Soon, it will be as easy as pressing a chest-mounted Arc Reactor for you to recreate the adventures Tony Stark experiences in Iron Man. Simply powering up your gaming console, plugging in a cable, and strapping on a virtual reality (VR) headset will allow you to fly across the sky and fire beams of energy from your hands.
This is all thanks to Camouflaj, a Bellevue-based independent game development company creating Iron Man VR for the Sony PlayStation.
Landing such a notable game development deal is a coup of sorts for Camouflaj, a company that was started in 2011 in the Bellevue bedroom of founder Ryan Payton. Since then, Camouflaj has moved several times as it has grown, recently settling into a nearly 11,000-square-foot space in downtown Bellevue. Close to 60 employees work there, and there’s room to add another 40 people if necessary.
A former creative director and narrative designer at Microsoft, Payton quit his job, liquidated all his stock, withdrew his entire 401(k) savings, and poured everything he had — somewhere between $500,000 and $800,000 — into starting Camouflaj.
“I am obsessed with the game industry, and I love the game industry,” Payton said, when asked why he took such a risk to pursue his dream. “Anything related to the arts and crafts of making games, I am interested, and I want to be involved.”
Payton pitched Camouflaj’s first video game idea, République, to Bungie, the Bellevue game developer known for creating the blockbuster Destiny and Halo franchises. Although Bungie declined Payton’s pitch, Payton said the company gave him valuable ideas that shaped République’s concept and mechanics.
He also was encouraged by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $3 million to develop the video game Double Fine Adventure (later renamed Broken Age). Payton, himself, turned to Kickstarter in 2012, hoping to raise money to bring République to market.
“It was a very emotional roller coaster for the 30-day campaign,” Payton recalled, reflecting on its initial lukewarm response. Still, the campaign was successful, raising approximately $500,000. “I remember waking up the morning of the Kickstarter, knowing that we were going to hit the goal, and I remember crying in my kitchen.”
In the end, République — which, incidentally, was inspired by the name of a Paris Métro station Payton spotted on vacation — was released in 2013. The five-episode action-adventure game allows players to help a character named Hope escape a totalitarian state by switching between surveillance cameras and interacting with the environment. The game is available on every major platform, including VR, and has proved popular among gamers.
After developing République’s first five episodes — and burning through a budget of $6 million — Payton began to look for another project. While in Shanghai, China for a business trip, Payton’s team back home in Bellevue began to experiment with VR game development. That tinkering eventually led to Camouflaj landing a game-development deal with Marvel Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment to develop Iron Man VR exclusively for PlayStation VR.
Although Payton was tight-lipped about the details of the game during an interview with 425 Business earlier this year, Camouflaj officially announced this spring that it had been chosen to develop the game. This summer, Payton attended Comic-Con International in San Diego, where he joined a panel that included members of Marvel Games, and shared his enthusiasm for the project.
“Developing Marvel’s Iron Man VR is as incredibly challenging as it is fun,” he explained. “The world of Iron Man and Tony Stark is such a fertile world to be creative in, but it demands that we execute on a number of key features — none more important than free-roaming flight as Iron Man . . . As fans of Iron Man and PlayStation VR, we believe we have a clear idea of what you (gamers) all want out of Marvel’s Iron Man VR, and we’re working hard every day to deliver on that.”
Payton credits Camouflaj’s Eastside roots for success that he and Camouflaj had with République, as well as landing the current Iron Man VR development deal.
“We are surrounded by a lot of influential and helpful players in the industry,” Payton said. “I am very thankful for that, and that’s why I love — love — living and working and developing games in Bellevue.”
Still, hanging around in the backyard of giants also has its challenges.
Camouflaj competes for talent, and hiring has always been difficult, especially during the company’s early, cash-strapped years. To alleviate that, Payton focuses on building a flat-structured, friendly, and transparent environment that encourages workplace autonomy. For example, the team at Camouflaj increased the frequency of discussions about improvements for the current development style from every few months to every two weeks.
As the company continues to grow, Payton concedes it’s difficult to maintain that work environment. Candidly, he gives himself a B-minus grade when it comes to running the company in such an egalitarian way.
“If people are saying everything is perfect here,” Payton said, “I think that there’s something wrong.”