With Marvel’s Iron Man VR, this Logger has transformed a comic book icon into the hero of a virtual reality game.
In late June, a few days before the splashiest release of his career as a video game developer, Ryan Payton ’03 sits alone in his company’s sprawling loft-like space in downtown Bellevue, Wash., marveling at the silence. When I ask Payton to give me a virtual tour of the offices of Camouflaj, the company he founded nearly a decade ago, he confesses that there’s not much to show at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic forced nearly all of his 50-plus employees to start working remotely several months earlier, just as they were putting the final touches on Marvel’s Iron Man VR, a video game for Sony’s PlayStation VR device that has consumed his company’s energy for the past four years.
Normally, it’s not like this at all. Normally, the office is a hive of energy and noise, a frenetic atmosphere full of programmers and developers and designers shouting ideas back and forth. There is a “review room,” where Payton would stand in the middle and test the game on a PlayStation VR headset, calling out tweaks and encouraging his employees, sitting in couches and chairs, to shout suggestions, as well.
Payton had long frowned on his employees working remotely, because he viewed this energy as a crucial part of the creative process. But reality has changed his mind, both now and for the long term. On this day in June, there is one producer in the office, working on the end-credits music of Marvel’s Iron Man VR. But on many days it’s just been Payton, alone in the review room, talking via a Zoom-like service called Discord with employees working from home. Discord allows them to securely stream Payton’s playthrough of the game, so staffers can see the same things Payton’s seeing through his VR headset.
Payton, 39, has spent the past decade searching for new ways to adapt, new ways to challenge himself, and new ways to alter the future of video gaming. “Paramount to all of this,” he says, “is shipping high-quality, meaningful games that stand the test of time.” When he started Camouflaj, he wanted it to become an HBO of the gaming world, constantly breaking new ground. Now, as the world has changed over these past few months, Payton has found himself reexamining his priorities—thinking more and more about the people who brought all the energy to that office and the vision they all share.
It is a strange confluence of feelings: With the release of Marvel’s Iron Man VR on July 3, Payton’s career and the reputation of his company— not to mention his own reputation—is about to hit a new peak. But at the same time, in this quiet and surreal moment, Payton finds himself wondering, “What’s next?” And how does he balance that yearning to innovate and to build games for burgeoning new technology with the knowledge that his employees are counting on him for stability?
“This is the third major crossroads we’ve been at with this company in the past nine years,” Payton says. “All of our past experiences have led to this point.”
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All of this quiet also gives Payton time to contemplate his winding path to reach the upper echelon of the video game industry. He thinks back to how he struggled as a computer science major his first couple of years at Puget Sound; to how his father convinced him to switch his major to foreign languages and international affairs, and assured him that it was OK to let go of his dream of becoming a game developer; to how, after managing to claw into the video game business, after all, and working as the creative director on Halo 4 for Microsoft—and then getting removed from that position—he was so convinced that he was washed up at the age of 30 that he lay on his bed and cried.
There is, Payton admits, something about him that drives him to “take the difficult path with almost every opportunity I have in life.” This was true when he applied to college: After being accepted to both Puget Sound and the University of Washington, he heard that his first couple of years at Puget Sound would be far more challenging. Payton had dreamed of designing video games since he was a kid, and he decided to lean in to the challenge Puget Sound presented. When he heard that most video game developers major in computer science, he didn’t hesitate to dive into it.
During his freshman year in 2000, Payton took a class from a business professor, Jeff Matthews P’16, who had just begun teaching at Puget Sound. (Matthews is now George F. Jewett Distinguished Professor of Business and Leadership.) Payton was not a remarkable student in that class—or, for that matter, in many other classes those first couple of years—but they connected outside of the classroom, with Payton hanging around Matthews’ office, talking about politics and business and world affairs. “He was just a good conversationalist,” Matthews recalls, “and someone who was sincerely interested in things.”
By the end of his sophomore year, Payton says, his academic advisor informed him he was on the verge of flunking out. The advisor wound up speaking to Payton’s father about the seriousness of Payton’s situation. His father’s advice? “He said, ‘Ryan, you’re like all humans. Everyone’s good at some things and bad at some things. And you’re really bad at computer science. But your scores in Chinese and Japanese classes are really high. So why not pursue that instead?’” Payton heeded the advice and changed his major; by the time he graduated, he pulled up his GPA to a 2.8. In the meantime, he kept up his talks with Matthews, who learned about Payton’s passion for video games through a blog Payton kept, called The Gaming Chronicle, and through a column he wrote for The Trail. Even after Payton graduated and left to teach English in Japan, they kept in touch, with Payton keeping him updated on his work and Matthews offering advice on business and leadership.
Eventually, Payton used some of his clippings from The Trail to land freelance writing gigs, writing articles for Wired, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and others while teaching classes in rural Japan. For one article, he wound up interviewing an executive from Konami, the Japanese gaming company. Payton bonded with the executive’s translator after speaking Japanese with him. He interviewed for a job at Konami, went through several rounds of the process, and was told he didn’t get it. He moved back stateside to live with his parents in Vancouver, Wash., while he decided what to do next. And then he got an email: They actually did want him for the job. He took it, and paid his own way back to Tokyo.