Five years ago, Danny Weinbaum left his job as an environment artist at Infamous: Second Son developer Sucker Punch to go indie. He'd been saving up money over the course of his three-and-a-half-year career in game development, and was ready to take the plunge.
"I saw so many other really small indie developers put something together alone and I had been working on stuff at home," Weinbaum told GamesIndustry.biz recently. "I felt like if I just had two years, I could make and finish something. Of course, that was totally wrong. It turned out to be five years, and I couldn't even come close to doing it alone. I ended up hiring other folks to help me out."
That project, Eastshade, launched on Steam last week. Weinbaum spent the past five years on the game, along with Jaclyn Ciezadlo (designer, artist, writer, and also Weinbaum's romantic partner), Phoenix Glendinning (composer), Daniel Merticariu (character artist), and a handful of contractors chipping in. It's an open-world game that casts players as a traveling painter, exploring the game's eponymous island while befriending the locals and taking commissions. While the game's violence-free open-world and painting mechanic might help it stand out in the market, they weren't part of Weinbaum's original idea for the game.
"The only core manifesto I had is that I wanted the game to have a strong sense of place," Weinbaum said. "I wanted it to be a place first, and then make a mechanic that gives you a reason to be there. I didn't have a story to tell. Some people want to make an indie game because they have a particular narrative they want to do or a novel or special mechanic they want to make a game out of. I wanted to build a world, and I was excited to do that."
The painting mechanic came later, a suggestion from Ciezadlo.
"We'd been trying to think of a mechanic that would reinforce the type of play we wanted players to have. We wanted to gamify smelling the roses if we could"
"We'd been trying to think of a mechanic that would reinforce the type of play we wanted players to have," Weinbaum said. "We wanted to gamify smelling the roses if we could. So eventually we were talking one night and she came up with this idea, 'What if you paint stuff and it's like 'I Spy'? You're a romantic painter and you need to find things in the world, then the slower you go, the more you'll excel at this core loop.' When she said that, it was a eureka moment. It was perfect."
That painting mechanic fits in part because the game looks like the dream project of a AAA environment artist. When complimented on the game's visuals, Weinbaum credits it to the team prioritizing what to work on.
"Where we've arrived at Eastshade looking the way it does hasn't really been through noodling away on too many details," Weinbaum said. "It's actually just been a ruthless focus on the big read, what kinds of things the players are going to notice and what things are important. Things like the silhouettes of the trees are more important than the actual normal maps, the textures that go on the tree and make them bumpy or whatever. Things like that we try not to spend too much time on because they're not really important for the big read."
The painting epiphany came in 2015, a year or so into the game's development. Since then, there's been no shortage of high-profile titles with gorgeous environments and impressive photo modes. Given how Eastshade's core mechanic was something much better-financed titles were practically throwing in as a bonus feature, one would have understood if Weinbaum and his colleagues had been a bit shaken by the trend.
"Whenever you feel someone's doing something similar to what you're doing, there's always that sense of 'Darn it, they beat us to it,'" Weinbaum said. "But then the more rational side takes over. We're not really competing with them. If anything, it's proof people want this sort of game... We've got 20 thousand billion games about shooting people. I think we can support maybe three or four games about painting stuff, taking photos or whatever."
Weinbaum acknowledged he was racing to finish Eastshade, but not because he was worried about other titles undercutting the novelty of the game's painting mechanic. Like so many independent developers, he was racing to finish the game before he ran out of money. While he originally expected to spend just two years on Eastshade, he'd saved enough for considerable runway beyond that.
"Basically my girlfriend and I have been living with my grandma for the last year... We had enough to live that last year on our own, but we wanted to save it for localization and stuff"
"I initially wanted to be conservative," Weinbaum explained. "I had enough to go a while, but you don't want to spend everything you have, especially because it's hard to build that reserve up. It takes a long time. But after the two-year mark, I just said there's no way I'm going to abandon this or go back to getting a job. It was almost out of the question. I'd put that much into it, and it wasn't like I was spinning my wheels. We were still moving forward all the time and things were coming together. The progress was there, and it seemed like with enough time and pressure, there's no way we wouldn't be able to finish."
Along the way, development took a slight detour once Weinbaum started talking to publishers and thought it would be a good idea to go through the process of publishing a game to Steam on his own before launching Eastshade proper. So he developed a narrative-driven game called Leaving Lyndow, set in the same world as Eastshade and using the same assets. He had a finishable prototype for Leaving Lyndow completed in one night, but getting the project finished and published on Steam would take another six months.
"We thought maybe if it did well enough it would help us fund [Eastshade]," Weinbaum said. "We had no delusions it was going to make a lot of money, but we thought we could help subsidize some of the development cost and maybe even expand our budget a little, hire some more contractors to help out with certain things we're not good at."
The team learned about publishing from Leaving Lyndow (which, like Eastshade, was self-published under the name Eastshade Studios), but it didn't really do much for extending the developer's runway. And with Eastshade still unfinished, choices had to be made.
"Basically my girlfriend and I have been living with my grandma for the last year," Weinbaum said. "I don't think I've said that publicly, but that helps for sure. We had enough to live that last year on our own, but we wanted to save it for localization and stuff."
Eastshade is available in English, French, German, Russian, and Simplified Chinese. So far, Eastshade has been warmly received by critics and players alike, and one hopes Weinbaum and Ciezadlo ultimately deem the sacrifices made to have been worth it.