Q: How was your Kickstarter experience?
Ryan Payton: The Kickstarter was the saviour of our company. I had liquidated all my assets and that money could only take us so far. I had talked to some publishers and everyone wanted to own the IP (Republique) that we were pitching. I remember having a meeting with a now-VP over at Unity named Todd Hooper, and he had told me, “Yeah, this is the reality of the business. Best of luck and I just wish there was some way you could raise capital that’s neither debt nor equity and you didn’t have to sell the IP.”
And then here comes this [Double Fine Adventure] Kickstarter thing quite literally the day that Todd had told me that. Two months later we had our Kickstarter. It was a crazy rollercoaster, but at the end of the day we were able to raise a half million dollars – it really saved the company.
We did our Kickstarter at the perfect time – right at the zenith of this phenomenon of crowdfunding – and people like myself were funding anything that looked cool. That was a key factor. If we did one now I think we’d be lucky to raise even half the amount that we raised.
Q: Why did you decide to develop the game for mobile in the first place?
Payton: The vision for the game from day one was that we wanted to bring a hardcore console/PC-friendly experience that’s narrative-driven to a wider mobile audience. That really came out of playing Infinity Blade – I was really inspired by what those guys were doing. I knew that Kickstarter was a PC-centric audience, but I didn’t know to what degree. I thought, ‘We’re going to be the first big iOS Kickstarter and many will come after us.’ Turns out we were the only one!
Out of necessity [when the Kickstarter was progressing slowly], we had to announce the PC and Mac version, but it wasn’t purely to save our project. We dragged our feet for a week or two thinking about it, because some Kickstarters have a tendency to overpromise just to get money, and I wanted to make sure we were doing things for the right reasons. In the end we knew we could do a good PC version – it was just going to require a lot of work and a lot of time.
Three years later, we’re finally up on PC. The reason it took so long is we wanted to do it right. Steam is seeing a lot more of these really bad mobile-to-PC ports because PC is one of the last areas where people are willing to pay for premium content. It wasn’t enough to upload the iOS version to Steam, we really wanted to completely revamp the controls, completely revamp the UI. The last piece was upgrading to Unity 5, which allowed us to completely revamp the art and make the game look really good on PC.
Q: The prevailing wisdom is that hardcore PC gamers don’t play games on their mobile, or vice versa. Who is the target market for Republique?
Payton: The hardcore people I know playing on PC and console all have smartphones, so it was reasonable for me to expect they would be willing to play a high-quality game that they have in their pockets. Looking at sales figures, we’re really happy with how the game performed on mobile, and I think a lot of the hardcore players showed up. The consumers the game really confuses are the light and casual users. On Twitch streams we are seeing in the comments, ‘I would never play this game on mobile but I would definitely play on PC, I hate mobile games’. Well there’s great games like Sword & Sorcery, The Banner Saga, and The Walking Dead on mobile that are story-driven and hardcore-friendly that are there for the taking.
If I could hypothesise why [that attitude exists]: I think there’s kind of a pride in terms of PC gaming and console gaming that we want to retain that legacy and history that we have, but there’s also a lot of really bad, really manipulative games on mobile that I think really turn people off. I even find myself playing mobile games less and less these days. I would rather pay upfront for a high-quality experience and never be hit up during that experience for more money. But everybody is realising that the way to make money on mobile is to release your game for free and figure out the most manipulative way to squeeze money out of the one or two percent of people who are willing to pay for some kind of content. It’s kind of a cesspool.
Q: How do you separate your game from those in that cesspool?
Payton: The December timeframe used to be a really, really good time to release premium iOS games because everyone is jockeying for that Christmas season. There are usually two Editor’s Choice features a week, and everyone wants one on the last week before Christmas. The reason is: those are the games people see on Christmas morning [when they get a new phone]. That is the biggest day of the year in terms of gross revenue.
It wasn’t because we wanted those Christmas sales, it was because we were running out of time and money with episode one that we landed on this December 19 launch date. At the time, everybody around me told me that when it comes to Apple and iOS, it all comes down to the featuring from Apple. Apple warned us and said ‘Hey, we see you’re looking to launch on December 19, that’s going to likely be the most competitive day in App Store history.’
So you can imagine our nervousness when we saw EA was prepping a game they had held for six months to try to get December 19, that Namco would ship a Ridge Racer game on December 19, that Telltale would release season two of The Walking Dead on December 19 – tonnes of games were jockeying for that position.
So to answer your question: it really came down to the featuring – getting in front of those tens of millions of people that see the front of that App Store.
Q: What would you have done if you didn’t get that feature?
Payton: That’s when you get into a really dark place. There is a way to fight back and get a feature, but it’s very hard and very much an uphill battle. The backup plan was if we didn’t get it for episode one, we’d have to fight back and get it for episode two. That’s the nice thing about episodic: we have five chances to put the game in front of consumers, say ‘Hey this is our game, this is our series, this is how we’re improving it, this is the new content, these are the new platforms we’re going to.’ We’re two-thirds of the way there now. We’re on iOS, Android, Mac, and PC, so there’s room for other platforms down the line.
Q: What’s new in the game’s PC version?
Payton: In addition to the full graphical overhaul of the game, Republique Remastered is about giving the player full control over the experience, so we completely embraced the mouse and keyboard, we added the map we included in Episode 2, and we’ve added a few story bits we couldn’t cram in on mobile. Other than that, the game is just a lot cleaner, because it’s been submitted to various app stores over the past couple of years and every time we do that, we fix more bugs. Oh, and we added more collectibles. You can find these floppy disks of Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, The Banner Saga, and Kentucky Route Zero in the game.
Q: Why did you go with Unity 5?
Payton: Unity 5 is an incredible upgrade. We’ve been with Unity since Unity 3, and we pushed Unity 4 to its max. When it came time to move to 5, a lot of friends and colleagues warned me about the upgrade. They said, ‘It’s gonna take a lot of time and resources,’ and I agreed with them, but I really thought we needed a story for our PC version. We actually had a Unity 4 version of the game ready to launch last summer, but I really felt that wasn’t sexy enough to put on Steam and have some success.
What Unity 5 brings to the table is a really modern high-tech graphics engine that’s physically-based and powered by Enlighten. Those two things make the game look unbelievable and so much different. Also, I needed a story to tell the press and get the backers excited, and Unity 5 was it.
Q: Why does Unity appeal to indies?
Payton: The reason why indies love Unity is it’s extremely easy to use. I remember trying to wrap my head around the Halo and Metal Gear engines, and proprietary engines are very different from a third-party service-based company like Unity. Getting your game up and running in Unity is very quick. The other thing Unity does very well is multi-platform. I think they push to a dozen platforms or more. As an indie studio, more often than not you're self-publishing, so you need to figure out ways to get as much revenue as you can. Being able to push to as many platforms as Unity supports is a really great feature and incentive for people to jump over.
Finally, because there are millions of people working in Unity, you can just Google and ask your question – ‘Hey, how does this system work?’ – and you’re more than likely to be able to find an answer online. It’s becoming this amazing platform that’s raising the quality bar and making the whole game industry a lot more democratised.
Q: Do you feel any pressure as the flagship Unity 5 release?
Payton: At the moment I would say we probably are the flagship Unity 5 title maybe only by default, because Unity 5 is in its infancy and hasn’t actually been released yet. We’re shipping on a beta. In terms of pressure, we definitely felt it because Unity invested a lot of time into the project and worked closely with us because they wanted to see a fully-featured Unity 5 game come out and stress-test their platform. So the pressure was there – we had to make sure they looked good! [Laughs] All credit goes to Unity for putting as much trust as they did into us. In exchange, we put a tonne of effort and possibly too much money into this version.
Q: Unity is used in a handful of bigger releases – Hearthstone and Wasteland 2 spring to mind – but it’s yet to really catch on with larger studios. Why is that?
Payton: It would be my guess that a handful of triple-A studios are looking very closely at Unity 5, and I expect some big franchises to go into Unity 5 over the next year or two. I think we’re going to see studios embrace Unity not only for smaller titles but for much larger titles. One of the complaints up to this point has been that once your team size grows upwards of 20, it’s really hard to manage files. They’ve done a lot of things in Unity 5 to stop those problems happening.
Q: What lessons did you take out of Kojima and 343 into Camouflaj?
Payton: One of the biggest lessons I took away – particularly from Kojima Productions – was attention to detail and an emphasis on quality. I have so much respect for the guys I worked with over there at Konami. Everything we worked on – whether it was a a trailer, or a pamphlet for E3 – so much effort went into making sure what we shipped was quality.
That’s something we took to Halo and Microsoft. I think that spirit of quality was there. That’s something that I’ve been hammering on within Camouflaj, that above everything – above my personal health, and maybe the expectations of backers wanting something soon – above everything, quality has to be number one.
Q: You’ve spoken about wanting to make Republique protagonist Hope a smart, believable, and empathic hero. How did you go about trying to achieve those things?
Payton: The things we did were very risky in terms of how Hope moves in the game. She has a mind of her own which is dangerous because players can get frustrated, so it was very much a back-and-forth between design and programming to make sure that your companion Hope would be believable. She’s supposed to take initiative and she’s supposed to be strong, but she’s not supposed to do too much on her own because then players will feel like they don’t have control of the game.
Striking that balance was one of the hardest things I’ve had to work on. And in terms of empathy, we wanted her to address the player eye-to-eye via the surveillance cameras. One of my favourite things especially now that the PC version is out is watching people play on Twitch. People love to respond to Hope. She’ll say these little comments every now and again like, ‘Oh, I almost got caught there’, or ‘We barely made it’, or ‘Are you still there?’, and nine times out of 10 the player responds. That’s a sign we have something special here.
Republique Remastered is available now on Steam for US$20.