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Paul Alexander from Camouflaj discussed with 80.lv the transition of the episodic blockbuster Republique from mobile to PC. Reinvigorating the game was made possible thanks to the extensive features of Unity 5.
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us your role in the company?
My name is Paul Alexander, I’m a designer at Camouflaj. It means a lot of things. In addition to system design, level design, working in-game, I spend a lot of time these days outside the game. My role for the last 6 months has been overseeing the transformation of Republique from an IOS and Android game to a PC and Mac game; and producing the series of blogs, videos, and podcasts that we partnered with Unity to deliver as part of our journey from Unity 4 to Unity 5 developer series that’s on Unity3d.com right now.
During the Unity 5 presentation you mentioned that camouflaj comes from AAA big games and you can really see that in the production because it looks like a big blockbuster game, which it’s not. Now could you tell us a bit of the background of the people who work in the company? What kind of games have been done before?
Yeah. Ryan, of course, worked on Metal Gear Solid 4 and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. He also worked on the Halo series. As far as people who are veterans in this studio I know we have a lot of people who worked on the Lord of the Rings Online game with Monolith. We have a couple ex-Monolith people. We have some folks who worked on Black & White 2, Fear, SOCOM series. So all AAA games. We have a handful of people (people like me) for whom, Republique is their very first project (they’ve never worked on games before). In addition to all the veterans we have a lot of first time developers.
There is Camouflaj Games and then there’s Logan Games. So are these two different companies?
Okay so Logan we partnered with during our Kickstarter campaign to sort of develop the visual style of the game. Logan worked extensively with Ryan to develop the live action sequences that you see at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 4. We partnered with them to develop the visual style of the Republique and that was kind of their role; almost shaping the aesthetic.
Camouflaj stated that their were not many nice games on mobile devices and that’s why you’ve pushed and tried to create Republique. So why do you think there aren’t many cool games on IOS or Android? What was your motivation for creating this game? It’s completely different from what you normally see on the Apple Store or Google Play.
I do think there were cool games on mobile and I still think there are. There just weren’t very many games targeting a traditional game audience; the kinds of people who buy game consoles and who own phones but just don’t have many games like the ones they see on consoles or on PC and Mac to play them on. We were basically going after that audience and in doing so, also wanted to bridge the gap and reach those hundreds of millions of people who have those devices in their pockets.
Why did you decide to create Republique and what was the main drive to create it? You went on Kickstarter and collected half a million dollars, that’s a sizeable amount of money.
Yeah, it’s funny because it’s really not that much at all when it comes to games. For any sort of game when you think about the scope of Republique, we’re talking about twenty-something people working on a game for years.
What was the production cycle for twenty plus people? About two years?
Yeah, I think we spent about two years with roughly twenty people. We started with about seven or eight and then it kind of ballooned up to twenty pretty quickly. We’ve been at that number ever since. We started development late 2011 and we released episode one in late 2013. So about two years with that amount of people.
So it’s a pretty big production, but let’s get back to your question about why we did that. To answer that, we saw an opportunity that developers really weren’t taking advantage of. We saw a little bit with Infinity Blade. Here is a developer, Epic, who has a pedigree of AAA quality games and targeting that audience and here they were they found a big success on mobile so we kind of wanted to do that. We also saw games like Year Walk done by Simogo and Device 6. We really were interested in delivering story-centric games to mobile and stuff which isn’t really something that’s been done a whole lot. That was a lot of the motivation for that.
Among the inspiration that mentioned there were Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Demon Souls, and a Japanese Dating Sim. Could you talk about the influence of Japanese game design for Republique? How did you use some of the game mechanics and what are some ideas from the Japanese games?
It’s funny because this might be getting a little too much “inside baseball”, but in American game development and I’m somebody who went to school for game development. I was kind of brought up in this process. There’s very much like “this is the right way to do this thing”, “this is the right way to develop a game”, “this is how you make puzzles”, “this is how you do level design”, and “this is how you get players to enjoy your game”. It’s all very well-tooled.
In Japanese game development it’s a little bit more fluidity involved. I’ll give you an example. In Resident Evil the recent HD remake. They gave the players the option to play with tank controls. I didn’t play the game until a few years ago for the very first time and I was so frustrated by that initially. I was like this is stupid why would anyone make the game like this, but after a while I spent like five, six, seven hours and realized that maybe it was an accident or maybe it wasn’t completely unintentional; but it added a layer of tension to the game that just wouldn’t have been present otherwise. I think it was really cool. You see these type of things in Japanese games where there are idiosyncratic differences that you wouldn’t see in a western studio. I think you see some of that stuff in Republique. Some of the more of the quirky, interesting “what is that?” type things. Such as the puzzles and the environments and the story. I think there’s rough edges there but I think we like that.
So you tried to put it into your game?
Why did you choose Unity for Republique? Why did you choose it? What were the advantages of it and what was the biggest feature that you liked?
When we started developing Republique in 2011 Unity was not a household name like it was today, so it was a little bit of a gamble for us to start developing in that engine. Luckily, I think it really paid off. The great thing about Unity that I think is the most enticing to developers is you’re able to do things that would be impossible without a large studio even when you’re a small studio.
Because of things like the Asset Store, these community driven aspects that don’t require to enter the code at all. You can just pull a plug-in in and make that work for you and iterate on that instead of writing the code yourself. It just makes the game development a whole lot easier for a smaller developer.
Moving from Unity 4 to Unity 5, the features that they added really sort of embellish that advantage. Things like physically based shading, real-time global illumination, these big new graphical features which were previously only available on these really nice engines that you need a big team to take advantage of if you really want to see them fully featured. Those are available on Unity 5 now and we’re just super happy that we’re able to get in really early. I feel like we’ve really grown as a studio, while Unity has kind of grown as a platform simultaneously.
Unity 5 begins to be a big graphical engine. Before that it was a platform for students to make games that were relatively simple. Now it can easily compete with Unreal I believe. Could you tell maybe some features of Unity 5 that you really think influenced the game or changed it in a better way?
Yeah, so one thing that we weren’t able to do was take advantage and you mentioned the lighting. On mobile we had to create a uniformed washed out lighting. There’s really no sort of play of light, no real variation and we had to do that for technical limitations because we really couldn’t support dynamic lights. Also because we can’t predict the lighting conditions of someone who is playing the game on a phone or the tablet. They might be inside, they might be outdoors, we don’t know where they are, so we sort of have to make the light bright and make sure it shows up bright on their screen. It’s because of this we couldn’t do the moody lighting we always wanted to do.
Moving over to PC and Mac and moving over to Unity 5, we can predict the conditions you’re probably playing in your house, you’re probably not playing in your computer. Also with Unity 5 we have the opportunity to use increased horsepower on PC and Mac and we can make use of dynamic lights, real-time shadows, and spatially accurate reflections using Unity 5’s reflection probes. So there’s that play of light and dark that we see on PC and Mac that just wasn’t available to us on mobile.
How did Androids piracy affect sales?
It’s kind of hard to say. You never know in general whether piracy is affecting the sale of the game. You never know if you’ve lost a customer, that person may have never just bought your game, somebody who might have pirated it. That having been said, I think we were pleasantly surprised at how Republique did on Android. We were not expecting this. I can’t offer specifics but we were definitely pleasantly surprised. It was beyond our admittedly meager projections for it’s performance on Android because we figured everyone would pirate it, which they didn’t. Which is great.
As far as moving to PC, that was always the plan. We never promised an Android version, it was always something that we talked about and we did it because it felt right and we felt the right partner in Darkwind which is the company that did majority of the work on the port for us. It was kind of a serendipitous, right time right opportunity thing. The move to PC that was something we promised our Kickstarter backer so that was going to always be on the cards for us. It wasn’t so much a question of when, it was a question of let’s do it right. We weren’t going to make that move to PC and Mac until we made a game that was unique to the platform. We promised our Kickstarter backer that we’re not going to a straight port of our mobile game. So we had the game, sent it out to playtesters, basically the mobile version on PC, but we weren’t seeing the game we wanted to see. And so we fixed the controls, aspects of the UI that we weren’t happy with but it wasn’t until Unity 5 that we said this is the “it” feature that we want. We need a unique hook to get people in otherwise people who see that it’s a mobile game probably wouldn’t want to play that. Unity 5 really provided that impetus and once you see it and see how different it looks in those comparison shots all of a sudden not only are people interested in it that haven’t played it on mobile, but what’s been really surprising and cool for people who played it on mobile was that they wanted to play it again because they thought it looked like a completely different game.
Are we going to see a lot of multiplatform games? People starting on mobile and going to PC (vice versa)? How would it change on the future, your outlook?
That’s one thing that is so hard to say, which is why we want to get Republique and all of our future projects on as many platforms as possible because it’s really impossible to say at this point. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the industry about what the leading platform is going to be. When we released on mobile it seemed that everything was going towards mobile. We were even seeing premium content on mobile that were doing great such as Walking Dead, Infinity Blade was doing great and now we kind of moved away from that. Now mobile is just like unless you’re King.com or Puzzle & Dragon, forget it. You’re probably not going to have a big breakout hit on mobile. All those people have exited the mobile space and entered Steam and now Steam is the big thing, which is why you see so many mobile ports on Steam.
We really want to be leaders and not followers in that aspect but in many ways it’s a gamble, and that’s why it’s so important. The reason why Unity is so great, like you said, is because it allow us to just expedite the process by pushing to as many platforms as possible. Of course, not at the same time but it’s a little more complicated than that. That’s one of the great things about Unity is the Camouflaj’s edict moving forward. It’s about getting the game out on as many platforms as possible.
Why did you choose the episodic distribution system instead of distributing the whole game?
We struggled with a long time (again we were in the mobile space) knowing that we had this great game but we didn’t know how we’re going to deliver it to our customers in a way they were going to find enticing. We wanted to make sure they didn’t play it for ten minutes and then put it away. After thinking a long time about, if we’re going to put microtransactions in our game, the game content…
Have you thought about those microtransactions?
Oh! Absolutely! That was a conversation we had for years.
How would they work?
That’s the thing we didn’t get that far. We talked about are we going to do microtransactions, are we going to gate content behind a paywall, are we going to make people purchase coins that get that access? If Hope gets captured, are we going to buy a taser that gets her out or something? So we played around with all that stuff, but we just didn’t like it. So as this was happening, the game also kind of grew in scope beyond our vision. Our original pitch to our Kickstarter backers was a 4-6 hour game. Republique when it’s all done is going to be about 15 hours. Which is much more than we intended to, which is a bad thing and a good thing. It’s bad because the project went out of scope but it’s great in the sense that we found in episodic, a great way to deliver the story. The way we had been crafting the story and rolling out the story was in fact perfect for episodic gaming. We saw the way Telltale was doing it and we saw that it was really similar to how we’re producing the game. it just seemed like a natural fit to go episodic. Luckily, even though we didn’t pitch it that I think that the Kickstarter backers were overwhelmingly positive and thought that it was a great idea.
You mentioned that the game went beyond your original expectations, how did it correlate with the budget because the budget was fixed on Kickstarter?
We’ve always been a self-published studio. We’ve always said that we would partner with a publisher if we could keep the IP and the circumstances were right but we’ve never done it. So Republique up to this point has been entirely crowdfunded and self-funded venture. And you’re right, the Kickstarter was intended to fund half of the game’s development at the outset. It was never intended to cover the entire development, but we went far beyond our original budget. Keeping the IP and everything was most important.