Gameranx Interviews: Danny Weinbaum (Leaving Lyndow)

With titles like Infamous: Second Son and State of Decay under his belt, Environment Artist Danny Weinbaum had already dabbled in AAA games, but wanted a different kind of challenge. So when the opportunity to embark on his own game presented itself, he didn’t think twice. Eastshade, an upcoming 3D adventure exploration game is the result of that leap of faith, and the ultimate digital canvas for Weinbaum to showcase his artistic creativity in the form of beautifully rendered worlds and characters. Gameranx recently spoke to Weinbaum about what it was like developing Eastshade as his first solo title, and where its ‘prequel’ Leaving Lyndow fits into the mix.

Gameranx: Could you tell us a little bit about Eastshade? From my understanding Leaving Lyndow is almost like a prequel.

Danny Weinbaum: Yeah, in terms of the story and the world, it’s a prequel. But mechanically they’re kind of opposite. They’re similar in that they’re both in first person. Eastshade is open world and non-linear, which is quite rare for an adventure game. It’s kind of a weird thing to put together. You can go anywhere, and do whatever you want. There are all these different things to do – you can talk to people, you can make conversation choices and hear about people’s lives, and the conversations you have will impact their schedules and sometimes impact who they’re friends with. The things you do in the world change the world state, and then you can also do quests like in an RPG. But instead of mastering 10 rats or whatever it is, there’s this painting mechanic which is the iconic part of the game. It’s not like a drawing game, or teaching you how to draw. The world itself is the strong part and that’s what we’re focusing on trying to make as cool as possible.

We were trying to think of a mechanic that would capitalise on the world itself, and people who pay attention to the world will excel at the game mechanically. My girlfriend and I came up with this painting thing where different NPC’s in the world will want different things, and subtly hint at them. You can make paintings of things in the world you think they might like and you can offer it to them. If they like it they’ll reward you with something that will help you traverse the world or open up new parts of the world for you. That’s the core loop of the game. You’re basically exploring the world, and as you explore, you talk to people, you find things, you see things, you paint things, you solve some riddles and that will expose more parts of the world.

Gameranx: That’s very a very different kind of mechanic compared to other first person adventure games, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Weinbaum: Yeah, it is different. I think all those games you mentioned have a story they’re wanting to tell. With Eastshade, there really is no overarching story; You’re not there to figure out the secret of the island, you’re not there to save whoever, it’s almost like a travel simulator. You’re in this cool place, do what you want here, go where you want. In the world there’s a bunch of micro stories.

Gameranx: What is your main role on the game?

Weinbaum: I’m the main developer and the founder of Eastshade Studios and I do all the programming and most of the art, audio and main design. Before I started working on Eastshade I was working at Sucker Punch on Infamous Second Son as an environment artist. So I was doing AAA games for a while, and that’s part of the reason we wanted Eastshade. It was the game that eventually compelled me to quit my job. That was the game I came up with that would really capitalise in what I was good at – environment and building up worlds.

I’m not very good at programming, I actually learned programming because I wanted to make a game, and I’ve been doing that on the side for many years. When I finally started Eastshade I finally felt like I was good enough to hold my own, to make my own game. Fortunately we have these wonderful game engines out now commercially available that do a lot of the really gnarly stuff.

Gameranx: Did you look at other games for inspiration when creating Eastshade?

Weinbaum: In terms of games in particular, I suppose Elder Scrolls is my favourite game series and I think Oblivion’s probably my favourite game. As far as I can tell, those games are really about the world. The world is awesome, not because it has the best combat or the best magic. Those games always really inspire me. I really love the feeling of finding a new city, like one you haven’t been to before, and I’m trying to build a game that’s full of those moments.  

Gameranx: There’s a non-combat MMO called Wander out there that keeps players engaged using methods other than battles. Are you tapping into something similar in Eastshade? The joy of discovery?

Weinbaum: Yeah I think so. Unlocking new places to explore is the addictive part. When I was initially trying to think of Eastshade, I thought a lot about RPG’s, because RPG’s are generally the games with cool, deep worlds and I wanted to make a game with a cool world in the spotlight. And I really thought about what’s the driving force that keeps you stuck to an RPG, and it’s kind of the combat loop. You kill enemies who drop stuff that helps you kill bigger enemies, and I thought why can’t you replace that with anything else? I mean, you could be baking cupcakes. You bake cupcakes, and there’s some mechanic that tells you how well you’re doing, and then you get new stuff to bake bigger and cooler cupcakes.

That could be just as deep, if a designer did the work to figure out what’s an exciting system for baking cupcakes. I found that exploration itself could be the loop; Exploring’s fun, and if there’s enough engaging things in the things you’re stumbling upon, and you’re getting rewards for this exploration, I’m hoping that will invoke the same kind of feeling in people.

Gameranx: Growing up, what kind of games were you most interested in? Would you say they had an impact on your current project?

Weinbaum: I think Half-Life 2 was the game that made me want to make art for games. Especially going into City 17 at the beginning, and I really wanted to make a place like that which people could go to. It’s kind of a cheesy choice, but I guess people like it for a reason. In terms of games now that inspire me, I know I already mentioned Elder Scrolls, but that’s the big one for me.

Gameranx: What are your thoughts on the current state of 3D adventure games today? Do people want more peaceful games like this, or will the genre undergo an evolution like choice based games did with titles like Heavy Rain?

Weinbaum: I don’t know, I think that Gone Home was one of the first really big games that was just purely environmental storytelling that was on my radar, I guess you have games like Dear Esther as well. Ok in terms of where they’re going, I think that people who are making those kinds of games, I think we’re getting better at crafting stories in that format. Certainly I think with Heavy Rain, and I actually didn’t play this game but I read a lot about it, I think it had a fairly complicated story in terms of plot. And that’s cool, but I think it’s really hard to tell a story through mechanics that are that complicated. Gone Home was a very simple story, and I think sticking to the simple stories is helping a lot.

Also the variety now, I would say that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite different than Gone Home in a lot of ways, and even though they’re lumped into the same category, there are so few games like that. So few games where you’re not just mastering enemies, where that’s not the core loop. I think it’s cool that everyone’s making all kinds of different games now. When you think of other types of media, violence isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as it is in video games. Some people say, oh, it’s because violence is human nature, and I think that’s true but there’s a lot of things about human nature, like having friends, and loving and stuff like that. In terms of 3D adventure games in particular, I just think they’re going to keep opening up more and merging with other genres.          .

Gameranx: Instead of going down the typical route of Early Access for Eastshade, you decided to focus your efforts on Leaving Lyndow and gather more funding like that. What have you learned throughout the developmental process as a whole?

Weinbaum: Well I’ve definitely learned a lot. I learned how to program, for one thing, which I didn’t know how to do before, and a lot of technical things. But from a design standpoint I mean I was quite a green designer. I still am a very green designer. One big thing I learned was people come into games wanting to like them, a lot more than I thought, and people are a lot more willing to meet you halfway on things. I was really worried when I first started working on Eastshade that everyone was going to try and break everything. Like, oh this person says to go here? Well screw you, I’m going to go over here. And I found when I started playtesting, and maybe the real stinkers are going to come later, but for now people that have been doing the beta test, they want to meet you halfway in what you’re trying to do. People are finding the world beautiful, and they want to follow what we’re telling them to do. They like to know what they’re supposed to be doing and they like to do that. Once I figured that out, I got a little bit less stressed out about accounting for everyone that’s going to explicitly try to break the game.

In terms of what we’re doing with Leaving Lyndow, it would be nice to get some supplemental funds, but actually, the biggest reason we wanted to do Leaving Lyndow is that we’re really scared we didn’t know how to ship a game. From a technical standpoint, that means bugs we didn’t know about, we don’t have every kind of hardware to test on, and also from a business or PR standpoint, we were worried we would release on the wrong day or not get in touch with the right people, or just screw something up we could have prevented if we were a little more experienced. Leaving Lyndow just seemed like a much lower risk way of doing that. We already had this big world, we can do all these different things with it, and it’s going to make the big game even better because people will have their feet wet, and we can make a totally different world. Really small, really encapsulated, and quite short, and learn the ropes of shipping a game. And we could do that without getting a publisher for a game, which would of course be invaluable, but I want to try it myself. Artistically too, it’s (Leaving Lyndow) very different from Eastshade which has no central story. Leaving Lyndow is like the opposite. It is one story that we wanted to tell and is much more authored than Eastshade.      

Gameranx: Do you have a rough release schedule for Eastshade?

Weinbaum: I’m hoping we can do early 2018 for Eastshade. I’m hoping to do end of 2017 but I don’t think I could finish it by then, but even if I could I wouldn’t want to compete with all the big games that come out at the end of the year. I really want to make it as good as it can be.

Gameranx: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Gameranx readers and viewers?

Weinbaum: When you play an RPG, if your favourite part of an RPG is finding the super awesome piece of armour that gives you 80% damage reduction, probably Eastshade would not be for you. And if your favourite part is getting the perfect wombo combo with the magic buffs, and levelling a whole field of enemies, Eastshade’s probably not for you. But, if your favourite part of an RPG is finding that kooky old run-down windmill in the back of some prairie, and you’re just really interested in how it got there, and you think it’s beautiful and you want to go inside it, if that’s the kind of thing you find exciting, I think you’ll absolutely love the kinds of games we’re making.

Gameranx: Bonus question – You mentioned you grew up playing Half-Life 2. What do you think about the possibility of Half-Life 3?

Weinbaum: Oh dear. Well, of course everyone wants Half-Life 3, but it doesn’t seem Valve wants to make Half Life 3. I know their company structure is ostensibly do what you want, that’s what they tell their employees. I don’t know how true that is obviously I’ve never worked there. But if they don’t want to make it I don’t want them to make it. I would love to see it but it seems like they’re a lot more interested in multiplayer stuff – and I personally wouldn’t want to see a multiplayer Half-Life 3. I think there’s a lot of other really other good developers who are taking on really polished, single player narrative stories though.    

Gameranx thanks Weinbaum for his time, expertise, and sharing his game development journey. Leaving Lyndow is out today via Steam