I’m writing this postmortem exactly two months from the release of République: Episode 1. Now that everyone at Camouflaj is back in the office and working hard on Episode 2 and the PC and Mac version of the game, it’s been hard to find the time to sit down and reflect on the ten major lessons learned from the production of this game. A big thanks to Gamasutra for this opportunity, and Christian Nutt, in particular, who has been incredibly patient throughout this process.
This postmortem identifies the ten things that went right and wrong in building an independent company and shipping our first game – an ambitious, crowdfunded iOS game called République. You’ll find the lessons learned to be common: things took longer than expected, we should have scoped more, we crunched more than we would have liked to, Unity is great, as are playtests, and damn, does it feel good to ship. While neither groundbreaking nor original, I hope this postmortem serves as a basic framework for game startups and Kickstarter hopefuls.
What Went Right #1: Starting Camouflaj
About three years into development of Halo 4, I decided to leave Microsoft to start an independent game studio. While it was hard to leave the project, the generous compensation, and the team that I was instrumental in building, I needed to get away from the demands of corporate Battle Royale. I finally wanted ship a game on my own terms, and to prove to myself that I could help create a game that wasn’t built off the backs of billion-dollar, decades-old IP. It was time to put up or shut up, and maybe even make a game that would help push the industry in a positive direction.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to help launch a game studio that challenged traditional notions of how a studio should operate. Looking back at documents I wrote in the spring of 2011, it’s great to see that Camouflaj has developed into a studio that is remarkably close to our original version: “A boutique game studio focused on quality, meaningful games for an international audience.” We’ve worked hard to keep our team’s focus on positive aims, instead of looking in the rearview mirror, obsessing over what we didn’t like about previous companies.
One aspect I didn’t anticipate properly was how much time I would stay away from the game itself, focused squarely on managing and building a healthy team. That time was well spent, however, as we’ve gathered an incredible team of professionals. Camouflaj team members are loving, self-starting, and motivated by altruistic goals. We all want to raise the bar on game quality, tell stories that impact people, and be good industry citizens. In other words, Camouflaj is a crappy place to work at if you’re all about job titles, cashing out, or having a bigger office than your neighbor.
We make our own rules and stay flexible. We stay humble by working out of a dumpy, leaky building. Where we lack in high salaries and benefits we make up for in team comradery and a love for what we’re doing. I love working at Camouflaj.
Our little studio is far from perfect, however. An office full of twenty young, idealistic game developers is a fun environment to make a cutting edge game like République, but it isn’t necessarily equipped with the maturity and expertise that it takes to run a real company. That’s why one of our biggest wins was teaming up with ex-investment banker, business professor and close friend, Jeffrey Matthews. Acting as a sort of “dad” to the studio, Jeff was instrumental in working through all the personnel and financial challenges that most startups encounter. I look back at partnering up with Jeff as one of the few smart decisions I made in this entire endeavor, and often recommend to other startup friends that they find their own Jeff.
Another friend we’ve been working with is Gavin Carter, former Fallout 3 and Halo 4 producer, who parachuted in at the tail end of Episode 1 production to run a proper team postmortem. You’ll see a number of his findings have informed this article – many of which were big wake up calls for me. While there are plenty of things we did wrong in our first two years, I’m proud that we executed on our goal of creating a healthy studio environment. Here are the main positives that Gavin reported on:
- Respect & Trust
- Willingness to Help
- Openness & Transparency
“Individuals were trusted in their commitment to certain features and felt empowered to make feature-level decisions during implementation. Many members cited many positives, including humility and the absence of individual blame for problems. All team members felt informed throughout the project in terms of the state of the team, the project, and Ryan and Jeff’s views on the company health. Ryan comes across as honest and approachable in meetings. Team syncs were widely cited as beneficial and well run.”
Seeing this put a smile on my face, as it hasn’t been easy to start a studio from scratch. That warm feeling quickly dissipated, however, once I dug deeper into Gavin’s report. You’ll see that the project was a lot more troubled than I initially thought…
What Went Right #2: That Whole Kickstarter Thing
Kickstarter is the best thing that ever happened to République. While it was anything but easy, as detailed in my postmortem on our crowdfunding campaign, our spring 2012 Kickstarter campaign forced us to commit to a clear vision and essentially go through a process not unlike shipping. It was a great testing ground for our new team. Most importantly, Kickstarter provided a half million dollars that was neither debt nor equity. Outside of staying at Microsoft for a decade or winning the lottery, Kickstarter was our only path to gathering enough capital to retain complete independence and control over our own destiny, especially in our fragile early days.
Prospective crowdfunding hopefuls oftentimes forget that it’s not all about the money – our photo finish Kickstarter put République on the map of almost every gamer, games journalist and publisher around the world, and provided an instant community of over eleven thousand people. We instantly embraced our backers, and began sending them detailed monthly development updates. Not only did our backers love the transparency, but it also forced us to stay accountable – an invaluable exercise for a young team without a publisher or investor to answer to. We treated our backers like micro investors, and we took the responsibility seriously. When we missed milestones, our backers were the first to know and they appreciated the honesty.
I can’t emphasize enough how positive our Kickstarter experience has been. As you’ll see with the rest of this postmortem, the development of République was riddled with problems. Put simply: we tackled an extremely difficult vision, especially for a new team. We plugged away for over a year on a game that just didn’t work. I’ll present that story in full at GDC this March, but I went home feeling like a failure for over five hundred nights on this project. If République had been developed inside a traditional game company, it would have been canceled six times over.
Thanks to our creative and financial independence, we were able to focus on solving the core issues instead of suffering a slow, “death by demo” demise. We are forever indebted to Kickstarter, our friends and family who supported us during the darkest hours of our campaign, and most importantly, the eleven thousand backers who believed in us.
What Went Wrong #1: Development Doldrums
Many teams struggle with mid-development doldrums – a critical period between the euphoric high of conceptualizing the game and the elation of shipping. A certain funk permeates through the team as individuals struggle to piece together a fun, playable game. I’ve seen many teams struggle with it on previous projects, which is why I wasn’t surprised when Camouflaj entered a period of low morale last spring.
In the case of République, our development doldrums lasted from late March to early August – a long time for the team to wrestle with the anxiety of working on an unfinished, un-engaging game with no end in sight. A lot of factors contributed to this anxiety:
- Ambiguity over key design issues (Hope AI, cameras, combat, OMNI View)
- Ambiguity over our monetization strategy amidst the freemium boom
- Ambiguity over our financial future as Kickstarter funds started to run out
However, the number one source of anxiety was the feeling that we weren’t making progress. At the root of that was the sense that we tackled too much game for a team of our size. I usually do a pretty good job of rallying the team and focusing on positivity, but even I was having a hard time wrestling with the idea of delivering five episodes by the end of the year. (For the record, we barely shipped our first episode by Christmas.) While I think my ambitions were legitimate, my overzealous nature was undermining the team’s belief that we could ship any episodes at all, let alone five of them.
By the end of March 2012, we had something we called our “vertical slice,” based on the spec for Episode 2. Looking back, it’s still quite impressive and it showed well at GDC meetings, but it was a far cry from a true vertical slice. Despite that, the deliverable energized the team and we got to work on developing the rest of the episodes. Unfortunately, we wrongly assumed we knew everything we needed to know coming out of our fake vertical slice.
One of the most important meetings we had at GDC was with Fireproof Games’ Barry Meade, the lead on the highly successful, The Room, mobile series. He told me that one of their secrets to success is scope, focusing on small deliverables and relentless polishing. It’s no wonder The Room does so well – it’s easy to talk the talk, but very few actually walk that painful walk of true scope discipline. After nodding my head in agreement to everything Barry said over sushi, I left the meeting and told Jeff, “OK, Barry’s right… We’re going to focus the team on only the first three episodes!” I still wasn’t getting it.
What transpired over the next four months was a well-intended, but ultimately foolish push to concept, write, design, and mass-out five episodes worth of content. We shifted the team’s focus to the first three episodes while I worked on the design of the fourth and fifth episodes with external designers to avoid distracting the team. Much to the credit of these highly professional designers (Ron Millar, Patrick Wren and Ben Ferris), we were able to mass out most of the game by summer. Meanwhile, the core team tried to piece together three episodes worth of content.
E3 2013 was probably the lowest point for me. It was three months after our GDC build and the game looked and played dramatically worse. I had a build on my iPad but refused to show it to any friends I bumped into at the show. For most of that week, I hid in Bryan Intihar’s house and watched E3 stage presentations of polished games. I remember going out on Bryan’s porch, Skyping with my girlfriend and confessing for the first time in two years that I was burnt out. I just didn’t have the urge to work that day. She encouraged me to take the day off and get my mind off the project. That was good medicine.
A few days later I flew back to Seattle committed to righting the ship with the help from my friend, Mark MacDonald. I convinced Mark (co-owner of 8-4, Ltd.) to take a two-week detour through Seattle and help bring clarity to the République project. What transpired was two solid weeks of scope and refocus. I asked Mark to be hyper critical of everything we had and refocus the story and design flow of a single part. Finally, after over a year of stubbornness and dreamy ambitions, I focused the team on only Episode 1 to ship by the end of the year.
The post-E3 work culminated in an epic presentation to the team on July 7 where we officially stopped working on anything unrelated to Episode 1. I reviewed the studio and game vision with the team, we printed out maps of the first episode and posted them on the break room wall. We scoped the feature list down (putting off non-EP1 features) and split the team into strike teams to encourage more ownership over specific development areas. We presented a new development calendar that was, in retrospect, totally unrealistic (shipping in September), but the renewed focus and clarity supercharged the team. Finally, after nearly four months of a cloudy development climate, we were finally driving towards a realistic goal.
What Went Wrong #2: Uneven Crunch
For most of development, Camouflaj experienced an identity crisis regarding the sensitive issue of crunch. We wrestled with the question: Are we going to embrace crunch like many other studios? (Who also happen to make our favorite games.) Or are we going to be more progressive and figure out how to ship quality with only eight-hour days?
Much of this waffling occurred under the guise of an industry-wide rethinking of the whole concept of crunch. What began with game developers publicly questioning whether crunch was healthy or not, evolved into an issue that hardcore gamers are becoming increasingly aware of. As we saw last year with the controversy surrounding the Ryse team’s pre-launch crunch tweets, developers and gamers have to be increasingly sensitive to the topic of work hours. Meanwhile, many ignore the fact that crunch-heavy studios are oftentimes behind the most critically acclaimed games like The Walking Dead, Dark Souls and The Last of Us, just to name a few.
Camouflaj began as a very crunch-heavy studio. Leading up to our Kickstarter debut, we worked days, nights and almost every weekend for four months. We pulled all-nighters, slept in the office, and quickly ran ourselves into the ground. Coming out of GDC 2012, many team members vowed to never crunch again – they were exhausted and began to cite indie developers’ GDC quotes, “If you’re crunching, you’re doing it wrong.” At that time, I agreed. We were ruining peoples’ lives with crunch, so Camouflaj was going to help blaze a trail and prove that you can ship a high quality independent game without imposing crazy hours.
Throughout the development of République, our anti-crunch principles were shaken by the reality of our circumstances: we were a startup, we had to deliver what we promised to our Kickstarter backers, and from a cash flow perspective, we needed to ship by the end of the year. We also never seemed to hit our deadlines, which caused the team to lose confidence in our ability to ship anything at all.
To further complicate things, I, along with a number of colleagues, began to quietly question our whole anti-crunch philosophy. As we got deeper into development, many of us swung back to the warm embrace of crunch in order to get the game out the door. We actually increased productivity, increased morale and shipped a game we were proud of in large part due to the brief but intense periods of crunch. On the negative side, a schism remains within the Camouflaj team between those who adamantly avoided crunch, and those who built a strong bond by pushing to get Episode 1 out. The situation only got worse when non-crunchers forwarded internet links to the team about how unproductive long hours are.
Despite the division, we powered through. After an all-nighter, we finally submitted our build the morning of Thanksgiving. Tired and exhausted, the team retreated to their families and took a well-deserved four-day rest. I, personally, drove down to Oregon for the holiday, worried that our submission build wasn’t good enough. My suspicions were validated when I put the build in front of my best friend from back home. He said he liked the game, but noticed a significant lack of polish. It was then that I made a tough decision, as reported in Gavin’s postmortem:
“A big demoralizing moment was when we crunched straight through into the morning of Thanksgiving. We all thought we were done, but then we had to come back in and crunch again for resubmission.”
On the Monday following Thanksgiving, I was back, rested, and ready to push through dozens of new fixes. By resubmitting, we were jeopardizing our chances of shipping before the App Store closed down for the year, but I was willing to take that chance. After our arduous Kickstarter campaign, after two and a half years of hard work and all the money we invested, I just couldn’t let that Thanksgiving build be our first product as a company. I pushed for another ten days of intense work, and the team suffered from the crunch double dip.
Despite a tumultuous final month of development, I’m proud to say that République’s crunch was mild compared to most game projects I’m familiar with. We were respectful of people’s time and personal circumstances, and never demanded anybody come in on the weekends. Even still, crunch remains a sensitive topic. As we get deeper into Episode 2 development, the issue of work hours is something we’re going to have to tackle head on.
What Went Right #3: Liberation via Unity
The decision to develop on Unity was one of our smartest decisions we made. Put simply: the ubiquity of Unity enabled us to make République exactly the way we wanted.
When industry friends look at the end credits of Episode 1, they often ask how we found the five or six million dollars it would take to build a team of that size. When I tell them that République was made for a fraction of that, with a core team of twenty-five (and only ten of whom had previous industry experience), they don't believe me. It really comes down to pairing passionate people with the usability and global proliferation of Unity.
During the production of Episode 1, we brought in a number of intern-level people, put them in engine and watched them fly. Having worked on multiple projects where the game engine was a scary black box that only the most senior people understood, I felt completely liberated with Unity. It was easy to find young, passionate people who wanted to get involved in professional game development and get them to be productive, fast. Many of our new recruits were students from local colleges like University of Washington and Digipen. Balancing half of our studio with young talent kept us young and agile, and many of our former interns have come on as full-time, highly efficient team members.
Greg Raab, one of a few of our ex-Monolith developers, likes to point out that one of our greatest strengths was our young, fearless team. Oftentimes, we’d pitch the team on complex features that wouldn’t pass muster with veteran developers, yet our younger team members were highly motivated to try anything. When playing République, it’s clear that we have no shortage of daring new mechanics – it’s a true testament to our fearless staff and Unity’s ease-of-use.
While Unity was certainly great for ramping up young, local developers, Unity also opened the door for dozens of collaborations with veteran developers from around the world. Whenever we got into a pinch, it was easy to connect our veteran staff members like Stephen Hauer with freelance Unity developers that were familiar with tech art, UI, and even low-level mechanics. We were able to work with many talented developers around the world and easily plug in their work. One of our biggest success stories was Yusuke Ikewada, a veteran UI designer and Unity professional. When I told a friend of mine that we were in desperate need of UI help, he recommended Yusuke. Within days, Yusuke was in our source control, working remotely from Tokyo, and implementing brilliantly designed UI into our game. This is definitely the future of video game development.
What Went Wrong #3: Unclear Quality Bar
Following the submission of Episode 1, Gavin partnered with Darci Morales, our amazing in-house producer, and gathered anonymous feedback and get an honest report on all the great and miserable things we did as a development team. One of the most common areas of frustration was about the unclear quality bar:
- “The quality bar was never really defined beyond ‘playable,’ and that was always vague.”
- “I felt like it was always ‘not good enough, try again,’ and ‘oh, here are five new things to do.’”
The team felt that the quality bar was never firmly established, and that it wasn’t clear when a given task was declared done. Most of the time, features didn’t move into the “done” box, but were rather placed into a strange purgatory where they awaited their fate: “done” because there was no more time left, or “in progress” because I wasn’t done tweaking.
This sort of indecisiveness contributed to unnecessary stress on the team, who never felt like they could check anything off their list of accomplishments. The whole method of “I know what ‘done’ looks like when I see it, but here’s the deadline”, just didn’t sit well with most people, especially when they worked hard to meet a deadline, only to have the deadline extended once the work wasn’t deemed good enough.
Much to my chagrin, the development of République ended up mapping closely to the Japanese style of game development that I vowed never to do again. For instance, we prepared dozens of features, threw them together near the end of development, and then tried to connect all the desperate parts together into a cohesive experience. As much as I wanted to iterate on our core gameplay loop for the better part of 2013, we only got serious about iterating on what we had in October, just two months before ship. Our method: rigorous playtesting.
What Went Right #4: Disciplined Playtesting
On October 14, I picked up designer Paul Alexander from the airport, scolded him about his annoying Twitter feed, and then explained to him why I flew him to Seattle for two weeks. Much like Mark MacDonald’s visit, I needed help focusing the production on what’s most important: pummeling the game into submission. We were going to be République’s worst enemies by becoming hyper critical, prioritizing what needs to get fixed, and rallying the team to the finish line.
Our spirited push began and ended with vigorous playtesting. Thanks to Paul, Natedawg and Aly, we got into a rhythm of hosting nightly playtests with over fifty local Seattleites who graciously volunteered to play through the entirety of Episode 1. (Which usually took between three to four hours.)
For each playtest, we hooked the iOS device to the big screen and recorded the playthrough. We would then quietly watch the playtester struggle through the entire game, never talking unless the playtester asked a question we could answer. (Which was rare.) Instead, we asked the playtester to pretend like we weren’t in the room and to give us an audible stream of consciousness.
On average we logged about 300 issues a night, half of them bugs, half of them ideas on how we could improve the game. From there, I would take the playtest video and chop each issue up into twenty second clips and log them in our bug database. By the time the team got in the office the following morning, their bug list was filled with dozens of mini video clips and short text descriptions of the problem. It was critical that we relied on video to remove any ambiguity about the issue.
After a rough first week, we got into a nice groove logging and solving thousands of issues. I woke up at around 5 a.m. every morning to give myself enough time to log the bugs before everybody got to the office, and most of team members worked late nights to clear their bug queues. The bigger issues were brought in to our triage “tribunal” while I filtered minor issues to individual team members. The most common issues I logged were related to awkward camera changes and erroneous Hope cover moment. I sent most of my bugs to Vincent Loiseleur, who smashed as many as sixty or seventy bugs a day.
As with most things, there wasn’t a silver bullet that instantly fixed our game. However, with regular, disciplined playtests and an amazingly smart and efficient team on the receiving end, we were able to take polish bird by bird and transform République, in less than two months, from a total embarrassment to an experience that many critics applauded for its polish and attention to detail.
What Went Wrong #4: Ryan Payton
In many ways, Camouflaj is an attempt to create an environment that solved many of the things we didn’t like about big companies. Among those: creative directors. I found that team members didn’t like working with creative directors on previous projects, mainly concerning how close-minded, unapproachable and flat-out wrong they oftentimes were. I remember being guilty of that at Microsoft, and so I set out to create an environment that would foster more team-wide creative ownership. While I think we made significant gains, I regret that I ended up being much more dogmatic on Episode 1 than I initially wanted to be, resulting in a lot of unnecessary stress on the team.
On paper, a flat-structured team like Camouflaj sounds great, but there remains a core problem with this concept that I haven’t been able to reconcile: our company has a founder, and this person has the responsibility of making final decisions and keeping the lights on. At Camouflaj, that responsibility rests on yours truly, which brings me back to one of the more regrettable aspects of Episode 1 development: I wielded my creative power in ways that demotivated and disempowered employees. So much for my dream of fostering a creative and collaborative utopia…
Early on with the project, I was happy with what I brought to the team: a clear vision of a different type of game. We started off more top-down than I intended, but I came to realize just how important strong vision is, especially early in the project. Now, if there’s a model solution for how to create a complex, innovative game in a totally flat org, I’d love to hear about it, but I simply found that our team needed a champion who could steer the creative ship. This is a core reason why, I believe, Valve acquires all of the design of its game properties (Portal, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, DOTA, etc.). That is absolutely not a knock against Valve (one of my favorite developers), but simply recognition that even flat organizations need a few individuals to really push the project in the right direction during the critical inception phase.
For the first year of the project, I tried to be a positive contributor. At every opportunity, I would remind the team of our vision statement: “Use your iOS device to help a mysterious woman escape from a secret Orwellian nation.” I would quiz them on the game’s core pillars: “One Touch,” “Stealth Survival” and “Keep Hope Alive.” (Sorry, the fourth pillar is still secret.) I also came up with creative ways to help the team wrap their head around the game we were building. For example, I partnered with now-Double Fine employee Christopher Lam to storyboard our combat system. The team found these to be very helpful:
For the majority of the project, I mostly stayed out of the way of the artists, animation and audio folk, but I increasingly started to bulldoze my way through our writer and designers. In morning meetings with our writer, Brendan Murphy, I pushed to include dozens of subtle metaphors and callbacks to present day events in lieu of good storytelling. In design and production meetings, I would fight against on-screen UI, argue for camera auto-switches, and push hard for things like Game Center achievements that I felt were important to ship a AAA iOS title. To get what I wanted, I quickly found a freelance programmer in upstate New York who could do this work remotely, thus disarming any production concerns that we didn't have enough resources for it.
Perhaps the biggest sin I committed was using playtests as a way to get what I wanted. In keeping with the spirit of our flat organization, I really wanted playtest data to be the final determining factor on whether we would keep, cut, or improve something. As I described earlier, playtests were one of the big wins of our project. I found it extremely valuable to be present for literally hundreds of hours of them, learning how people played our game and helping to log bugs. However, I definitely used playtest data to quickly push through changes. Instead of it just being my opinion versus another teammate’s opinion, I now had data to back up what I wanted, making it hard for the team to push back. Early on, we brought changes before our morning triage group, but with time running out, the team more or less gave up on the triage process and implemented the changes I was requesting after each playtest.
I often talk about how demoralizing it was to walk home every night on this project feeling dejected because our design wasn’t clicking. However, once we got closer to the finish line, I remember walking home with a skip in my step, elated that the game was finally coming together. This combination of rigorous playtesting plus extremely efficient teammates was a euphoric alchemy. It saved our project, or at least I believed it did.
About a week after ship, with my PR work and Kickstarter obligations starting to wind down, I was able to sit down and read Gavin’s Episode 1 postmortem. Thinking pretty highly of myself at the time, you can imagine how horrified I was to see that one of the big negatives of the project, was, well, me:
“Common feedback was that Ryan relied too much on the opinions of outside industry experts and last-minute external playtests. The team reported problems of being asked to implement features at random when someone else brought them up, and with being unable to implement a specific feature until someone external mentioned it. This was a morale-killer in both instances. There were also mixed messages from Ryan on trust in individuals. Ryan would tell staff that they had ownership over an issue, only to step in and micromanage the result later. Team members reported that the level of ownership in content for themselves vs. Ryan was never entirely clear.”
In short, I became the type of creative director that many of us didn’t want. While my decisions were not made in a vacuum, it was clearly stressing the team out. Contrast that with my feeling that my overtime performance helped contribute to a big, positive victory for the team. While it’s certainly true that I got a ton of necessary fixes past triage because of their sheer volume of bugs I logged, I never pulled rank and was in the trenches with the team, working fourteen-hour days.
The reason why I’ve added this item to the postmortem is largely because I haven’t been able to reconcile it. While I feel terrible for pushing the team hard on the last two months, I have to be honest with myself that I think in those final months we were the best we’ve ever been. We were focused, we were professional, we had no inner squabbles, and we beat a crappy, buggy game into complete submission and transformed it into a critically acclaimed, Apple Editor’s Choice talk of the town in less than eight weeks.
Now that we’re knee-deep in Episode 2, I’m hesitant to employ the same methods that got Episode 1 to ship, despite my personal belief that they had positive results. Wish me luck as I try to navigate this sensitive topic and come up with a better solution that makes both the team and myself feel good about how we close out our future episodes.
What Went Wrong #5: Kickstarter Fulfillment
I’m chalking up “Kickstarter” as both a positive and negative for our first episode. Through no fault of Kickstarter or our backers, we had a rough few weeks following the launch of Episode 1 on the App Store.
When we launched our Kickstarter in spring of 2012, we knew full well that fulfillment of the actual app was going to be difficult. Without getting too much into it, we did a lot of due diligence and had multiple plans in place to get the app to backers before we hit the “go live” button on Kickstarter.
Throughout the project, we had dozens of iOS Kickstarter hopefuls (and skeptics) reach out to us asking how we figured it all out. All I could do was forward those parties to our main contact and wish them luck. As we got closer to launch, I started to get nervous by the sheer number of industry friends who told me that our plan wouldn’t go off as smoothly as we thought.
About three months before launch, the team started work on a backup plan (involving a custom built in-app redeem code system) that would also, unfortunately, not work out. You can imagine our panic when we realized this only days before launch. Our worst fears were realized: we were at “DEFCON Behr.”
About 48 hours before République went live on the App Store, I texted friend and ex-Halo 4 senior designer, Jason Behr, who recently went through the fulfillment nightmare on his own iOS game, Buddy & Me. Behr was gracious enough to train up our staff on how to redeem backers via the iTunes gifting system, which basically entailed using a lot of credit cards, iTunes accounts and manual copy and pasting until the credit cards get flagged for suspicions of fraud. Oh, and this would only apply to U.S. backers, so good luck getting the game to international backers, he added. What started off as an expertly (and expensively) devised plan ended up being two weeks of stress for both the Camouflaj team and thousands of backers. Despite being mentally and physically exhausted after shipping République, many Camouflaj team members, including Brent Barrett and Ryan Fedje, volunteered to work over their vacation to make things right. Above all, Natedawg (Nathan Scott) saved the day. He sacrificed the majority of his post-ship vacation to take care of thousands of backers while I did back-to-back press interviews.
I’m not sure why we were surprised, but our backers continued to display an incredible level of patience throughout the ordeal. After the first few days of pain, the dust settled just before Christmas. In one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever had in game development, Natedawg, Vincent, Paul Alexander and myself stayed late in the office as Christmas Eve approached. Natedawg was answering hundreds of emails from backers, and Paul and I were blasting through dozens of press inquires about the game. I propped an iPad on our whiteboard with “Old Yule Log” and we worked late into the night watched over by a cheesy fake fire and traditional Christmas music. What a way to end 2013.
Detailing the whole narrative of how we went from zero to 99% fulfillment would alone warrant its own postmortem, so let me just break it down to three key factors, in hopes that this is helpful for future iOS Kickstarter hopefuls:
Humble: République wasn’t the first Kickstarter that Humble helped out with digital fulfillment on, and I know we won’t be the last. In particular, Humble helped get the digital soundtrack, making of videos, and Manifesto PDFs out to all our backers on launch day. Out of all the parties we worked with, Humble was always the fastest, most attentive and helpful group.
Amazon Payments: Generally these guys are pretty good, but their customer service team was consistently misinformed by their own rules and regulations, which ended up hurting our backers. In particular, we worked with Amazon Payments on refunding $5 to all international iOS backers (since we couldn't gift them via iTunes). Three Amazon Payments reps told us we could do this, but then, at the eleventh hour, I got a call from their manager who informed me that they couldn’t refund any Kickstarter over twelve-months old. Apparently, his team kept thinking that République was funded in May 2013, not May 2012. He left me with this: “I hate to say it, but your best bet will be our competitors over at PayPal.”
PayPal: As most people know, PayPal is a hard company to work with, in large part because their customer service is notoriously bad. Sadly, our experience wasn’t an exception. Their security question process in particular, was stupid and insulting, and actually resulted in us losing days worth of progress because of an error on their end. That said, the most important thing is that we were able to refund hundreds of international backers through PayPal, so good on them for that.
Kickstarter fulfillment ended up souring our otherwise successful launch of Episode 1. Despite all of the pain, we still see République being referred to as, “Kickstarter darlings” and used in examples of how to run a good Kickstarter campaign. In many regards, this is unwarranted, but I am happy to report that we survived the whole ordeal because of our incredibly patient backers, the hard work of Natedawg, and our unbreakable policies of always being open, honest and generous towards backers. Even when we got angry emails from backers demanding fifty cents (because our five dollar refund didn’t cover 10% sales tax), we always empathized with our backers and made things right. I’m proud of that.
What Went Right #5: Going Episodic
In preparation for this postmortem, I went over some of the original documents I wrote about Camouflaj. I was surprised to see that on March 14, 2011, I wrote that Camouflaj games would be “episodic, with frequent updates.” Little did I know that we would go on to develop République and ship our first episode on December 19, 2013.
I don't remember why we originally abandoned the episodic aims of the game, as République was certainly pitched as a holistic experience back when we went to Kickstarter in spring 2012. Our planned base price of $10 worked well on Kickstarter, and at the time, shipping the game for $9.99 on the App Store wasn’t crazy – there was a lot more diversity in pricing back then. But as time went on and free-to-play began to take over, we were forced to rethink our monetization plans.
Thanks to the trailblazing success of Telltale games on the App Store (The Walking Dead, in particular), we discovered a path that made sense for our narrative driven game on the App Store. By GDC 2013, we were fairly certain that République would be released episodically, but we wanted to test the waters in the dozen or so business meetings we planned that week in San Francisco. During a climate where it was Clash of Clans this, Candy Crush that, and freemium everything, nearly all our meetings devolved into potential publishers and investor’s outright dismissal of our episodic ambitions. The opinion was that the only reason The Walking Dead was successful was because its IP is paired with a highly successful cable television show.
I remember retreating to our hotel and venting my frustrations for hours on end with Jeff. I cursed the business, these ambulance-chasing publishers and investors, and the general consensus that narrative content is not worth investing in. By definition, stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and these business folks don't want the monetization cycle to end, ever.
I retreated back to Seattle dejected, but still open to the idea of République going episodic. One thing was certain though: we were not going to make our game free-to-play and implement manipulative hooks to squeeze money out of players. By springtime, we had made the final decision to go episodic. We were already building five chapters of the game, so the transition was relatively seamless for our crew. The only technical challenge we had to consider was in building a content delivery system and allowing players to backtrack through episodes. (For example, in the event that players deleted Episode 2 content but want to return to that space while in Episode 3.) While not trivial matters, the team has done great work building an infrastructure that will make the experience smooth for players.
One of our biggest concerns about shifting towards episodic was how the press and forums would react. I decided early on that we would inform our backers and podcast listeners of the fact that we were shifting towards episodic. The news was met with a quiet, almost unsettling silence. Nobody raised a huff or questioned our judgment. Did they not care? Maybe they just expected us to go that route? Or maybe they weren’t seeing that, as our backer updates can get quite long. Even though our backers and listeners seemed to take the news well, we still feared a public backlash similar to what Double Fine encountered when they broke Broken Age into two.
When République: Episode 1 was formally announced on December 16, we detailed our plans to follow the model that Telltale had pioneered on the App Store: République would be released across five individual chapters, roughly four months apart, for $4.99 per episode or $14.99 for a discounted “Season Pass” package deal. Much to our surprise, this news about our episodic model was much ado about nothing. I’m still not sure why that is…
Now that I have time to reflect, I really chalk up this decision to go episodic as one of the best decisions we made from both a commercial and production level. From a monetization perspective, République’s episodic model affords us many benefits. Firstly, we were able to go out of the gate at the (now) standard premium price of $4.99, much like recent iOS releases The Room Two, Assassin’s Creed Pirates, and A Wolf Among Us. Knowing that République would initially attract hardcore gamers, we pleased our first adapters with a pricing model that was fair and didn’t include any sort of gameplay IAP. We also noticed that Apple tends to promote high quality, premium games over manipulative freemium titles, and République was no exception.
No different than Telltale games, République’s long-term financial bet is the $14.99 season pass. Our season pass has already seen incredibly high conversion rates (even before our backer-only sale), and we’re just getting started. We contribute this early success to the value of the season pass. Instead of just offering 25% off the upcoming four episodes, we enhanced the deal by unlocking our in-game developer commentary, guaranteeing early access to Episode 2, and gifting players a chapter of our documentary video series. Given the success of the season pass, we’re already looking into ways to further enhance the value. We’re inspired by what Sony is doing with PlayStation Plus – they just keep making it more attractive.
From a production perspective, the episodic model has incredible benefits. I’ll touch on a few of them here, but I can imagine it’s a topic we’ll continue to discuss throughout the year. For starters, focusing the team on Episode 1 allowed us to create a genuine vertical slice. If you follow the exact definition of vertical slice, it’s clear that most game teams never come close to achieving this goal. Shipping an episode on the marketplace, however, fulfills the requirements of a true vertical slice, and now we’re reaping the rewards for all the hard work: the core gameplay is locked down, we know all the systems we need to build on to release more content, and there is little ambiguity on how the rest of the game will function.
Now that we’re in deep production of Episode 2, I can honestly say that production life has never been this good. Instead of rolling off the project and reentering the ambiguous conceptual phase of game development, the entire team is 100% focused on content creation and improving the previous episode. Instead of going home feeling like a failure because our core gameplay loop doesn't work, I go home thinking about ways we can strengthen the narrative in Episode 2.
Another of my favorite topics in regards to the episodic model is how it allows the team to focus on executing a more manageable narrative offering. Looking back, it’s no wonder that the stories of most AAA games fall flat – it’s incredibly difficult to tell a compelling story over the course of a forty-minute TV show or two-hour movie, let alone a 10 or 15-hour video game campaign. I remember feeling this on both Halo and Metal Gear Solid. Now with République’s episodic approach, writer Brendan Murphy and I can focus on two to three-hour episodes and watch playtesters experience it all in one setting. We don’t have tens of hours of narrative content to sift through, losing our bearings along the way.
From a business perspective, the fiscal health of Camouflaj employees is top priority, but a close second is our obligation to players and this industry to blaze a trail of alternative monetization strategies that treat players with respect, don't manipulate, and don't push gameplay systems that belong in Las Vegas.
While I oftentimes get frustrated with this industry and the directions it’s headed, I’m still very much in love with game creation and feel privileged to be a part of this industry-wide experimentation on how to produce and market games. In a world where Metal Gear Solid 5 is broken up into parts, a third Final Fantasy XIII game was just released, and independent developers like Telltale and Cardboard Computer are producing excellent episodic content, we’re just happy to be part of the conversation with République.
After 780 days of development, we finally shipped République: Episode 1 on December 19, 2013. The night before, we hosted a big party to celebrate our first release, which included a heartfelt, knife-wielding speech from Jeremy Romanowski. After that, the team gathering around the Apple TV to watch my brother download the game from the App Store and then Vincent speed running the game. Despite an unforgettable night filled with so much joy, there was a cloud of nervousness hanging over the team’s heads, as the first reviews were going to trickle in at midnight…
I’m happy to report that both players and the press’s response to the game was overwhelmingly positive. When IGN writes that République is “special, new and necessary” and the Washington Post publishes two articles about the game, including a quote that République, “sets a new benchmark for mobile game quality,” you know your studio is off to a great start.
While the press reaction was amazing, we were most nervous about our App Store placement on December 19 – perhaps the most competitive day for featuring in App Store’s history. So, on the afternoon of December 19, you can imagine the elation that erupted inside of Camouflaj when we saw that République had a near-global Apple top billing and “Editor’s Choice” banner. Laughs were heard, tears were shed, and many men embraced.
Thank you for reading this lengthy postmortem. I hope it was beneficial to you. It should be apparent that Camouflaj (in particular, me) still has a lot to learn. I hope that I can continue this habit of reflecting on each episode after it’s released, as well as the upcoming PC and Mac version. With more frequent opportunities to release, reflect, receive feedback, and course correct, perhaps we can grow Camouflaj into a much smarter development studio as afforded by our episodic approach. I’m just as excited as anyone to find out.