Indie Games, When Hobbies Become Careers

The soft croon of indie rock and smooth jazz fills the mellow, coffee-stained air of the off-Broadway Cosi diner under the mumble of idle chatter. Hip professionals and professional hipsters laze about, munching away at overpriced flatbread sandwiches and swilling cheap “espresso solos.” On the outskirts, in many of the lounge chairs and cozy booths, several solitary patrons read artsy, intellectual books or people-watch the various passers-by as they scurry home from work. Just outside, in the waning sunlight, an NYPD traffic cop is ninja-ticketing those unlucky enough to defy the almighty Eighth Street muni-meter.

Yes, this is definitely Manhattan.

This den of kitsch wall-art and faux-contented baristas houses Dave Gilbert, an unassuming 36-year-old man with thick, black rimmed glasses, a neatly trimmed five o’clock shadow and a generally pleasant demeanor. He is decked out like an average city-dweller: jeans, t-shirt, windbreaker and loafers. However, atop his head of dark, curly hair is a black and white “Wadjet Eye” cap. What most wouldn’t realize is that Gilbert is the proud owner of, and one of the two primary creative minds behind, Wadjet Eye Games (the other, his wife, Janet).

Wadjet Eye Games is an independent game developer/publisher that bubbled up from the nooks and crannies of Greenwich Village’s coffee shops and cafés. Their major releases include “The Shiva,” where the sleuthing Rabbi, Russell Stone, takes it upon himself to investigate a string of murders, “Emerald City Confidential,” in which the player assumes the role of Petra, the only private detective in the city at the end of the yellow brick road and, of course, the popular “Blackwell Series” (Legacy, Unbound, Convergence and Deception), starring the reluctant psychic medium, Rosangela Blackwell and her plucky spectral guide, Joey Mallone.

“When I was younger I was obsessed with ghost stories,” Gilbert says about the Blackwell saga. “I keep an open mind. I don’t necessarily know if I ‘believe’ in it, exactly. But I like to think there’s something else out there besides, you know, what we see.”

See a theme here? No explosions or swords; not even one solitary grenade. These games, most of which are fabricated through the “Adventure Game Studio” (AGS) engine, are made for the story and the experience, not the “wow” factor of graphics. They have to be, as AGS, which is freeware, can accomplish little more than pixilated early 1990s animation.

The career was a unpredictable progression for Gilbert, who had even held a job in the garment industry for a stretch.

“Before I started selling games, I made a bunch of freeware ones. It was just for fun, just a creative outlet” says Gilbert. “I never thought I’d still be doing this five or six years later.”

A decent portion of Wadjet Eye’s games take place in New York City, Gilbert’s adoptive home following his graduation from Boston University and his stint as an English teacher in Korea.

“I love showing my favorite places off,” he says. He never hesitates to exhibit his choice selection of NYC landmarks, finding creative ways to include them into his games.

A fair amount of Wadjet Eye’s developed and published games have won awards in the AGS community. This garnered the attention of major gaming reviewers and chief digital distributors like Steam. However, churning out game after game is a tedious, personal endeavor.

“It’s slow,” Dave says about his creative process. “I literally just sit in a cafe like this, with a notebook, and write down ideas forever until something kind-of forms and, eventually, something coalesces. Then I make the game from that. I have a basic plot outline and I hash it out into a puzzle structure and from there I make a game.”

“I wrote most of Unbound here,” says Gilbert, about that particular Cosi. In fact, almost all of the coffee shops and diners in the Greenwich area have served his needs at least once.

Gilbert is most definitely not alone, however. In the Great White North, nestled in Markham, a small town outside of Toronto, yet another up-and-coming indie developer toils away at his own masterworks.

Kan Gao, 23, founder of Freebird Games, was born in the city of Dongying in the Shandong province of China where he lived until he was about eleven. At that time, his parents moved to Canada where Gao and his family hopped around the Toronto area. Finally, Gao settled in Markham following his attendance at the University of Western Ontario, where he majored in business and computer science.

Gao’s Freebird Games is responsible for releases like “Quintessence,” a fairly straightforward RPG with a larger focus on story, plot development and puzzles than combat, “The Mirror Lied,” a creepy twenty-minute-long vignette of a game following a little girl’s exploits in an unsettling house and, most recently (and famously), “To the Moon,” which is, like the rest of his creations, an audiovisual journey that happens to look like an RPG. It should be mentioned, however, that in no way is this a bad thing. “To the Moon” is acclaimed, across the board, to be an instant masterpiece of gaming.

Of course, his parents weren’t quite so comfortable with his sudden interest in full-time game development.

“At first they were a bit unsure, I suppose, because I haven’t actually had that much experience even working in the game industry as, you know, an employee,” says Gao, discussing his employment with a major developer. “On some levels it’s better to have that experience first before going indie because you learn so much about the actual business side of the industry that way.”

“Fortunately, ‘To the Moon’ took off just as I graduated University,” he says. “After it took off, [my parents] were a lot more relaxed with it. You know, seeing the results.”

“I’ve always written a lot and then, one day, when I was a student in High School, I was trying to turn one of the stories I was trying to write into an interactive experience with audio and visuals,” says Gao, in his endearing, matter-of-fact demeanor. “So, I looked up game creation means.”

Gao found RPG Maker, a (you guessed it) RPG maker, and that was that. He was off to mold his stories into playable Super Nintendo-esque overhead RPGs with graphics akin to classic Japanese RPGs like “Chrono-Trigger” by Square (Now Square Enix) and Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.”

“Now that there’s an audience out there, and they have expectations, you just don’t want to let them down,” says Gao. He says he’s not worried about the pressure, he just hopes that he can live up to both his creative standards and the high bar he set to his fans with previous works.

All in all, the two developers are practically worlds apart when it comes to both personality and background and, although Gilbert is rather well-spoken, Gao’s life goals are about as poignant and elementary as the messages in his games.

“I guess it’s just a matter of seeing the world and what it has to offer, as generic as that sounds,” says Gao. “Just trying to leave a mark of your existence.”

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