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Eastshade is Looking to Be More Than Just Another Open World Exploration Game

We recently spoke to Daniel Weinbaum about his studio’s upcoming open-world exploration game, Eastshade. Daniel hopes to combine his stunning environmental art with a compelling role-playing experience, all without spilling a drop of blood. This week’s interview takes a look at how Weinbaum got started working on Eastshade, the current development status of the game, and how Weinbaum is looking to make a an open world exploration experience people want to actually play.

WHERE WE CAME FROM

Before he founded Eastshade Studios, Danny was a seasoned AAA digital artist. Throughout his career, he has specialized in environmental art in particular.

“Five or six years ago, I first got an internship working at ArenaNet working on Guild Wars 2,” he recalled. “I worked there for about a year, and then I moved on to a small outsourcing company called Future Poly, where we modeled assets and things for a company called Undead Labs, who did State of Decay. About a year of that and then I went to work at Sucker Punch, working on Infamous Second Sons, so that was a really exciting project.”

“It is nice to focus on one thing,” he said of his time in AAA, “and it’s nice to have support for things that you don’t know how to do, certainly. I think it’s a lot of people’s dream to work for a AAA studio, just because the games are huge and they’re very visible and things like that, and that was certainly my dream when I was a teenager. But I think it loses its luster a little bit after a while. It’s not your own thing, and you don’t get to choose what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it. You don’t even get to choose what tools you’re going to use or anything like that. You become really specialized in one thing.”

So despite the grandeur, Danny inevitably became restless. “I can’t seem to stay at one place longer than a year,” he admitted. “I have this inexorable desire to work on my own thing. I got this idea for Eastshade, and I was staying up really late working on it and just couldn’t do both Eastshade and Sucker Punch at once. I had been saving my money, because I knew one day I would want to make my own thing, and I always thought that I would need a lot of money to do that so I assumed I would need to work for something like ten years before I would be able to hire people.”

“But then, I started seeing some other indie games where people were just doing it with really super-small teams,” he told us, “and I got kind of inspired and a little bit competitive too, and just feeling like ‘oh, I could do that.’ So then I quit and did some math on how long I would last with no income, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two years, working on Eastshade.”

Danny has really found his element working independently. Not only is he finally free to pursue his dreams, but it has been a momentous learning experience for him so far. “You get to do everything exactly the way you want to do it,” he explained. “You get to jump around too, which is really fun. I didn’t really know how to program when I started; I had been practicing for a couple years before that, but I didn’t really start my journey until I quit my job, and I have learned a lot. I think I’ve learned more in the last two years than I did in the last eight before that.”

Eastshade is an intensely personal project for Danny, and so naturally he has drawn from those who share his passions in order to fill his own capability gaps. “Jaclyn, who probably works the closest with me, is my girlfriend, so that works pretty well,” he explained. “It just kind of happened naturally, since I’m always talking about the game and she plays games too, and we like all the same things. She’s an artist as well–and art teacher by trade. At first she was doing all of the UI icons, which there’s a ton of, so that was helping out a lot. But then she had so many ideas for the game, including the actual painting aspect of the game. So she’s been writing quests and dialogue.”

“My composer, Phoenix, we’ve been childhood friends,” he continued, “and we’ve always kind of liked the same music and things, so that was natural as well. The character art was something that I personally am not very good at, and there is a lot of it, so I just posted a job listing on PolyCount, which is a forum for 3D artists. So our character designer (also named Daniel) has been helping out since like a month ago, and he’s been absolutely killing it.”

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HOW WE GOT HERE

The foundation for Eastshade was built when Danny began to try to deconstruct what exactly makes a game engaging. “I was talking with my friends at Sucker Punch and asking them, ‘what is the driving force when you’re playing an RPG?’” he explained. “We came down to this idea that it’s kind of a loop; you kill things, and they drop stuff, which you pick up and kill bigger things with. So you’re doing something that rewards you with something else, which enables you to do more of that first thing. So then I tried to figure out what other loops we could create, particularly ones that aren’t combat-oriented.”

One developmental pillar that Danny is really committed to is the idea that Eastshade can be a compelling adventure without a single combat mechanic. He truly believes that video games deserve to be recognized as the robust and versatile medium that they have the capacity to be, alongside film, television, and other mediums that don’t contend with the same kind of one-note scrutiny.

“So many games are combat-oriented, and I don’t really see why,” he said, “because if you consider the entire spectrum of things that people do, it seems like killing things is a very small portion of that, and yet I see a very large portion of our game are about mastering enemies, which is cool and great, and I love that, but I wanted to try something else. So we came to this idea that exploring could be exactly as deep. There’s no reason why the challenge couldn’t be traversing the environment, and when you get to a new place, you’re rewarded with new ways to traverse further.”

“I almost can’t even understand that sentiment,” he went on to say about the preoccupation of the industry with action and violence. “It would be like saying there’s no place for non-action movies: any movie that isn’t a war movie or doesn’t have lots of explosions, you know, why do we even make them, what’s the point? I don’t know, it doesn’t make any sense.”

You can make a game about anything. We’ve had games for a long time about all kinds of things, and there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t make as ‘gamey’ a game as there ever was, with as much depth as any combat game you have ever played… about baking cupcakes or something. It could be beautiful, it could be deep, and there could be complexity in the mechanics. It just takes someone with design chops to work it out, and it will be hard because they don’t have a lot of things to draw from as far as execution. But there’s no reason why you can’t make a game about anything.”

“There’s absolutely no reason that you can’t make as ‘gamey’ a game as there ever was, with as much depth as any combat game you have ever played… about baking cupcakes or something. It could be beautiful, it could be deep, and there could be complexity in the mechanics. It just takes someone with design chops to work it out.”

We tend to assume that a game of a certain genre should have a number of features that have become standard to that genre. This mentality can be difficult to break from—a challenge that Danny soon began to grapple with.

“When I set out, I actually wanted to have lots of different items, and it was much more like a survival game,” he recalled, “but I think I kind of failed on that in the first six months and when people were play-testing the game, they were gravitating way more toward talking to people, so we just kind of dropped all those other mechanics. Instead, we developed this very refined reward loop of going around and figuring out how to get to new areas.

“We’ve been refining this RPG combat thing for like 25 years or more and there’s just so much stuff… If you look at a big RPG like Baldur’s Gate, there’s potion-making and all these kinds of weapons and armors, and I just thought that same level of complexity needed to be matched in order to have as compelling of a reward loop. But then, once we started putting things together, we found that the atmosphere was strong enough in the game to where it didn’t really need that, and I didn’t really have the resources to take that on. I was being kind of naive in the beginning, I think.”

That atmosphere is one of the key factors that stand to make Eastshade endearingly unique. It is whimsical, yet not so decidedly fantastical as to lack familiarity. “It’s not our world, but it’s definitely not as magical as a lot of fantasy games. There are definitely creatures that don’t exist in our world, but they could have, if evolution had taken a different path. And the people kind of look like monkeys, and other quirky little touches like that. It’s kind of a middle-fantastical world, but it is its own world.”

“I’m very easily moved,” Danny admitted. “When I walk into a forest and I smell it, I’m very moved. I have a big folder of cool photos, mostly of real-life places, that I use for inspiration when I design the environment for Eastshade.”

“A lot of people are saying that it looks like Morrowind,” he went on, “and I didn’t look at Morrowind for inspiration, but I can see why, because the buildings are spherical, and that’s an odd way to build a building that we rarely see in real life. I have a couple random games in there… I think I have some Myst in my mix-up. I do like the art style of Myst. I think I have some Final Fantasy as well.”

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WHERE WE ARE

The current iteration of Eastshade has embraced the “refined reward loop” for adventuring, but there’s much more to the game than that core mechanic. There are numerous ways to interact with your environment, both through a dynamic social interaction system and through the player character’s own ingenuity. All of this is complemented nicely by a “painting” feature, which compels you to stop and appreciate this charming world.

“You can meet people and talk to people,” Danny explained, “so there’s the whole conversation system, which is as robust as a lot of other big RPGs like Skyrim, and in a lot of ways even more robust. And with that, there’s a topic system, where as you traverse the world, you pick up these topics that you can then inquire about with the NPCs. Since the game is text only, we’re able to make a unique response for every single person in the world, which is just impossible to do if you’re doing voice work. Even if you have huge budget, it’s still really hard to do. So that allows the conversation system to be really special.”

“There are consequences to your actions,” he added, “and simply watching the state of the world change is its own thing. I was playing Stanley Parable the other day, and I realized that they have a lot in common, where the fun in Stanley Parable is just doing stuff and seeing how the game responds. Eastshade has that going for it as well.”

You can interact physically with the world around you as well through a minor crafting element of the game. “You pick up stuff and you can craft stuff, particularly things that help you traverse the environment,” he explained. “There are a couple of vehicles you can build, like the raft that we’ve shown in the trailer. You can also build tents right now, which allow you to sleep and pass time, and there are a lot of missions in the game where you need to be somewhere or do something at a certain time.”

Eastshade has been heavily pitched as a game about painting; you are a painter who has come to this island looking for inspiration, and also work. “A lot of people will commission you to do paintings,” Danny explained, “and certain NPCs will drop hints about what kind of paintings they would want, so you kind of have to figure that out. And it’s also a mechanic that reinforces and rewards players for stopping and smelling the roses. In most games, that’s a really meta thing to do. Like in Skyrim, if you wanted to just go around and watch butterflies, that’s not really part of the game, it’s just something that you could do. We were trying to think of a way to make that feel like part of the game. So with the painting thing, if you’re paying attention to the world and looking at stuff and noticing stuff, then you’re going to excel at finding the kind of ‘magical’ objects hidden throughout the world.”

“The painting thing has been our kind of unique selling point to the game,” he continued. “You can’t really say ‘super-beautiful exploration game’ because probably not many people are going to open that e-mail. We really pushed this painting thing hard, and I think it may actually have been a bit over-represented in how big a part of the game it actually is, and I’m seeing a lot of comments that are saying ‘Oh, it’s just a screenshot system.’ And that’s true–we’re not trying to fool anyone. The core of the game is not going around and taking screenshots. It’s exploring a virtual world.”

“The core of the game is not going around and taking screenshots. It’s exploring a virtual world.”

The player character himself is meant to be a blank slate—one that you can impose yourself upon for maximum immersion. The story of Eastshade is not the story of your character per se, but rather that of the people he touches. “The only thing the player knows is that your avatar is a painter, and you are visiting a new place,” Danny explained. “Why you’re visiting a new place is kind of up to you. At certain moments, NPCs will ask you why you came to Eastshade, and you can make it up yourself.”

“As far as the overarching story, there’s not like a big ending or reveal,” he continued. “There are a lot of little micro-stories, and that goes along with the idea that you’re kind of wandering around this disinterested world, and you’re seeing how it responds to you and learning about all of these little things that are going on in the world. I thought of the game as like a travel simulator. When you visit another country, for example, you want to see all of the cool things there and talk to the people, learn about them, eat their food and things like that. That’s kind of what Eastshade is trying to embody. The avatar is very much supposed to be you, to the extent that you never see yourself, so you don’t even know if your character is male or female or what you look like.”

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So without a narrative centered on the main character, and without the standard, easy conflict that action and combat provide, we asked Danny to describe the types of conflict that Eastshade employs to tell its story.

“There’s a bit of mystery in the game,” he told us. “Lost people and things like that. There’s one where the architect of the town has gone missing, and the player gets the sense that they could find this person if they look around enough. They’re kind of hidden away, and there are special things that you have to do to find this person, and then you can learn about them. And they have issues of their own as to why they went missing, and you can learn about that and even resolve it, but the way you resolve it is up to you, and there are a couple of different endings to that little micro-story. There definitely is some conflict, but… I don’t know about you, but I’m quite tired of saving the world every time, so we’re trying not to be to bombastic with that kind of thing.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m quite tired of saving the world every time, so we’re trying not to be to bombastic with that kind of thing.”

The story of Eastshade is also very much what you make it, as there is a great deal of impact hat your choices can have on the people around you. “There’s one instance where someone is very sad about something,” he described, “and this character isn’t very nice. He’s kind of a jerk to other people, so you can choose to console him or kind of tell him what for, and that character will kind of change what they do with his life based on what you said there, and that’s reflected in his daily schedule after that, and in some cases where you may or may not see him after that.”

In that sense, the people of Eastshade are yet another aspect of the game that you can just stop and appreciate. They are each programmed with a detailed daily schedule that can be observed, and no doubt there are all kinds of little tidbits you can figure out by people-watching, much like the little secrets written into the daily lives of an Elder Scrolls NPC. This detail is just one more reason to remember to stop and smell the roses.

WHERE WE’RE GOING

Danny is aiming to finish Eastshade by early 2017, which is still a little ways off. After that, a long-term goal of his is to get the game ported to at least one console. But for now it’s trajectory is straight to PC.

Once he found his rhythm, Danny has been able to develop Eastshade with surprising speed and ease. To him, that initial effort to get his ideas off the ground was definitely the most challenging phase of development. “It took a really long time to find that core loop of the game,” he admitted. “I was coming up with all of these systems and throwing things in, and it didn’t really start to become a game until I said, ‘Alright, I’m just going to get it so that someone could sit down and play the game,’ and I just started from the beginning of the game and went linearly. It’s kind of weird to think about it that way, but that gave me some really strong direction, and we were able to iterate on it and get to an actual game really quickly once I did that. But it took a really long time to find that.”

Eastshade has been developed in Unity, which has proven to be extremely user friendly, as well as more powerful and versatile than Danny ever expected. “Before I was using Unity, I was actually using Cryengine,” he recalled, “And a lot of people seem to think that Unity is not very graphically robust, and I certainly had that impression as well, coming from AAA. And so I was using Cryengine and trying to code out my gameplay, and it was just…really hard, and I wasn’t really up to the task.”

“One day I decided, well, I’m just going to give Unity a shot,” he went on. “So I downloaded it, and what took me like three months to build in Cryengine, I built in like a week with Unity. And I actually found out that, in terms of the graphics pipeline, it is very open-ended. It’s kind of a blank slate like I’ve never experienced before in any other game engine, and I’ve used most of the professional engines. I have used Unreal extensively. I have used Cryengine extensively. All of the proprietary engines of course for all the companies I’ve worked for… I’m kind of a Unity evangelist at this point. It was just so easy, and I could pick exactly how I wanted the graphics pipeline to be, and there are so many third-party tools that you can just modularize with… It’s like customizing your loadout, it’s really fun actually.”

Fortunately, Danny had been preparing for the day that he would strike off on his own for so long that he’s been able to move forward with the project without much assistance. “I’ve thought about [crowdfunding],” he said, “and I would honestly be more interested in it for the marketing of it—just for the call to action and to generate interest in the game rather than for money. I don’t really want to go hire a bunch of people, and things are progressing pretty well right now.”

“And I’m not one-hundred percent about crowdfunding…Whenever I see a game like that, I always question ‘are they going to make it?’ because so many of them fail. At least I know if a publisher is backing it, well at least they were willing to put the money up to it, as opposed to the audience who, if you’re not a game developer, it’s really hard to tell how credible the people posting the game are and how capable they’re going to be to finish it. So I’m a little skeptical. But that’s not to say that I certainly would never do it. I’m just doing ok right now.”

So he’s fully intent on pushing Eastshade out of his own pockets, at least for now. He’s faced a lot of challenges along the way, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now. And with his artistic pedigree taking the helm, we can safely say that it’s a very pretty light.

Keep up with Eastshade’s progress on the official website and developer blog, and watch the official Eastshade trailer below:

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