The Rise Of République

by Ben Hanson on Feb 14, 2014 at 11:00 AM

The last time we spoke with Camouflaj's founder Ryan Payton was at E3 2013 when he showed off République to Quantic Dream's David Cage. Since then we've had a chance to play and review the first episode of this ambitious five-episode stealth game on iOS. We spoke to Payton about the reactions to his studio's first release, the similarities to Watch Dogs, and when we can expect the next installment. 

A lot of press described République as a love letter to Metal Gear on iOS. Would that reaction to the finished game have surprised you back at the start of the project?

Absolutely. Yeah, I did not set off to make a stealth action game when I started first thinking about République. There were no stealth action elements, there was really no traditional gameplay. If anything, the game was closer to Heavy Rain than it was Metal Gear Solid or Resident Evil. I pitched République to a bunch of different developers and different publishers, trying to get some kind of partner and try to get financing, and one of the publishers in particular was really helpful and really interested in the game. They came back and said, "You know, we really like this concept and hacking into these different cameras... but we'd like to see some kind of more traditional gameplay. We need a gameplay loop." We went into Unity and moved the camera to one of the surveillance cameras and instantly it looked like Resident Evil. So it didn't even start out as a stealth game, it started out as more of a survival horror game at that point. Then we didn't want Hope to be shooting and knifing people, and so by default it became a stealth game.

I've got to ask about the Metal Gear music Easter Egg in the inventory screen.

No comment on that one, I'll just put it that way.

I really appreciated the podcast that chronicled République's development, but it seemed like you were always trying to get your coworkers to open up and be more honest about how the game development was going. 

One of the things we're trying to do with Camouflaj is to make the studio as transparent as possible, because we look at ourselves as being citizens in the development community. We know where we started off: we didn't know anything about Unity, we didn't know anything about starting our own studio, and we knew that we were joining this quiet revolution that was going on with all these people leaving studios and starting their own [production] houses. So we really want to be something of a resource for people that are thinking about making their own game [so] they can try to avoid the same pitfalls that we had. We've got a lot of great feedback, whether it's just the podcast or the different talks that we do. Our neighbors to the south, Bungie, they have a very similar mentality. They just let people use their auditorium for talks from other studios and educational purposes. So it's all within that philosophy.

To get to your question about the team in particular, I know that they're really worried about negative press. They're worried about saying something wrong and then people jump on it, whether it's the press or the community. I sympathize with them because I think more so than ever the gamer community has become a lot more sensitive. When they find something they don't like, the pitchforks come out quicker than they've ever come out before.

I think Double Fine's a good example of that.

Double Fine's a great example. And that's a studio that loves its community, and is extremely transparent and sometimes it gets hurt for it. We've been very lucky that we've never been burnt by being open on our podcast. A lot of my friends think that we've gotten away with a lot, in terms of how we did our Kickstarter and how we shipped a game.

I think there was a little bit of backlash when the game launched and the Kickstarter backers didn't get their codes.

Yeah, and I think that's totally understandable... I think people have the right to be upset. But it has been way more understanding and forgiving than we expected even during that whole episode. The vast majority of people were like, "Oh okay, it's cool. Hang in there. Merry Christmas," it was amazing. I don't know how we picked up these guys.

It's really fun to play through the game and find Kickstarter backers as guards. Are they going to be throughout the entire series?

I think about 85 percent of our high-end backers that we promised to do this for were in episode one. We have some other funky ideas about how we're going to do the Prizrak in episode two. But for each subsequent episode, I want to have an indie theme for who the Pzriak are... I think some of the ideas are kind of crazy.

I really like the idea for the in-game developer commentary, you just whipped out a voice recorder and recorded people having the actual discussions?

It gets back to this whole experiment with Camouflaj development where we try to be as open as we can and I was fascinated by the idea of not doing a retrospective developer commentary. I just recorded off my iPhone, put it on the table and said "Ok guys, we're going to talk about this room right here." So for people that are interested in game design, you can literally hear us argue and yell at each other about really petty things. The painting puzzle in episode one... it's my favorite because there's three of them in that space and if you listen to them in order you can actually hear three meetings. You literally can hear the entire creative process that the team went through. I just really hope that inspires people and helps them with their creative process.

You guys are treating this like a gigantic project, and putting in plenty of story wells for fans to dive down. I'm wondering what the feedback has been like on your end. Are you seeing people really dive in and trying to dissect the lore?

We made a conscious effort not to have a forum that we would be monitoring every day. As a result of that, I feel like I'm a little bit in the dark about how the players are experiencing the lore. We have the manifesto as well, it's available through this stupid viral site that we created that nobody knows about.

Is that the Wagtail Publishing Twitter account? I've seen some people on your team retweet that.

Yeah, we've created a separate division of the company which is a book publisher called Wagtail Publishing. We've already written this 200 page non-fiction book about how and why the internet should be controlled. It's extremely well detailed and researched. In the beginning [of episode one] you hear about the poisoned manifesto... you can actually get that poisoned manifesto through our website. It's chapter one of the manifesto that Zager wrote and there's a bunch of comments in the sides and in the margins, he paints the maps of a level and lists where all the collectibles are. It's designed by the Future Press guys who are doing the Dark Souls guides. When it's all said and done, we'll have all five chapters and it's going to be a hardback book that we send to our backers. I'm also hoping to sell it at Amazon or maybe even GameStop with a code for the game. If I could send off this whole franchise that way it would be great.

What feedback has had the biggest impact on you and the team so far?

This is such a terrible answer, but just how positive the feedback has been. I think we expected the game to be much more divisive then it ended up being. We were in the New York Times, and The Washington Post wrote two articles about the game. NPR is doing something, it's just amazing. The whole paranoia surveillance angle, everybody is jumping on that.

Was the team pretty happy when Watch Dogs got delayed? I remember from the podcast that you were pretty worried about similarities to that game's escort view.

That was a bad day. If République had come out after Watch Dogs, I think our biggest fear was people would comment "Oh, this is a good Watch Dogs clone." We have as a point of pride that our game was announced, shown off, and released before Watch Dogs. We were worried that people would just assume that we had ripped them off, and that would upset us for sure.

And now people are writing about your game in connection with the NSA and Snowden controversy.

I never thought about that and I probably should have. We gained so much publicity because of that. I think they probably would have focused more on Watch Dogs than République.

Continue reading on the second page to learn more about future episodes and the plans for the PC version.

Is there any other feedback that will help shape the future episodes?

The one thing I do know that we'll be focusing on is the one-touch gameplay. While most people praised it, not everybody loved it. We're bringing in more playtesters. I actually thought we had resolved all those issues, and then I saw reviews and people were not happy with exactly how she moved. They felt that she got caught in areas that were not fair.

I will say that internally there's always been this debate between myself and the writer Brendan Murphy about this character Cooper. He reluctantly did this Cooper character because I really wanted this idea of having a Stephen Hawking computerized voice. From a production standpoint, Cooper saved our asses. Often times in games you realize that late in the game something isn't working and that players aren't getting something, but you don't have the time or the budget to fly out to LA and record more lines. We could have Brendan write these Cooper dialogue lines and put them right in the game and not have to do any voice over work. It was really one of my smarter ideas on the project, and I had lots of stupid ones, but I was very surprised to see people really like Cooper.

Plus he gets to do one of the most entertaining and weirdest parts of the game, where he's talking about the old iOS games. Did you contact the developers ahead of time just to give them a heads up that you were going to be doing that?

Yeah, absolutely. I reached out to each individual developer and asked for permission, and then I wrote most of those iOS games cartridge anecdotes. Most of those are my personal anecdotes, but then Brendan added his own personal anecdotes and it's kind of an amalgamation. And I will say as a tease to episode two, thanks to the process of getting permissions for the game, that we're going to collaborate with one of the studios that is behind one of these games that we feature in episode two. Part of their game is going to be inside of the second episode of République, so wrap your head around that.

So it's going to be a little arcade game inside the world of République?

Maybe not an arcade game, but it's going to be part of the gameplay. It's an amazing marriage. I can't wait to show people.

I know there was debate about having a map in the game, is that something you're thinking about adding for the later episodes?

It is something that we're considering putting back into a future episode, we're just not quite sure yet.

A lot of the feedback that I've seen has people saying that a premium model can work on the app store. Do you view your $5 premium model as a success?

Oh absolutely. The team is really excited and really happy with how the game has done so far, both on a critical and a commercial level. It's the most fair pricing, because you pay up front knowing that, at least in most games, you're not going to be nickel and dimed. I'm really proud to be part of this premium ecosystem because it feels like we're fighting in this battle against games that are highly manipulative and games that are damaging the ecosystem of game design. It was very much a business decision, but the business decision was out of respect for the consumer.

We were laughing and crying and hugging on December 19th when we saw that we got [Apple's] editor's choice. That was the most competitive day in app store history, it launched ten days from Christmas, and we knew we were going to be fighting against really big competition.

So do you guys have a timeframe for the release of episode two? How long do you think it will take to make each episode in the future?

So I've been saying it's my goal to ship one every two to three month, but I'm in production meetings every day and about every three to four months sounds like it's a little more realistic. Every season is what I'm aiming for, so episode two will definitely be out in the spring.

And what's the current plan for the PC release?

As we get into this new year, we're going to be opening up discussions with the backers about what exactly they want us to do. The only reason a PC version exists is because of the Kickstarter backers. They're the ones that got us to that finish line. While we're extremely happy for that, we did tell them that we don't want to serve two masters when it came to designing the game. We think it was smart for us to design the iOS game first and then work on the PC version. That said, I know the team doesn't want to wait until episode five of the iOS version is out. So we want to figure out a path that makes the PC backers happy, and we also want to work with them on the design of it. The team doesn't have a lot of strong opinions about how the PC version would work. They're more excited about the idea of the backers actually informing us of how they think the optimal PC version would work. Early access is something we've talked about internally, but I'm really excited about the fact we're just going to ask the backers what they want.

Would you consider swapping out the iOS cartridges in the game for your favorite PC games?

Absolutely, I've already got permission for PC games. We definitely won't have iOS games.

But it's not a situation where you're counting on the funds from a Steam release of the game to finish the episodic structure of the iOS version?

Oh, absolutely not. From a business perspective, I'm happy to report that Camouflaj is doing really well. We're just really thankful that we've got a lot of support, not only from our backers but a lot of companies like Apple to really push the game and be really enthusiastic about it. It feels great to have a studio that's alive and kicking... we've far exceeded our expectations for the season pass sales already and episode two is not even out. It's done four times better than we've thought.

Are you looking forward to trying something completely new?

I am. I already have a lifetime's worth of game concepts in my head. Whenever we're done with the episodes of République, we're probably going to look at the landscape and make a decision about the type of game we want to make based on what the platforms are looking like in the marketplace. It's such a weird time, man. Are we just in a weird transition phase? Is the dust going to settle? Or is it going to be like this for the next 10, 15 years?  We're just in this weird wild west and it's fascinating, I love it.