Think "mobile games," and you don't picture a top-quality, story-driven game. In fact, you probably think of an app that lets you squeeze in a couple of levels between meetings, or while you're in line at the coffee shop. That's what developer Ryan Payton -- who founded the indie studio Camouflaj after successful stints at Konami and 343 Industries -- heard whenever he pitched his dream of making a console-style game for the iPhone.
"There was a lot of resistance," hes said. "There were lots of publishers who said you’re not making a mobile game here, you’re making a console game that nobody would want to play on mobile. They were always talking about what people would play in their free time standing at Starbucks."
So Payton and the Camouflaj team went to Kickstarter with their idea, where a dramatic finish-line fundraising push gave them the over $500,000 they needed to build a game designed to level up the mobile world. The result is Republique: a stealth mobile game that shows off its developers' roots in work on major franchises Metal Gear Solid and Halo. Players are tasked with getting the game's protagonist, Hope, out of a government facility before she's brainwashed. Republique helps you accomplish that by taking over the surveillance systems and to plot Hope's path, find places for her to hide, get supplies and help her avoid enemies.
The game, which debuted on the App Store Thursday, has all the hallmarks of a AAA title: all-star voice talent, sophisticated gameplay, longform pacing and a dystopian, surveillance-state setting that feels just as immersive as a console title.
Since its debut, Republique has been climbing the charts of top apps in the store. The game, which costs $4.99 for the iPhone and iPad, was named editor’s choice on the App Store.
Camouflaj took some other limitations of the mobile platform and turned them into ways to set the tone of the game. To retain high-quality graphics, for example, Republique uses a lot of close-ups of character's faces to get the most detail onto the screen as possible without overloading players' tablets or smartphones, Payton said.
The intimate, face-to-face interactions lend themselves well to the overall tone of the game, which is all about secrecy, avoiding conflict and keeping things out of the watchful gaze of omnipresent surveillance. And tapping an undercurrent of discomfort with government surveillance -- which was already prominent when the game's development started in 2011 -- also let the developers work around more complicated scenes. Instead of having to pan around to show the players who's speaking, the game lets you just hop into the nearest security camera to watch from above.
The central challenge, Payton said, was really developing a simple, stealthy way to move players around the game. He first decided he wanted to make stealth movement easy after watching less-experienced gamers in his family try to understand how to creep around in console games. In conventional console games players manipulate two thumbsticks — one to control the character and another to control the camera angle — simultaneously. That proved too confusing for novice gamers, and Payton worried it would be doubly confusing when translated to a touchscreen interface.
"They literally could not wrap their head and hands around a PlayStation 3 controller," he said.
Boiling down that complicated process to one tap for the mobile screen meant making strong AI for the game's protagonist. Hope knows, for example, which side of the cover she should be hiding on, or to avoid nearby guards. Developers also made a lot of observations about how players intuitively want to control the game using touchscreens to strike the right balance between simplicity and having Republique devolve into a game of serial tapping.
But the breakthrough moment for the game, Payton said, was when the team developed AI for the in-game camera -- essentially the part of the game that lets players look at the environment around them. By taking some of the control over what players see on-screen out of their hands, developers could show more complex scenes and keep players from getting disoriented. That let players focus more on the story and gameplay.
All in all, Payton said he feels like he's accomplished what he wanted to do with Republique's first episode -- successive stages will come every few months -- even though it was a long journey.
"I'm not joking when I say that for about 400 of 500 nights I went home feeling defeated and worried," he said, with a laugh. "Now I understand why no one had done this before."
Payton said that he expects mobile gaming will continue to develop down this path, pointing to hits such as "Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP" or "The Walking Dead," which are mobile titles with enough substance to make players want to pop in their headphones, sit on the couch, and play on the small screen.