Turning painting into a game mechanic in the gorgeous Eastshade

We speak with game developer Danny Weinbaum about Eastshade, a beautifully-realized game that puts players in the shoes of a painter.

Violence is at the center of most video games. And it is quite understandable as to why. Violence is engrained into the DNA of some of the most popular genres, from first-person shooters to action-adventures.

In many ways, this is what makes Eastshade, a new open-world adventure game about a travelling painter, feel like somewhat of an oddity. Eastshade takes the open-world structure of a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- albeit on a small scale -- and argues that the paintbrush is mightier than the sword, letting players solve problems not with their fists, but with their art.

For the project’s founder Danny Weinbaum and the rest of Eastshade Studios, creating a game that eschewed violence in this way for painting proved incredibly challenging. How much freedom do you give players to create their own paintings? And in lieu of action, how do you create a satisfying gameplay loop that is both fun and reinforces the game’s central themes?

Through a mixture of trial and error and some clever technical tricks, such as using shader effects to slowly reveal the painting, they arrived at some satisfying solutions to the problems they were having

Finding the core loop

When it came to making Eastshade, the world came first. Weinbaum had worked as an environment artist on triple-A games, like Sucker Punch Productions' Infamous: Second Son, prior to striking out on his own, so he wanted to make a game that had a sense of place first and foremost.

“Initially, we just wanted to make a world,” he says. “That was the main goal. But then we also wanted to -- well, we didn’t want it to be a straight 'walking simulator.' We really wanted it to have some sort of game loop in there.

The team's first attempt at this involved introducing survival mechanics. Early on in the development, Weinbaum added different status bars for hunger, thirst, and malady. It was hoped that these would provide another layer to the game for players to engage with, but things didn’t quite go so according to plan.

“Those were like a trainwreck,” he explains. “Because they were totally opposite to what we wanted the player to be doing in the game. It was like we want players to enjoy the world and take it slow and look at the sights and talk to people, but then we were just like making their bars slide down.”

On account of this, the team started stripping back the survival mechanics to guarantee that players could actually explore at their own pace and "smell the flowers." The game does still borrow some elements from survival games here and there -- you must collect materials and recipes to craft and at night staying outdoors too long in the cold, without wearing a coat, can result in you respawning back at the last bed you slept in. The difference now is that they no longer pose a significant obstruction to the players while out exploring, with individuals able to gather materials fairly easily and sleep in beds or tents to skip to the morning.

Learning to paint

Around this time, Jaclyn Ciezadlo, the co-designer on the project, suggested painting as the central premise of the game. This proved to be a popular idea, and soon the team started to prototype a new version of the game.

“The first time Jaclyn proposed the painting thing, it sounded really hard to me, so I like basically took what she said and took all the good stuff out,” laughs Weinbaum. “I initially put the paintings in like pickups. So we would have these paintings in the world and they were like little pickups. This is so embarrassing to even say, and even she at the time was like, ‘That’s not painting. That’s totally dumb. Don’t do that under any circumstances.’”

Having to rethink how painting was incorporated, the team settled upon a screenshot mechanic instead. Though this would mean players would have less control over how they could interpret their surroundings, this mechanic would ensure the game was still accessible for even the least talented of painters, allowing individuals to simply stretch the parameters of the canvas on the screen and capture the image held within.

Whenever a player paints in the game, the image is serialized into the game’s data and appears onscreen on a canvas. So, in a basic quest, you’d be given a commission to paint an object out in the world and would then be required to find that item based on audio and visual cues, kind of like a simple game of I Spy.

“How it actually works is when you paint it records the time of day and special objects within view,” says Weinbaum. “So, we mark up special objects that are useful for quest stuff or just stuff that we think NPCs would like that we could actually tie into something in the dialogue that NPCs will say to you.” This means that as long as you’ve captured certain objects or events, you’ll be able to hand in the quest and receive compensation in the form of the game’s currency: glowstones.

'Juicing' the mechanic

In much more action-oriented games, there are a lot of common tricks developers use to make mechanics feel good, like screenshake or recoil. Most of these were not applicable to painting, so Weinbaum and his team had to think of other less traditional ways of adding some necessary “juice” to the mechanic, in order to make it feel more satisfying.

“We knew we had to come up with something that was a little bit cooler than just the thing popping up in front of you,” states Weinbaum. “Because I mean it already is dangerously close to just like a photo or a screenshot, so we wanted at least to support the fantasy with some sort of animation.”

What they ended up using was a clever shader effect that allows the painting to slowly emerge out from the canvas after a screenshot is taken. This gives the effect of the painting appearing over time. And had the added bonus of being cheap and easy to pull off inside of Unity -- the developer’s chosen engine.

“I’m actually using the mips of the texture,” he explains. “I basically use a mask that’s just black and white, and it’s kind of blacker towards the edges and whiter towards the middle and it’s basically just a bunch of paint splatters and concrete and whatever stuff I could find to make the PhotoShop image that is the mask. Then it uses that mask as an alpha or the opacity for the first mip, then it bleeds in and does the second layer, then it does the next layer after that. So, the effect is that it first kind of bleeds in with general colour and then it starts bleeding in with the more detailed, finer stuff with the higher resolution mips.”

A hand-crafted world

In many ways, painting in Eastshade is simply a vehicle for exploring and interacting with the world. Over the past five years, Weinbaum and his team have created a lush open world (roughly 1km x 1km), featuring different biomes, towns, and cities therein. The team also opted to do this all by hand, rather than turning to procedural methods. That was a point of pride for Weinbaum, though he is quick to clarify that that doesn’t mean he isn’t a fan of playing procedural games himself.

“Hand-authored has always been our manifesto,” he claims. “I’m more of an environment artist than I am a programmer, so that is kind of more of the way that I set up the world -- that is, to craft every corner of it. That’s one of our unique selling points too: that we are not procedurally generated. Jaclyn places every single plant. Every single nook and cranny in the world is all hand authored and everything has a reason to be there. I wear that [as a badge of honor].”

To accomplish this, Weinbaum made use of a prefab stamper, which allowed him to create a scene from a bunch of unique props and then place it into the world quickly and seamlessly with the prefab able conforming to the height of the terrain.

It’s his hope that this approach will create a “beautifully, compressed world” with lots of little environmental details for players to capture in their paintings.

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