A Communique from République

I can’t quite remember when I started following Paul Alexander on Twitter – probably some time during the early development of République, the newly launched stealth game by Camouflaj, the independent studio formed by Metal Gear vet Ryan Payton. I probably pressed follow and forgot, but over the last year or so, I’ve found myself to be somewhat simpatico, for lack of a better word, with the young designer. So when Alexander queried me about an interview (wait, is that how it’s supposed to work?) I didn’t think twice. I knew he’d be somebody I enjoyed talking to about games, art and ambitions. I hope you enjoy reading our chat and are inspired to check out the cool game he helped make. Next week Pretension +1 will return to its regular, self-obsessed programming.

Unwinnable: Talk a bit about your design experience prior to République – what kind of games did you work on? How did those experiences translate over to this gig?

Paul Alexander: Well, let me give you some background. I was still working on my undergraduate degree in game design when I contacted Ryan about an internship in February 2012. I was 26 at the time, and had spent most of my career bartending. I had worked on games in school, but I had no industry experience. I’d never even had an office job. This was actually before Kickstarter, before République had even been announced. Ryan had just gone public with the news that he was starting his own company several months earlier.

I honestly never expected to hear back from him, but he responded two days later. That summer, I left Atlanta and headed to Seattle to work on République. I finished school and then began bouncing back and forth between Atlanta and Seattle, working not only on République, but another unannounced project. Now that République is out, I’m relocating to Seattle to join Camouflaj full-time, working on the PC version.

I’ve worn a lot of hats at Camouflaj. I’ve worked alongside Future Press and James Clinton Howell on the République Manifesto, a companion piece written in the voice of the villain, which also contains strategy guide elements. I also worked with Victor Lucas’s Greedy Productions on the first two chapters of The Making of République, 13-minute documentaries which players can purchase and view through our app.

My design role on République, especially during pre-production, was pretty unique. My background is in non-digital game design and using physical prototypes to test digital game concepts. By summer 2012, we only had a rough sketch of gameplay from our Kickstarter. It was playable, but it was a proof of concept. The team was restructuring Hope and the guard A.I. along with under-the-hood stuff before moving into the full production. So one of the things I did was make a paper prototype of République to test the saliency of all these different ideas we were throwing around. We still hadn’t answered questions like, how does Hope fight? Is Hope directed by the player, or does she handle her own actions? To what extent is she able to move on her own versus accept player input? How do the limited camera perspectives affect gameplay? That was a very exciting time, because nothing like this had been attempted before on mobile.  Of course, it was also very new to me, having never worked on a “real” game before.

Unwinnable: That must have been one hell of a résumé. Tell me a little more about your board game background – which types appeal to you the most and why?

P.A.: I actually was never big on non-digital games growing up. I guess I fooled around with some CCGs and pen-and-paper RPGs, but that was it. My first exposure to the new wave of German-style board games, deck-building games and the like was during school, and those really resonated with me. In general, I enjoy games that find a way around loading the player up with stats, and don’t rely on random outcomes. I like games that hide the math from the player as much as possible and focus on decision making. Games that require or encourage cooperative play always hold my interest. If I had to pick a favorite board game right now, it’d probably be Twilight Struggle.

Videogames are my first and greatest love, but I was inspired to experiment with non-digital games because it was less difficult to wrap my head around analog rule sets, versus working with game scripts and programming languages. It’s easier for me to find the spirit of what I’m trying to deliver with a non-digital prototype; I’m not very tech-savvy compared to the average game designer. I’m kind of a Luddite, honestly. I love the flexibility and ease of use of game engines like Unity, but I suspect designers rely on software and tools a little too much to determine courses of action. When I’m first starting off, I like to make a big mess. If you’re trying to create something different or offbeat, it’s healthy to make as few assumptions about the conventions of play as possible. I like forcing myself to deal with that confusion before moving to the digital side.

Perhaps most importantly, making non-digital games strengthened my ability to take constructive criticism. If I fail to account for a certain player action, and they go, “What if I do this?” and break my game in 10 seconds, it forces me to strengthen the intentionality of my game rules. Most designers prefer relying on a programming condition that says, “Well, X can’t happen.” What if “X” is something cool? I like working under that pressure.

Unwinnable: I think a lot of people have a pretty vague idea of how game design works. Want to give us a sketch of what your approach is like? (I know you could probably write a book on this…)

game2P.A.: In general, my non-digital games are almost always illustrative of some larger question with which I want players to wrestle. “To have fun” is rarely the only design goal I have in mind. My games are usually inspired by real-world systems with a lot of moving parts. Global nuclear crises, industrial slaughterhouses, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the production of the Fleetwood Mac album Rumours have all served as inspirations for my personal projects. Once I’ve identified what I’m drawing upon from the setting, I lay everything out in a familiar, game-y format as quickly as possible. I have a big box filled with widgets that I work with: dice, cards, salvaged tokens from different board games. I start identifying what I want players to quantify and understand through numbers, versus narrative fluff and color. There’s a lot of stopping play, realizing some idea you had makes no sense in practice, and then starting again. I’ll basically go and go until some unforeseen flaw in my on-paper logic brings me to a halt, and then I move to a spreadsheet and start balancing everything on the computer. If the game is digital, I usually do an expedited version of this process, and move it into a game engine.

République’s paper prototype needed to be a little different. I had to wrap my head around a well-established game concept. I looked at every game design and technical document that had been created up until that point, and thought about how to stay true to those concepts in a board game format. For instance, switching cameras to look around and plan ahead is a hallmark of République. How do you translate that concept to a board, when you can just look down and see everything? That wouldn’t be an accurate simulation. So the board became a room on a grid, and each camera in the room had its own vision cone. When players “switched” cameras, I’d shuffle around a set of Scrabble tiles that covered different sets of squares on the grid. It managed to effectively convey that initial feeling of disorientation, and that gradual sense of mastery over the environment we were trying to deliver to the player in République.

Unwinnable: Was there anything about the nature of Kickstarter that made the design work on République different? Was the constant flow of consumer opinion helpful or a lot of white noise?

P.A.: The only real challenge with Kickstarter was the one we placed on ourselves, to be as open as possible about the development process. I know Ryan took a lot of pride in writing our monthly backer updates. From the beginning, we tried to bring our backers an appropriate level of transparency, but at the same time be honest that our time would be best spent working on the game. So while we didn’t do forums or crowdsource design ideas like some other Kickstarters, we were regularly sending out surveys to get feedback. We started doing a podcast called Camouflaj Radio, which evolved into a monthly postmortem where we get very in-depth about development.

Our backers were overwhelmingly supportive and upbeat throughout the last 18 months. Kickstarting République was a very positive experience for us, and it’s been cool to hear feedback from our backers now that the game is out in the world.

Unwinnable: It seems like we’ve discovered the sweet spot for episodic games thanks to Telltale. Is there room in the production of a game with this kind of schedule to make improvements and tweaks as you go? Or do you pretty much lock down the way things work in the first episode and live with it?

P.A.: The nature of game development in 2013 means you’re constantly going to be releasing patches, finding new bugs and putting out new fires. With an episodic game like République, we not only have to be mindful of the flow of story and gameplay content, but later on, players will be able to return to areas in previous episodes, Metroidvania-style. The game map will get larger and larger and we’ll be forced to account for conditions that were not present in the initial release. There are going to be a lot of unforeseen technical and design issues to iron out, and a lot of forethought has to go into each patch.

République was not originally intended to be episodic, so significant portions of future episodes are content locked. However, we’ve learned a lot from shipping Episode 1, and I suspect those lessons are going to serve us well now that we’re blowing the dust off those latter portions, and trying to get them to ship quality.

Unwinnable: Specific to République – one of the vibes I got from the game was that of a classic survival horror game. Of course the gameplay is stealth, but the fixed camera angles reminded me a ton of Resident Evil and the like. Were there unique problems that are introduced when you give the player agency over the camera in this way?

P.A.: We looked closely at games like Parasite Eve 2 and the original Resident Evil for visual reference. One of my design intern tasks that first summer was to play through the Resident Evil remake on GameCube, and then write these design documents on translating that visual style and gameplay feel to République. At that point I’d maybe played a combined 5 hours’ worth of Resident Evil in my life – I was totally a Nintendo kid in the ’90s, so I really had to dig in and discover what I personally found interesting about survival horror. There’s a tendency to dismiss 32-bit era 3D games as fundamentally broken design-wise. I mean, they’re really weird games! There’s all this poor translation and non sequitur puzzle stuff that can be distracting, but Ryan’s always rejected that dismissive attitude, so I really gained an appreciation for those games that I don’t think I would have otherwise.

A big point of deliberation on République was the inclusion of auto-switching cameras. There was a long time where we didn’t have it and didn’t want it. We had this vision of the player warping in and out of rooms like some god-tier hacker, kind of doing their own thing, while Hope accomplished tasks with minimal player input. As time went on, we had to pare that vision down. It became clear that we were overloading the player’s RAM, so to speak. It also became apparent that even though we wanted players to get a sense of their own place in the game and the fiction, they were visually anchoring themselves onto Hope’s location, as you would in a conventional third-person action game. So increasing Hope’s distance from the player past a certain threshold became disorienting. I think we found a comfortable balance, and that’s thanks in large part to the work of our technical designers, especially Ezra Hanson-White. They established rules on how camera selections are presented to the player, and what players see when they switch from one camera to the next so it’s not too jarring.

Unwinnable: Was there much debate of the fictional reasons for the player controlling Hope? Is the notion that you’re a kind of silent protagonist, issuing orders and we’re just not hearing them? At what point do little details like that stop mattering and you just kind of hope for suspension of disbelief?

P.A.: Our concept of the player “directing” Hope – we avoid using the word control, since it’s not an accurate representation of the Hope/player relationship – evolved throughout development. She was a bit more autonomous in earlier visions of the game, and I think we’ve left open the door for some increased flexibility in that relationship.

I don’t think it’s very important to point out the technical details of Hope’s relationship to the player unless it’s relevant to the story. For instance, there’s a point in République where you have to remotely update the OMNI View software, and when you do, you see a bunch of data flash onscreen, and hear a Windows-esque boot-up jingle. Hopefully that gets the message across.

What’s important for us as designers is to define the parameters clearly amongst ourselves, because that governs the design choices in République. Hope’s relationship with the player is: you are this random person whom Hope has called on a contraband phone. She’s probably never used a phone in her life, so it was this act of desperation that bizarrely worked out in her favor. The phone has unique properties, and the player’s connection to this phone allows them to remotely hook into the facility’s OMNI View system – basically a hacker/detective mode- from your iOS device. That’s about the extent to which we define it outright. Is she hearing you, or is she seeing your commands on the visual display of the phone she’s carrying? I suppose it’s a valid question, but I’m not sure if I’m interested in that, if I’m the player. Why are there battery chargers in Metamorphosis that instantly charge Hope’s phone when she walks by them? I don’t have an answer for that. Why was there only one classroom at Bayside High School in Saved by the Bell? Why did Data use contractions in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but was physically incapable of doing so in subsequent episodes? Our relationships with fiction beg these types of nitpicky questions, but I think it’s healthy to leave certain things about the world of République open-ended, especially when we’ve only just begun telling this story.

Unwinnable: Story seems vital to République. Talk a bit about the push and pull between the need to tell a story and the requirements of play – it seemed to me that the environment helps you find and keep a pace for the plot – gameplay goals lined up with story crescendos.

P.A.: It helps that the République’s story in Episode 1 is very straightforward. We’ve established that Metamorphosis is essentially a prison. Hope is about to be “recalibrated” and you need to get her out – there’s no need to introduce all these complex motives yet. We do tease the ancillary characters and their agendas, but not much. The story at this point is basically “go here,” and so, what do you know, that’s also what the game is!

What’s most interesting to me about République’s story is that the player is a participant, as opposed to an inconvenient observer or puppeteer. This is something that’s new for all of us as designers. I also think Ryan made a commitment to avoid a lot of the trappings of other games he’s worked on. There’s very little reliance on cinematics to provide exposition in République. The fact that you can basically stop time in OMNI View robs traditional attempts at cinematic styling of their gravitas. So those scenes where you’re watching things unfold become more about the sheer weirdness of you being a viewer. This is something that’s “happening”; it’s not a digital puppet show, so it doesn’t matter if, say, a character’s back is turned.

To come back to the player’s relationship with Hope, so much of what’s interesting about this dynamic is implicit, because it plays off established game conventions. For instance, you’re aware of all these things happening in the background like hearing guards talk, scanning these objects, and absorbing all this information, yet Hope is not seeing you do any of this. What are the implications of that? Put yourself in her shoes: isn’t it weird that this person who has access to all this information is choosing to help you? Doesn’t she have a right to be suspicious of the player’s agenda? There’s an interesting tension there.

The last thing I’ll say is that theme carries a lot of the load in République. Ryan’s really big on theme, and all these different elements – art, story, design, sound – coming together to reinforce a consistent vibe. But as a designer, I actually like disrupting that! I like the moments in the game that don’t outwardly jibe with the 1984/Brave New World-ish aesthetic, so there’s some push and pull there, as well.

Unwinnable: I found moments of the stealth pretty thrilling – that feeling of getting it just right – were there difficulties getting that tuned to feel satisfying? Or did the reduction of player input sort of boil down the play to its finest points. I am kind of thinking about how Killer 7 pulled this off.

P.A.: One of the hardest things to get feeling really good was Hope’s movement. The reduction of player input actually complicated this considerably. Unlike a conventional player avatar, Hope has her own AI and is able to sort out problems on her own. For instance, if Hope is behind cover, she can find ways to elude guards automatically. However, the player isn’t made explicitly aware of this system. Before we introduced the circular icons that pop up when she’s directed, players just assumed she was stupid, so they’d be like “No!” and tap on the screen repeatedly. The problem is, when you direct her like an RTS unit – clicking on the space right in front of her over and over – she’ll attempt to respond to each command in a sequence. It’s hard for her to stop on a dime, because the dev team designed her to do this stuff on her own. So to hear people describe getting that pure stealth experience out of the game is awesome. There were times during the last three months of development, very late in the process, where I had serious doubts about our ability to pull off satisfying, one-touch stealth. I’m proud to say we managed to do just that.

Unwinnable: How failure works is always tricky in stealth games. Punish the player too hard and they get frustrated. Slap their wrist and they’ll play too boldly. How did you come to the idea of Hope being escorted back to a cell? Does the team have any particular belief about how failure states should feel in a stealth game?

P.A.: I won’t speak for anyone else, but I think it depends on the game. I like Gunpoint’s solution, which allows you to pick where you want to reload. It could be 2 seconds before you die, or 15 seconds. But that system wouldn’t feel at home in République. Personally, I thought it was important that we not tie the safety/danger dichotomy of stealth gameplay to the player’s awareness of a clock counting down, and instead focus on the decision-making. Hopefully players then understand that Hope being caught in République is completely different than Snake being caught in MGS, or Fisher being caught in Splinter Cell.

Regarding République’s escort system, it boils down to our commitment early in development to avoid leaning heavily on familiar or dated game design tropes. It’s the same reason there are no virtual joysticks; a Game Over screen would be jarring.  We wanted to heighten that feeling République gives players of connecting to a real world on the other side of a phone or tablet.

We’ve heard people say they don’t like République’s escort system because it forces them to sit through a long cinematic. However, the reason we have players do that is to give them a chance to help Hope escape! They just have to figure out what to do. The game doesn’t spell it out for you, because again, we wanted to avoid that feeling of the game designer tapping on your shoulder. We’re trying to break that bad habit people have developed – as a result of being bombarded with cinematics in other games – of setting down the device and waiting to take control of the game again.

When players find out how to help Hope escape, they feel clever; almost like they pulled a fast one on us. Seeing that happen in our playtests told me we’d found a satisfying way to split the difference on the stealth genre’s conventions.

Unwinnable: Part of the reason République got made is because developers just aren’t making this type of game for the Apple’s mobile devices. Apart from economic reasons do you think that the form of the device and player behaviors dictate the kinds of games that work better on iOS?

P.A.: You’re definitely correct that there’s a niche that isn’t being filled, but I don’t know if that makes République a sure thing. It’s understandable that people hear about AAA developers leaving the console space for iOS and think, “Well, those guys are clearly trying to get paid,” but the fact is that, successful Kickstarter or not, République is a risky venture. We’ve spent nearly two years developing a premium mobile game with a team that’s grown to 25 people. So if this is what taking a game to the bank looks like, we haven’t done a good job…

I agree that the role iOS devices play in peoples’ lives can dictate which games will succeed. However, we’ve also seen games like Infinity Blade, Sword and Sworcery and Device 6 catch fire in spite of that. Like those titles, our game is offering an alternative to the short attention span experiences familiar to iOS. What we’ve done is engineer République to play to the strengths of the platform in other ways. We don’t want you to play République in line at Starbucks. We want players to put their headphones on and get lost in it, the way they would with any engrossing console or PC game. Because of that, we didn’t make very many concessions towards the conventional wisdom of iOS development. The game’s art style, subject matter and gameplay all stand in contrast to what’s been proven to sell. Dollar signs weren’t what drew us to the mobile space. What’s exciting to Camouflaj is the prospect of reaching a broader audience than consoles – the hundreds of millions of people who own these devices – with a game that is clearly nothing like what they’re seeing elsewhere on mobile. Our game may not be for every one of those people, but I do think it will resonate with a lot of them because it’s speaking to them in a different language than those other titles. Unlike most iOS games, République isn’t interested in emptying your bank account or bombarding you with advertising. It just wants to be played.

Unwinnable: What’s your dream game project? Like if you could open the door to an office and a game developer, or artist, or writer or board game publisher you always wanted to work with was sitting there with a contract, who would that be?

P.A.: This is going to sound super corny, but working at Camouflaj is my dream job. A couple of years ago I was in school part-time; I’d been bartending and waiting tables for nearly half my life. I had no idea how I was going to break into an increasingly impenetrable games industry. On paper, I had very little to offer. When I began searching for internships, Ryan was the only person I contacted who I actually wanted to work for. Everything else was like, “Okay, I guess I have to pay my dues and pray I can get a job at Studio X.” Camouflaj was a longshot, and it ended up working out beyond my wildest expectations. I’m granted a pretty alarming amount of freedom to explore the things I’m passionate about, and there are extremely talented people here that I can learn a lot from.

One of them whom I’ve already mentioned is Ezra-Hanson White. I think my dream project is working with him and The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor on a “hacker noir” FMV game set in the ’90s, but with updated gameplay mechanics. The game would jump between live-action film sequences and hyper-digitized graphics. Think William Gibson’s X-Files episodes meets the 3DO title Snow Job, but with a dash of Introversion’s Uplink. Music by Mitch Murder and Pino Donnagio. It’d be the greatest game ever made. If we were lucky, I think maybe 12 people would buy it? One day…

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Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter @Triphibian.

 

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