Hacking Into République and Watch_Dogs with Ryan Payton

I’m very impressed by how consistent you’ve kept the game’s theming. A lot of titles fumble with that, but you’ve managed to make Metamorphosis feel very connected. Since you place such a strong emphasis on theme, how would you say you define the core theme of République?

Well, that’s something I’m gonna wait and see how other people interpret, because that’s sort of my “secret sauce,” I think. A lot of it is what I was talking about before, and I hate to be so cagey about things, but a big part of the process is to watch and see how people react without telling them everything about what we’re trying to achieve with the game.

Let them interpret it for themselves?

Well it’s obviously very deliberate, but I think the moment where you say – and I’m not going to say that the game is really about this – but the moment you say “at the end of the day République is really all about 9/11,” then people only look at it through that lens instead of trying to figure it out on their own, and that’s part of the fun.

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It seems from the whole mystery story that you do like being just a little cagey.

I think you make a really good argument that up until now we’ve been a little too cagey, in that up until now we’ve had a whole lot of setups without a lot of payoffs in the first two episodes. We knew that we were taking on this heavy narrative burden, and shipping episode 2 I had some concerns that people would think it didn’t move the story forward enough. At least thematically, Episode 2 kind of goes back in time. We got a lot of press and attention with episode 1 because we were so relevant towhat was going on with Edward Snowden, and PRISM, and that whole mess, but with episode 2 we decided to step away from that and go into the origins of censorship. Kind of get into the banning of books in a more classical environment and touch on the history of fascism and all those kinds of things. I think that was a little daring because we kind of stepped away from the one thing the mainstream press loved so much about our game – that it was so relevant to what was going on with the news.

Moving forward with Episode 3, because we’re now at the halfway mark, it’s time to start paying off things. That’s scary because now we’re just opening the Kimono, so to speak, and showing what the game’s really about, but on the other hand it’s kind of liberating because we’ve been holding these secrets back for years internally at camouflaj.

As someone who’s done a bit of storytelling myself, I know it’s really exciting to let that genie out of the bottle and let people experience it.

I cannot wait for episode 5. I keep saying it’s gonna be my Christmas morning.

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Pacing with episodic games is always tough – Telltale does it right, but I’ve seen a lot of other titles stumble just by breaking up their episodes wrong. I think it’s good sometimes to go back and add context to this story that you’ve sort of entered in the moment.

I could sit around and talk about episodic content all day, because it’s really fascinating. With episodic delivery, especially with games, which take a long time to produce and leave a long wait between episodes, you get critiqued on one chapter of your story. Whereas, a friend of mine said he loved episode 2 a lot more than episode 1, and he felt he was overly critical of episode 1 because he just took it as a whole instead of taking it in the context of the larger narrative. He said if he’d waited and played them all at once, he wouldn’t have thought twice about episode 1. He’d have said “oh, that’s a good setup.” Everything goes under a microscope, I think, with each episode. To a certain extent I really like that, but on the other hand it’s hard because people don’t think about it within the collective whole, at times.

It’s difficult to maintain that sense of cohesion from episode to episode, and as a reviewer I have to take each episode on its individual merits. Different companies handle it in different ways, and I think so far you guys have done a good job of making each episode about something while also advancing your main plot.

That’s definitely the aim. In addition to all that, and no disrespect to any other episodic series out there because I’m a huge fan of what Telltale’s doing, and also Kentucky Route Zero-

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I love that game.

It’s amazing. Those guys are geniuses. But with République not only are we advancing the story, not only do we try to focus an episode around a specific theme, not only do we have new environments every episode that tackle different challenges each time, but we also integrate new gameplay mechanics and features. We go back and we add new things and improvements to previous episodes, and the amount of work that goes into each of these episodes is exciting to me, as someone who likes big, epic things, but we’re also juggling so many things in addition to the narrative that I’m just happy episode 2 worked out as well as it did. These are a lot of things to keep in your mind as you’re producing something.

So, on the subject of mechanics, Watch_Dogs just came out, and they sort of borrowed the whole camera-based, second-person stealth mechanic that’s at the core of République, and obviously they’re looking into similar themes of a connected society with integrated security. What do you think of Watch_Dogs?

It’s funny, I’ve been trying to find the time to write a whole op-ed piece about what it’s like to play Watch_Dogs as a developer on République. I think it would be really interesting to people, I just haven’t had the time to get around to it. At a high level, without having put too much thought into it, honestly, I think it’s a really smart game for the marketplace right now. I’m incredibly jealous of their success up to now, I mean, 4 million units in 48 hours is a hugely impressive number. The value that they’re bringing is really impressive, I think they understand what console gamers want, and good for them.

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Also, when I put my conspiracy hat on, I do see things in the game that I think were directly influenced by République, and some of that bothers me because there’s been zero recognition from Ubisoft. I’m more than happy to be wrong about some of those things – if they wanna take me on a tour of their studio at Montreal and chat with some of their team members I’m more than happy to talk to them because for most of the things in that game I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think that they went through a lot of the same creative exercises that we went through and – when you think about hacking, when you think about phones, when you think about the connected world – we’re both exploring really similar territory and that’s all well and good.

But when I was at E3 2013 at the Sony conference in LA, and I saw the on-stage demo of the player guiding T-bone out of the building, where you hack into a different camera to get a new angle, and you’re moving him from cover to cover. I said “this is exactly the thing we pitched two years ago on kickstarter, and this makes me uncomfortable.” Again, I’m more than happy to be wrong about it but it seems a little bit too close to home.

One of the mechanics that they have is the battery, and when you hack certain things it drains the battery. We have the same exact mechanic, but I’d never suggest that they ripped that off from us, because again I think they had the same kind of mental exercises, and I think it’s kind of funny that we came to the same solution for some of our design problems, and that we arrived at them at similar times. And I think a really good thing for me to see is, in act 2 of their game, they have a moment where – I don’t want to spoil it – but you hack into various people’s homes. I’ll say that’s something we’ve thought about a lot, recently, and we might have a moment like that in a future episode, and I thought “okay, this is probably gonna come across as us ripping off Watch_Dogs.

And that’s fine, I think we’re exploring similar territory. The only thing that made me uncomfortable was that E3 demo and that gameplay mechanic.

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Something I really appreciate about République is that in the developer commentary, or when you hear cooper talk about games he likes, you always mention when you’ve cribbed a mechanic from something like Blueprint 3D.

Well, did you know we worked with the developer on that game too? This a is a funny story, actually. I reached out to the developer behind Blueprint 3D, his game is based in unity, and I asked him if he’d be willing to work together as a development partner, and he said sure. So he worked remotely, and we worked together on this thing, and he shared some of his code, and it was a really cool collaborative experience, only because of this ubiquity of unity, in that his project file could work in our project file. It all just came together really nicely.

So, both your game and Watch_Dogs have been met with a lot of success. Obviously they pulled in big day one sales, but you’ve gotten great numbers on iTunes, and of course there was your Kickstarter. Clearly customers are responding to the idea of a surveillance state – what do you think that says about the current marketplace and culture?

I’m encouraged by the public’s response to the game. I readily admit that I think our game is really strange. The mechanics are very foreign, and I appreciate that people kind of gave us the benefit of the doubt and walked through this different way of playing. It’s really fascinating watching people play the game for the first time, because I’ve noticed it’s like they’re trying to ride a bike for the first time. It isn’t until they get ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty minutes into the game where all the mechanics start to become natural to them. That was something I was really concerned about, because it doesn’t play like any other mobile title. There’s a huge learning curve, and we try to make it as seamless as possible.

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So I’m encouraged by it. I think République’s success is an indication that people are looking for new and fresh things. This whole experience, for me, has been extremely satisfying, that a lot of us could break off from big studios  to create this small studio and do our own thing – not have a publisher, be on unity, and eventually go to lots of platforms around the world. The fact that our best-performing non-English-speaking marketplace is Russia. I’m so proud of that, I think that’s incredible, and I want to continue to do that as we localize in other languages. That’s an opportunity that we’d never have on Halo, or on Metal Gear, simply because of the history of consumer electronics, essentially.

It kind of makes sense that it would be big in Russia considering how things are going with Putin.

Yeah, it’s culturally relevant, but it’s also that countries like Russia, India, China, Brazil, because of import taxes and regulations, skip the whole console generation. Also because of economies and other reasons. But you’ve got this amazing Trojan Horse of iPads and iPhones. I often get in trouble when I talk about the “Console Ghetto,” and no disrespect to my fellow console-lovers because I’m one of them, but I want to graduate from working on franchises – that I love dearly – that sell 10 million units around the world, and start touching more people around the world. Start impacting people worldwide, and try to get into that hundred-million number. That’s where Hollywood is at, and why should we, as game developers, be satisfied with just delighting the same seven or eight million people in North America and the UK. No offense to those people, but we need to think bigger.

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