Wandering Aloud Greg Lobanov's 5,000 mile epiphany

Cabazon, California isn’t even a city. Not technically speaking. It’s a “census-designated place” occupying four square miles along the state’s sprawling I-10 Highway, on the way to and from much better things. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of non-town at which you might not even think to stop, were it not for the most improbable combination of words: Cabazon, California plays host to the world’s biggest dinosaurs.

Cabzon Dinosaurs

Prominently featured in the cult-classic movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Dinny the Brontosaurus and Mr. Rex the Tyrannosaurus weigh in at 150 tons and 100 tons respectively. Built from salvaged construction material, the duo was originally created by theme park architect Claude Bell to attract travelers to his Wheel Inn Restaurant and truck stop. And attract travelers they did, until 2013, when the Wheel Inn closed for good, leaving the prehistoric pair jobless. Since then, folks continue to make pilgrimage to Cabazon, just to marvel at the sheer absurdity of their existence.

It’s here, in the summer of 2015, that Greg Lobanov lost everything. And in some ways, found it too.

Dotted with hole-in-the-wall eateries, boutique toy stores, and arts and craft shops, the main street of quiet seaside town Steveston, British Columbia isn’t just the kind of place you see on TV — it is the place. Standing in for the fictional fairytale dystopia of Storybrooke in ABC’s ‘Disney for Adults’ TV series Once Upon A Time, Steveston has become its own sort of roadside attraction, bringing locals and tourists alike in to bask in an atmosphere somehow both quaint and larger than life. On a chilly Sunday in January, however, I’m here to chat with Lobanov about his new game Wandersong — an inventive adventure about a bard who leaves the comfort of his home town to save an imperiled world using only the sound of his voice.

Earlier that day, I had the pleasure of playing through an hour of the game in its earliest stages. Completely devoid of combat or violence, the adventure starts when the adorable “bardlet” wakes up from a dream about falling stars and floating deities to find that it wasn’t much of a dream at all. In fact, floating outside his house is his world’s adorable technicolor goddess herself, Eya, there to deliver some unfortunate news: everyone’s pretty much doomed.

See, eons ago, in time immemorial, Eya sung the universe into existence. Unfortunately, tunes getting stale as they often can, she’s planning to sing a new song, effectively resetting existence. In order to preserve the Earth, players are tasked on going journey around the world, visiting the planet’s spirit guides, collecting pieces of a mysterious melody called the Earthsong.

Setting off to make things right, you soon learn that music is the fabric of Wandersong. Spinning your controller’s joystick around a colored wheel overlaying your character, you can hum notes and tunes, and combining them is your key to navigating the world. Whether it’s in singing the duo of notes necessary to grab onto a songbird and fly to a high-up platform, or belting out an eerie song in time as note markers move closer to you, all in order to ward of ghosts haunting your home town, Wandersong has to be played to be believed.

In even the short time before we sat down to talk, I found myself alight, warmed by the game’s ebullience and heart. From the sharp, sardonic dialogue to the game’s dotingly crafted paper collage aesthetic, Lobanov seems to have taken great care in making his game a place you go, not just a thing you do. As it turns out, the story of Wandersong is very much the story of places. Of how Lobanov got from one to the other. Or at least, why.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he found himself driven to create as early as elementary school, making board games for an audience of one with paper and markers. As elementary became high school, analog tools became digital ones, with Lobanov diving deep into video game creation software Game Maker. At the age of 15, he released Wolf, a small snippet of a title about a young girl coming to terms with the fact she was a werewolf. (“It’s terrible, but it was fun to make,” he sums up succinctly).

A year later, he had already finished his sophomore release, Assassin Blue, a swashbuckling action game about a state-sponsored swordsman turning on the despotic government that hired him. Rendered in simplistic cartoon graphics, it was perfectly emblematic of a sixteen year-old boy’s brain come to life. Belying its unpolished veneer, though, was Lobanov’s burgeoning talent and understanding for what made something enjoyable to play.

Assassin Blue quickly picked up steam in the niche community of aspiring developers using Game Maker, and was featured in an article on what was then the internet paper of note for fledgling developers, IndieGames.com. Commenters loved it, and its feature as a “Freeware Game Pick” exposed it to over 50,000 players. At a time when most of his contemporaries were dreading the impending need to decide what career path they might take, Lobanov was not only surer than ever, but was already starting to cement a name for himself as an upstart to watch in Philly’s scant indie scene.

All the while, he was creating meaningful friendships with fellow designers and developers via online forums and mutual appreciation for one another’s work. The closest of those friends was Noel Berry, who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia; over the years that followed, Berry pushed Lobanov to break out of his bubble and plug in to the vibrant community of people just like him — passionate to the point of obsession, tinkering away to bring their concoctions to life, and hustling to get them seen by anyone they could.

A common thread I’ve seen in stories like Lobanov’s is that right around this point – the point when society tells them it’s time to go to university and enter the real world – those who want to make games realize there aren’t a whole lot of ways to do that conventionally. Lo’ and behold, Lobanov found himself attending local Drexel University for “Digital Media,” a degree title that essentially means “The Closest Thing to Video Games that Higher Education Understands.”

“It’s what I wanted to do, and I was already doing it. School wasn’t going to make me better at doing that stuff,” he reflects of his degree. There’s perhaps no greater testament to this than what Berry, out for coffee with us, gleefully calls “the internship story,” prodding Lobanov to tell all. 

“A degree title that essentially means ‘The Closest Thing to Video Games that Higher Education Understands.'”

“[So] I have [another] friend I met online named Andrew Brophy, who’s another game developer. This is…just after I went to college. There was a really short-lived internet indie game dev [website] called Indie Combat. The idea [was], each month, two developers are on-deck…like, ‘This month, these 2 developers go in…’ and the idea is that each developer has a month to make a game.

“The game has to use elements of the other person’s game. You’re kind of making a game inspired by the stuff they do… [and] on the side, there’s a big trash talking element. You guys are writing posts about the other person, making fun of each other or whatever. And at the end of the month, you put the games out, people vote on them, and there’s…a winner declared.

“That month, I made a game I was really proud of, and I was working on it really fast, and so I had a demo out in the first week. And the other guy didn’t have a lot to show for it yet. So he made a video instead, where he basically took a video capture of my game, and drew a really shitty [doodle] of me…and the little drawing of me had a shirt that said ‘Dumb and Fat.'”

dumb and fatHilarious if only for its self-aware immaturity, Lobanov elevated and took ownership of the jab, printing a t-shirt bearing the insult as if it were some sort of slogan, and going as far as to officially incorporate under the name Dumb and Fat Games for future endeavours. Then, as Drexel’s required co-op job placement period approached, Lobanov was struck by a wonderful idea. A wonderful, ridiculous idea.

“I had just founded it, so I proposed to my school, ‘What if I hired myself for my internship?'” he remembers cheekily, with Berry rolling his eyes playfully as if still hearing it from his friend for the first time. “A lot of people…basically, nobody around me thought it was a good idea. My parents were like, ‘Don’t do this.’ My friends were like, “[Please], don’t do this.”‘ Beaming dopily from ear to ear, Lobanov finishes.

“So I did it.”

During our time together, Labonov and I sometimes went on tangents. We went on tangents inside of those tangents. In untangling and laying this all out for you, it might seem like his story is one of passion, dedicated, and gutsy moves, all of it culminating in much sought-deserved success. In some ways, it is. In getting there though, his story is also punctuated by something else I see all the time with game developers — abject failure.

“[After] I made the jump to doing commercial games…I just made no money. I made no money for years,” Lobanov remembers of the spate of small releases that line the rows of Dumb and Fat Games’ website. Try though he might, he was unable to capitalize on his early buzz as an up-and-comer. After Assassin Blue, and through his early college years, he toiled away at several other pie in the sky ideas — sprawling adventures games Phantasmaburbia, a role-playing game that riffed on Ghostbusters and followed four neighbourhood friends on their unlikely quest to discover and eliminate the paranormal. Nothing found an audience. 

“By that point, I decided, I kind of got a little more cynical about it, and I was just like, ‘Well all right, I’m going to make games I don’t put as much time into.’ I [wanted] to instead focus on weird games…more on the game design. Not doing narrative stuff anymore…I was at the point where I really wanted to make money in games, failing at it catastrophically, and…I was like, ‘Everything that I wanted to [do], I’m just failing at, so I’m just going to try to get weirder and weirder until I find something that works.'”

That something was Perfection. Released by Lobanov as the first and only game from his internship with himself, it was a serene puzzler for the iPhone and iPad in which players would use straight slicing motions to cut odd shapes down to size in order to allow them to fit into a designated space on the screen. With no grading system, unlimited opportunities to take back your moves, and the ability to simply skip challenges you didn’t want to do, it was a rumination of sorts on how to strip away as many elements of the modern puzzle game as possible while still making something engaging.

Shortly after its completion, Perfection was chosen by independent game festival IndieCade to display at that year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo – the year’s biggest and most highly attended video game trade show – in a corner of the show floor dedicated to smaller producers. There, it caught the eye of the brass in charge of curating Apple’s notoriously choosy App Store front page, and in 2013, Perfection released with a banner promotion to a day-one sales total of $7,000. That alone would have been a career highlight, were it not for what topped it next.

“It was still the most money I’ve ever gotten, I think at one time from anything, ever.”

“A much bigger deal than…Apple was that I entered [Perfection] into something called the Intel Level Up Game [Design] Contest, which was like, an internet [contest by] Intel, the company. You know, you submit your game demo, it’s a really small thing, and they just pick a ‘Best Demo of the Year’ kind of thing,” he begins, evidently downplaying what comes next.

“And I won…so I got $5,000 for being named the best puzzle game of the year, and then I got $30,000 for getting the grand prize, which was still the most money I’ve ever gotten, I think at one time from anything, ever. So that was big. [But] even more importantly than all of that is [the fact] that it guaranteed your game would get published on Steam,” says Lobanov, referencing the digital distribution platform for games known to make or break exposure and sales. 

“So they put my game on Steam…and it made like, maybe 10 grand or something, maybe more than that? Which still isn’t a huge hit, but given how not-for-the-market it was, and how no one even wrote about it? I just launched it and it made that much, for free, by existing. So that was cool.”

Cooler still? Perfection‘s admittance to Steam meant that Dumb and Fat Games was a certified publisher for the platform, allowing for guaranteed release of future games under Lobanov’s label. Looking to make the most of this fact, he went heads-down on an idea he had been excited about for some time. An idea for a game that had the makings of something both commercially viable and creatively fruitful. An idea called Coin Crypt.

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Set in a world where colorful, collectible coins were imbued with mysterious powers, the game would cast players in the role of a “lootmancer” searching a labyrinthine island for as much treasure as they could find. Along the way, they would stumble upon chests containing the titular currency-cum-weaponry, and assemble a collection of offensive and defensive coins. In encounters with monsters and baddies, brave lootmancers would need to decide which coins to fling at attackers in order to balance bounty and survival.

Originally released via Steam’s Early Access program (in which players can purchase a game as it’s being developed with the knowledge that improvements are on the way), the plan was for Lobanov to polish things off in the summer of 2014 after his graduation from Drexler, and then move to Vancouver to live with Noel and a group of other game developer’s in a shared space in Richmond, BC, fondly dubbed Indie House.

Between point A and point B, however, he had a little commitment to himself that he had to take care of: a bike trip across America.

greg lobanov bike trip wandersong 3

“The thinking was that, okay, so, I was graduating from college, so already it was at a point in my life where a big transition was upon me. I was moving out of my apartment. And…I was really kind of starting to feel strongly was that I had been doing, all of my time, free and not free, had been devoted to making video games basically since I was 13. And I was really happy with the stuff I’d accomplished, but I also felt really strongly like I wasn’t really a…branched person?”

As best as he can summarize such a multifaceted decision, Lobanov is explaining why his post-college hurrah was not a trip to a theme park or an idyllic “backpacking in Europe” story, but rather the decision to peddle on two wheels across his entire country.

“Doing games had introduced me to so many different skills, but in the long run, [while] I had a lot of friends and I made a lot of games…I felt like I didn’t cultivate anything else. I felt like when I hung out with people all I could talk about was video games, or think about was video games.”

“I also felt really strongly like I wasn’t really a…branched person?”

In search of a fuller self, he and a small group of friends piled their belongings onto bikes, hitched up tents, and set off on a route that would take them from Pennsylvania down to Florida, across the Southern US (past Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona), and up the West Coast of California. Almost immediately, things got off to a rocky start.

“I started the trip with a lot of people. Four people left on the trip. A lot of them left. And I ended up by myself for most of it,” Lobanov begins. When pressed as to why he thinks that might be, he digs inadvertently to the heart of why a trip like this might’ve been so necessary in the first place. “They all, on the outset at least, said they were planning on doing [the full trip], but I think there was a big difference between [our approaches], from the first day I left, I was, each day, thinking, ‘How much closer am I to getting this done? I wanna be at the end. I want to accomplish this.’ The people I was with were a lot more about, going off the beaten path, seeing America, living it up. ‘Take our time! Let’s not move today. Let’s chill out here. Whatever.’

“Which is probably how you’re absolutely supposed to do it, by all means, but…not the way I wanted to do it. And so there was…conflict there for a lot of the time we were together, and eventually, for them, I think they just got everything they wanted to get out of it, had other stuff they wanted to do, and were just like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go home.'”

greg lobanov bike trip wandersong 1

So used to control and prone to tunnel vision in the almost-decade that he’d been developing and releasing games one after another, Lobanov struggled with a serious inability to stop and smell the roses — to consider what things would look like around him if he wasn’t constantly rushing from one goal to the next. What he might be like.

In the months that followed, he had a lot of alone time to think about. On one hand, his natural sense of drive was a huge asset, as he fell into a well-structured, self-defined pattern of choosing how long he’d travel in a day, how far he’d go, where he’d set up camp. On the other, being by himself naturally leant itself to many firsts: sleeping in a tent far from civilization, depending on the kindness of strangers to stay out of danger, seeing the beauty inherent in things beyond his control.

Almost four months into the trip, Lobanov had made made much of the way to his final destination, and was in Arizona when he crossed paths with two other cyclists. Deeply lonely, and remembering in some ways the consequences of his prior stubbornness, he went out on a limb and decided to stick with them as they travelled a smaller route that coincided with part of his own. It was perhaps one of the best decisions he ever made.

“[These] guys were…really different people from me, I’ll say. I’m like the ‘super ambitious game developer’ person. They were totally out there to live in the desert and sleep under the stars and see a coyote. That was their take on it. I was at a point in the trip where I was so lonely that I was desperate to be around anyone. I was super lonely, I wanted to spend time with people, and so I decided to ride with these guys to the point where, when their route [finally] branched off of where I was going to go, I [actually] decided to go off my route and stay with them.

“I didn’t realize I [had been] so close-minded in the way that I was doing [things]. I didn’t realize all the experience there was to be had when I was there. And with them, I crossed this mountain range in California which was…called Joshua Tree, this National Park. I hadn’t heard of it. But it’s…really beautiful. And there’s this point where you get to the top and you can see just mountains on all sides. And I hit that point with them, and also with the knowledge that, ‘Literally from here to the coast it’s all downhill.’

Filled with a renewed sense of optimism and calm, Lobanov made his way down the mountain and found himself biking along California’s sprawling I-10 Highway. In sight was one of the most improbable combination of words: the world’s biggest dinosaurs.

“We bought a giant case of beer at a gas station, and…in this parking lot there’s a restaurant that’s been abandoned for years,” starts Lobanov. We’ve finally wound our way full circle, and I’m rapt with attention as he tells me what he says is the very best part of an already one-of-a-kind story about his trip across the United States. 

“[It’s] this blacked out, empty building. We go to this restaurant, facing the dinosaurs, we hang out, we drink some beers, and then we find a way inside the restaurant, pass out, [and] have an awesome night. And the next morning, our bikes were all stolen…everything got stolen. All of my belongings except for the clothes I was wearing and the phone in my pocket. The same phone, this one, [with] all the cracks and stuff,” he says, sliding his iPhone across the table to show me, “was the one I had on the trip. But…everything else I had was, like, taken.”

Almost immediately, however, Lobanov started to laugh.

“I thought it was actually amazing,” he enthuses in what I worry at first might be a drastic misunderstanding of the word “amazing.” Continuing, however, it’s hard not to see exactly what he means. 

Living on the bike trip [had] revealed things to me…even in the worst case scenario of my life, where, let’s say I lose all my money and I’m homeless. If I had nothing but a bicycle and a jar of peanut butter, and maybe a tent or sleeping bag, I can actually  make that work for a long [time], and I know that I can do that. I did that [the whole way].

“All of my belongings except for the clothes I was wearing and the phone in my pocket…everything else I had was, like, taken.”

“[I felt in that moment that] no matter how much stake I think I have in something, or how serious I think something is, as long as I have my life, I can be happy. I don’t want to be driven by anxiety or fear and realizing that even if I make the worst kinds of mistakes I can still be happy. There’s no possession I have is actually central to my joy. I could lose everything and still be okay.”

As it so happened, he very much was. Putting together the money to buy a bike from a nearby Wal-Mart, Lobanov gleefully finished the rest of the trip up the Californian coast to his final destination of San Francisco, knowing he’d be there just in time for that 2015’s Game Developers Conference. There, among friends, he was asked to take part in the yearly round of fiery and often uncensored micro talk series Indie Soapbox, in which developers, designers, and other members of the industry confer everything from wisdom to words of warning on an audience of colleagues from across the world.

His talk, entitled Adventures & Video Games, sought to crystallize the last five months of his life in five minutes, explaining what the hell a trip across America had to do with making better games. I’ve watched the video no less than five times, and it suffices to say that Lobanov seriously sticks the landing.

“So the thing that I got from the trip that I wanted to communicate to this room full of game developers is: beauty is everywhere. There actually are miracles and you don’t have to be on an adventure to live like you’re on one. You don’t have to be on an adventure to be open to new experiences and to meet new people and to be open to new people and to have, and discover these beautiful things.

I found, and I truly believe that the more you search in general, the more that you’ll find, and the more things you find, the more stuff that you’ll have to communicate to the rest of the human race through the beautiful things that you make. So…” he pauses, before giving the crowd a smile and a self-effacing thumbs up.

“That’s it.”

Beautiful bike trip photography courtesy of Greg Clarke.

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