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Camouflaj’s Ryan Payton talks République and changing iOS gaming, one Kickstarter at a time

République isn’t playable. It isn’t fully written. With one week to go and less than half the required funding in its Kickstarter campaign, it’s starting to look like it may not even get made. Make no mistake though: République is an important game. At a moment when video game development is increasingly split into two categories—bland action epics made by absurdly wealthy corporations and ambitious but small games made by independents—République is an independent game with epic ambition. Creators Camouflaj and Logan’s goal is to prove that you don’t need to be Electronic Arts to produce a lavish, creative science fiction title with a great story. Your game doesn’t even need to be on a console or PC. You can make a great story with deep play for an iPhone. The only question is whether people want that enough to pay for it. 

How did République’s story, setting, and visual style develop? You cite many influences from other media, but how long have you been developing this world? What was its genesis?

Alexei Tylevich and I started developing the story and setting of République around the beginning of November. It was something we settled on naturally through our shared vision for the world. One of the things we referenced early on was the “Оцелотовая Хватка” clip from the opening of Metal Gear Solid 4 in terms of tone and art direction.

The story is something I’ve been writing and rewriting in my head for about nine months. Very little of it is written down right now, but I’ve got most of the key characters and arcs plotted out. I’m excited to capture it on paper once our Kickstarter campaign wraps up.

Who is République for? What merit is there in making your game for a specific audience? What merit is there in making a game purely for yourself?

There’s merit in making a game purely for yourself, but République isn’t that. I’m projecting my gaming tastes out to an imaginary demographic that I believe exists – a large group of gamers who love story, high production values and deep gameplay, no matter if it’s on their TV or their iPad. We don’t have any market research to back up these claims, but I think that’s what’s exciting about doing independent games – we make the games that big companies are too afraid to pursue.

The world has embraced mobile devices as gaming platforms. The transition is over. Why is there still a stigma surrounding handhelds like the iPhone? Why are games on these machines seen as “less” than PC or console games?

I would call it a stigma surrounding iPhone. For some, I think they see iPhone taking over so many aspects of life including peoples’ gaming time, and it scares them. Then there are those who hate the games that are popular on iOS, and I happen to empathize with them. This is why we’ve decided to do something about it. Instead of complaining about all the casual and exploitive games on the platform, we’re attempting to do something deeper and more meaningful. But as you’ve noticed, the response [to République] has been mixed. People are almost universally excited about the game vision, but a lot of gamers get hung up on the platform we’re targeting.

Why is it so difficult to design a game with complex play around a touch-only interface? What does the absence of a controller or keyboard do to a player’s perspective?

What we’re attempting to do is take 32-bit genres like survival horror and stealth action that normally require 18 buttons to play and streamline the input into simple touch gestures. It’s not easy, but good design rarely is.

The biggest hurdle in terms of touch-based controls is the lack of dual analog sticks, which makes designing games with 3D navigation extremely difficult. This is why there haven’t been any breakout FPS hits on iOS even though that genre is an established American pastime.

With République, we’ve got a clever navigation mechanic that focuses on players swiping and touching various cameras placed around the environment. This allows players to move without needing those annoying virtual joysticks. It was a conscious design decision from early in the game’s development.

Why haven’t there been many narrative games made for mobile devices?

It just takes one to hit big, but most people are afraid to go first and fail. There’s also that misconception about the playing habits of mobile gamers. Hundreds of thousands sat down with Sword & Sworcery EP and really immersed themselves in that experience, and want more games like that. Personally, I drained my iPhone battery a half dozen times because of long Game Dev Story sessions. Players will make time for the game, especially if it has great audio and visuals.

I also hate it when people talk about mobile game design and frequently reference people playing the game for a few minutes on the bus. At least in America, public transportation isn’t a part of most peoples’ lives. I don’t have any stats to back this up, but I’m guessing it’s better to assume that your target iPhone user is going to playing the game on the couch, in bed, or on the toilet.

What is the key to making a strong narrative game? What do you need to consider when making a video game into a story rather than a piece of writing into a story?

Wow, this is a big question! You and I could spend hours discussing this one. But if I were to encapsulate my thoughts on this, I would say that the key to making a narratively strong game is writing a story and designing story delivery devices that jibe well with the strengths of the video game medium, namely interactivity and player agency. In short, write a story that only a video game could communicate well. Leave passive, film-like experiences to Hollywood.

What effect on the publishing industry has the Kickstarter boom of spring 2012 had?

I think Kickstarter is just the beginning of a complete transformation of the games industry and how games get made. I love it. The power is now shifting to the hands of the people actually making games, instead of old dudes in a boardroom who have no idea what they’re talking about. This is very encouraging.

I’m not one to blame all of the industry’s problems on publishers, though. I think they could actually do some cool stuff with this crowdfunding revolution, namely a company like Sega pitching the community on Shenmue III and watching tens of thousands of people show their bean counters that there truly is demand for their old-school franchises.

Why is there a perception in the publishing community that people will only spend money on big action games when people consistently spend on more patient games like Skyrim? Capcom’s insistence that Resident Evil, whose earliest entries République takes inspiration, needs to be a Call of Duty-style shooter rather than a survival horror game is emblematic of the trend. How will République buck that trend?

The first thing that comes to my mind is “fear and greed.” Executives at big publishers are afraid to green light anything that doesn’t already have an established audience, like military first-person shooters and dance games. So honestly, I don’t waste too much of my day thinking about why publishers do what they do, because it’s oftentimes coming from a group of reactive and creatively bankrupt people. This is why movements like Kickstarter are exciting to me because it empowers the creatives who actually fuel this industry.

What will happen with République in the event that its Kickstarter goal isn’t met?

We’ll keep fighting and try to make this game without losing our shirts. I hope the community can help us stay in the driver’s seat on this project – it’s all in their hands.

Where do you hope to see Camouflaj in five years?

My desire is that we grow Camouflaj into a bigger boutique studio that continues to be a fun place to work at and is ever mindful of its humble roots. I think storytelling will always be a part of the Camouflaj legacy, and I hope we’ll continue to surprise people with each game we make. I love how there’s some controversy surrounding République because that tells me we’re doing something interesting. I want that to continue with every game we do in the future. I also hope we’ve got the staff and budget to do the epic I’ve been dreaming about for the past five years.

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