Given the slick-looking art and well-produced promotional material for République, you could be forgiven for imagining that developer Camouflaj LLC was a well-funded startup with sleek offices. But next to the gleaming modern towers of Bellevue, Washington – which host well-established studios such as Valve, Sucker Punch and 5th Cell – the building that Camouflaj calls home looks as though it’s seen much better days.
“The roof leaks when it rains, and the bathroom smells throughout the whole building,” says Ryan Payton, the studio’s founder and owner. “We have a really slow Internet connection. They won’t upgrade the wiring because the place is going to be bulldozed within a year. If I need to send a big file, I go home and send it from there – it’s faster.”
There’s good reason for the cut-rate digs, though: Camouflaj is operating on Payton’s life savings. And the team’s ambitious goal – to bring a weighty, emotionally engaging, narrative-driven stealth-action game to the iPhone – comes with the added mandate to do so while working with a fraction of the budget for a typical console title. This ambitious project will live or die based on the team’s ability to make a little stretch a long way.
République is about a tellingly named young woman, Hope, who is trapped inside a mysterious research facility. In an early demonstration of the game, we watch Hope through a hacked security camera as she navigates the totalitarian architecture of the environment. The camera view shows us something that she can’t see: armed guards in the corridor outside. We tap on another camera to get a better view and notice a locker in the room, and tap on it to instruct her to clamber inside just as the guards sweep in.
Hope is safe for now.
As a former employee of Kojima Productions, where he worked on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots, Payton often gets the comment that République – with its stealth-based gameplay, dramatic presentation, and a plot that immediately sets up multiple mysteries – seems to strike some distinctly Hideo Kojima-esque notes. But he plays down this particular comparison. “The biggest, most obvious influence from [the Metal Gear series] is that it’s a stealth game. But I would say we have more in common with the original Metal Gear than we do with Metal Gear Solid 4, in how your protagonist is avoiding combat. Outside of that, it’s a very different kind of game. The way we’ve doing storytelling – you could say the MGS series is unabashedly an homage to Hollywood, and tries to bring Hollywood cinematic technique to the game space. That’s not something we’re going to attempt to do, or something we even want to do.”
Still, evidence of certain Japanese game development ideas do surface in Camouflaj’s approach when Payton later describes his ideal studio structure. “We don’t have job titles or a traditional management hierarchy here, but I do want a little bit of… ‘auteurship’, for lack of a better word. I want to try to balance both – to give people autonomy while still having a creative vision for the game. I think a visionary can push a game in an interesting direction that a team might not go as a group.”
After his time at Konami, Payton joined Microsoft’s 343 Industries in 2009 (the inheritors of the Halo franchise) as a creative director. But in September 2011, the two parted ways before a title was released. “I just wasn’t happy,” he says of his experience there. “I have a weird creative urge that just wasn’t being fulfilled, and I saw this revolution happening with independent games. I feel like the technology is where it needs to be now, and that the barriers to getting a game to market are coming down now. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Free to brainstorm on his own, Payton thought about the ways players developed connections to videogame characters, and wondered if the narrative techniques used for that purpose could somehow be married to the ongoing iPhone revolution. Early on, he had an image of a player’s phone ringing with a video call from a young woman in danger, seeking the player’s help to escape a sinister research lab in which she is being held prisoner.
From there, the basic idea quickly coalesced: in addition to the videophone segments, the player would be able to view images from security cameras mounted throughout the building. That fixed view recalled the way classic PlayStation titles, such as Resident Evil, displayed three-dimensional characters over static, prerendered backgrounds. Using that technique on an iPhone would allow for more detailed environments and higher-resolution character models.
To push the envelope of graphical fidelity further, Payton sought out some of the same partners he worked with at Kojima Productions and 343 Industries. One of those was Los Angeles-based production company Logan, which had created the live-action video segments at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 4. Logan’s owner, Alexei Tylevich, had long been interested in game development, and the two struck up a conversation around Payton’s ideas. Soon, they had agreed to work together to produce what became known as République.
It’s an unusual partnership, not in the least because Logan, while highly experienced in film and television, had never worked on a game before. “It’s been an educational process on both sides,” says Payton of the collaboration. “[Logan] usually works on traditional television and film, so the biggest thing we’ve instilled in them is the idea of iteration. Games are highly iterative, and that can affect art, story, and everything. That’s something they weren’t anticipating – that whatever they were submitting as art probably wouldn’t be final for a long time.”
From left: Ezra Hanson-White, Bernice Jing Ye, Paulo Lafeta, Ryan Payton, Patrick Acolese and Jeremy Romanowski
Payton also convinced veteran actors David Hayter, famously the voice of Solid Snake, and Jennifer Hale, best known as the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, to come on board. If it feels like he’s calling in every favour and using every connection he made in the past to make this project a reality, the truth is a little more subtle. “It’s not really about favours or the PR value of having someone on the project. It’s about returning to the relationships I built over the years and people that I respect and want to work with again. This project is all about relationships.”
Producing a game this way comes with inescapable costs, however, no matter how much goodwill the parties have towards each other. And with Payton’s meagre seed money rapidly dwindling, the company needed to quickly find a partner to get the funds necessary to complete the title. But the deals on the table were stark and difficult to accept: ‘If we’re going to fund your game,’ they said, ‘we’re going to own what you produce too.’
Just then, Double Fine’s Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter project took the videogame world by surprise, riding a groundswell of popular support to gather over $3 million in contributions – far above its initial goal of $400,000, and prompting talk of a revolution in the way videogames are funded. Was Kickstarter the trend that might ultimately upend the traditional publisher-studio model?
Industry changer or not, what was immediately clear was that if Camouflaj could sell the gaming community on its vision – as Tim Schafer and Double Fine had – it could achieve the buy-in it needed on its own terms. The team raced to put together a Kickstarter project of their own, quickly creating a new trailer, designing reward tiers and steeling themselves for a PR blitz. It sought half of the proposed budget for the title – $500,000 – in a bid to help the company retain ownership of its creation in whatever deal it would eventually make with a funding partner.
“Biggest day of my career. No idea what to expect,” Payton wrote on Twitter the night before the Kickstarter page went live. Once it did, the team embarked on a whirlwind tour of the media in order to get the word out about the game, doing interviews and podcasts and answering questions from backers. And it posted a series of video updates to provide insight into the game’s development process.
The Kickstarter page and resulting publicity had the side effect of opening up Payton’s ideas about the future of the industry to the harsh scrutiny of the Internet’s gaming faithful. République became somewhat controversial – a talking point about how devices such as the iPhone were changing the gaming landscape. By explicitly targeting iOS to the exclusion of other platforms, some gamers felt threatened by the project. “There are people out there who say they hate iOS and they hate our game,” says Payton. “They think that if we succeed, we’re going to contribute to the downfall of the traditional console business, and PC gaming too. They think Apple will take over the industry.”
Others looked sceptically at the $500,000 funding goal. Did it really need all that money? “A lot of people aren’t exposed to the true cost of making videogames, and there’s a lot of misinformation online about how much games cost to make. They don’t understand how this game could cost a million dollars. I honestly thought we’d get that question but in the other direction: ‘How is this game going to cost only a million dollars?’” Payton laughs. “In any realm, this game is a bargain.”
In spite of the team’s efforts, funding struggled to gain the kind of momentum that Double Fine’s project enjoyed. “I realised that this was going to be a cage match to the very end,” Payton says. The team distributed wallpapers and avatars urging people to ‘Keep Hope alive’.
Midway through the campaign, Camouflaj announced that PC and Mac versions of République would be developed concurrently with the iOS version. This was partly a reaction to the feedback online, although the team discussed the design implications of accommodating a potential keyboard-and-mouse control scheme, and eventually concluded that going multiplatform was the right thing to do. But while it resulted in a small bump in contributions, the needle still didn’t move as much as it needed to. The game’s existence initially as an iOS exclusive prevented it from becoming something that users of either platform could forcefully champion, and the majority of the backers still picked the iOS version of the game.
Payton came to terms with the idea that his Kickstarter campaign might not be successful. He pointed out to himself and his team that it would be a positive whether or not it got funded— the publicity had put the studio on the map, and had already resulted in conversations with new potential business partners.
But the last two days of the campaign proved to be the most memorable in the studio’s short life. As the contribution period drew to a close, the sheer drama of the way République teetered on the edge of successful funding became a story in itself. News of the situation raced through social networking sites; it felt as though the entire videogame community was holding its breath. A flurry of last-minute contributions flooded in to the project in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to $555,662— just a sliver over the amount the team had requested.
“We did it! It’s over! What a ride!” Payton wrote to backers just after the contribution period ended. “We’ve been funded for over an hour now and we’re just glowing over here.”
Now, of course, the real work starts. Camouflaj has high-reaching goals and limited resources. It hasn’t yet been proven that the type of game it wants to make really works on iOS, and the real limits of the platform with regard to important features such as character performance still aren’t well known. And there’s the question of the audience— the question that caused so much argument during the campaign. Will hardcore console and PC gamers be convinced to show up at the iOS table? Payton believes they will.