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Ryan Payton and the infinite Republique Exclusive

Ryan Payton and the infinite  Republique
April 9, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

April 9, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Smartphone/Tablet, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

When Ryan Payton's Camouflaj LLC, along with Logan Games, began its $500,000 crowdfunding campaign for an episodic, high-end stealth game for iOS, the application of Kickstarter for the games business was still new, mostly reverberating from the successful Double Fine Adventure campaign. The market for AAA-like games on iOS, let alone episodic ones, hadn't yet been proven. It was definitely an ambitious move.

"I don't feel my story is very unique," he says. The former 343 Industries creative director and Metal Gear Solid 4 producer mostly sees himself as similar to a lot of other developers who've taken advantage of alternative funding and development trends to migrate from AAA into independent work. "In working at a big company, there are a lot of compromises you have to make on a creative and personal level," he says. "It's really easy to get that game development bug."

Yet in scope and concept, survival-stealth game and surveillance-state critique Republique doesn't have many peers yet. It has the sort of lace-wrought tone, style and fidelity console games traditionally want, and games like it haven't really thrived in the mobile space yet.

Players interact with the game by hacking devices and taking control of cameras to affect events in the story, and communicate with other characters by phone, a clever way of bridging the gap between core gaming fans on mobile and the fact traditional controls for first and third-person play don't generally translate well to touch.

But now that Kickstarter fever's ebbed, the $500,000 iOS game that's released its first of several planned episodes after almost years in development is still an anomoly in the space. But Payton seems realistic about it, even and thoughtful, when I try to find polite ways to hint at how strange it all sounds.

"I just had faith it would turn out, somehow," Payton tells me. "And that's been kind of the whole project, in a nutshell. It's been more expensive than we wanted it to be, and it's taking more time to develop, but because of new infrastructures and new support, development becomes a lot easier. The most important thing was to seek the creative freedom to make the game we wanted to make. It wasn't about money, or 'I can put my name on a game'."

"I just had faith it would turn out, somehow. And that's been kind of the whole project, in a nutshell."
Payton says he hadn't even considered making an iOS game until he saw Epic Games' initial Infinity Blade showpiece: "The lightbulb came on," he says. "Not only did I like what they were doing from a graphical perspective, and a CPU perspective, but I was really inspired by what they did from a design perspective. They had a mechanic that was designed from the ground up for touch."

Payton had been tired of making games his family couldn't play because of the delicate and often complicated vocabulary of next-gen controllers. "I really still feel like that's a huge barrier for the proper global proliferation of games," he says. In AAA, he'd be told that the stories he was writing would be enjoyed by 10 million people -- "10 million 18 to 35 year-old white males in America and the UK," he reflects, frowning slightly. "I was really jealous of what was going on in mobile. I want to make games that touch millions of people."

The traditional developer assumption has long been that making a mainstream game means compromise, gross oversimplification, laughable frictionlessness. But that's less and less true, Payton believes. In fact, part of what he hopes for with Republique is to prove otherwise ("I don't want to just make games that are 'suitable for mobile' from a monetization perspective"), to demonstrate risk-taking for other developers by experimenting with new kinds of content and formats for audiences that have never seen them before.

There've been some big lessons along the way. For example, Payton admires Fireproof Games' The Room, which he views as a success in terms of the kind of experimentation with traditional production values in iOS he hopes to see more of. Yet the absence of visible characters in The Room and its sequel was a wise design constraint, showing smart scoping and good foresight.

"Barry [Meade, of Fireproof] made a much smarter game than we have," says Payton. "I'm embarrassed, because I was really deep in Republique when Steve [Gaynor, of Gone Home developer Fullbright Company] left Irrational, and he still beat us to the punch for our first episode, because meanwhile I'm doing motion capture and voice-over."

republique 1.jpgPayton says he's "very proud" of Republique's first episode, but excited by the year ahead. "Nobody is doing episodic the way we are," he says. "Not even is each episode new content, but we're taking feedback and adding content... the value we'll build over time for players is so tremendous. I'm such a believer in what we're doing."

Structurally he likens his vision to the original Resident Evil -- imagine if each of the game's very distinct arcs (a mansion, a garden,a laboratory) could be their own distinct episodes. Studios like Telltale Games have experimented with episodic content before, and they aren't the only ones, but Payton doesn't believe the formula is all out of room for growth.

Attending GDC in 2012, Payton heard the trendwatchers declare that nobody wanted story-driven content on mobile devices. In 2013, people lauded light, relatively simple and abstract narrative games like Sword and Sworcery, but chalked the success of The Walking Dead strictly up to its bigger cable TV and comics brand. These days, people tell him Republique is "cool", but that people still aren't interested in narrative content -- plus it's expensive, and monetization models are hard to marry to immersive storytelling experience.

Payton says he visited this year's GDC mainly seeking business partners for China, a market understood by few stateside. The knowledge base isn't big enough, he suggests, for anyone to be certain that just because mobile games have a certain structure and business model in China right now, there could never be an opportunity for episodic content there ever.

Republique's Russian localization yielded the game's third-best market, which came as a surprise. What other surprises might be left in Asia, if his team approaches the market in the right way?

"Both companies hired me to be influential, but that doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of others in the company who also want to put their mark on something. That's a difficult thing to navigate."
Payton's story is also distinctive in that unlike many with a similar trajectory he never nurtured a preference for working with small teams. "I'm lucky to've had that experience of working with big teams and high expectations," he suggests. "I longed for that sense of responsibility... what I experienced was that both companies hired me to be influential, but that doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of others in the company who also want to put their mark on something. That's a difficult thing to navigate."

Kickstarter, then, presented Payton's around 25-person team the best of both worlds: creative freedom but also inherent accountability, with thousands of backers watching. What else to do with this opportunity than to go full tilt at the kind of games he's always wanted to make, in the markets he dreams of approaching?

While at Microsoft, Payton took advantage of the continuing education offered in order to get a screenwriting certificate through night school. The major lesson of his program: "Write about what you're passionate about," he says. He's so fascinated with the idea of a tech dystopia, a futuristic Orwellian surveillance state, that he felt compelled to explore it.

He lights up when he shares his enthusiasm for massively over-ambitious, overwrought, sprawling vanity projects with obsessive attention to detail and impossible scope. Republique's website looks, purposefully, more like a monolithic, timeless film poster than a game advertisement -- Payton's favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his favorite album is Smashing Pumpkins' intricate Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. He is both unabashed and pragmatic about Republique being something like those -- an ambitious work that has the rare opportunity to break new ground blaze trails, ideally to blaze trails for other developers.

"Maybe we'll talk next year and I'll come back and tell you Republique sold 500 copies in China," he laughs. "I'm always overly honest about everything that happens to our company. People will know whether we failed or succeeded. I'm always happy to share that experience."

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