Wadjet Eye Games
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Dave Gilbert - Wadjet Eye Games (CCO)
Interview by Chris Picone, 02 October 2018
We are joined today by David Gilbert, CCO of Wadjet Eye Games, to discuss the studio, Dave’s life as a publisher of premium point-and-click adventures, and the triumph that is Unavowed. Richard Cobbett, lead designer of Kickstarter RPG Nighthawks, also chimes in to tell us a little about his latest project.
CSH: Where did the name Wadjet Eye come from? Is there a story?
Dave: It’s a pretty boring story! I was into Egyptology as a kid and really liked the symbol of the Wadjet Eye. I decided that if I ever needed a logo for anything, I would use the Wadjet Eye. Flash forward much later. I was trying to come up with a name for my game company and I couldn’t think of anything. I knew I was going to use the Wadjet Eye as a logo, so I figured I would use it for my name as well. Had I known that the company would grow to be somewhat successful, I may have chosen something easier to spell!
CSH: How did the studio come together? You’re obviously married to Janet, but how did a 20-something Australian (Ben Chandler) end up working for you? What about some of your other collaborators?
Dave: I met Ben through the AGS community. I was aware of his art and we chatted quite frequently. Eventually, I was in need of a sprite artist and I offered him the gig. A couple of years later, he became so essential that I couldn’t envision working with anybody else. He was doing all the art for three different games WHILE doing full time work at a sheep farm. This seemed silly, so I bit the bullet and hired him full time. He’s been arting for us ever since!
Francisco Gonzalez I also met through the AGS community. We joined around the same time in 2002 and we’d been aware of each other’s work ever since. When he moved to my city in 2013, joining forces with him felt like the natural thing to do.
I was introduced to Thomas Regin through another composer in the AGS community. I was looking for someone to help with the music for Blackwell Unbound, he introduced me to Thomas, and I must have liked his work because eleven years later he’s still composing for me.
Jen Hepler and I went to the same summer camp when we were kids! I knew her as Jenny Brandes back then, so when I heard her name in game dev circles I had no idea it was the same person. I met her at GDC years later and learned the truth. Her thoughts about skipping the combat in narrative-based games always struck a chord with me. Meeting her felt like a serendipitous sign that it was time to make that game. Unavowed was the result.
CSH: More on Unavowed later. Wadjet’s pumped out a bunch of other games too – The Shivah, Emerald City Confidential, Shardlight, the Blackwell series – but are arguably better known as a publisher of premium adventure games. So what is life like as a publisher? How did you get into publishing and what’s actually involved?
Dave: I got into publishing because I quickly realized that adventure games take a loooong time to make, and if I had one major flop I would be out of business. I didn’t like those odds, so working with other developers to create more games seemed like the smartest move. I’ve worked with a lot of fantastic developers, and have learned so many things from each one. Acting as a publisher/producer also gives me a break from working on my own stuff, so I can give myself time to breathe and think about what I’m doing next instead of rushing headfirst into a new project. It’s worked out well all around.
CSH: With the recent proliferation of Kickstarters and self-publishing, there are a lot of options out there these days. What do you have to offer as a publisher?
Dave: I can’t offer much in terms of funding, but I CAN offer a lot in terms of time and resources. I am involved with your project full time, playing it a lot and offering feedback and course-correction. I also act as a task-master, making sure everything gets done in a reasonable amount of time. We also “take care” of the game once it’s finished. We handle the sales, marketing, tech support, and any porting that might be done.
CSH: And the other side of the coin – what do you look for in a game and/or developer? How do you choose the lucky ones?
Dave: There’s no rhyme or reason to this. A lot of it is timing. If I am between projects, or wrapping one up, and I like your project I may take it on. There’s no specific criteria or checklist that I go by. It’s just… a gut feeling. Do I like it? How much work is involved? How much of my time/energy/resources will it take up? Can I work with the developer? I am not a hands-off publisher. I have very specific ideas of what I want our games to be, and if you aren’t OK with me meddling and requesting changes occasionally than we probably aren’t going to get along. That kind of thing.
CSH: You’ve done a lot of collaborative work over the years. Do you have a favourite partner or project? Any memorable moments that stand out?
Dave: Working with Ben Chandler is a dream. We are very much on the same wavelength when it comes to design, and he puts a lot of himself into his work. The first time he visited NY, we visited all the locations that he painted for our games (like Grace Church, Greenwood Cemetery, Thompkins Square Park, etc). He had only seen them in reference pictures before, so that was a memorable moment.
CSH: Speaking of collaborative work, you’re currently working with Richard Cobbett on his Kickstarter RPG, Nighthawks. How did that come about?
Dave: Richard approached me about the project and showed me his design document. I didn’t need much convincing. I am very familiar with Richard’s work and I’ve always wanted to work with him on something.
CSH: Tell us a bit about the game?
Dave: Honestly, this is more Richard’s baby than mine. Until the Kickstarter campaign ends, I am not involved much aside from the strenuous task tweeting about it.
Richard: Nighthawks is a vampire RPG set in a world where vampires have been exposed, and the world is struggling to adapt. You start broke and friendless in a cheap hotel, and over the next three years, rise from rags to riches. It’s a game about the social side of being a vampire, and the politics and personal horror that comes with it… along with a lot of very dark humour, and the freedom to seize the night however you choose.
CSH: Give us some insight into the main characters?
Richard: There’s no defined main character in Nighthawks -- it’s you, or whoever you want to be. You actually create your Sire rather than yourself, including the origins of their vampirism and their main traits. This is largely a result of having worked on games like Sunless Sea, which have a big audience that isn’t often directly catered for in games. Everyone deserves to be a badass vampire! Of course, it’s a city of wonderfully disturbed people, including vampire stage magician Madame Lux, con-artist turned cult-leader Maze, former pirate Inez, and Veronica Castigliano, prodigal daughter of an eternal dynasty who knows that torture never goes out of style. We think people are really going to enjoy meeting them, as well as learning their secrets with interactive flashbacks set everywhere from 18th century Nassau to the Las Vegas strip!
CSH: Why is Nighthawks being Kickstarted when previous projects haven’t?
Dave: As I said, I can’t offer funding. Richard wants to work on this full time. A Kickstarter is the only way to make that happen. It’s also a new type of game for us. Kickstarter is a great way to gauge the market and see if there is really a demand for this kind of thing.
CSH: What will Wadjet Eye’s role be once the Kickstarter campaign’s done and dusted?
Dave: Ben will be doing all the art for it, mainly. My own role in the project is fairly nebulous. Richard has been involved in many games before, so I won’t need to guide him as much as I would others. I’ll be doing all the usual guff: marketing, sales, handling the voiceover, but I also plan to be onboard as a collaborator. It’s a game that will require a lot of writing so I am going to be helping him with that. I am really looking forward to that.
CSH: Well, I’ve certainly backed the game, and my fingers are crossed we’ll make it over the line. In the meantime, you released Unavowed last month, and it seems to have been well-received all round. For those behind the eight-ball, what’s the elevator pitch?
Dave: Unavowed is best described as “an urban fantasy adventure game with RPG elements.” You play as someone who was possessed by a demon and committed all sorts of horrible acts across New York. You are rescued by an ancient society called the Unavowed. Unable to return to your old life, you join them and try to correct the evils your demon unleashed. There are four characters who you can bring along with you. Two of them are there from the start: Eli, a fire mage and former accountant, and Mandana, a half-jinn half human who was born when New York was founded. Two party members come later: Logan, a spirit medium who can see and talk to ghosts (fans of Blackwell will be familiar with that) and Vicki, a disgraced police officer.
CSH: Having played my way through the Blackwell series, and most of Wadjet Eye’s other games, I can happily say that the quality of your games have come a long way, exemplified by Unavowed. What did you learn from Unavowed that you can apply to make your next game even better?
Dave: Unavowed didn’t involve doing anything I didn’t already know how to do. There was just so much MORE of it. It required a lot more planning and organization than I bargained for, and I got overwhelmed more often than not. If I do this again, I will definitely sit down and arrange some kind of schedule or workflow to make things less stressful for myself.
CSH: Stress and time management is important, for sure. So, what do you do when you’re not making or publishing games?
Dave: I enjoy running, hiking, reading. I started boxing a little while ago. Most of my time is taken up with raising our kid at the moment!
CSH: Running’s a necessary evil, but hiking and reading are two very fine hobbies indeed. You can’t have been a game designer all your life. What did you do for a crust back in the day, and has your past life had any influence on your games?
Dave: In bits and pieces. I used to do a lot of boring corporate admin work. I didn’t enjoy it much, but it gave me close-up look at how products were created. My old bosses always tried to be efficient with their time, money and energy and I try to do the same.
On a creative level, most everything I make ends up being about me whether I intend it to be or not. Rosa’s story in Blackwell definitely reflected my own feelings of urban isolation when I first moved to New York, and her growing confidence matched my own.
CSH: You must get asked this every interview, but I have to ask it again. Why adventure games? Why pixel art?
Dave: Why films, novels, or television? The structure and language of adventure games is one I am very familiar with, having grown up with them. They speak to me in a way that other mediums don’t, and enable me to use that medium to tell the stories I want to tell. As for pixel art, it’s a budget thing more than anything else.
CSH: 2018 is looking to be a big year for Wadjet Eye. Unavowed has just been released, Nighthawks is in development, and Technobabylon 2 can’t be far away. What’s next on the cards?
Dave: I’m still planning out what my next personal project is going to be. I have a few ideas but none of them have passed the “cool idea” stage yet. When there’s something more to talk about, rest assured I will!
CSH: Between Hepler’s influence on Unavowed and Nighthawks being an RPG, not to mention the move to Kickstarter, are we seeing a change in focus for Wadjet Eye?
Dave: No idea! I just go wherever the muse takes me. I’m not beholden to the point-and-click formula/format. I may diverge from it, I may go back to it, I may do something else completely. That’s the benefit of being indie.
Dave and Richard, thanks for your time. I know you must both be crazy busy with Unavowed’s post-release campaigning and tech support, and of course the Kickstarter campaign, so your time is very much appreciated. At the time of writing, Nighthawks only has ~$30k to go to hit funding, and three days to get there. That’s a pretty damn achievable target, so I look forward to the development updates while Richard busily makes a game appear out of thin air, and I can’t wait to see where Wadjet Eye takes us next.
You can find links to the Kickstarter below, as well as the Unavowed and Nighthawks websites, the Wadjet Eye Games website, and Richard’s freelance writing website.
The Nighthawks Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/753131002/nighthawks-the-vampire-rpg-0
Richard’s website: http://www.richardcobbett.com/
Nighthawks website: http://www.nighthawks-game.com
Wadjet Eye Games website: http://www.wadjeteyegames.com/