Feature

The making of Republique

How Camouflaj took stealth beyond Solid Snake

The making of Republique

It's a phrase that gets banded around a lot in press releases, but what exactly constitutes an 'industry veteran'?

Despite the fact he was only born in 1981, Ryan Payton remains a valid candidate, though the man behind iOS stealth game République didn't actually start out as a developer. No, Payton's first role in the industry was as a games journalist.

"Put simply: I've lived a charmed life, starting with getting my first gig writing about games for XBN magazine back in 2003," says Payton.

"I've had the great honour to develop and ship multiple games at Konami, including Metal Gear Solid 4; I was creative director on Halo 4 and had enough capital to start a videogame studio called Camouflaj, which now employs over twenty people in the Seattle area."

It's been a dream for Payton since childhood to create videogames and run a company of his own. As a result, after learning the ropes at some rather hefty and notable studios, Payton is very keen that Camouflaj make a major mark on Apple's mobile platform with République.

It's his belief that "life is too short to do safe, boring, risk-averse games", and his decision to start his own company was spurred on by triple-A's aversion to taking risks.

"Now that I'm able to reflect on the initial development of République, I can say that one of my proudest achievements is that we never backed away from challenges," says Payton. "We took each challenge head on despite the fears.

"The fear was real. Honestly speaking, I went home most nights worried that the République gameplay concept was just not adding up. Nothing seemed to be clicking, and most days seemed to result in some sort of failure. I think we really embraced Thomas Edison's philosophy of not being discouraged when failing over and over again."

Fighting the fear

It's easy to see where that fear came from when looking at just what République represents: a stealth game built around an entirely new way of controlling the action.

The player takes the perspective of various security cameras, controlling the action from afar with taps on the touchscreen.

Gone is the violence usually associated with the genre, with République instead focusing on a pure stealth experience. That's a bold move for a game on any format, but on mobile, it's an entirely new frontier.

Debut release or not, it's fair to say Camouflaj had grand ambitions for République during development.

"You can imagine our elation when playtesters started to click with the gameplay and not wanting to go home," says Payton. "Amazingly enough, that only started happening two months before ship.

"I like to say that, had République been developed at a traditional big game company, it would have been cancelled six times over.

"But that's really one of the exciting things about the independent movement – we played the development game by our own rules, we stuck to our guns and, thankfully, we emerged with a unique game that seems to be clicking with audiences from around the world. It's a great feeling."

Ryan Payton

That's not to say that going independent is the easy route to success.

Payton's time working in triple-A meant he could feel out the industry a little, get to know his own likes and dislikes, wash off all the green before holding so many others' fates in his hand.

"A lot of young people come asking me for advice on how to start their independent game studio, and oftentimes I tell them to first get a 'real job' at a big game company," says Payton.

"I'm forever grateful for the experience I received at Microsoft and Kojima Productions – I got to see the good and bad of traditional gaming development, and then was able to focus my energy on areas of game development I wanted to do differently.

"Working at a big studio also gave me time to grow and mature. I've met a number of young studio managers – most of them are naturally smart, but they oftentimes lack the maturity, selflessness and street smarts that it takes to run a studio."

Working at Konami didn't only help Payton grow as a person, but work on the Metal Gear Solid franchise may have also helped to shape Payton as a designer.

Sneak suit

"Whether I wanted it to or not, working on games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Metal Gear Acid and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops have definitely influenced the design of République," Payton says openly.

"That said, I tried to avoid playing Metal Gear during the development of République, as I wanted to keep my design palette clean."

Of course, République sits in the stealth genre alongside the Metal Gear Solid series, but Payton purposefully tried to create something unique - although he did try to imbue the studio with a sense of Konami's work ethic.

"The biggest element of the Metal Gear Solid series that I purposely tried to infuse in République was simply the Japanese development team's relentless pursuit of quality," Payton adds.

"I'll never forget how committed to quality the Metal Gear team was, and I'm happy to see that commitment has revealed itself inside the walls of Camouflaj."

An early République prototype

Payton didn't just import a good work ethos from Konami, though - Payton brought in Solid Snake himself, David Hayter.

Now that Jack Bauer's providing the voice of the new Solid Snake, that means a certain gravelly-voiced legend is free for voice work on other games.

"During the many months of recording voiceovers for Metal Gear Solid 4, David Hayter and I became good friends, so it was an easy decision to include him in the République project," says Payton.

"We experimented with a number of roles for David but eventually settled on the 'Zager' character, which was a perfect fit for him. Our writer, Brendan Murphy, produced a fantastic script, and David continues to nail the persona of Zager's character in the recording booth. It's a pleasure to watch unfold."

So République might be a stealth game, and it might have David Hayter in it, but - much to the annoyance of editors eager for a snappy headline - that's where the comparisons with Metal Gear Solid end. République is its own thing. République is the solution to a problem: the age old problem of gameplay betraying characters' motivations.

Some people call it ludonarrative dissonance. Most people hate the term.

"As a designer, I'm interested in exploring many types of game genres," Payton says. "With République, we just happened upon the stealth genre because it best fit our narrative intents – I wanted to create a game that put the player behind surveillance cameras, who then had to direct a woman to safety.

"Because we didn't want [the game's lead] Hope killing a bunch of people on her journey to freedom – an element I really dislike about many games and movies – we felt that stealth gameplay best fit hers and the player's character motivations."

According to Payton, the decision to make Hope a woman was a snap, almost instinctive decision – one he was able to make in part thanks to the fact the game was in development at an independent studio.

It's a regrettable fact that we still live in a world where triple-A games like Remember Me are knocked back by publishers for having a female lead.

"I like to think that Hope is her own person, and she just sort of existed from day one," says Payton. "I didn't put any deep thought into the gender behind this central character. She's always been there, and when Rena Strober added her voice to the character, I knew we had something special."

Beyond the lead herself, the actual narrative of the game can be as simple or as complex as the player likes, with much of the story hidden in text logs and the like. There's no Kojima-scale cutscene exposition here.

Spliced

"République's narrative design was very deliberate and inspired by Ken Levine's lecture about push and pull narrative mechanics. We pushed our 'A Story' on players and let them pull our 'B Story', if they felt inclined to do so," continues Payton.

"I really like this approach to narrative design because it widens the appeal of your game, allowing a larger variety of players to find elements of the game they enjoy."

Naturally, going independent isn't without notable drawbacks. The lack of publisher funding meant Camouflaj was forced to find a portion of the game's development funds elsewhere.

"I doubt République would have ever seen the light of day if it were not for Kickstarter," admits Payton. "We stumbled upon Kickstarter on a very dark, rainy Seattle day when we were at our lowest, wondering just how we were going to fund République without losing our shirts.

"Along came Kickstarter and everything changed. Of course, the Kickstarter ended up being a lot more challenging than we anticipated, but it ended up saving the company in the long run."

Despite its challenges, Kickstarter saved the concept from an eternity of floating in the ether.

"République took about 26 months to develop, which included about six months completely dedicated to Episode 1," says Payton. "The team size really fluctuated over the course of development, but in general, I worked on the game with about twenty full-time developers.

"I hatched the idea for République in 2011 as part of a mental exercise on how to design the best game possible for iPhone. I started off with a number of key pillars: first-and-best facial performance on iOS, gameplay designed around One Touch, and a narrative setup that doubles down on the iOS device in hand."

Does it run Crysis?

Post launch, it's fair to say République has garnered attention from in gamers in part thanks to the way it looks. The characters' facial performance is incredible for a mobile release, delivering the kind of results that encourage users to show the game to their friends.

The development team's decision to milk the most out of Unity, Payton claims, has been key to République's success.

"The main reason why République looks so good is because our development team is extremely talented and never treated iOS like a second-class citizen," says Payton. "Over the past two years, we continued to pummel both iOS and Unity into submission.

"The majority of the credit should go to our incredible art team, but I'll also take a little credit for setting a very high bar initially. From day one, I've been molding Camouflaj into a place where people tackle problems head on and stay positive.

"There were plenty of reasons why we could have failed, but I kept the team focused on small, positive wins and we just built on top of those."

République's surveillance camera effect takes shape

It's not just a visual treat, though. With fully voiced characters and a fleshed-out narrative (one that Payton hoped would be engaging to players) the bar had to be set high for the audio, too.

"One of the great successes of République's development was hiring David Liu who used to work in the audio team of Halo 4," Payton says.

"He and I really click creatively, and his dedication to the project is really inspiring. From day one, we knew what we wanted to do with the audioscape of the game: we wanted République to fit squarely in the middle between the subtle, cerebral sound design of Japanese titles and the bombastic approach to many Hollywood produced games.

"A big part of République's sound design formula is Forcewick, an extremely talented Japanese studio we teamed up to produce many of the game's unique sounds.

"As somebody who spends a disproportionately large amount of time on audio-related efforts, I'm proud of what we did with Episode 1, and excited to see how much further we can push the audio on future episodes."

Mission impossible

That's not to say development was entirely smooth sailing.

As mentioned earlier, République's gameplay just wasn't clicking with the testers until a few weeks before launch. Right up until the last minute, there was a fair chance that two years' worth of time and resources could still have resulted in a dud.

"Put simply, the two most common sources of headaches were the cameras and Hope's AI, both of which fell under one of our core design pillars of one-touch gameplay," says Payton.

"Up until the final weeks of development, République suffered from frequent instances of player disorientation. We often broke the 180-degree rule, Hope was oftentimes out of frame, and the camera AI was just buggy and broken.

"There ended up not being a silver bullet solution – we did daily playtests and fixed each issue one by one until things started to click.

"Hope's AI-driven movement also proved to be a significant challenge, as we struggled to find the perfect balance between giving players enough agency and letting Hope be smart. This is another area of the game that really didn't come together until the final weeks of development.

"One final area that took a lot out of the team was optimization for lower end iOS devices, namely the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and the iPad 2. While we're committed to supporting these devices with every future episode, I think I can speak for the team that we're excited to one day ship a game that where the A7 chip is the minimum spec."

Although there were problems right up to the wire, Camouflaj stuck to its original vision, never changing the core concept of the game.

"While République's development was tumultuous and involved a lot of trial and error, we never veered away from the core gameplay loop demonstrated in our Kickstarter proof of concept trailer," Payton tells us.

In the end, it all turned out well. Camouflaj delivered when it came to its Kickstarter promises and the first episode was released. Everything was falling into place and the playtesters were sending back positive feedback.

But how did the team come to the decision to release it as an episodic adventure?

"We spent an entire year debating internally how we would monetize République," says Payton.

"This was a very stressful exercise, as we didn't feel we had a lot of options.

"Then Telltale struck it big with their episodic model on the App Store and we decided to follow suit. We love what Telltale has done – it's a smart and fair model that treats the consumer with respect. We're infinitely grateful to them for blazing this trail."

Now that the game is finally out and the hard work is starting to pay off, the team has the unenviable task of retaining players' interest in the game over the next set of episodes.

"2014 is all about shipping the rest of the République episodes on iOS and working with our backers on what they want out of the desktop version of the game," says Payton.

So, 2014 is shaping up to be a busy year for the studio. It looks like it'll be a while before we see a new IP from Camouflaj.


Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.

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