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Republique, and the fight for narrative games in a modern market
 Republique , and the fight for narrative games in a modern market
May 21, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

"I have really mixed feelings about where we are when it comes to game narrative right now," says Camouflaj's Ryan Payton, whose studio has just shipped the second installment of its ambitious episodic iOS game, Republique.

Payton's latest game is on mobile platforms, but his background had previously been in traditional triple-A, working on Metal Gear Solid at Konami's Kojima Productions, and also contributing to 343 Studios' Halo 4 as creative director, prior to leaving the project.

"I want to get out of the hardcore gaming ghetto," he says. "We sold Metal Gear Solid 4 to 6 million people around the world, and it's an international bestseller for PlayStation 3. But people mostly bought the English version, or the Japanese version. That's not really an 'international' game to me, and the same for Halo 4 -- I'm guessing 85, 95 percent of that game's sales were made in North America and the UK, to white males 18 to 35 years old."

"I'm getting really frustrated, because I'm seeing what's going on in mobile with a lot of games, some good, some bad. Having spent time in China and seeing people walking around with Angry Birds T-shirts and plushies on their desks... that's an international game, and I really wish we could do that with our narratives."

Games that have something to say

Payton is passionate about storytelling, and grew up with the CG-intensive, narrative-focused games. In high school, he played the first Metal Gear Solid in his parents' cold basement, and was blown away by the cinematics and voice-over. "Most importantly, I felt it had something to say, and it had, for the time, pretty mature message, theme and setting. I knew what I wanted to do, then."

Seven years later he found himself in Tokyo, employed Konami, working on that very franchise and speaking fluent Japanese. "I really believed in what we were doing," he says, remembering the press' excitement about the narrative ambitions of Metal Gear Solid 4. "I was shocked that at E3 or GamesCom, people would sit at Konami's booth and watch a 15-minute trailer that was just about characters."

One task he gave himself at Konami was to act as an ambassador, showing the Japanese team games like Mass Effect, Portal, BioShock and Gears of War to try to explain that times were changing, placing further primacy on action and player agency, and that the way the studio tells the Metal Gear story would have to change in the future.

Hours after his departure from Konami, Payton was invited to be Microsoft's creative director on Halo 4. That marked a change in his attitude to games: "I could feel the old ways were about to end," he says. "And there was this massive earthquake underneath us."

"I'm not saying character-driven games are gone -- The Last of Us is a great example -- but I think they're diminished, to a certain degree."
At the time, people believed the mass-market Wii would be the primary driver of change, but it would be the App Store, digital distribution and the concept of "games as a service" that truly rung in the end of that old era of console games. Games like Halo and Uncharted were slow and massive undertakings, so developments like Halo's Waypoint app was an effort to keep players engaged in the narrative between games.

"At the time I'm thinking about the story for Halo 4, playing a lot of games I really enjoy, but wondering if it was the beginning of the end of the $60 campaign-driven experience," he says. "I was pushing for a very different type of game, in terms of how we told the narrative, and I think I moved us into a cool direction, but I think I made a lot of mistakes. And at the end of the day, it was decided I'm not the right type of guy to make the right type of Halo game right now. I was moved into a position that was a lot less influential."

He was able to focus more on story, but had a significantly diminished role, an embarrassing experience. He spent the time able to study the art of narrative design, reading papers and watching GDC talks to try to learn about the ways storytelling in games has changed over time. He decided to start his own company, and experiment with some of these new ideas on his own.

"The golden days of people sitting for 15 minutes watching a cinematic trailer with no new features was kind of over. I'm not saying character-driven games are gone -- The Last of Us is a great example -- but I think they're diminished, to a certain degree."

Who's 'Alex Mason'?

Player agency and sandbox environments seem more important to game companies than building characters these days; players hardly care who they play as, as the hero is generally replaced while the mechanics are refined in future editions. Payton put the name "Alex Mason" on the screen, and nobody in the audience could remember that was the name of the protagonist from Call of Duty: Black Ops II, one of the best-selling video games of all time.

"Coming from my background of Resident Evil, Metal Gear and 32-bit era stuff, this is a big shift," he says. In fact, Payton believes Valve may never release Half-Life 3, nor should they, because the realities of today's market do not jibe with high-cost campaign-driven story games. "Someone needs to explain why they'd invest in this instead of Left 4 Dead," he says.

After years of investment on an epic character-driven game, much of the audience will pirate the game, and most of the rest will play it in a weekend. "Then minutes later, they're going to be asking for Half-Life 4."

"The moment when you ask people to go by a console for $300, $400, $500 dollars [to play your game] is the moment when you lose them."
But games like Gone Home and Telltale's Walking Dead provide glimmers of hope for new frontiers for story-driven mainstream games. Telltale's franchises are character-driven and people play to see the further serialized adventures of the characters and their stories. And these games are easy to play, letting the narrative experience come to the forefront. And they don't have the kind of loyalty to a single console platform, the sort which means that Master Chief and Kratos will do repeat performances for the Xbox and PlayStation brands, respectively.

And The Walking Dead has been widely-downloaded across multiple platforms, addressing massive audiences and touching multiple people. Inspired by this, Payton's Republique has aimed to satisfy the desire to return to the campaign and story-focused feel of the 32-bit era, which immersed players in character stories. Alongside this goal, Payton wants to grow that kind of high-end narrative video game experience into the modern era, with the addressable audience of mobile games and the simple, intuitive touch controls (versus 'simulated controller') pioneered by games like Infinity Blade.

"The moment when you ask people to go by a console for $300, $400, $500 dollars [to play your game] is the moment when you lose them," he says. "I really do love consoles and I use them every day, but I think they're one of the biggest barriers to touching people around the world with the stories we want to tell."

As demonstrated by stealth-inspired Republique, Payton is still fascinated by stories about privacy, surveillance and paranoia -- "I want to tell a story my former companies wouldn't let me tell" -- themes that feel like updates on the messages about the complexity of war and nuclear proliferation that he found so arresting as a kid playing original Metal Gear. Republique lets the player make their own decisions, rather than drawing a strong protagonist, in order to have a pure connection between the player and the game, and the players and the other characters in the story.

Stepping towards international appeal

Payton has invested heavily in broad localization. Russia is the third biggest market for the game, unexpectedly, bringing his team closer to its goal of an internationally-reaching, episodic game. The first episode continually updates with features and bug fixes that get added in future episodes: "I'm really excited for when we get to episode five, because we'll be able to have a 10-15 hour campaign, we can hit the press several times with new releases, and we'll be able to have the kind of serialized, character-driven experience I've been talking about, on this small platform."

"Graphics are actually important to people," he reflects. "For the masses, they need voice-over, I think they need more animated characters, and something larger than life, and that's why we're going down that path. And I think we need to be on a lot more platforms, which is why we're building our game to a one-touch input. Being in different territories is also important to us, and the thing I struggle with is difficulty: I think a big reason why Telltale's been so successful is the games are easy to get through. You need people to finish episode one in order for them to buy episode two."

Republique has been a little more challenging for players -- the average player gets caught 10 times, which seems high to him -- so the game will now introduce a story mode that lets players complete it more easily.

"Things are moving so fast, and narrative is all over the place, but the thing I keep coming back to is I want to get away from the five million; I want to find a way to get them to be played by hundreds of millions of people. I'm not saying Republique will be that game, but wish me luck."

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Matt Boudreaux
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Payton seems to be all over the place here. He thinks the narrative game space is contracting which is part of why he got out of the mainstream industry, but he wants to build a narrative game. He thinks graphics and presentation as a whole are important, but he doesn't think players will invest in a platform capable of those things, all the while lamenting that he wants to be on more platforms. He wants deep narrative but still wants to be a worldwide product (which is going to be interesting given cultural differences - take any game through localization and you'll see the cultural nightmares you can bang up against). All while selling hundreds of millions copies.

One question I have yet to see answered by Payton is; how do you make a player invested in a narrative while using a device that is inherently built for incredibly quick play sessions (< 1 minute)?

Robert Green
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I think you're misrepresenting his stance a little. His comments about the decline of narrative games, which I tend to agree with, are directed largely at the AAA market. There's still a market for a handful of such games, like The Last Of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, etc., but all the new business models (DLC, season passes, F2P, subscription models, etc.) tend to work better for games that go on for a long time, and that rules out the kind of narrative experiences he's talking about.
But that's not what he's making. He's making a lower-budget, reasonably accessible, episodic game for mobile. And certainly a lot of people use their phones to play games 1 minute at a time, but I think it's a misnomer to say they're inherently built for those. Even more so on tablets, most people are using them sitting on the couch, just like a console.

Bernie M
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Hypocrisy. The first word that came to my mind after reading this.

Matthew Calderaz
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"The moment when you ask people to go by a console for $300, $400, $500 dollars [to play your game] is the moment when you lose them," he says. "I really do love consoles and I use them every day, but I think they're one of the biggest barriers to touching people around the world with the stories we want to tell."

I couldn't disagree more. I own a PS3, 360, PS4, Vita, and game primarily on a PC. The cost of a new ios device easily matches these other devices, (except for the PC).

We have 1 ipad that's used primarily for Netflix. I have never and never plan to do gaming on an IOS device.

I have no problems with him wanting to market his game to a device with a larger install base, or even cater the game's design towards a particular 'casual' demographic; but to claim that ios devices are automatically more wallet-friendly than consoles is incorrect.

John Flush
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Interesting. I found The Walking Dead, XCOM, FTL, pretty much every board game adaptation (I like board games), and quite a few other games a perfect fit for an iPad.

Now I do agree with you on the cost. iPads don't do much other than turn on fast from sleep mode (okay, they make a pretty good bookcase you can take with you everywhere), which is the real draw IMO. So they aren't really "for gaming" but if you own one, why deny yourself the opportunity of playing the good games it does have?

But yeah, to buy it as a gaming device, yeah that sounds silly to me too.

Mihai Cosma
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I like to sit down. I like to sit down when i'm gaming. I like to sit down when i'm gaming after a day of work, where i can immerse myself for three to four hours and just play.

I have an Android device. I can play a ton of games. If i got five minutes, i'd rather read some RSS feed or check reddit. I don't think gaming as an artform and the staple of the genre should be anything other than long form immersive and interactive entertainment.

People playing various games with birds on their phone or tablet are not gaming in my book. They are wasting time in a somewhat pleasureable way. They are not engaging with that's happening there.. it's like drinking a fine glass of some extremely old and expensive alcohol just that it's in teaspoons and it's watered down so it doesn't sting and actually it's also half-n-half with a cheap brand to not waste it and then you also have to pay for any extra teaspoons.

Sure it keeps you satiated, but you are not having an experience.