Dave Gilbert is a well-known name here at HardyDev, of course being responsible for some of the finest indie adventure games in recent years. And he has real Aggies to show for it. Arguably, his Blackwell series of adventure games can now be considered classics of the genre, already claiming a strong group of followers and subsequently making his company, Wadjet Eye Games, an overnight success. I had the pleasure of reviewing all three Blackwell games in the space of a month for HardyDev in 2009, coming to the conclusion that they offered unparalleled storytelling prowess and endearing characters that I could imagine gamers really connecting with. It is therefore an even greater pleasure to be able to speak to the man behind these games now. I am a proud to present a recent interview between myself and the founder of Wadjet Eye Games (and creator of the Blackwell series) Mr Dave Gilbert!


Martin Mulrooney: Hi Dave! Thank you for your time. Could we please start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dave Gilbert: Hello!  Glad to be here.  I’m Dave Gilbert, I’m 33 and I live in New York City with my wife Janet and dog Cooper.  I’m an indie game developer who’s been developing games out of my apartment (and various cafes) part time since 2001 and full-time since 2006.

MM: What was the reason you set out to create your first game and why did you choose AGS as the tool to do so?

DG: I started creating games for fun in order to give myself a distraction.  It was September of 2001 and I live in New York, so you can imagine what I needed distracting from.  I read an article about the Reality on the Norm project, which was a series of games with an open-source universe that anyone could create a game for.  I played a few of them and it seemed like a fun thing to try.  All of the games were made with AGS, so I downloaded the engine and worked my way through a tutorial until I felt confident with it.  Then I took a weekend and made a small game called The Repossesser. People seemed to like it, so I kept going and made more.  It kind of snowballed from there.

MM: Was The Shivah’s success the turning point that made you realise you could do this (make games) as a career?

DG: Most definitely!  I didn’t make The Shivah with selling it in mind, but after it was done I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I had six months worth of savings, so I figured it was now or never.  So I risked it all on kick-starting Wadjet Eye and the Blackwell series.

MM: Why return (with the Blackwell series) to a similar story as told in Bestowers of Eternity? Did it feel less of a risk, or was there simply more to be taken from the idea now you had further game-creation experience?

DG: Bestowers of Eternity does not exist!

Seriously though, when I created Bestowers of Eternity I wasn’t sure where I was going with it.  I had the idea for the story, and the characters, but I didn’t really plan it very well.  I knew nothing about making or designing games (some would say I still don’t!) and I was obviously making it up as I went along.  Hence the horrible puzzles (that stopwatch puzzle is particularly dumb!) and the “to be continued” ending.

But, I still had a soft spot for the characters and the world that I had designed.   When I decided to make games full-time, Rosa and Joey seemed like the most natural place to start since I already had the first few games already designed in my head.  So I was able to get started right away.  So Bestowers became Blackwell.  I’m very embarrassed by the original Bestowers now, but it was definitely a learning experience!

Concept art for Blackwell Convergence poster

MM: How would you describe the Blackwell series to a newcomer?

DG: In a nutshell, it’s about a reluctant medium named Rosa Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey Mallone.  Together, they investigate supernatural goings on and try to bring peace to lost spirits, while trying to piece together the mystery of why they are thrown together in the first place.

Each game in the series is a stand-alone mystery with a beginning and end, but there is a greater story being told throughout the whole of the series.

MM: How difficult is it to price an indie game? Is piracy a big threat?

DG: I was once accused of “schizophrenic pricing”, since I can never seem to decide what to charge for my games!  The Shivah was $5, Legacy was $15, and then Unbound was $10.  When the time came to price Convergence, I took a look at how my previous games sold.   Unbound’s price was a third less than Legacy, and while the sales DID increase they didn’t increase by a third, so I was actually making less money at the lower price point.  So, based on that, I decided that $15 was the sweet-spot for a new game, while $10 was a good price for the older ones.  Of course, this could change.  The business end of things is hard to wrap my head around sometimes, and I change my mind every other week!

As for piracy, it would be foolish to pretend it doesn’t exist.  It hasn’t hurt my bottom line, but knowing that a pirated version of all my games is a mere Google search away can be very disheartening if I think about it too much.

MM: What are the pros and cons of using the AGS engine?

DG: What’s great about the AGS engine is that it is specifically geared to make 2D adventure games, so it takes a lot of grunt-work out of the process.  It’s been improving steadily over the 10 years of its existence and it’s become very flexible and powerful.  It’s easy to pick up and use.  The biggest pro is definitely the user community.  It’s made up of such a great group of people who offer encouragement, advice, and assistance.

The only con of using AGS is its lack of portability.  The games can’t natively run on a Mac, which is a problem for a lot of potential players!  Also, AGS is only really good for 2D games.  If I ever wanted to incorporate real-time 3D characters (like The Longest Journey), I’d have to stop using AGS.  So we won’t be seeing 3D Joey anytime soon!

Dave's wife Janet on the Roosevelt Island Promenade

MM: What leaps in tech/ personal experience has each of your games brought?

DG: This was a hard question to answer.  The improvement in the art direction is an obvious leap, but it goes beyond that.  I suppose the effort gone into the production values goes hand-in-hand with being more confident in the games themselves.  After four years and six games, I finally feel like a “real” game developer as opposed to just a guy with a laptop sitting in Starbucks.  It’s a great way to work and live, and the longer I do it the more I don’t want it to end!

MM: How do you work as a game designer? Do you plan everything from the beginning or add things as you progress?

DG: When I design, my usual process is to grab a notebook and a coffee in a local café and just start scribbling away.  In most cases, I will try to get everything planned out from beginning to end. I make up a nice 80 page document that lists all the puzzles, the backgrounds, the characters and individual animations, but inevitably a chunk of it gets scrapped or changed in the middle of production and we fly by the seat of our pants for awhile.  It can be a nerve-wracking way to work, and there’s no rhyme-or-reason to it, but somehow the games get made!

MM: The voice actor for Rosangela changed between games. Was there a reason for this? (Both were great in their own way!)

DG: The reason is pretty mundane.  When I recorded Legacy, Sande Chen (Rosa #1) was in-between jobs so it was pretty easy for her to come over and record.  When Convergence, came around, she had gotten a full-time job which involved a lot of travelling, so I knew it would be difficult to get her in front of the microphone for the 20+ hours required.  So in the end we decided it would be best to recast the role.  Rebecca Whittaker (Rosa #2) is a performer so she tends to work mostly at night, which keeps her days free for other gigs like this.  It made her ideal.

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

MM: How do you go about getting professional sounding voicework for an indie game?

DG: Mostly through friends!  When I made The Shivah, I cast a few actor friends in the roles and they introduced me to other actor friends, who ended up playing roles in other games.  Four years on, I have a regular crew of actors that I can usually rely on, and I sometimes write a role with a certain actor in mind.

MM: Abe Goldfarb seems a perfect fit for Joey. Was the part difficult to cast?

DG: Not at all!  Abe is a guy who I’ve known over half my life and I always wrote Joey knowing that Abe was going to voice him.  He’s become totally irreplaceable in the role, now.  He’ll often read a line and go “Hm, that’s not very Joey” or “I think Joey would say it this way.” There’s no question that Joey would not be nearly as developed if it weren’t for Abe’s efforts.

MM: Would you agree that the relationship between Joey and the Blackwell girls is one of the most important aspects of the series? I remember comparing them rather favourably with other classic adventure boy/girl duos in my Convergence review.

DG: Definitely!  I’ve always been fond of oil-and-water dynamics where the characters riff off of each other.  It was problematic in Legacy because their relationship was just starting and I hadn’t really cemented their relationship yet, but by Convergence their banter felt a lot more natural and became much easier to write.  And I remember your review.  Putting Rosa and Joey on the same level as George and Nico did my ego no end of good. 🙂

MM: New York as the setting is also another major character. Does this make the game quite personal with it being your home town? I remember in one of our online chats discussing how it is almost like forming a digital memory. I found the idea quite beautiful.

DG: Thanks!  There is definitely some of that.  The thing about New York is that it’s so iconic.  There are so many movies, books, and TV shows that take place here.  You could live in a small town all of your life, but the second you step into New York it’s like you’ve been there before.  To me, it’s always fascinating to see images of New York from other decades and times.  New York from the 80s look so drastically different from New York now, and it’s really nice to be able to experience life back then through TV and films made at the time.

The original portrait of Joe Gould from the The Minetta

The same thing has happened with Blackwell in small ways.  We made a lot of effort to make the Minetta Tavern true-to-life in Blackwell Convergence. It’s a place that was very important to me.  I used to go in there all the time and sit underneath the Joe Gould portrait to write.  Unfortunately, the tavern was sold and underwent massive renovation.  It looks completely different now and the Joe Gould portrait is gone.   The same thing happened with Washington Square Park in Blackwell Legacy. There’s a lot of construction going on there now and when it’s done I’m sure it will look different than the image in the game.

It feels kinda nice that you can boot up the Blackwell games and virtually experience these locations, which captured a small slice of New York before they changed completely.

Washington Square Park

MM: Unbound and Convergence were originally conceived as one whole game. What prompted the decision to split them into two separate games? Do you think that was a good decision in the end? If so, why?

DG: When I made Legacy, I was totally unprepared for the work that followed.  I spent months doing PR and customer service and I totally slacked on designing the next game.  No matter how good your game is, it’s not going to earn money forever.  By the time I designed the sequel, I couldn’t imagine Legacy’s sales keeping me in the black long enough to complete it.  I knew the only way I could get out of the hole was to make a small game that I could release in a couple of months. So I separated Lauren’s scenes from the game and made a separate (and cheaper!) game with them to tide things over.

In the end, it was definitely a good decision.  I managed to navigate the pitfalls of my own mistake, kept the company going and making a pretty darn good game in the process.
Lauren’s story worked 1000x better as a stand-alone game and it’s ironically become a fan favourite of the series so far!

MM: You run your own studio, Wadjet Eye Games. How many people make up this organisation? What are the day to day tasks of running the business?

DG: For years it was just me, but I’ve recently been joined by my wife Janet who has taken on a lot of the programming duties so I can concentrate on design and project management.  Aside from us, we usually work with a rotation of freelance animators, background artists, and composers.  So a typical project has about 4-5 people working on it.

Day to day tasks… it varies!  Some days I turn off the Internet and focus focus focus on design, while there are other times I’m on MSN 24/7 so I can coordinate with the artists.  I just take the tasks as they come, mostly.  I always tell myself that I should make a schedule of tasks to complete in order to make my life easier, but instead I opt for muddling through.  Somehow it’s worked out.

MM: Is it hard to stay afloat in these economic times when competing against the mainstream games, especially console gaming? The adventure genre especially seemed to be becoming rather niche until Monkey Island blew back onto the scene and caused a stir.

It’s been wild!  Adventure games are not dead by any means, at least not anymore.  The more people play adventure games, the more available customers there are for my stuff, so bring them on, I say!

MM: Did the indie scene or gaming market see any major changes in 2009 (last year) that you’d like to highlight as particularly important to yourself and your company?

DG: The biggest change has to be when Big Fish Games removed their purchase minimum requirement.  It changed everything.  I used to rely on the distribution networks (like Big Fish, iWin, etc) to sell my games but now they are all dropping their prices so low that by the time I earn my royalty I get practically nothing for my trouble.  I still get a decent amount from them, but I can no longer rely on them for my yearly income.  So I’ve been stepping up my marketing efforts to bring traffic to my own site.  It was tough at first, but I’ve managed to do it!  Now the majority of my income comes from my own website instead of the portals, which makes me feel much more self-reliant.

MM: What games do you like to play yourself? Do you play other indie games to check out the competition?

DG: It’s hard for me to play other indie games, let alone other indie adventure games.  When I have the time to play a game, the last thing I want to play at is another adventure game like mine!  So I’ve missed out on a lot of games that have come out lately.  With one exception.  I’ve really gotten into Jeff Vogel’s RPG games.  I’ve been playing his games and reading about his company and it’s been a real source of inspiration.

Sketches of The Countess

MM: Your personal favourite moment of the Blackwell series?

DG: Hmm.  Too many to mention.  I’d have to say the moment where the Countess reappears in Convergence.  Everything about that scene is perfect – the background, the rain, the haunting music where you know something intense is about to happen, I just love it.  There’s also one moment in Legacy where Rosa falls down onto a hard surface with a sickening crunch, and the way she says “Ow” is so hilariously deadpan it makes me crack up every time.

Central Park's Gothic Bridge

MM: In Blackwell Convergence the notebook feature has been toned down. Was this a design choice or the result of time constraints or other reasons?

DG: Partly both!  I had designed several puzzles that used the notebook, but I had received several bits of feedback about the feature, and most of them negative.  The notebook was touted in the reviews as being very innovative (although Discworld Noir did it first!), but the customers told a different story.  Most hated it.  In truth, it’s not a very intuitive way of getting through a puzzle. You had to force the character catch up to the conclusions that you made yourself..  It really bothered a lot of people and got in the way of the fun, so after doing a lot of thinking I removed it altogether.  Unfortunately, this had the side-effect of making the game *much* easier than it should have been.  I just didn’t have the time to come up with anything note-worthy to replace it.  It’s my one big regret about the game. One I hope to correct in the next one!

MM: Why did the character portaits from the first and third game not appear during conversations in Blackwell Unbound?

Budget, mostly.  Unbound was made on the cheap – with a whopping budget of $800! – so we had to make do with less. Maybe one day I’ll remake it!

MM: Biggest letdown/regret/cutting-room floor moment of the series?

DG: I originally had this crazy idea for the ending of Convergence, where the Countess grabs Rosa and flies over Manhattan with her and Joey has to save her.  It was an exciting sequence, but I couldn’t help but think that it was completely ridiculous.  It was very cartoony, and went against the grain of what I wanted Blackwell to be.  Plus, wouldn’t anybody notice that Rosa was flying through the air?  So I scrapped it and came up with something else.

MM: Emerald City Confidential was also released as a joint venture with PlayFirst. How did this differ from working alone within Wadjet Eye Games?

DG: It was very different!  For one thing, it meant I had an actual budget to work with, and resources to fall back on when I had questions.  I also had actual milestone deadlines, which was a bit stressful but forced me to focus better.  The most interesting thing was that I was making a game for the casual audience – which I was pretty unfamiliar with.  Not only that, it was a type of game that the casual audience was very unfamiliar with.  So we were breaking new ground and it was exciting.  It’s hard to say whether all of the decisions we made were the right ones, but we learned so much from making it.

MM: Can we expect more from this partnership?

DG: Yep!  We’ve got another game in-the-works right now.  As with Emerald City Confidential, I am not allowed to talk about it, but I can safely say that it’s not an ECC sequel.

MM: Any hints at what might happen in the future Blackwell games?

DG: I’ve never really taken full advantage of the fact that you’ve got this incorporeal companion who can assist in solving puzzles. In Unbound, you could use Joey to float through walls and snoop around, and in Convergence he was able to spy on conversations, but the moments were few and far between.  Heck, he’s a GHOST.  He could do so much more.  So I plan on focusing on that in the next instalment.  Unfortunately, Puzzle Bots and the aforementioned PlayFirst game have kept me extremely busy, but once they are off my plate I definitely plan on revisiting Blackwell again.

MM: How many secret projects have you got in the works right now?

DG: Aside from the PlayFirst game, there’s a sci-fi adventure that I designed years ago that I never bothered making.  It’s only recently that I got in touch with an artist who loves making sci-fi environments, so I’ve dusted off the old design and I’ve been tinkering with it.  While it’s not in-the-works by any means, it’s something that I plan to make one day soon.

MM: Thank you for your time!

DG: You’re very welcome!