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How Camouflaj cheated death in a volatile industry

Ryan Payton outlines the many twists and turns his studio had to take in realizing République

In this opinion piece, I will share our wayward path of bringing République to life, from crowdfunding it as a premium iOS game to its evolution as a full console release almost four years later. Our story is one marked by our major pivots required to survive the ever-shifting tides of the games industry. The aim of this article is to illustrate just how volatile our industry has been this decade and to tell our story of survival, culminating with the most unlikely of outcomes: partnering with a publisher, GungHo Online Entertainment, who commemorated the fifth and final release of République with a digital and retail release on PlayStation 4 on March 22.

Our Bellevue-based studio, Camouflaj, was built out of a desire to tell a different kind of video game story. Throughout my fairytale-like career in the games industry-including the unforgettable days when I joined the Metal Gear Solid 4 team in 2005 and then becoming creative director on Halo 4 in 2008-I have been solely focused on exploring the unique methods games can use narrative to speak to the heart of the player in ways that books, television, and film cannot.

Camouflaj was also borne out of the miserable state I found myself in following a demotion while at Microsoft. Partly due to my lack of experience and partly due to my inability to navigate that political landscape, I realized it was time to plot my next move. Like so many before me, I wanted to leave the confines of a larger company and develop a new type of game, but the path forward was murky. Who was going to invest tens of millions of dollars in me to build a team, fund the development, then market and bring the game to retail?

The Rise of Mobile

Then, one evening laying in bed playing Epic's Infinity Blade on my iPhone, I realized that mobile hardware had reached the point where it could communicate the stories I was interested in telling. I put aside my console ambitions and focused on mobile with its lower barrier to entry and cheaper price point per game. I left Microsoft, liquidated my stock and 401K, and started Camouflaj with a small crew. Our aim was simple but ambitious: to create the Infinity Blade of narrative games on iOS with a game we called République about a woman trapped inside a secret Orwellian nation that players must use their mobile device to hack into its surveillance network and guide her to freedom.

"We look back on our decision to develop on Unity as one of the best decisions we made. In many ways, we feel as though we've ridden on the coattails of their success these past four years"

The first meeting I took after leaving Microsoft was, ironically, with the folks at Bungie. I maintained a strong relationship with Bungie from the time I interviewed for a job there in 2008, and kept in touch with them throughout my years working on Halo 4. Then, in the summer of 2011, I found myself pitching République to their new mobile publishing arm, Bungie Aerospace. We were encouraged by Bungie's unique approach to publishing and their commitment to granting a high degree of creative freedom, which is why we were disappointed when the Aerospace team officially passed on République and later put their publishing division into hibernation. Despite that setback, we walked away from that experience with a stronger pitch based on the feedback we received. It was through those meetings that we solidified our strategy to build République as a premium iOS title priced at $9.99.

The Rise of Unity

With Bungie out as a potential source of development funds and with only enough cash in the bank to cover nine months of burn, we had to move fast. Holed up in our dingy old office at the cool price of $891 a month, our team of five began investigating technologies that would enable us to push high quality character models on mobile. Out of the gate, I was convinced Unreal would power République, but after a few weeks of R&D, the team decided that this quirky third-party engine out of Copenhagen called "Unity" gave us the flexibility on mobile we needed to push the bone count for up-close-and-personal character moments.

Ever since the early days of République, we made it a point to show the team at Unity what we were working on. They loved our ambition to bring console-quality graphics to mobile and were supportive throughout development. What began with early access to Unity 3.5 features later evolved into an official partnership with the company on the release of Unity 5. We look back on our decision to develop on Unity as one of the best decisions we made. In many ways, we feel as though we've ridden on the coattails of their success these past four years.

The Rise of Crowdfunding

By early 2012, we had a proof of concept of République running on an iPhone 3GS, but nothing more. With our cash flow at dangerous levels, I shifted my focus from development to finding a partner who would fund the remainder of production. At the time, I predicted the game would cost a cool million dollars, but soon the harsh realities of game publishing were becoming apparent: nobody was going to fund this expensive mobile game and allow us to retain creative control and IP ownership.

On a particular wet and gloomy day in Seattle on February 9, 2012, my business partner and I escaped from the rain and faced the cold realities of our business over a cup of coffee. It was then that I glanced at my iPhone and noticed Double Fine's curious success on this thing called "Kickstarter"-they were appealing to the community to help them fund their next game. It was then we knew that our best and only chance at survival was to quickly pivot to launching a Kickstarter as soon as possible.

Kickstarter marked our first big pivot on République. I wrote a lengthy postmortem on our Kickstarter experience over at Gamasutra, which details our hairbreadth success in raising over a half million dollars, but the abbreviated version is: midway through our campaign we realized how PC-centric Kickstarter's community is and announced a full-spec desktop version. This supercharged our campaign, pushed us over the funding line with hours to spare, and resulted in much joy and celebration. Once the dust settled, however, I started to realize just how much we overcommitted ourselves.

The decision to crowdfund the game was made out of desperation-either we shoot for the moon on Kickstarter or we die-and I believe we made the right decision. The funding we raised was neither debt nor equity, and gave us the flexibility to build the game the way we wanted to. The Kickstarter campaign also put our game on the map, and was an incredibly powerful marketing tool for the game. While some backers were right to be frustrated by how late the final version arrived, we are still proud of the fact that we are delivering a game many times bigger than we initially pitched, which also led to a much bigger bill than I initially expected...

The Rise of Episodic Gaming

With our bank account back in the black after the successful Kickstarter, we settled into the development on a "4 to 6 hour" story-driven game for iOS and PC. Our ambition was to translate console-like gameplay into a "one touch" experience on mobile with high-spec graphics. Coupled with the challenges of building a team from scratch while surrounding tech companies eagerly poached our young talent, the first year of development was as turbulent as you would expect. (Here's another lengthy postmortem, this one about our initial release)

"Our business was rejuvenated by another marketplace shift: Telltale ushering in the new age of episodic gaming with the breakthrough success of The Walking Dead game"

Much of the internal stress resulted from the boom-or-bust early days of Apple's App Store, and the speed at which price points were falling from the sky. By 2013, the idea of releasing a new iOS game at $9.99 seemed extremely overpriced, with most premium games like The Room settling in at $4.99. Compounded with my overscoping of the game, we needed to rethink our pricing and content release strategy. Then, like the Kickstarter revolution before it, our business was rejuvenated by another marketplace shift: Telltale ushering in the new age of episodic gaming with the breakthrough success of The Walking Dead game.

Like so many other developers, Telltale's success with the episodic model blazed a trail for many of us to survive the falling premium price-points crisis. After months of analyzing the episodic model, we decided to break our top-heavy game into five parts, $4.99 per episode, and pre-sell the whole collection up front for $14.99 via a season pass. Suddenly we had a proven pricing strategy that allowed me to have my cake and eat it too-instead of cutting content, all I had to do was slice the game into parts, focus production efforts on releasing the pilot episode, and use season pass revenues to fund the remainder of the production. Ironically, Double Fine would take a similar path to releasing its Kickstarter-funded title Broken Age.

Looking back, just like our initial pivot to crowdfunding and commitment to a PC version, the sudden appearance of Telltale's episodic model paved a path that would ultimately save our business. While the game would eventually take many more years to produce, the majority of revenue has come from season pass pre-purchases, allowing us to keep the lights on and continuing our commitment to premium pricing for the game, for better or worse...

The Rise of Freemium

After 18 months of inner turmoil and the eventual shift to an episodic release schedule, Camouflaj reemerged and released Episode 1: Exordium on December 19, 2013 for $4.99 as a standalone episode on iOS and, of course, $14.99 for the season pass. After over two years of fighting tooth and nail to get to release, it's hard to describe the euphoria that filled the halls of Camouflaj that day. We had overcome so many challenges in creating a high quality pilot episode, which manifested itself in République securing a VIP seat on the front of the App Store during the most lucrative sales weeks of the year. As I packed my bags to return home for Christmas, I fielded phone calls from journalists and industry friends congratulating Camouflaj on the success of our initial release. They joked about where I was going to park my Ferrari once the payment from the App Store arrived...

When it seemed that our commitment to a premium-pricing model was going to pay off, I was excited that it looked as though we'd be bringing in enough money to fund the remaining four episodes. The weight of two years of financial stress seemed as if it would disappear, allowing us to finally, finally be able to just focus on what Camouflaj is all about. My father remarked at how similar this whiff of success felt like our photo finish on Kickstarter.

"Again I was fielding phone calls, but this time they were condolences on the death of 'premium pricing' on iOS... there's no question that holiday 2013 was a major turning point for iOS monetization"

By the time I returned from the holiday break, I knew that République wasn't smashing sales charts on the App Store. In fact, revenues fell short of projections given to us by many industry insiders. Again I was fielding phone calls, but this time they were condolences on the death of "premium pricing" on iOS. While I don't think it's fair to chalk up the disappointing launch solely to price, there's no question that holiday 2013 was a major turning point for iOS monetization. A friend at Apple echoed my suspicions: instead of $4.99 games owning the mind share of the tens of millions unlocking new iOS devices like the previous holiday, shoppers in Holiday 2013 had a lifetime's worth of "free" games to try out without needing to plop down the relatively large sum of money of $4.99 up front for République and other featured games.

Like many previous letdowns (and future ones to come), I was determined to press on by focusing on our successes and learning from our failures. We had a bright spot with the 18% conversion rate to our $14.99 season pass, which was enough to fund Episode 2: Metamorphosis, but we were still going to come up short if we just stayed the course on mobile, but shifting to a freemium model was out of the question due to the lack of time and our commitments to our 11,611 backers. Again, I reduced my time spent on development and refocused my efforts on business development, resulting in much-needed funds in exchange for a special Android port of the game. Partnering with development house Darkwind Media, we launched on Android with the release of Episode 3: Ones & Zeroes in October 2014. Knowing that the additional revenue coming from the Android version wasn't going to fund the remaining two episodes, it was time to pivot again...

The Rise of Steam

I remember the mass exodus from premium iOS like it was yesterday. As 2014 pressed on, it was clear that the vast majority of iOS customers were more comfortable with the freemium mode, causing countless publishers and developers to shift focus to the last beacon of premium pricing: Steam.

Throughout the year, backers and industry friends asked us to move up the PC release of République-instead of waiting until all five episodes were released on iOS-to take advantage of the new gold rush happening over on Steam. I dragged my feet. While it was clear that there were big revenue opportunities on Steam, I opted to put the development team's focus on building Episode 2 and Episode 3. My main concern was related to my commitment to Telltale's pricing model, which dictated that you don't sell episodes piecemeal on Steam, but rather at a flat $24.99 price point. This meant that we would be initially charging $24.99 for the two-hour pilot episode, which seemed like a highly risky move. (Friends also suggested Early Access for the game, but we weren't seeing any successes of narrative-driven games using that model.) I was also concerned about the growing resentment Steam users were showing towards quick mobile-to-PC ports seeking refuge from the state of the App Store. When we released République on PC, I argued, it would not simply be a port but a high quality remastering of the game with the first three episodes included.

This rare display of pragmatism on my part-despite the extremely dangerous financial position we were in-did, in fact, result in Camouflaj pivoting to developing the PC version earlier than planned. Upon releasing the third episode, the development team took a break from creating new episodes to spend five months on an ambitious version of République for Steam. Due to the many warnings about mobile-to-PC stigmas I received from industry friends at Valve and elsewhere, we settled on the headlining feature that would warrant excitement from the PC community: a full remastering of the game using the brand-new Unity 5 engine. (You can read our extensive postmortem on that collaboration with Unity over here.) In addition to the months spent on silky smooth keyboard-and-mouse controls and on hundreds of improvements, we readied our premium-priced homecoming on Steam...

When we finally released on Steam in February 2015, we were surprised at how quickly our game disappeared from the front page. Despite carefully choosing our release window and co-marketing the game with Unity to launch the game alongside the full release of their new engine, République Remastered had a quiet launch on Steam. While backers and press reviewers were happy with the game's quality, the game's lack of high volume sales out of the gate buried it under the dozens of other releases. The game's shelf life on the front page was so short, in fact, that I contacted our Steam account manager to ask when the featuring would kick in. He replied that it was already over-I didn't even see the game featured on the front page on release day.

"Fears of studio closure were real. Close business associates suggested it was time to wave the white flag..."

Our Steam launch was disappointing and was hard on the team-after launching four major releases of the game on four unique platforms, the team was in desperate need of a win. Our launch party for the Steam version was appropriately somber, and we lost a handful of really talented folks in the following months. Fears of studio closure were real. Close business associates suggested it was time to wave the white flag, and for good reason: Camouflaj repeatedly proved that it could create praiseworthy content, but we lacked the ability to market and finance the game properly. Unless we could find a partner who can make something of the high quality content we produce, Camouflaj wouldn't survive 2015...

The Rise of PlayStation 4

Over the past five years, Camouflaj faced impending doom on more than a few occasions. We survived those moments of crisis because I simply refused to give up. Not only was my personal pride on the line, but I also felt a heavy sense of responsibility to not let everything fall apart. We had commitments to over 11,000 backers, and our failure to deliver would have damaged consumer trust not only on Kickstarter but also for other season pass-fueled episodic games. I also had my team and their families to think about.

We explored every potential avenue, which usually resulted in a new business opportunity with République in exchange for additional development funds. Learning our lessons from overcommitting with our Kickstarter, we brokered a number of deals throughout the development of République, always making sure the timelines were realistic and the business relationships were based on trust. With our backs against the wall once more, I focused my attention on finding a publishing partner while the team got to work on the final two episodes.

GDC 2015 was a major battleground for Camouflaj. While the team participated in PC launch promotions with Unity, I jettisoned from meeting to meeting in pursuit of a publishing partner interested in helping us take République to the finish line. It was time for us to look beyond our own ability to market and fund the game, so it was on me to make a compelling case to the dozen or so publishing candidates we met. Thankfully, I had a few surprises up my sleeve.

To kick off the meetings, I made sure to lean on the game's quality, especially its newly remastered graphics in Unity 5. This allowed me to convince skeptical business folks that we just weren't a small mobile house, but a budding AAA developer with legitimate talents and ambitions. I then spoke about our next big pivot for the game: in an ironic twist given our indie background and anti-console "one touch" iOS origins, we wanted to partner with a publisher to launch all five episodes of République as a full console release. We argued that PlayStation 4's healthy ecosystem was a perfect match for what would result in a 10-15 hour campaign once everything was packaged together. And then, before anybody could voice concerns about how this formally "one touch" game would control on console, I had a playable prototype of République on a DualShock 4 controller at the ready. (You can read more about the original controller prototype here on the PlayStation Blog, if you're curious)

Months prior, while the core team was busy on the Steam version, I quietly worked with a trusted programmer friend in Brazil on a controller-based prototype of République. Via this ten-minute demo, we were able to prove out the idea of one-to-one controls and forced camera switches in the vein of old school survival horror games like Resident Evil and Parasite Eve. If Camouflaj was destined to fold, I wasn't going down without a fight. Thankfully, our "République on PS4" pitch was strong and we had a number of serious publisher candidates to follow up with after the big show.

The Rise of the Publisher (Again)

We signed a publishing agreement with GungHo Online Entertainment last June after a number of really strong meetings. Throughout the process I was reminded of my business partners' advice to only pursue trust-based relationships, and I couldn't shake the feeling of mutual respect we got from the GungHo staff from the very beginning. We met with a number of excellent publisher candidates, but ever since our first meeting with GungHo, it was obvious that our company and project goals for République were aligned with their own company vision. It also didn't hurt that the CEO of GungHo, Kazuki Morishita, was a fan of République's original release on iOS.

Having worked quietly and independently on République for so many years, I expected the transition to working with a publisher to be more tumultuous, but it has been anything but. Soon after the arrangement was signed, GungHo got to work on securing a retail release of République on PS4 and prepping the PS4's debut appearance via their PAX Prime booth-two things I always secretly wanted for our game but was never able to achieve on my own. From then it's been a constant stream of back-and-forth approvals for promotional materials, working through submission, and collaborating with their QA team who expects a level of polish that far exceeds my own high standards.

"Our industry has been in a state of hyper change for the past decade, so it's adapt or die. The publishers of today are very different than the publishers of 2011"

It still gives me chills writing this: the week of March 22, the entire République experience was released on PC, Mac, iOS, Android-and for the first time-PlayStation 4 as both a digital and retail product. GungHo's partnership with Atlus and NIS America also yielded a limited edition SKU on PlayStation 4. In addition, all versions of the game on PS4 include additional gameplay modes in the form of unique costumes for Hope, including a 32-bit era inspired "Survival Mode."

The past nine months can only be described as surreal. Having cheated death on multiple occasions, it's amazing to think that our crowdfunded, multiplatform, episodic, Unity 5-remastered epic has not only been released in full, but also properly marketed and distributed by a global publisher. I can finally sleep at night knowing that players are able to experience Episode 5: Terminus, and that our team has finally finished what they started. There's a feeling of relief and liberation that's been with me since partnering with GungHo, and it permeates my day despite the stresses experienced while preparing the game for release and plotting our next game. Our goal of releasing République is complete, and that's all I ever wanted to achieve these past five years.

Despite these warm and fuzzy feelings, on occasions, I've wondered if we betrayed our principles (and backers) by signing with a publisher. Thinking on the past decade since Unity democratized game development tools, Apple led the charge of self-publishing, the subsequent season of anti-publisher sentiment, and the whole Kickstarter revolution, I never thought République's ultimate fate would be a publisher, nor would I have ever expected it to be a positive experience. And that's what brings me to the core of this opinion piece: our industry has been in a state of hyper change for the past decade, so it's adapt or die. The publishers of today are very different than the publishers of 2011, which is something I'm reminded of when I look around at my independent developer friends and their new publishing partnerships, from Necropolis now with Bandai Namco and Galak-Z with GungHo. It's a reminder that everything's all right.

The Rise of Camouflaj?

My goal for the past four years was to finish what we started, and despite the many twists and turns (or perhaps because of them), République's fifth and final episode was released on March 22, 2016. When I take a step back, I often come back to this theory that our arduous path to release was actually the only path to release. That, if I had stuck to our initial assumptions and business plans, would we still be around? What would have happened if I had scoped République down to a $4.99 standalone iOS game like The Room? What would the game have sold if we had dropped everything following the initial iOS release, didn't remaster the graphics and simply ported Episode 1 on Steam? It reminds me of the superstitious second-guessing sports fans do when thinking about their team's victories: sure, mistakes were made, but those fluke plays lead to different outcomes-take away those pivots and the proceeding events may have actually resulted in a loss.

While balancing this season of reflection and thanksgiving, I have moved on to my next goal for Camouflaj: building on our strengths, learning from our mistakes, and releasing another game. On that note, I'm happy to report that game two is well underway via a partnership with a great publisher. I'm curious what my next development tale will entail, but if I've learned anything these past five years, I think it's safe to assume that our next journey will have a few twists and turns...

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Latest comments (1)

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University4 years ago
Good read.
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