Talking Adventure Games with Dave Gilbert

Game designer and publisher Dave Gilbert founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006.  This interview features conversation about point and click adventure games; digital game development, marketing and publishing; and the relationship between art, passion and real world commerce.

Jeffery Klaehn: How did you first become interested in point and click adventure games?

Dave Gilbert: I played King’s Quest at a very impressionable age! I typed the word “jump” and I saw Graham actually jump, and I was so blown away that I’ve been playing them ever since.

JK: You founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006 to sell your game, The Shivah, commercially, then moved to pursue game design on a full-time basis and released The Blackwell Legacy, the first in what would become a series of five games.  What are your thoughts on these games and on the market then compared to now?

Dave Gilbert: I am Blackwell Legacy’s biggest critic. It was the first game I wrote with the intention of selling commercially – The Shivah was originally freeware, so I don’t count it – and it shows every inch of my inexperience. The gameplay is clunky, the story is told in three giant infodumps, and the main characters weren’t very likable. But that said, I know with absolute certainty that it was the very best game I could have made with the experience, resources and time I had available. So I stand by it.

As for the market, everything is different. Back in 2006, indie games in general were a very new thing. So few people were making indie games, let alone indie adventure games, that it was very difficult to get journalists to pay attention. Now we have the opposite problem. There are SO MANY indie games now that it’s impossible to count them all. So the difficulty is getting yours to stand out from the pack. I was kind of lucky to have started my career back then. Even though the market for indie games was super small, it was easy to get noticed within that market. So my company kind of expanded with the scene.  Another thing that’s different: back then, people were still a bit leery of buying things with their credit card online, and it was very difficult to set up a storefront that people could trust. It’s almost quaint to think about that now.

JK: How important do you feel “word of mouth” online player reviews and discussions have been to your success, particularly during these early years as you were creating the Blackwell games?

Dave Gilbert: We can’t afford any major marketing campaigns, so word of mouth is our bread and butter! If it wasn’t for players talking about our games and spreading the word, we would’ve been dead in the water. Spreading the word is a bit easier now thanks to social media, but back in 2006 I had to rely on kind hearted journalists and bloggers. I am forever grateful to them.

JK: What led you to begin publishing games others had developed in 2010?

Dave Gilbert: Pure capitalism! It took a long time for me to get a game out – a year or two at minimum. And at the time they earned barely enough to cover my basic needs. So I knew that if I had one major flop, everything was over.

My logic was that by publishing other projects, we’d be able to spread out the risk more.

JK: What’s been the most gratifying part of this for you?

Dave Gilbert: I’ve worked with some incredible developers who have created worlds that I could never even conceive of, let alone make. When I started publishing, I had this hubristic idea that I was doing them the favor, when the opposite was really true. I have learned SO MUCH from all the developers I’ve worked with. It’s really been a journey.

JK: What influenced your decisions to design Unavowed as episodic and to have player choice feature prominently into gameplay?

Dave Gilbert: I was very inspired by an interview with Jennifer Hepler (a former BioWare writer) where she said she wished she could skip the combat in narrative-based RPG games (since combat-based action games let you skip the narrative bits), and I thought that sounded like the adventure game of my dreams. I’d always been a fan of party-based RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but I always groaned when the action bits came along. So I waited for that kind of game to come along, and it never did. So I decided to make it myself!

JK: What are your thoughts on how classic point and click adventure games meet contemporary lifestyles in terms of design choices, gameplay, and difficulty levels?

Dave Gilbert: I honestly have no opinion on this. There are SO many different kinds of adventure games and there’s no way to pigeonhole all of them into one specific genre. That said, I do think you have to design with the modern audience in mind. A modern audience knows that Google exists, and it’s not enough to just have clever puzzles. You need to make the experience of solving those puzzles fun and interesting.

JK: As a developer who was designing games as a hobby prior to working full-time in digital games professionally, where’s the line, as you envision it, between art and passion on the one hand and “real world” commerce and surviving and thriving as a business on the other?  Do the two worlds interconnect and mutually support your creativity and passion, as a designer?

Dave Gilbert: As for the difference between it being a hobby and being a professional – it’s about working through the frustrating parts. When it’s a hobby, there’s nothing at stake. You’re full of ideas and excitement and you just want to MAKE the thing, and if it gets annoying or it’s not working then you can just stop. When your livelihood depends on it, you can’t do that. When you’re blocked or a design isn’t working and you’re tearing your hair out all day, that’s when the fun becomes work, and work always sucks! Forging ahead through that frustration barrier was my biggest hurdle when I started doing this full time.

Regarding art and passion versus real world commerce – who says they can’t be one and the same? I got into this to make the games I want to make, and if I’m making a type of game purely because the market says it’s popular, or because another game like it did well, then the final product will be totally soulless as a result. Whenever I chase trends to make a game, the end result is usually a critical and financial failure. Also, large companies with millions of dollars to burn hire entire departments to determine what’s popular and even they get it wrong, so what chance do I have? So I just focus on what I like, put as much of my heart and soul into my work as I can, and keep going. Fortunately, my instincts are usually more right than wrong.

JK: What would you like to see in terms of the future of adventure games?

Dave Gilbert: I am not so hubristic to make a statement on what the genre should or should not be. My only hope for the future of adventure games is that there are more of them for me to play!

Author Biographical Summary

Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde.  His interests include pop culture, comics and graphic novels, music, storytelling, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.

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