If you’re a fan of point-and-click adventure games, you may already be familiar with indie developer Wadjet Eye Games. Founded back in 2006, Wadjet Eye has released a handful of adventures, including The Shivah and three games in the Blackwell series, as well as Erin Robinson’s charming robotic adventure, Puzzle Bots.
Wadjet Eye Games was also nominated for a “Best New Studio” award at GDC 2007, and was recognized by Gamasutra as one of 2008’s top breakthrough developers. Most recently, the studio has published developer Joshua Nurenberger’s neo-noir adventure, Gemini Rue, which just became available a couple of weeks ago.
At GDC 2011, I got to sit down and chat with Wadjet Eye Games founder and CEO, Dave Gilbert. We talked a bit about Gemini Rue, Wadjet Eye’s origins, and his transition to publishing games, rather than just developing them. Dave also shared his thoughts about the future of adventure games, as well as Wadjet Eye’s future plans.
Indie Games Channel: You’d been an independent game developer making freeware games for a while before forming Wadjet Eye Games. What drove the impulse to found a studio and get into the publishing side of things?
Dave Gilbert: It started off as kind of a way to avoid getting a ‘real’ job. I’m not kidding. I had been teaching English in for about seven or eight months. I had done some travelling, and I came home – I had rented out my apartment before I left, and when I came back it was still being rented out – so I wasn’t able to go back to my apartment. So I was living with my parents, who are retired. There’s nothing worse than living with your parents when they’re both retired and you don’t have a job.
So, I took my laptop to a cafe every day, and I wrote The Shivah. Just for fun. Just for something to do. I just did not feel like getting a job right away, because I’d just gotten home.
I wrote that over the course of a month. I just really enjoyed working on it so much. And then I thought, “Well, y’know, I’ve got money saved. It’s kind of now or never.” If I was ever going to do this, this would be the time. And so, I sold it. I decided to sell that game to see if it would gain any traction. And it did – a little bit. And I thought, “Alright. Now I’ll write another game with the express purpose of selling it.” And so, I wrote the first Blackwell game. [The process of making games] was almost like putting off the inevitable, but five years later, I’m still doing it.
I started publishing others, kind of spontaneously. I was talking with Erin Robinson – she did all the art for Blackwell Unbound – and we were talking one day over MSN, and she showed me a beta version of the game she was doing called NanoBots. I thought it was just adorable, and a lot of fun. And I said to her, “If you expanded this by like ten or fifteen levels, and [tried to] sell it, you probably could.” She just wasn’t sure about it. And then, very spontaneously, I said, “What if I paid you and I published it.” And I think that surprised both of us.
I think, in the back of my head, I always wanted to have more content on my site, and I thought that would be a good way of starting – basically paying other people to write games for me. And then Josh offered me Gemini Rue, like a year later. And so, I’ve sort of become an indie adventure game publisher.
IGC: Speaking of Gemini Rue, can you give us the gist?
Gilbert: It’s kind of a dark, urban, noir, dystopian future. You play two characters – a former assassin turned detective named Azriel, who’s looking for his brother, and an amnesiac [named Delta-Six] on a strange facility, who’s not sure why he’s there. You play through these two stories, and both [characters] are trying to figure out what’s going on, and eventually, they converge with each other towards the end.
IGC: Are there any particular adventure games – past or present – that inspire your work, both as a developer and publisher?
Gilbert: The first one that I played, that I really got into, was King’s Quest. Way, way, way back. The first King’s Quest. I really fell in love with the Gabriel Knight games (and if you’ve played Blackwell, that’s very obvious). I really enjoy the more story-based games. Like Bioware’s stuff. Anything with a good story that I can experience and interact with.
IGC: How do you see adventure games changing or evolving as time goes on? How can developers and fans help ensure they have a bright future?
Gilbert: It really depends. A lot of folks say that adventure games haven’t really evolved much since the early ’90’s. In some respects, I don’t think they have to. You can’t really say books have evolved. The actual ‘technology’ behind a book or a movie is pretty much the same. You watch a movie. You read a book. An adventure game is really just [another] way of telling a story, I think. It’s an effective way to tell a certain type of story. The difference is that you’re more immersed in it.
Other things that I have been doing – and Telltale is very much at the forefront of this – is to focus on what makes them fun. They’ve realized, and I think a lot of people have realized, that getting stuck in a game isn’t fun. Now that you just have to Alt-Tab and go to Google, there’s no reason to force people to be stuck in a game. Back when I was playing these games in the ’80’s or early ’90’s, I would spend like three months trying to figure out ‘how to get the babel fish,’ or whatever. But now it’s like, after five minutes of getting stuck, I’m like “Ok, Google. Tell me how to answer it.”
I guess the industry term is ‘adaptive difficulty.’ I’m not sure if that’s the right term, but a lot of games incorporate hints and nudges in the right direction, in order to kind of ease that [issue of getting 'stuck']. If you’re enjoying a story and then you get stuck, it’s hard to say if that’s fun or not. Like I remember playing King’s Quest and all them when I was a kid, and loving them, but did i enjoy being stuck in those games? It’s hard to say. It was so long ago. Like I want to be all nostalgic and sit on my porch and be like, “You kids have it so easy,” but I think that’s something that’s changed a lot, with adventure games, especially. The difficulty level has kind of been eased, quite a bit. I think the better ones leave the choice up to the player.
A lot of people think the choice shouldn’t be there at all. But likewise, you still have the choice to go to Google if you wanted to. So, why not have [that system] in the game. I definitely think that if you have to leave the game to figure out how to get through it, that’s bad. [As a designer,] you’ve done it wrong. You’ve failed. “Make the experience more pleasant,” is what I say. Which is also a reason why adventure games tend to be shorter, nowadays. Even if they are difficult, it’s so easy to look for a walkthrough that people just zip right through them.
IGC: What’s next in the pipeline for Wadjet Eye? Any new games or projects in the works?
Gilbert: I’m almost finished with another Blackwell game. So the fourth one should be coming out… I’m thinking May? But I’m not sure. I wanted this game to come out a lot earlier, but then Gemini Rue came along and it got pushed back quite a bit.
My wife and I are working on a more long-term project. She’s the programmer of the two. We’ve mentioned Bioware stuff, and we’ve always wanted to make a game like Planescape or Fallout, but there’s no engine out there that can really help us do that. For the adventure games, I use Adventure Game Studio, which is really geared to make those games. But there’s no engine out there that can make this kind of thing. And it’s something we’ve always dreamed of making. So she’s building an engine for it right now, but that’s going to take a long time. So while she’s doing that, we’re also releasing the smaller adventure games. I’m not leaving adventure games – I love them. But I also love this other kind of thing, too: A kind of game – while it does have that fighting in it, as well – it also has that mechanic of branching storylines and dialog and stuff like that.
Before Dave and I wrapped things up and went on our merry ways, he also informed me that he eventually hopes to license and share their proprietary game engine with other developers interested in making those types of adventures for both PC and Mac – once it’s finished, of course. Honestly, if the primary result is a slew of fan-made Planescape-esque indies, that’ll be just fine by me.
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