“I didn’t have the resume for that kind of job, but Naughty Dog has a policy of taking a chance on people sometimes,” says Pope.
“The key for me at Naughty Dog was I liked tools programming, I like visual tools, I like user interface kind of stuff and no-one likes that. Literally, in the games industry, it’s really hard to find people who like writing tools, so that was kind of my advantage.
“At Naughty Dog I learnt how you remove things, how you sacrifice a lot of work that’s already done in order to make a better game.”
“You can kind of see that in Papers, Please, which is a very UI heavy game. It’s clunky intentionally, but it’s very much about the user interfaces interaction and that’s where my interest lies.”
Pope’s introduction to the studio was a trial by fire, getting thrown into development of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune about halfway through. But it provided “an interesting experience” that he took a lot from despite being on the project for around eight months, creating UI tools the team didn’t have at the time.
It was on Uncharted 2 that Pope learned what made a game really sing through valuable advice from one of the development team’s main leads, game director Bruce Straley, who, with Neil Druckmann, would go on to form the development team that built The Last of Us after work on UC2 wrapped.
“From him, I learnt how you focus on what makes your game good, how you make it awesome and also how you cut away stuff, how you remove things, how you sacrifice a lot of work that’s already done in order to make a better game.”
With the team “firing on all cylinders”, Uncharted 2 released to massive acclaim and was Naughty Dog’s finest hour at the time, running away with numerous game of the year awards in 2009.
But towards the end of the game’s development, Pope decided it would be his final project at the studio, having done a collaboration in his spare time with his wife on a PC game called Mightier. Uncharted 3 would follow, but by that point there was no motivation to work on the project from Pope.
“After Uncharted 2, which I thought was an awesome game, I couldn’t see a lot of potential for new, cool ideas in the franchise.”
“Working on Uncharted at Naughty Dog was great, but for me, I could see the next game was going to be Uncharted 3 and I had ideas about small games I wanted to make,” says Pope. “So I was sort of not looking forward to working on Uncharted because they’re great games but they follow a definite formula. And after Uncharted 2, which I thought was an awesome game, I couldn’t see a lot of potential for new, cool ideas in the franchise, I guess.
“[Naughty Dog co-presidents] Christophe [Balestra] and Evan [Wells] are really smart guys and really nice guys too and we’re still friends and there was never any animosity, I just told them, ‘I think I’ll be leaving after this project’ and that’s it. They didn’t want me to leave, but nobody was really that surprised.”
After leaving Naughty Dog and the move to Japan, Pope went on to make a few smaller games, but Papers, Please – released last August – was his first commercially available game through Steam Greenlight, which by his own admission passed through the controversial fan-voted process rather quickly than most other games.
“Greenlight was weird for me particularly because it was so easy. And especially at a time where developers were having a hard time with it, I more or less sailed right through. It’s hard to talk about it because, and it sounds like I’m bragging, it was easy. And I don’t have any complaints.”
Pope says Papers, Please got “super lucky” in getting through Greenlight, and he credits YouTube Let’s Plays as one of the main reasons.
“That’s more or less what pushed me through Greenlight. Somebody like Nerdcubed noticed it on Greenlight and played it through his YouTube channel and suddenly, there’s all these votes on Greenlight to vote it up.
“So it did end up being a popularity contest but I guess I got lucky with that because it got picked up by a lot of YouTube players.”
Papers, Please may have been Pope’s first commercial title as an indie, but it wasn’t the first time its fictional setting of Arstozka was used. As a warmup to Ludum Dare 23 in 2012, Pope made The Republia Times, a flash game which saw you as the editor-in-chief of the main national newspaper of Republia, a country in a war with Arstozka.
“This dystopian, fascist setting works nicely for game mechanics because you can tell the player, ‘you have to do this. You have to do it because that’s how we fucking run things here, we tell you how to do it and you do it’.”
“There was never an idea for the universe. The gameplay concept for The Republia Times is something that I had talked about with my wife a little bit, like ‘I want to make a game that’s just text that has to deal with propaganda’. We never got around to doing that but I just figured, ‘alright, Ludum Dare is coming up, let me just try a warmup for that, get some tools setup, get flash going and try to program some stuff because I never programmed in flash before.
“And that’s kind of when that game concept felt fully formed. It just has two countries in it, which are just two typical battling countries with names that both sound similar and are typical double-speak kind of names.
“What I found making this game is that this communist setting or this dystopian, fascist setting works nicely for game mechanics because you can tell the player, ‘you have to do this’. There’s not a whole lot of questioning of, ‘why?’. ‘You have to do it because that’s how we fucking run things here, we tell you how to do it and you do it’. That works perfectly well with the setting of some kind of communist government or some kind of bureaucracy where the rules just come down from the top and boom, that’s your job.
“And that played into Papers, Please perfectly because I had the core mechanics of moving papers around and comparing information, but I didn’t have any setting and from the beginning, there was no idea that this was going to be in the same universe…”