is the lack of portability. It's very hard to get an AGS game running on another platform, like a Mac.
- The graphics in Emerald City Confidential are comparably more colorful and cartoonish than the graphics in your other games. To what extent is the distinctive art style in Emerald City Confidential a decision made to appeal more to female gamers or casual gamers?
- The graphical style was my choice, and had little to do with appealing to female or casual gamers. The style is inspired by Bruce Timm's Batman cartoons of the mid 1990s. There is a lot of animation in the game, and we had a limited timeframe and a limited budget. I knew that we had to come up with an animation style that was simple enough to animate quickly (and under budget!), but evocative enough to stay interesting. The Bruce Timm style suited us perfectly.
- Why is the decision made to choose a new character named Petra, instead of Dorothy (the central character of The Wonderful Wizards of Oz), as the main protagonist and playable character in Emerald City Confidential? What role will Dorothy play in the game instead?
- The problem with making someone like Dorothy the main character is that the player would come into the game with a pre-conceived idea of what she should be like. Creating a brand new character avoided that. Petra has her own detailed history which you get to learn about throughout the game.
Dorothy IS in the game, as an enigmatic femme-fatale type, but she isn't the primary focus.
- The story in Emerald City Confidential is loosely based on the original children's novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Lyman Frank Baum (rather than the movie adaptation, The Wizard of Oz). How does your adaptation differ from the other countless (both good and bad) adaptations of the source material, aside from the injection of the new playable character Petra? Which major characters, if any, from the original novel will not appear in your game?
- Most of the adoptions of Oz have tried to recreate or capitalize on the movie. Emerald City Confidential totally ignores the movie and concentrates on the 14 books by L. Frank Baum. The familiar characters (The Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, etc) do play a part, but they share the spotlight right alongside other major Oz characters like Tik Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, Ruggedo, Professor Wogglebug, and more.
- What kinds of puzzles can gamers expect to find in Emerald City Confidential? What puzzles, if any, in the game are more targeted towards causal gamers?
- My inspiration for creating the puzzles in Emerald City Confidential was "Dreamfall", a game that if you were stuck another character would usually point you in the right direction. The puzzles in Emerald City Confidential range from dialog puzzles to inventory puzzles everything in between.
- You are a prolific game developer. How do you organize your workflow and keep track of schedules and milestones in your game projects?
- I'm organized? That's news to me! And here I thought I've just been winging it.
Seriously though, I usually have an idea of when I want a game to come out, and I do my best to meet it. With Emerald City Confidential, PlayFirst set the milestone schedule so organizing our time was pretty easy.
With my internal projects (like Blackwell), it's more of a challenge. There are questions you have to ask yourself. Do you delay the project and make it cooler, or do you call it done and get it out to the customers who are eagerly waiting? You can always make a game better, or cooler, or more fun to play, but eventually you have to say "Enough!" and release it or you'll never finish a thing.
- What can your fans look forward in The Blackwell Convergence? What does the future hold for Dave Gilbert and Wadjet Eye Games over the next 5 years?
- I am so proud of The Blackwell Convergence. The game is much bigger than the others, and tells a much more satisfying story. I know that it's been a long time in coming, and I have disappointed a lot of the fans. The publishing deal with PlayFirst took me by surprise, and I was less able to coordinate two projects than I thought I would. However, I took the time (and some of the money I was paid from PlayFirst) to improve the production values of the game by a lot. I was able to afford a full art studio to work on the backgrounds, and they look pretty spectacular.
I also feel like I got a real handle on Rosangela's character. In her previous game, I wanted to establish that she was kind of lonely and reclusive, but she ended up being so socially awkward that it was hard to relate to her. This time around, she is still awkward but the focus is on her other qualities. She's very intellectually curious, which is why she became a writer in the first place. This character trait shines through now and she's become a much more interesting person as a result.
As for the next five years? Well, I am trying my hand at publishing now. Wadjet Eye Games is funding the development of Erin Robinson's (Lively Ivy) new game and it is shaping up to be awesome. If it works out, I hope to publish lots of other indie developers. In five years I hope to have enough going on to have a new game released every few months, instead of once a year.