Ryan Payton ’03 has a game for you.

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. 

ACTUAL REALITY  Ryan Payton ’03 normally has a team of 50 people in the Bellevue, Wash., workspace of his company, Camouflaj. The coronavirus forced most of them to work from home, just as they were finishing Marvel’s Iron Man VR, the new video game for PlayStation.
ACTUAL REALITY  Ryan Payton ’03 normally has a team of 50 people in the Bellevue, Wash., workspace of his company, Camouflaj. The coronavirus forced most of them to work from home, just as they were finishing Marvel’s Iron Man VR, the new video game for PlayStation.

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.”

•  •  •

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.

While living in Japan and working for Konami, editing documents and translating them between Japanese and English, Payton volunteered to give the company feedback on its Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, which was then under development. He would stay up late playing, sending notes to the developers, and so impressed them that they promoted him to an influential role on the development team for the Metal Gear Solid 4 franchise. “That put my career on a rocket ship,” he says. 

Payton spent three years at Konami; then, in 2008, his mother got cancer, and he yearned to get back stateside and be closer to his family. That’s when he landed one of the most high-profile jobs in the industry: working for Microsoft as creative director of Halo 4, the wildly popular Xbox video game franchise. “That made big news on the internet,” Matthews recalls. “Ryan wasn’t even 30 at the time. I was like, Holy moly, he’s really achieved.” 

Despite the success, Payton struggled to find his path and maintain his voice amid Microsoft’s massive bureaucracy. He called on Matthews for advice on how to be a stronger leader; Payton himself says he didn’t yet understand the nuances of leading a team, and “thought I just wanted the power to tell people what to do. But that’s a very old-school way of thinking about leadership.” 

By mid-2011, with Halo 4 still in the development stages, Payton had been demoted to a “narrative designer” position. His decision-making power was taken away, and that’s when he lay on his bed and cried, figuring that after the effort he’d put in to find his way into the gaming world, he’d managed to sabotage his own career. In July, Microsoft asked him to take another job within the company or leave. So he left. “I think, in a lot of ways, my superiors at Microsoft were correct,” he says now. “I should have been fired. I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.” 

A short time later, Payton reached out to Matthews again. He’d spent time thinking and recalibrating. Against the advice of his father, he’d decided to start his own company. “Some of my mentors in the gaming industry tell me I’m always taking the most difficult path,” he says. “There’s something about my personality that I always want to take on big challenges—mainly because I know the rewards will be greater.” 

Matthews had already told Payton he’d help him out any way he could; Payton presumed that meant with friendship and mentorship, but Matthews was also interested in finding his own toehold in the gaming business. “I didn’t realize what he meant,” Payton says, “until he spelled it out for me: ‘Ryan, I mean investing in the company.’”

Payton wanted to start a boutique company, small and independent, that would take chances and propel the gaming industry into new areas. “Some people say I’m crazy,” he told the gaming site Kotaku in 2012, “but I want to make a game that one billion people play at once, and it’s something that hits them harder than a great book or film.” 

It was such an ambitious goal that even after Matthews invested in Payton’s new company, Camouflaj, and agreed to become a board member and offer ongoing advice to Payton, he was fully prepared to lose every penny he put in. But this was the Ryan Payton he’d come to know: willful enough to take the difficult path and hope that he would somehow find a way to make it work. 

“You can have a slice of your investment portfolio that’s really high risk,” Matthews says. “My thinking was, I’ll probably lose all my money, but there’s a chance this could be successful. But I just really loved the guy, so I trusted him.”

•  •  •

Payton started Camouflaj in 2011, and within a year he’d grown the company to roughly 20 employees. He also had an idea for an ambitious new game for the iPhone called République, a thriller in which the game player needs to hack into the surveillance system of a totalitarian state in order to rescue a woman named Hope. In the fledgling years of smartphones, the games mostly lacked sophistication, but now that the iTunes Store was open to outside developers, Payton saw a way in. He set up a Kickstarter campaign to help crowdfund, and raised $550,000, much of it at the last minute, after he decided to create a version of the game for desktop computers, as well. 

Payton set up the first Camouflaj office in a former bank in Bellevue, a space so cramped that they left the windows open all the time because it felt like the office was constantly running out of oxygen. The journey was torturous, with long hours, little sleep, and nights of self-doubt about whether République could work. Yet the payoff was worth it: When the game was released in 2013, The Guardian called it “brilliant”; Google Play made it an Editor’s Choice; and one online critic called it “the most ambitious iOS game I’ve ever played.” It sold more than 100,000 copies. Says Payton: “It allowed us to build a legitimate studio, which enabled me to go around and pitch our next game.”

[Payton landing a job at Microsoft as creative director for the Xbox game Halo 4] made big news on the internet. I was like, Holy moly, he’s really achieved.”

– Prof. Jeff Matthews

As he’d already come to realize, though, there was no easy path to the next step. After finishing the fifth and final episode of République, Payton pitched a game to a Japanese company—code-named Orca, it was to be a game in the “battle royale” genre, with multiple players and a Survivor-style, last-man-standing finish. This was 2015, before the battle royale format became popular. Then, four months after the two sides struck a deal, the publisher canceled the project. Payton took the first flight to Japan, sat outside the CEO’s office, and begged him to change his mind. (The CEO didn’t budge.) Now that the battle royale format has taken off, thanks to games like Fortnite, that Japanese company “laughs about the mistake they made in canceling us,” Payton says. But at the time, Payton had 35 employees he was responsible for and just $30,000 in the bank. He assumed, once again, that he’d failed. “Ryan and I used to joke that we ran out of our nine lives about 12 lives ago,” Matthews says. “So many times we’ve told ourselves, ‘Man, I think we’re going to have to shut this thing down.’” 

Over time, however, Payton had learned to ride these emotional waves. He’d also emerged from his years at Microsoft understanding the need to listen to his employees, and one of them told him there was a ton of money floating around in virtual reality games. He recalled a conversation he’d had at a convention with Jay Ong, head of Marvel Games, about the emerging realm of virtual reality gaming, which involved players wearing specially designed headsets and immersing themselves completely. Payton went back to Ong and quickly brokered a deal. He figured it made sense to build Marvel’s first VR game around the Iron Man character—scientist and wealthy businessman Tony Stark. Marvel executives, impressed by a prototype and story proposal Camouflaj put together, agreed. While Marvel had experimented with small-scale VR gaming, including a game that worked with Facebook’s Oculus VR headset, they’d never done one that felt like “a real game” to Payton, rather than just a demo. 

The project required more compromise from Payton as he maneuvered the politics of working with such an iconic property. Over time, he had learned to delegate to his staff and embrace collaboration. “Team members are encouraged not to strike down an idea or immediately say no to anything,” he says. “We’re constantly trying to encourage them to come up with creative ways to get people to rally behind your ideas.” 

Sure, in those final months, he still found himself walking through the game constantly on the PlayStation VR headset, noticing small problems—like the timing of dialogue or an encounter with an enemy that’s too easy or too difficult—and calling them out to a note taker. But when the pandemic delayed the game’s release date by several months, he asked his team to rank the 20 major improvements they believed they could make during that time. Then, rather than immediately insisting they get to work, he told his team: Here are the issues. Do you agree? And if so, how can we make this game better? In those final weeks, Payton says, they managed to complete 18 of their 20 improvements. With many of the changes, the goal was to streamline the navigation of the game’s 10-hour story; for example, counting the number of enemies on screen and projectiles being shot at a player, to ensure that the experience felt not only challenging but as clean and clear as possible.

Marvel’s Iron Man VR—in which Tony Stark attempts to thwart a masked enemy named Ghost seeking revenge on him by resurrecting his old drone weapons and using them against him—was released to mostly positive reviews. UploadVR.com called it “an absolute triumph,” and ComicBook.com said, “Immediately, it is easy to be blown away by what Marvel Games and Camouflaj have accomplished.” Still, there have been technical issues and complaints about the mechanics that Payton knew would confound some gamers. “Playing the game can be very overwhelming for some,” he admits, “because many players have never experienced anything close to flying in Iron Man’s armor like this before. It takes time to master those controls.” 

All of it fits with Payton’s overarching objective of pushing the gaming industry forward. Ten days after its release, when I reach him on the phone, Payton admits he’s still processing the negative feedback, but that his conversations with Matthews have helped redirect him toward what matters: that this small company, built out of ambition and risk, now has an international reputation—that, as Matthews puts it, Camouflaj’s “brand equity has gone up by leaps and bounds.” 

That doesn’t make the future any easier to figure out, particularly at a time when Payton and at least some of his team will have to figure out how to work together for the foreseeable future from hundreds of miles away. Despite that, as Payton reaches the other side of 40, he’s started to figure out how to survive in the video game business for the long haul—to balance his penchant for taking big swings with his embrace of the collaborative process. 

He has some potential new projects in the works, though he isn’t able to share details yet. As his company moves into its second decade, he finds himself at a larger crossroads: What does he want Camouflaj to be? How does he stay true to its mission of creating meaningful, innovative games while keeping the business healthy? “I think there are more doors open to us,” Matthews says. “If a big company came to us and asked us to take on a new project, we’re in a great position to do that. Do we keep operating as a contractor, or do we go back to creating our own intellectual property, as we did with République?” 

Perhaps most important, as he spends so much time alone, Payton’s come to realize how he’s no longer alone at all. He’s not the same independent spirit he was when he was younger, for better and for worse. All that collective energy may have momentarily departed from the office, but as his company has grown, the choices he now faces—and the risks he’s willing to take on—are no longer just his own. 

“It took me a while to understand that just doing what I want to do is not necessarily the best path,” Payton says. “I’m not doing this by myself. I’m doing this with 50 other colleagues.”

 

By Michael Weinreb
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Oct. 12, 2020