Lucas Pope discusses his career, from Quake mods to Naughty Dog, the success of Papers, Please and why there won’t be a sequel.
Three-and-a-half years ago I somehow lost my passport in Cologne. You may laugh at this – and looking back, I occasionally chuckle about it – but at the time as a 19-year old, it was very scary.
“You’re a real person, but from their perspective it’s just like an anomaly that they’re worried about. They can’t verify your identity or they’re being really extra careful.”
The panic sank in as I realised it was missing. I had to let my family and boss know the situation. I called the Irish embassy and followed up with the German consulate to get papers sorted for a flight back to Dublin.
Then there was the hour-long train from Cologne to Frankfurt the next day which had me in tears. Sitting in Frankfurt Main airport (and having to run it end-to-end at one point), stressing out as to whether I’ll get the papers in time for the flight, and how I nearly didn’t get past security thanks being given photocopied papers, not the genuine article, by Aer Lingus.
The first few times I played Papers, Please, it reminded me of those 24 hours in Germany that have left me scarred. It was one of those experiences similar to my own that helped inspire the game’s creator, Lucas Pope, to develop the game.
“That’s one of the things I like about the game,” Pope tells me. “When you look at it from the other side, at least for me, I have a whole new level of understanding for the position that the authorities at the German airport, at least in your case, were in.”
“They see a thousand of you a day. You’re a real person, but from their perspective it’s just like an anomaly that they’re worried about. They’re scared you’re going to do something wrong, they can’t verify your identity or they’re being really extra careful.
“This was one of the things I tried to capture in the game, this kind of ambiguity and this vagueness to everything, not knowing for sure what anybody is saying is true and not knowing who to trust.”
But there’s been no uncertainty regarding how Papers, Please has fared since release. It was one of 2013’s biggest indie success stories.
The Apple Bug
I’m speaking to Pope on a very early Sunday morning through Skype to compensate his nine-hour time difference in Japan on a Sunday evening. He lives in Tokyo with his wife, a programmer he met at a games company they were both working at, after he moved from the States four years ago.
Whilst growing up in the US state of Virginia Pope got the bite for games. A NES was an essential part of gaming at the time, but it was a Mac Plus that Pope’s parents bought him that sparked his interest in programming.
“It has this packed-in application called Hypercard, which was basically a way you could script tiny interactive pieces of software,” he says. “And it was a programmer language, it wasn’t visual scripting, you had to write code.
“But you could write sprites and move them around and you could have buttons and interactions and things like that. That was where I first started realising how much cool stuff you could do with software.”
After “tooling around” on his own and making C64 games with friends, Pope helped make a commercial mod for Quake (a game that “rocked my world”), which was sold to a publisher and made it to retail. Pope and the core group that made the mod would later go on to start Ratloop in the late nineties.
“There was no indie scene back then. You had to produce all this crap before you made any money and that means you needed a publisher.”
“There was no indie scene back then,” he says. “GDC was just starting and it’s hard to actually realise how different it was back then making games, because you couldn’t just make a game and sell it to people.
“You had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing discs and putting them in boxes and shipping them to Walmart. You had to produce all this crap before you made any money and that means you needed a publisher.
“So you had to have a publisher and a distributor that takes care of those expenses, because we were a bunch of kids and we couldn’t afford that kind of thing.”
Activision was one of Ratloop’s publishing partners, putting out a couple of games through its budget label which sold “pretty well, but not well enough” to make a living at the studio. It didn’t help that there was fierce competition from Eastern European developers who would work for half the amount Ratloop would do it for.
After a stint at RealTime Associates, Pope moved to Santa Monica, and with some luck was hired as a programmer at what is now Sony’s flagship studio, Naughty Dog.