Dave Gilbert founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006 so he could write, design and sell adventure games, a genre he's loved since his childhood. These days, the two-person company — Gilbert does writing and design, while programming is handled by his wife, Janet — is succeeding with Gilbert functioning as a businessman as much as a game developer.
"I started doing this as a way to avoid getting a real job," said Gilbert, president and chief creative officer at Wadjet Eye, in an interview with Polygon at PAX East 2013. "I never envisioned doing what I'm doing now, the way I'm doing now."
Wadjet Eye is best known for its well-regarded Blackwell series. A fifth entry, Blackwell Epiphany, is set for release this fall, although Gilbert noted that Janet is pregnant with their first child, which may complicate things somewhat. "I don't know how our incoming baby will affect my work schedule," he said.
Blackwell Epiphany is "a lot darker than I ever thought I would go with a Blackwell game," said Gilbert, adding that "visually, it's better than anything we've ever done." He also intends to make it the longest Blackwell title yet, although that doesn't mean it will have the largest script in the series. Gilbert explained that his outlook on dialogue and character development has evolved over time — he's now a believer in the less-is-more approach.
"The characters in Blackwell Legacy would talk forever about nothing," said Gilbert, "because I thought, 'Yeah, it's evolving their character.' But it's not. Character is formed by what they do and how they react to situations, not by what they say." Gilbert is now focusing more on storytelling through exploration.
Gilbert also said the history of the Blackwell franchise can occasionally be frustrating for him as a designer and writer, since his story ideas and his philosophy on game development have changed since he made the first game, The Blackwell Legacy, in 2006.
"any artist will tell you, anything they created seven years ago sucks"
"I kind of have this backstory idea of where things were going to go, [but] that was an idea I had seven years ago," said Gilbert. "And any artist will tell you, anything they created seven years ago sucks. Like, 'Oh god, I can't believe that. It was such a stupid idea.' But now I'm locked into that — every stupid idea I had."
That doesn't mean Gilbert has fallen out of love with the series he created; far from it, he told Polygon.
"I think any work of art, or creation or media or whatever, is the creator or the author trying to say something," said Gilbert. "It was maybe subconscious at first, but I realized I was telling a story about urban isolation."
Gilbert, who resides in Manhattan and has lived in cities for most of his life, finds that "sometimes it's very hard living in a city, and sometimes it's very rewarding living in a city." The Blackwell series "is about urban isolation, and how people can sabotage their own happiness without even realizing it, and at the end of their life, they have to come to terms with all of that."
He continued, "That is why I keep returning to [Blackwell], because I like telling those stories."
Because Wadjet Eye releases Blackwell titles so infrequently — Gilbert said that at the start, he greatly underestimated the time it would take to make each entry in the franchise, which he originally planned as an episodic series with short gaps between releases — the studio has taken on other projects as a publisher. That was done both out of a desire for Gilbert to break up the protracted development cycles of his Blackwell games, and out of financial necessity.
"If we had one major flop, then we were done"
"If we had one major flop, then we were done — like, we couldn't come back from that, because we had to rely on each game doing reasonably well in order to keep going," Gilbert explained. "And I just did not like those odds."
Wadjet Eye began publishing games with Puzzle Bots, from indie developer Erin Robinson, in 2010. But since Gilbert was "publishing that from scratch," he spent just as much time working on it as he would have spent developing his own games; it didn't accomplish what he set out to do with publishing.
Then he lucked out with Gemini Rue, which "kind of fell into my lap," said Gilbert. With some work on voice acting, art and quality assurance, Wadjet Eye was able to launch the adventure game in 2011 to critical acclaim on Windows PC. Janet spent the past eight months porting the game to iOS; that version will be released soon.
With the understanding that it would be near-impossible to find "another game that would fall from the sky like that, almost complete," Gilbert started looking for other games in similar situations — scenarios where the developer might have a good game in the works, but need a little help to get to the finish line. What's atypical about Wadjet Eye's publishing arrangements is that the company doesn't provide funding to the developers whose games it's publishing; that's not financially feasible for Gilbert.
"I always say, 'We can't give you money to make the game, but we can give you time,'" Gilbert explained. That time comes in a variety of forms: sometimes Janet will do some additional programming, sometimes Dave will act as taskmaster to keep the developers on schedule.
Wadjet Eye spent pretty much all of 2012 on publishing duties, and the company released three games over the course of the year — Icebox Studios' Da New Guys: Day of the Jackass, XII Games' Resonance and Wormwood Studios' Primordia. Gilbert said the company is no longer at a point where each of its releases is a make-or-break proposition, "which is nice," but the publishing work meant he couldn't spend time on Blackwell.
"I didn't really expect to still be in business after all this time"
This year, Gilbert has a renewed focus on getting Blackwell Epiphany done, and he can afford to devote his energy to it because the publishing work paid off; Gilbert described Primordia as "a little out there," but Wadjet Eye had the ability to take a risk on it and release it last December.
"I didn't really expect to still be in business after all this time; it sort of really snowballed," said Gilbert. "But really, what's kept me in business is that I can't envision doing anything else, so I've just really pushed it as hard as I could."