Ryan Payton’s story is the kind you watch through the gaps of your fingers with your head in your hands.
He is a winner with a history of loss. He has obvious leadership skills and a likability that catches you immediately. He is handsome, media-savvy and has spearheaded production on projects such as Halo 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4.
He is the sort of person you see in top executive development roles. A Phil Harrison. A Shuhei Yoshida. A Peter Molyneux.
Ryan is a success who, at the time of going to press, is slowly realising that his indie dream is slipping from his grasp.
His Kickstarter project, called Republique, must generate more than $80,000 in 23 hours to hit a $500,000 funding target. Save for an extraordinary last-gasp surge in backers, Ryan and his studio – called Camoflaj – will have to find alternate, and arguably less beneficial, finance opportunities.
If the Kickstarter fails, Ryan will either burst into action and brainstorm a series of contingency plans, or that infectious enthusiasm will give way to a sinking sense of hopelessness and inertia. As he recounts his story to me, Ryan shows he has a history of both.
The Kojima horror show
In 2008, after three years as associate producer at Kojima Productions, Ryan accumulated enough overtime (which Konami repays with hours off in lieu) to take a four-month holiday.
“I was working seven days a week for three years straight,” he tells me in a San Francisco hotel just a few weeks before going public with the Kickstarter campaign.
“Almost every day I worked from about 7:30am to midnight. I didn’t have a life. In fact I moved to an apartment next door to the studio so I wouldn’t have to worry about taking the last train, because if I missed the last train, that would mean going through a full day without taking a shower.”
The initial instinct is to take this as another horror story. An exposé on abysmal working standards and social paralysis that sneaked out of the games industry’s network of concealed production silos; A snapshot of an entertainment medium that hits deadlines though practices that become dirty little secrets.
But Payton is as much to blame. He willingly led no life outside of Kojima Productions. The Washington-born otaku moved to Tokyo, alone, to pursue a personal dream.
“I liked being at the studio because I didn’t have any friends or family around me,” he says in a calm, matter-of-fact manner.
“I’m a weird guy. I don’t really do anything outside of work, I never really did anything outside of school. I’ve never had an ounce of alcohol my whole life, I’ve never smoked, I don’t have any hobbies outside of videogames.
“I don’t have a wife or girlfriend or my own family. The only things I do outside of games is read books and watch movies, but usually to allow me to get inspiration for what I’m working on. When I run, I listen to videogame podcasts.”
Leaning back in his chair, he reflects on what he’s just told me.
“I suppose I’m kind of crazy.”
When Metal Gear Solid 4 went gold it was time for Ryan to find balance. He returned home to visit his family in Washington. It was here when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I think some people at Konami still think I’m making it up, but after Metal Gear shipped and I visited home, my mother was taken to hospital. I thought; I can’t go back to Japan, I’ve got to be close to my family.”
Day of defeat
Ryan’s departure from Kojima was likely made easier because his mother lived in Washington, a cluster-state of award-winning games studios, many of which would jump at the chance of hiring someone with Ryan’s growing talent and experience.
“I interviewed at Valve,” he says. “They didn’t offer me a job.”
Valve’s socialist and collaborative studio structure, which Develop uncovered last year, has always been a source of suspicion in an industry where romantic visions of developer freedom are largely illusory.
Payton has no doubts that Valve’s so-called “managerless” structure exists. It was, in fact, one of the reasons why the job interview didn’t go well.
“It was quickly made obvious that Valve would not be a place where I would grow and flourish,” he says, in a manner far more cordial than the words suggest.
“We quickly realised, within the first fifteen minutes of discussion, that we have completely different philosophies on how games should be made.
“I’m very much along the lines of thinking that most games need a strong creative head who also is open to feedback and collaboration, and really push the team into areas they wouldn’t usually explore, and Valve is very much into group-design and play testing.”
Microsoft was choice number two. In 2008, Ryan was interviewed at 343 Industries and was hired as creative director on a top-secret project, disclosed two years later as Halo 4.
Though now closer to his home and family, Ryan slipped into the same working habits he assumed at Kojima. Late nights, fewer weekends, burning out.
But something unexplained happened. When I approach the subject, Ryan asks if we could not talk about it.
Last year a Kotaku journalist, Brian Ashcraft, claimed that Ryan had been diagnosed with ‘severe depression’.
“For reasons I can’t get into, I was unhappy with my life. I wasn’t happy with how things were going. There were certain things I hated,” he tells me.
At some stage, Ryan’s job at 343 Industries changed from creative director to narrative director. Soon later, he departed from the company altogether.
Last year he told Kotaku: "The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don't think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavour through.”
There is no clear path of entry into the games business, nor is there much of a defined structure for career progression. But the general, and somewhat unhelpful, rule-of-thumb is that you need to be either very technically skilled or notably creative to get a job. To survive you need to work intensely hard. To climb the ladder you need to be convincing.
But to be the master of your own destiny – to create what you want – there is a single and rigid path you take.
Ryan went indie. He founded his own games studio, hired less than a dozen people, and commenced work on the game which, right now, is hours away from missing its final target on Kickstarter.
Back to 1984
Ryan struggled to sleep before showing his new game to the press. That itself sums up the perils and pleasures of going indie. The responsibilities of running a games studio are bottlenecked from a few hundred people to a handful.
He may also be aware, on some low-lying subconscious level, that his new game – called Republique – is laced with commercial risk.
Camoflaj wants to break an established principal of mobile games development: It wants Republique to be a core triple-A game, with cut-scenes and extended narrative, built for the iPhone and iPad – two devices that rarely champion such things.
There is no convincing evidence to suggest that core customers want core games on their phones. It is easier to believe, in fact, that a significant proportion of game enthusiasts dislike the mobile and social directions that the industry is going in.
The irony, or perhaps misfortune, is that Ryan and Camoflaj are seeking funds for an iOS game on Kickstarter – an online crowdfunding hub that thrives on the support of the prosumer, centre-of-the-core market.
Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter may have sparked a revolution in how games are financed, but Republique is arguably the bigger acid-test of the online consumer conscience. Whether or not the online world accepts Ryan’s proposition will be telling of how diverse the subculture is.
“Life is too short to be working on the same game and same genre that everyone else is trying to perfect,” Ryan says.
“I really want to make a game for a phone that, to me, was real. One that was story-based, one that was mature and sophisticated, something that has meat to it, something for adults.”
He claims that Republique, which is co-developed by a Los Angeles CG company called Logan, examines social issues such as censorship and surveillance.
“These are the kind of the feelings I was going through when I visited London a year ago,” he adds.
“When brainstorming the game, we asked ourselves what if the player was on the other side of the camera? We thought that could make an interesting game.
“Of course I knew it was a big risk to have this as our first game out of the gate, and I thought – hey, shouldn’t we do something less risky and get our feet wet? But Alex [Alexei Tylevich; creative director at Logan] told me to just go for it.”
Kickstarter has not provided a flattering account of Alexei’s wisdom. $80,000 is needed in just 23 hours. It seems an insurmountable task although, at the time of going to press, the final push appears to be gaining momentum.
Whether or not it was the right time for Republique to emerge, Ryan’s philosophy on games development gels naturally with the anti-publisher ideology of Kickstarter patrons.
“When we looked at funding this, we did talk to both traditional and new-style publishers, but we want to retain full creative control of this project,” he says.
“Everyone at Camoflaj walked out of places where they felt they didn’t have the creative freedom to do what they wanted. What is the point of opening up an indie studio and giving up that freedom just for a publisher to bankroll you?
“I didn’t leave these companies to be told by a guy in a suit about 3,000 miles away to change the name of a character,” he adds.
“It’s not an option. Not any more.”
The final curtain
It seemed inevitable, if still a little disheartening, that Ryan would again make habitual sacrifices to ensure Republique’s best possible chance for success. His new studio is, just like old times, visible through the window of his Seattle home.
It’s not all the same, of course. Sometimes, when waking up in the middle of the night, Ryan says, he notices the studio lights still on. The team share his ambition.
After talking for an hour with someone who appears to have sacrificed so much of his life on building games, with a family nearby and a history of burning out, the natural temptation is to talk him out of another soul-destroying stretch.
“I want to leave a positive impact on people’s lives before I die, and I think games can help me do that,” Ryan says.
“Who wants to crunch on something you don’t believe in? What’s the point in helping out assholes who tell you what to do and will eventually get all the credit?”
“People always keep telling me I need balance in my life. I know I do. I’m sure I’ll figure it out some day, just not yet.”