Niche Gamer had the pleasure of chatting with Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye Games and discuss his upcoming game, Unavowed.
Niche Gamer: What is Unavowed, and what fans can expect from it?
Dave Gilbert: Unavowed is best described as an Urban Fantasy, where you play as someone who is possessed by a demon, and you’re freed of that demon six months later. While you were under the influence, however, you’ve committed murders and other horrible things. Since you can’t get back to your old life, you join the Unavowed, which is this secret society that fights evil in New York City.
Niche Gamer: You had an unusual path before your first commercial release, The Shivah. How does a garment industry worker become a successful game developer years later?
Dave Gilbert: I had a bunch of different jobs, and I never really enjoyed them. Game development was always just a hobby for me, but during a brief stint of unemployment, I was in NY when the towers fell. I was looking for something to get my mind off of things, and that’s when I found Adventure Game Studio. I made a very small game in a weekend, I put it online and people seemed to like it. So I just kept making more, and then 5 years later, found myself unemployed again.
This time, I had money saved up, so I figured it was now or never, and I made The Shivah. Things were different by the time I made The Shivah, since people actually bought games online in 2006. I kind of joked it that I was doing it as a way to avoid getting a real job. Turns out, I’m still doing the same thing 10 years later. I started in May of 2006, so yeah, very close to 10 years.
Niche Gamer: The Shivah was released in 2006 as a competition entry for Adventure Games Studio’s 5th Anniversary. Ten years later, You’re still using AGS on your new game, Unavowed. You’re basically the reference when someone mentions AGS. Are you afraid of finally hitting the limitations of the engine itself?
Dave Gilbert: Last summer, I decided I was sick of AGS. It does 95 out of 100 things right, but those 5 things are so annoying, it made me start trying out Unity in an attempt to avoid them. About six weeks later, I realized that I couldn’t get it to do the most basic things, the things I could get AGS to do in a weekend. It was just so much more difficult to get what I wanted out of it. I might have been able to figure it out eventually, but since Unavowed is kind of an ambitious project design-wise, learning a whole new engine on top of that just compounded the complexity to a point where it would be just too stressful. So I decided to stick with AGS for now. It does everything I need, and the latest unofficial version of AGS fixes 2 out of the 5 issues (laughs).
So it’s a little bit better to use than it was. I just like that it does exactly what I need it to do. It knows exactly the kind of game I’m trying to make, and it gives me the tools to do this exact specific thing. There’s really nothing else out there that does that. I haven’t hit the limitations yet. I know it might happen eventually, and if that happens, I’ll deal with it and figure it out. I’m 10 years into using it, though, and people are still able to play the games I made 10 years back, so I’d say that’s pretty good.
Niche Gamer: You’re making a lot of changes from your previous games: double the resolution, a mute protagonist, multiple origin stories, and gender selection. With this and couple of other small design choices, are you afraid to alienate some of your most dedicated fans?
Dave Gilbert: I mean, the stuff they like is still there. The unvoiced protagonist thing is something that I’m really taking advantage of. It makes the game more flexible, I can add two different genders and branching story paths that would have been impossible if I had to add voice acting to each part. It also means I don’t have to voice every single look description of every single room, which takes forever. I’m not doing it because I’m lazy, I’m doing it because I’ll be able to add more to the game. If you have 3 different origin stories (a cop, bartender and actor) lines of dialogue will change to reflect that. So, I’m having a lot of things changed and I can do that, knowing that I don’t have to voice every single line, twice for male and female. That’s the main reason I’m doing it.
I don’t think it will anger people, because when they play it, they will get a feel for it. I call it Mid-Era Bioware, after Baldur’s Gate, but before the EA buyout, when the protagonist was always mute. It wasn’t that they were silent, they just didn’t have a voice. You clicked on what you wanted them to say, then the other characters would respond. So that’s what I’m going for, and I don’t think it will be a problem. All the main story and character stuff is all there, but since the character is a blank slate, I can double down on all the other characters in the game. I want to make them as fleshed out as possible, so they can carry more of the narrative weight.
Niche Gamer: Any chance we may finally get that John Constantine/Vertigo adventure game?
Dave Gilbert: (laughs) No, because that’s essentially what Unavowed is. Do you know the story behind this? I was in talks with them to make a game based on Vertigo. They weren’t quite sure which I.P., it could be Sandman, could be Hellblazer. I was kinda leaning towards Hellblazer because Sandman is the product of one guy’s vision, and it was very scary to touch that, while with Hellblazer, dozens of writers have been involved with that. But when I first spoke to them, they approached me as well saying “Well, we wanna do a low-res adventure game”. I was like, what voodoo spell did I accidentally cast for them want to approach me about this?
Just to kind of show them that we were serious and what we could do, I asked my artist to put a couple of Vertigo characters together on a background and send it to them. Nothing came of it, and I posted it a year and a half later on Twitter. I thought: “I’ll post it, just to see”. And it was the most viral thing I’ve ever posted to Twitter. Just one look at that screenshot and I’m like, “That’s what I want to make right there.” And that’s basically what Unavowed is right now. I’m also a big fan of Dresden Files, World of Darkness, I love all that stuff. This is is me finally kinda doing that.
Niche Gamer: Technobabylon’s cast is very interesting: You have a grumpy cynical Texan, a transgender Sino-American woman, even an interracial gay couple with robomantic tendencies. Even so, that diversity is never flaunted or forcefully thrown in the player’s face. Was that planned, or just something that came together when the game was in development?
Dave Gilbert: I didn’t write it, so I’ll just quote what he said on the matter, which is that it was a conscious choice. Gene Roddenberry did it very well on the original Star Trek, where you had Uhura there–she’s black, and it was a big deal at the time. But no one said anything about it, no one mentioned it, it was just there. That’s kinda how he felt about it, like 100 years in the future, all these things that are like hot topics right now, they’re considered no big deal. And that’s where he was going with Technobabylon, it’s just a thing that happens.
Actually for the trans character, I was very concerned with getting things right. We talked to a lot of trans people in real life, and learned a lot of things we didn’t know previously. We made that little exchange where she comes out a lot more effective as a result. But that was really it, we didn’t want to call attention to it a lot, because in that world they don’t. That’s a great thing about Technobabylon, it’s cyberpunk, but it’s not a dystopia. It’s actually a quite pleasant time and place to live. It’s a thing we should try to strive for and I thought it came out really nice.
Niche Gamer: Interesting. When you have something in your game that might be deemed problematic by a percentage of your playerbase, do you guys believe the creator’s wish are to be respected, within reason?
Dave Gilbert: I think if the creator is worried about that, they should ask. If you have a game about slavery and you’re a middle class white guy, you probably should show it to black people to see how they feel about it. If anything, getting their feedback will make it better, because you can very easily get that wrong. It’s very hard to write that from a place of proper empathy and sensitivity, when it’s really out of your realm of experience. As I always say: If you’re making a game, you’ll test mechanics, you’ll test gameplay, you’ll test tutorials…You also can test story, you can test narrative. So, do that.
(Referring to Unavowed) 2 of the 3 origin stories, I like. There’s one origin story, I don’t think it works. Rather than beat my head against the wall trying to figure out why it doesn’t work, I just quickly put it together and put it in front of testers, “Tell me what you think, I’m out of ideas.” Based on their feedback, just telling me why they don’t like it, helps me figure it out how I can make it better. Yeah, test story, iterate it.
Niche Gamer: Traditional point and click adventure games are becoming more popular again. What’s your opinion about the resurgence of the genre, and from your experience, what is the support from the gaming community like?
Dave Gilbert: Whenever a point and click adventure game does well, I do well. So I definitely benefit from the whole Double Fine/Kickstarter thing. But I also get hurt when the opposite happens. A lot of those games came out, and a lot of them weren’t received very well, or they just kind of came and went–there was a lot of Kickstarter fatigue in general. It actually became harder for me to get press to talk to me, because they were sick of talking about adventure games. So I’m hurt and helped by that. A funny thing about adventure games is that it’s sort of all or nothing. When a high profile adventure game comes out and it’s not received very well, you hear “I always knew I hated adventure games.” When it’s just that specific one that sucks. And that hurts everyone, that hurts all adventure game developers.
So I’m calling Unavowed more of an RPG than an adventure game. Even though there’s no combat, it’s still a very roleplay-heavy experience.
Niche Gamer: Will Eli have a firecrotch easter egg in Unavowed?
Dave Gilbert: I have to do that now, don’t I? (laughs) You just never know what the hell’s going to go viral, do you? The story behind it: he’s got a flame coming out of his hand, and while coding the position, the first time I tested it, the flame was on his crotch. So of course, I took a screenshot of it and posted on Twitter. And then it got like 400 retweets, and just went all over the place. (laughs) I have to have it now. Maybe. It will be hidden and you will have to find it.
Niche Gamer: So you guys are fully independent, yeah? Funding-wise, you’re mostly coasting on the income of previous releases. Have you ever been approached by a publisher saying “We will pick up your game, we will put it on X platform,” that sort of thing?
Dave Gilbert: Hmm, I used to. I was published once, with Emerald City Confidential, back in 2009. It was an interesting experience, but I prefer doing things on my own. I was once approached by a guy who was more of a businessman-type. He wanted to partner up and and kinda handle the business end of things, while I would focus on the games. It seemed cool but I resisted it, because I didn’t want to give anything up. I’m glad I didn’t, I like knowing that if things are going badly, that I can take steps and try to fix things on my own. I can experiment and no one’s hurt but me. We had a bit of a situation last year, it’s a long story. My wife wasn’t able to work for a while, she was ill. It kinda caught up to us.
This year, before Shardlight came out, I started doing all these things, just trying to bring more money in. “Alright, I just signed up with all these bundles.” That sort of taught me that, yeah, bundles aren’t what they used to be. (laugh) I’ve started doing a lot more, pushing sales on Steam and that kind of thing, trying to bring in extra money. And it’s been working out well and I can do that. Fortunately, since we’re small, we can recover pretty quickly when we screw up. It’s one reason why I like to keep my projects low budget, low scope in general. If we do screw up, we can bounce back pretty fast.
Niche Gamer: How many guys do you have in your studio?
Dave Gilbert: It’s mostly me, my wife, and a full-time Australian artist we work with, Ben Chandler. We also work with various freelancers from time to time.
Niche Gamer: As an experienced developer, what advice would you give to newcomers trying to make their own adventure games?
Dave Gilbert: I mean, it doesn’t just apply to adventure games. When I first started, there was no Kickstarter, or crowdfunding in general–there wasn’t even Twitter. I just sorta made things because I wanted to. I was very aware what I had to work with, which was virtually nothing, and there’s a reason why all my early games were very small and very short. Because that’s all that I was able to make. I did try not making anything that I couldn’t bounce back from if everything went south. Think of every dollar you spend as a dollar you’re not gonna get back, and plan for that. You always have to be aware of that, that your game might not sell and you have to have a contingency plan.
I’m lucky because I’m at a point now where if a game doesn’t sell, I’ve got lots of other games that do. So I can bounce back. But it’s taken me 10 years to get to that point. So, my advice is, start small and start smart. Grow organically, don’t force it; if you have a bit of success, don’t suddenly buy an office and hire people, because your next game might not sell. I just grow very slowly and every time I expand, I freak out. (laughs). So, that’s my advice, start slow, start smart.
Niche Gamer: What’s your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Dave Gilbert: Beats the hell out of me. (laughs) I wish I had some kind of fancy answer. It’s really just sit down with a notebook, and just write down ideas. Eventually, something clicks and I just have to make that decision, “I want to make this.” It’s funny, it’s not just a silly question. Before I decided I wanted to make Unavowed, I had one of three choices. It seemed like fans were interested in sci-fi, but when Technobabylon came out, it sold pretty much on par with everything else. It wasn’t like making a game sci-fi magically made my game sell more. It sold well because it was a good game. That’s always been my mantra.
The three games I wanted to do were a straight noir story, sci-fi, and an Urban Fantasy. That has always been my comfort zone, because of Blackwell, because of the genre I like. I love Dresden and Hellblazer and all that. And it felt very safe and easy to go that way, that’s why I’ve resisted it. But then I’m like, “You know what? Screw that.” Then double down on that. If it’s my comfort zone, I’m just going to make it as good as I possibly can. I’m going to do more things than I’ve ever done before, which I am. There’s this wonderful quote, which I don’t know the origin of: “There are no bad ideas, just bad execution.” How many great ideas are ruined by just being executed poorly? I decided it doesn’t matter what kind of game I’m doing, as long as I do it well. So that’s what I’m doing. Or trying to.
Niche Gamer: Thanks for your time, Dave, and we’ll be looking forward to Unavowed!
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