It’s always nice to see someone “chasing the dream” in the video game industry. Not everyone wants to work their way up the ranks of a big company. For some, the idea of creating something entirely original is too alluring to pass up. Danny Weinbaum, an environment artist who formerly worked on AAA titles like Infamous: Second Son, decided several years ago to pursue his dream of making his own game, Eastshade. However, before he’s finished with that, he is introducing players to his universe with Leaving Lyndow, a first-person adventure game releasing Feb, 8, 2017. CGM recently spoke to Danny about his game, his history with the industry, and what it means to leave a steady paycheque to pursue his own project.
CGMagazine: Hey Daniel, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Danny Weinbaum: Before I was indie, I was doing environment art for AAA games. I worked for a couple small companies before Suckerpunch, probably a larger company was Arena Net, but I was just an intern. That was my first gig in the industry. I’ve been doing, my speciality is environment art, making the places, the vegetation, the couches, the fire hydrants, all that stuff. That’s my forte.
CGM: What led you to leave and spread your wings to branch out on your own?
Weinbaum: I always knew I wanted to make my own game, which is not an uncommon desire in the video game industry; everyone wants to do their own thing. I’d always been really serious about it; I would always save half my income because I always knew that if I wanted to make a game one day, probably nobody was going to give me a bunch of money to try it, so I was going to have to fund it myself, and I always thought that I was going to need a lot of money to do it, so I figured, eh, save my money for ten years and then I’ll spend it all in two years hiring people trying to make a game and if it doesn’t work then maybe I’ll do it again.
It turned out to happen quite a lot earlier than I had expected just because I was seeing so many other people release really cool, large games with very small teams - sometimes just by their lonesome - and that really inspired me, like, “wow if they’re doing it maybe I can give it a whirl too”. I had been working on Eastshade for a little bit already and I was so just impassioned with it that I was staying up until 4a.m. and then going into work again and doing the day job as well, which of course is not healthy and not very nice to your employer either. I decided that I wanted to quit and try my hand at doing it myself.
CGM: Were they cool with that? You seem like a fairly talented artist, was leaving all right with them or was it a battle?
Weinbaum: They were really cool, Suckerpunch was a great employer and they were really nice to me and told that if I ever want to come back into AAA that I should get in touch with them again, so yeah they were really cool about it. And I wasn’t like a lead or anything, I had only been there for a year-and-half so I wasn’t a super integral…I like to think that I did okay but I wasn’t going to break up the team by leaving. I also made sure we were, at the time we were shipping in a few months and I made sure like ”okay when is a good time to leave that isn’t going to step on anyone’s toes” so I tried to make certain that I wasn’t going to mess anything up.
CGM: How long ago was that, and how long have you been working on Eastshade?
Weinbaum: I’ve been working on Eastshade for three years now, for the last 4-5 months Leaving Lyndow, but yeah three years full time on Eastshade.
CGM: How big is your team? I read that you have collaborators, but it seems like it’s mostly a solo project.
Weinbaum: I’m the only full-timer, I pay someone in Romania to do character outfits, and my girlfriend helps a lot with the design and the writing, there’s a lot of writing to do and she’s really good at it. She’s crazy about games too and we like the same type of games so that’s fun. I also have Charlene now who is helping me with the publicity and my composer who is my childhood friend doing the music.
CGM: Leaving Lyndow is set in the Eastshade universe. Is this an entry in the same game?
Weinbaum: There are two angles, two categories of reasons we had for wanting to make Leaving Lyndow. The first is for business reasons, we wanted to make sure we knew how to ship a game before shipping Eastshade because Eastshade is my entire life savings and a long time and I didn’t want to mess things up by doing something stupid, like “oh you shipped on the wrong day” or “you didn’t get in touch with the right people” or maybe a bug that I didn’t foresee because I’ve never shipped a game, so I wanted to make sure that I really knew what I was doing on that front. Leaving Lyndow is a good opportunity to test the waters for shipping a game. Artistically it was a cool break from Eastshade, and this gets into the mechanics, it’s quite different, it’s almost polar opposite. In Eastshade there’s almost no central story, there’s just a lot of little stories and you kind of go wherever you want and do whatever you want and it’s open world and very hands off. LL is an authored story, your avatar has a story, her name is Clara and you learn about her and her story and you’re kind of living her story, kind of like a short coming of age thing about leaving on a long adventure. It’s not open world, it’s quite closed off, we’re hoping that people enjoy getting their feet wet with seeing the world, and learning a bit about the world and experience a neat story and you get to talk to characters and make dialogue decisions and things like that.
CGM: What are the gameplay mechanics behind Leaving Lyndow and Eastshade? What are we looking at for length, goals, themes, and things like that? What do the players do?
Weinbaum: Leaving Lyndow, so far, I don’t know how long it’s going to take everyone, but so far, for most of my testers, it takes around an hour or so to complete that game, so just a really short game, and it’s like a first-person adventure game, kind of similar to Gone Home, but the main difference is that there are people to talk to, NPCs, you can say stuff to them - that’s another cool dimension - and then there’s the objects around the world, kind of like in Gone Home, you can pick them up, inspect them, learn about them and how they pertain to your story, and also there are these short minigame segments. I’ll give an example of one because I’m sure that sounds quite nebulous. There’s an instrument you can play, and you have to play a certain melody to progress. They’re really not there to be like, “oh you know these minigames are the funnest thing ever” they’re not like Gwent or anything, they’re just there to serve the greater world to make you feel like you’re more part of the world.
CGM: What’s been shown off in the trailers so far is absolutely stunning, visually. What kind of aesthetic you were aiming for? What was the visual theme that you wanted to present?
Weinbaum: We’re going for realistic, we like it to look realistic but also not our world, but a different world. As far as we know, unless I add something later, it’s not a very magical world, either. The people look like monkeys, and monkeys aren’t too far off from us so that’s also kind of realistic. They turned out to look pretty creepy though, so if I could do it all over maybe I’d make them look like something a little further than us, a little uncanny valley going on.
CGM: What are some games hit you like “I want to make something like that”? What were your influences as far as popular games go?
Weinbaum: The easy one for me is Elder Scrolls, I really love games that put you in a world…there are games that are extremely mechanical and very addictive like CIV5, and I love those too, but the games that really inspire me to create are games that feel almost like you’re traveling, like you went to a new place, and the fun part of being in the game, for me at least, isn’t getting the best armour or figuring out how to maximize your buffs or whatever, for me it’s almost like experiencing a new place. When you travel to a new place you really just want to see the architecture and meet the people and taste the food…a sight and sound experience, and smell and taste, and I really like those kinds of games and they inspire me to create, and Elder Scrolls certainly does that for me. I found it quite easy to make a game where the combat loop is not the thing that pulls you through the game, it’s not the core loop of the game, exploration itself is the core loop of the game: you explore and as you explore you find new people to talk to, you find new things, and those things that you’re finding and gaining will enable you to expose new parts of the world, so that’s the compelling core loop that is getting you excited.
CGM: How do you find being an Indie developer in today’s marketplace? You have these huge companies and a very crowded Indie marketplace at the same time. How do you make yourself known?
Weinbaum: I have to say, anything I say here will be mostly speculation because I have actually yet to ship my own game. On Feb. 8th I’ll know for sure. I think it’ll be okay, I don’t expect to be able to go buy a nice house or anything, but I expect it’ll just be fine. Which is wonderful for me because this is exactly what I want to do and for me I think that I have it a little bit easier than a lot of Indie devs simply because the type of games that I make, at least LL and Eastshade, they don’t really look Indie. I’m not making a side scrolling 2D platformer, and there are so many cool ones coming out that Indie devs are making, and I think they have a much harder time because the AAA look I could say is something that is not that ubiquitous yet, certainly among Indie devs.
CGM: Do you think your game not being in a sea of retro-looking games gives you an advantage?
Weinbaum: I think so, I hope so, and two years ago I think I would have been even more arrogant about this. It’s 3D and looks high fidelity. There are not many games like that, so I think it’s going to stand out quite easily. Now, I’m getting the feeling that it’s not quite as easy as I thought it was and that it’s still a lot of work to get people to hear about the game: you still have to do a lot of PR, you still have to talk to a lot of people and really spread the word. Even then, after you do all that, [if] people like the game, even then you’re [just] going to make ends meet [and] MAYBE you’ll make another game. I guess that’s kind of rough, but hey, I’m doing what I want to do, so I’m hoping it’ll be okay.
CGM: Do you plan on continuing with the Eastshade universe? Do you have other games in mind?
Weinbaum: I don’t know. I have some other ideas; I think that I would probably do something. I really like first-person and I really like games where the world is the character, so to speak. I’m not really after, telling a certain story, or making deep mechanics and I know that sounds like I’m speaking little of myself but that’s just not really what excites me. I think it would be similar in the sense that it’s a cool world to explore, and maybe Eastshade, but at the moment I think Eastshade would be early 2018 so that’s quite a long way out for me. I’m actually so excited to get back to Eastshade after Leaving Lyndow. LL has been awesome and I’m super stoked to ship that but I’m also super excited to get back to Eastshade which almost feels like Eastshade 2 at this point for me which is weird but it’s the same game and nobody’s played it yet.