In May of last year, Ryan Payton's Kickstarter project for his brand new stealth action title for iOS, Mac and PC, entitled Republique, wrapped up.
It was one of the early gaming success stories on the crowdfunding site, scooping up a huge $555,662 (£346,000) from more than 11,000 fans. Then Payton’s studio, Camouflaj, went silent. The team missed a target launch date of summer 2013, and aside from occasional updates to backers we’ve hardly heard a peep from Payton - until now, he tells Red Bull UK
I've got grey hairs where I didn't before, and it's been a really crazy project
Rapid aging from stress or not, any gaming fan would still love to be in Payton's shoes: his story’s almost as unusual as the ones he’s worked on. After teaching English in Japan for a year and half and landing a job as a games journalist, you might think he was pretty lucky. But to then land a job with the legendary Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid, as an assistant producer? Like winning the lottery. Then getting a job working for Microsoft on Halo as a narrative director? Getting the bonus ball too.
Payton’s fluent Japanese caught Kojima’s interest during an interview, and landed him a job working on the landmark Metal Gear Solid 4, arguably still the greatest game of the generation. To leave that and then turn down Halo - what made him want to leave the world of blockbuster console game development?
I didn't feel like I could tell the stories and do the creative work I really wanted to when I was at Microsoft, and I also noticed this indie game revolution happening that I really wanted to be a part of.
After getting hooked on iPhone sword slayer Infinity Blade, Payton wanted in. He set up Camouflaj in Bellevue, Washington state. “Slowly and surely, it went from myself, to two people, three people, four people, and now we've got about 25 people in the office now."
Those dozens of people are now hard at work on Republique, a 1984-inspired dystopia, where your goal is to help the main character, Hope, escape. The concept isn’t dissimilar to Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs: you’re a hacker whose goal is to get Hope out by any means necessary. You can power down lights, hack phones, summon elevators and even shut doors to stop Hope’s pursuers.
“The game definitely has lots of overtones with security, privacy, paranoia and surveillance,”says Payton. “That said, we really want players to develop their own opinions about things. We've got our own opinions, but we've tried to make the game not too overtly political. We really want to take players on a journey, see where they end up and see where we end up, as developers and as commentators, in a sense, of what's going on in the world.”
Payton pulled in some high profile names to provide voice acting for the game, including the previous voice of Solid Snake, David Hayter - who has been unceremoniously dumped for Keifer Sutherland in Metal Gear Solid V - as well as fellow Metal Gear-alumni, Jennifer Hale.
The summer release date came and went however, and while Republique still lacks a firm release date, Payton’s prepared to give us a rough estimate. "We haven't announced anything yet, and while we still don't know the official street date just yet, the game's probably going to be coming out in December."
So what caused the initial delay? "Oh there's many reasons,”Payton laughs. "I think our June 2013 release date was the most optimistic we could have put on our Kickstarter, and I think what we've realised is that one, it sucks for Kickstarter backers, as there's definitely a precedent for things taking longer. I felt that the community is in general pretty forgiving about teams asking for more time though, and every time we brought up a delay with our backers, it was universally accepted, and positive and supportive. They just like being looped in and informed of it. And that's key."
Camouflaj designer Paul Alexander chips in:
Game development isn't an exact science, but what it boils down to, is that these problems, things like delays, trying to get a game shipped on time, are a natural part of game development.
Surprisingly, Payton had already hit his campaign goal when another stroke of luck led to Hayter - as big a celebrity as you get in the world of voice acting - jumping aboard. "I developed a very good relationship working with [him] on Metal Gear.”After bumping into both Hayter and Hale at the Canadian Video Game Awards last year, he simply asked them to join - they signed on immediately. “We actually have two other cast members from Metal Gear on the game that we haven't announced yet, meaning this is kind of a family affair in a way."
What Republique won’t be however, is a Metal Gear knockoff. Payton explains: "David Hayter's character, Zager, is a really fascinating character, and we wrote him in way that we were inspired by who David is in real life, and the way he talks and his politics. In his recordings, he doesn't sound like Solid Snake at all, he sounds like David Hayter. With Jennifer, we've got her taking on and exploring a villainess role, and it's been really fun and interesting to have her not be the good guy of the game."
Hayter was something of a Konami institution, having voiced Snake in Metal Gear games for more than a decade. The switch to a Hollywood star was something many fans still haven’t quite got over, Payton says.
"I'm sure he's disappointed by what’s happened with Metal Gear, and I think the thing that made it most frustrating for him, and for me as a friend of his, and as a former Metal Gear developer, is that the fans, rightfully so, were sceptical."
"Kojima's got all these strange reasons and jokes, and that the press thought this was all a joke, and that David would be back. But what's even more painful for David is that this isn't a joke. He's had to repeatedly say to fans that, no, he's not in the next Metal Gear game. He's having to go out of his way to really say he's not a part of the next game, so it's kind of like a terrible infinite loop for him.”
"On the bright side, with Republique, we've given him the opportunity to be as creative as he wants with his character, and in a world that's not too far removed from Metal Gear. It's its own fiction, and while the tone is different, at its core, it's still a stealth action game, and there's a lot to his character that we're interested in exploring.”
Unusually though, his central character is already deceased when the game begins. “When you start the game, Zager is already dead - you're listening to his recordings from the past, like he's a ghost. I think he's very excited about having a new project, but on a melancholic angle, we've already killed his character before we've even started."
Republique is ambitious in its scale and scope, especially for a game you’ll be playing on your iPhone or iPad. Payton is adamant about delivering a AAA grade experience on a mobile phone, going so far as to bring full facial performances and motion capture to the game.
I wanted to do the first ever, best ever facial performance, character performance game available on iOS or mobile, before anyone else does it. And I definitely feel we're going to pull it off. Hope talks on the phone, she talks to you, and it looks great.
“Even in Infinity Blade III, which I think is a great game, they're not really pushing character performance that far, and that's one of the things we're really trying to double down on. We’re really trying to push a console-like experience onto a phone.”
Paytons laughs when we mention LA Noire’s facial recognition technology, and says to expect something along those lines, “but on a lot lower budget, and not as high fidelity” Still: “I think you’ll be very surprised.”
As the interview draws to a close, Payton wraps up with his own thoughts on his rapid career trajectory, from budding games reporter, to producer, and now an indie superstar: "It's good to be back in the States and doing my own thing. I felt at Konami, I was serving Hideo's vision, which was great, and at Microsoft I was serving the Halo vision, which was great, but I think now is the time to do something on our own, and have our own say on where things go."
It won’t be long until we see the results.