By Adam Smith on November 5th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
This is Halloween, everybody make a scene! Oh, crumbs. It’s not Halloween at all, is it? It’s the other one. The one when we burn effigies on a fire and watch on in horror as our pet dogs cower in a puddle of their own wee, thinking they’ve been caught in the middle of a war. Let’s pretend it is still Halloween though because Dave Gilbert, adventure-builder and founder of Wadjet Eye Games, has a scary story to tell. I spoke to him about how an attempt to give away Blackwell: Deception for free became a trying ordeal. Then we chased away the ghouls and talked about how adventure games really never died, how the Blackwell series will end, and what comes next.
RPS: Hello! Lots of people celebrate Halloween by threatening to do horrible or humiliating things to strangers if they don’t give them sweet things to eat. You took a different approach this year though, giving Blackwell Deception away for free. What could possibly go wrong?
Gilbert: The version of myself at 10:59 PM on October 30th would have answered “Nothing at all!” What an idiot that guy was.
RPS: I didn’t realise that people sold Steam keys on, at least not to this extent. Did the exploitation start happening immediately or was it something that accelerated over time? Is there a sense that people monitor the web, looking for exploitable giveaways?
Gilbert: I have a feeling that they do. Back when we first got our games on Steam (was it only two years ago?) I posted a few keys on Twitter. I was quickly told that this was a bad idea, since bots troll Twitter looking for anything that looks like a Steam key and nabbing them before anyone else. It was my first experience with anything like this, but it didn’t seem like that huge of a deal. When we did the Blackwell giveaway last week, I got a crash course in just how prevalent this kind of thing actually is!
At first, the rate of “sales” seemed relatively normal. But then news of the sale showed up on Reddit, and SteamGifts, and other high-profile sites. With that kind of exposure, it was bound to gain the attention of shady individuals looking to exploit this kind of thing. After a few hours, a kind fan showed me web pages that explained how people could nab as many copies as they wanted in order to resell them later. It escalated quickly after that.
RPS: You tried limiting to one code per IP address but that didn’t fix things. In hindsight, is there any preventative measure that could have been put in place?
Gilbert: One thing I could have done was just made it for free on Steam, but that went against one of my goals for the promotion. I wanted people to go through the Wadjet Eye website to get the game. I wanted Wadjet Eye’s name out there, not Steam’s. When you go through Steam it’s very easy to forget who made the game, but go through the company website and it sticks with you a little better. When things started to get out of hand, I decided to stop giving out the Steam codes altogether and stuck with the DRM-free version, but the reaction to that was so brutal I decided to try the one code per IP address thing. You saw how well that turned out!
In hindsight, I should have just gone ahead and stopped giving out the keys. I wouldn’t have cared how many people downloaded the DRM-free version, because it’s not something that could be hoarded up for resale later (or at least, not nearly as easily!). If I ever decide to do this again (and if I do, it will be a LOOONG time from now!) I will definitely do a lot more research into how this kind of thing can be exploited. I was caught very unprepared this time.
RPS: You mentioned wanting to get Wadjet Eye’s name out there and on your blog you’ve said that, like the free day for The Shivah back in 2009, this wasn’t just an act of generosity but a way to remind people that you exist after a year away from the spotlight, working on Blackwell Epiphany and having a child (congratulations!). Is it possible to look at the coverage of the exploitation as a silver lining?
Gilbert: Oh definitely. I would NOT recommend this course of action to anyone, but I am well aware that I would never have gotten this kind of exposure and publicity had everything gone without a hitch. The story found its way onto many high profile websites and went viral for a bit. Heck, it even got me an interview on Rock Paper Shotgun! The outpouring of sympathy and well-wishing has been truly heart-warming. It was the first time I couldn’t keep up with all the nice messages on Twitter and Facebook and email. It’s been really tremendous. So in terms of “getting our name out there again”, it’s mission accomplished. But would I want to go through this again? Heck no!
RPS: And while we’re talking about the silver lining, how dark and ominous is the cloud? Clearly, the idea of people selling hundreds or thousands of keys that they received for free is unpleasant, and there’s a great deal of stress involved in trying to fix the problem, but has this caused any other damage?
Gilbert: At best we look naive, at worst we look incompetent. Leaving that key generator page up was a HUGE oversight. Even though it wasn’t Wadjet Eye who did it, the folks who did were acting on our behalf and we should have been more observant. A percentage of the people who nabbed a key from that generator were totally innocent, and it’s hard to say how large or small that percentage is. I’m sure a lot of them are angry that they lost their game (even though it was free) and they could have gone on to become loyal fans of ours had this not happened. So I regret that, too. It’s hard to say what the future fallout of this will be. We’ll find out when our next game is released!
RPS: Do you think you would have missed out on many sales? Do the Blackwell games continue to find new buyers this long between releases?
Gilbert: It’s hard to say. We’re lucky in that we have a nice long tail of games. Whenever we have a new release, it renews interest in our back catalog. This year has been an exception, since we’ve gone a long time since our last release. Sales always slow over time, so in most circumstances 2013 would be a tight year. But 2012 was such a great year for us in terms of sheer profit, so we’ve been living off of that while we get used to being new parents. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, we will still be nicely in the black by the time our next game hits the digital shelves.
RPS: What was the solution you decided on and do you think it was satisfactory?
Gilbert: I’ve already covered some of this, but there were two “solutions” really. When I saw that resellers were masking their IP to nab codes by the barrelful, I had enough. I am just one guy, and I was exhausted. There was only so much effort I was willing to put into a free offer, and this was it. So I cancelled the offer altogether. I had not slept the night before, and I had spent the entire day wrestling with download issues and Steamcodes and things. I emailed BMT (our sales provider, who handle our storefront) and asked them to revert everything. Then I went to bed! So that was solution number one. I regretted doing it, since I felt like I was going back on my promise, but at that point I didn’t see any other option.
When I woke up to discover that BMT had left the code generator up and all our remaining codes (over 30,000 of them!) had been suctioned away overnight, all I could do was cancel all the codes that were generated during that time. Again, not the “best” solution but it was really the only one.
RPS: Onto happier things! How is development of Blackwell Epiphany coming along? You’re expecting to release around February/March, right?
Gilbert: Yes! I had hoped to have it out by Xmas…but, you know. Baby! They take up a lot of time. But we’ve settled into a nice groove and progress is going very well now. We hired a full-time artist (our first full-time anything, actually) and things are moving very quickly. We’re onto the voice acting stage, and it’s looking really nice. I can’t wait to show it off!
RPS: How do you feel you’ve changed as a developer over the course of your career so far and where do you see the most improvement from game to game – storytelling in the point and click form, puzzle invention, or more general plotting and character development?
Gilbert: It’s been a very slow process, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that a point-and-click game is still a game at the end of the day. Interactivity is paramount. You could have the bestest epicest story ever, but if the player can’t DO anything or have any agency at all, why make it a game in the first place? So my thoughts when designing have evolved from “How can I make this a better story” to “How can I make this more engaging for the player?” There are many ways to do that, and I’m not always successful, but that it where my design philosophy is at right now.
RPS: Going back to Blackwell for a moment, how hard is it to move on from a story and characters that you’ve spent so much time with? Will the final chapter to be decisively conclusive, to put them to rest?
Gilbert: I’ve had these characters mucking about in my head since 2000 or so, so it’s very surreal to say goodbye! Since the first game debuted in 2006, I met the woman of my dreams, got married, had a child, and moved house. I have changed and grown and evolved like anybody else, and I feel like the series evolved with me. The first game (Blackwell Legacy) is very rough, and I’m almost embarrassed by it now. Whenever I replay them all in sequence, I can see the mistakes I made and the lesson I’ve learned and how I applied them to the next game.
Blackwell is where I cut my teeth as a commercial full-time developer, and I continued to learn from each one. It’s been an amazing ride. So yes, it’s hard to say goodbye. It would be so easy to drag it out – just do the “spook of the week” thing and continue the series indefinitely – but that wouldn’t be fair to the games or the fans. Blackwell Epiphany is the most ambitious game I’ve ever done, and I can’t think of a more fitting note to end it on.
RPS: It seemed, for a while, that Telltale might be exploring the same pointing, clicking and puzzling as Wadjet Eye, but A Wolf Among us and The Walking Dead are something very different. I actually play more text adventures than point and click adventures nowadays. Are they a dying breed (again) or have they simply mostly migrated to Germany?
Gilbert: It’s hard to say! There are different types of point-and-clicks as there are different types of platformers, or RPGs, or RTSs. There’s this tendency to lump all point-and-click adventure games into one box and say THIS IS WHAT IT SHOULD BE, but that’s silly. Gemini Rue was our most widely praised game, but if you don’t like sci-fi you probably won’t like it. Everyone has different tastes, and there are games for different kinds of people. As for if “pure” point-and-clicks are a dying breed, I wouldn’t say so. They’ve been called “dead” so many times and we’re still in business, so it’s hard to take that seriously anymore!
RPS: You’ve talked about doing something different, or at least ‘more ambitious’, I think was the quote. Any clues as to what that might be?
Gilbert: I have a few ideas! I’ve had an idea for something much larger and more branching than what we are normally capable of. The biggest complaint about our games are not the graphics (as one might think) but the length. Making a nice lengthy game was always impossible before, but now that we’ve got a fulltime artist, it’s within reach. So stay tuned, I suppose.
RPS: Thanks for your time!
Blackwell Epiphany will be out next year.