"I went home 400 or 500 nights feeling completely defeated about this game. I didn't know it was going to work. I just needed to believe it was going to work."
"It's the hardest thing I had to work on in my life. If this was done through a normal publisher it would have been canceled six times over."
Ryan Payton, former Halo 4 director and Metal Gear Solid 4 producer, is sitting in Polygon's New York offices, a reluctant smile on his bearded face. It was a tough few years for his fledgling studio, he explains. Formed in 2011, Camouflaj set about to distill the experience of playing an intensely deep, narratively-driven video game into its essence and repackage it as something anyone could play on a smartphone or tablet.
The efforts were met with constant failures, each small success pulled from the wreckage of a mountain of broken ideas. Payton said he invested everything he had into this idea, this one game. Founding partner and business director Jeff Matthews invested quite a bit of money too. Payton's family invested money. And then came Kickstarter and more than half a million dollars from nearly 12,000 backers.
Work on the game, Republique, was moving forward. But at a slow, soul-crushing speed.
"The vast majority of the time we spent on this game, basically since I left Microsoft, it was going home very fearful that this was all going to be a huge failure."
And then it wasn't.
Over the course of our conversation, Payton explained to me the one big hurdle they faced as a developer. The single big problem they needed to solve to make their game work. Only it wasn't just one thing. By the end of the more than hour-long meeting, there's was a list of challenges the studio needed to tackle to make their game work. Republique needed to be a single-touch game, a title that removed the complexity of playing on a 17-input controller and gave players a single mode of input. And it needed to do so without turning into a casual game. Republique had to not just break the fourth wall, but remove it. Payton said he long struggled with the idea of gamer as puppet master. He wanted this game to prove you could be in a game as yourself. Republique needed to use, but also fix, that classic Resident Evil almost isometric camera angle. Republique needed to build not one complex AI — used to control the hero of the story — but a second — used to control the game's incredibly complex camera systems.
Ultimately, they solved it all, Payton said, creating new systems, tweaking narrative, polishing gameplay all as they worked through the byproduct of intensive play testing. It all came together, he said, just months before the game shipped.
"Every day we had someone come in and I watched them play," Payton said. "It was fascinating watching. After about five or ten minutes they start evaluating the game not like it was an iPhone game, and started evaluating it based on a console game."
That, Payton said, is when the team knew they were going to deliver the game they wanted to deliver. And it all came down to Republique's gameplay loop.
"That took us two years," he said. "By October, we finally figured out we had a good gameplay loop, and that was only two months before ship."
In Republique, players take on the role of themselves, answering a call on their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch from Hope, a woman caught up in a 1984-esque dystopia. Players use their phone or tablet to hack into the game world's many security cameras, computers and scanners, leapfrogging through the environment to scout the world and then safely guide Hope through it.
Payton said the gameplay loop that makes Republique work is a sort of Frogger approach to stealth built on a Hope driven by smart AI. It basically breaks the game down into four steps.
First, players find a place for Hope to safely hide. Then they jump into Omniview, which allows a player to leap between the views of different cameras, and recon the area. Next, players use abilities to scan the guards and distract them. And then finally, the player hops out of the time-pausing Omniview to direct Hope to her next hiding spot with a tap on the screen.
"We wanted it to be like a great tennis match, like playing with a great tennis partner," Payton said. "I'm going to do this and then Hope is going to do this and then I'm going to do this, and then Hope is going to do this.
"That's what we wanted to create, but we ended up having so many issues that nobody else has to face."
Their first big challenge was two-fold: fixing the Resident Evil-style surveillance camera view and delivering a system that would allow players to seamlessly hop between cameras without breaking things or getting confused.
The solution came both from video games and film.
"We really had to fall back on the fundamentals of filmmaking and not try to break the 180-degree rule and always keep the subject (Hope) in the frame," he said. "Our AI system powers the camera system as well."
That last bit took two years of creation and iteration to get right. The end result is an intelligent network of in-game security cameras. They know where you have been and can guess where you are going. The cameras also know how to frame a room to cut down on confusing a player with the constant perspective flips.
"It was a super, overly complicated thing that we cracked the code for just before we shipped," Payton said.
No Fourth Wall
Another major challenge the game developers faced was in how they wanted to tell this story. Republique is a five chapter story delivered across five episodes of gameplay, which isn't that unique. But unlike most games, the player doesn't take on a role in the game, they're not a puppet master. They are simply themselves, swept up in the desperation of Hope's capture through a surprising phone call.
"I really want to double down on the narrative and the believability of this character Hope and who you are, as an anonymous John Doe behind the camera," Payton said. "I spent months and months thinking about the role of the player character in most games these days and how I'm completely dissatisfied with it. I don't like the idea that I'm the puppet master of Solid Snake on screen. I find that really strange. I find it really conflicting. That he has different motivations and I have motivations. And I always don't know what part I'm supposed to play. Am I supposed to play as him and have him be him or am I supposed to play as me, and do what I want to do?
"That's why I came up with this idea of someone calling you on this phone and you playing as Brian Crecente or as Ryan Payton. I think it's the purist first-person experience we could have created."
And it works. The platform for the game becomes a vehicle for the narrative. As a player, you begin to buy into the idea that you're viewing real action from afar, dispassionately trying to help this person through the labyrinth of her prison.
Despite that neat trick in story-telling, the story itself can come off as relatively light. That's because much of it is hidden away from the player. They need to seek it out to discover it. And it turns out that was a contentious decision.
You have to work to find the game's story.
Voice actor David Hayter, best known as the voice of Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, provides the voice of Zager in the game. But you'll never hear it if you don't put in a bit of effort.
"First of all, we've already killed off his character," Payton said. "Second of all, he leaves behind tapes but you can only listen to them in the secret hideout."
And the secret hideout isn't easy to find in the game. Players can run through the entire first episode without discovering it. Payton said that according to their numbers, so far about 40 percent of players have found the "Dark Room" and then listed to at least on Zager tape.
"There was a huge argument in the team because people were like, ‘This is David Hayter, this is a mainline character. He's helped us a lot in the Kickstarter promotion as well. Why are we hiding the only area he's featured in? On the other hand, I really like that. I want it to be like a school yard topic that you're sharing with your friends. ‘Hey, did you find the Zager tape? Where is it?' Like you used to do with Minus World and Super Mario."
And it's that story that the developers at Camouflaj hope will bring you back for the remaining four episodes.
A different take on the game world
The team is hoping to release a new episode of the game every two to three months, Payton said, so episode two hopefully hits in March.
Not surprisingly, the team wants to do several interesting things with their approach to episodic gaming. First, each new episode will bring with it an update to the previous episodes, constantly refining and improving the earlier chapters of the game.
Payton said he also wants each episode to feel unique in how it approaches the subject matter.
"We wanted episode one to be a pilot: Here's a taste of everything that Republique is," Payton said. "With each episode moving forward, there are different degrees of these things. So for instance in episode two we are much more puzzle heavy. I think we are building as many as five puzzles in episode two right now. Episode three is a lot more combat focused and will have a lot less puzzles.
We're going to have fans of two and we're going to have people who don't like episode two, but they prefer episode three. That's really what we wanted to create."
"I wanted each episode to feel like, to be like bands I like. Each EP has like smaller sets of songs that have different flavors. Each EP feels really different.
The team also has to figure out what to do about bringing the game to PC and Mac, something added in response to backers two weeks into the Kickstarter for the game.
"The PC/Mac version is something the team is really excited to jump on," Payton said. "We're debating when that will launch. It's going to be a conversation with the community coming up pretty soon."
At the heart of the debate is not when to publish the computer version, but what form it will take. The team could just port the game over directly to computer, or it could do something a bit more risky.
"We could just keep the assets but create a different gameplay loop," Payton said. "If I had my druthers I'd have the PC version be a different view into the world with its own gameplay and a different narrative. From a business perspective it might not be the smartest thing, it might not even be what our backers want."
"We want to ... disrupt a little bit of the global hegemony of Hollywood when it comes to narrative."
Payton says he's intrigued with the idea of delivering a game that shows the same story through a different character within the story. This would also allow him to deal with a disconnect he fears will be introduced when the game is no longer on a mobile device.
"One of the things I struggle with for the PC version is that in the fantasy of our game, you get a phone call from this person, Hope, trapped behind enemy lines," he said. "In the PC version are you getting a Skype call? There's a little bit of a disconnect on the narrative and I struggle with how to do that. That said, people do view security cameras through computer monitors all of the time.
"I would prefer to base our narrative design around the fact that players are playing through the PC and then let the iPhone version be the iPhone version."
Ultimately, he said, that decision will be left to backers and hopefully, the discussion will start soon.
For now, the team is working hard on episode two, trying to make sure it exceeds the polish of Republique's first outing.
And once the five episodes of Republique have been released, the team plans to continue their work trying to bring gaming and gaming-powered narratives to a broader audience.
"We know who we want to be," Payton said. "We want to make smart, sophisticated games for a much bigger audience than the relatively smaller ecosystem that exists for the console business. We want to push super-high quality, narrative-based games to the masses and try to disrupt a little bit of the global hegemony of Hollywood when it comes to narrative."