Inspired by real life palaces, optical illusions and popular puzzle games, Monument Valley is a beautifully designed architectural adventure. Players guide a tiny silent princess through curious castles and towers, navigating trap doors, trick staircases and paths that lead seemingly to nowhere, all whilst avoiding some ominous-looking crow people. Each level of the game features a different, Escher-esque isometric structure but the same minimal design, with simple shapes and bold, block colours. With its zen-like soundtrack and mysterious plot, it’s an engrossing experience – and one that has earned millions of fans worldwide.
Since its release in April 2014, Monument Valley has made over $5 million in revenue via 2.4 million sales, been installed on over 10 million devices and recently received Apple’s coveted Design Award and iPad Game of the Year awards – an impressive result for an experimental project conceived by a team of eight at London studio ustwo.
Founded by Matt Miller and John Sinclair in 2004, ustwo has offices in London, Malmö and New York and over 200 staff: the bulk of its work is in creating user experiences for brands, including the interface for Tesco’s hudl tablet and Sony’s mobile apps, but since 2008, it has been launching its own apps and games funded by income from commercial projects. Previous releases include MouthOff, an app allowing users to shout through a range of animated mouths, wallpaper creator app Granimator and Whale Trail, a psychedelic adventure game starring a whale that eats rainbows and colourful bubbles.
Based in Shoreditch, the studio’s in-house games team now includes nine full-time staff working solely on experimental endeavours. Most were transferred from commercial teams but in early 2013, visual designer Ken Wong and executive producer Dan Gray were hired to add some traditional games experience (both had previously worked for games developers). After helping launch puzzle app Blip Blup, they were asked to devise a concept for a new game, with no brief other than to make it the best that ustwo had ever released.
“I had been toying with creating a game about architecture for a while – it’s kind of a passion of mine,” says 2 3 Wong. “After a bit of collaborating,
I came up with some suggestions for how we might do that, showed it to the team [including Miller and Sinclair] and everyone was on board.”
Beyond the basic idea for Monument Valley, there wasn’t much of a plan, says Wong – only that every part of the game should work on three levels: as a piece of architecture, an interactive puzzle and a beautiful graphic composition on-screen. What followed was 55 weeks of trial and error, with dozens of levels thrown away or re-invented, before a beta version was released in December 2013 and the finished game four months later in April 2014.
“There was no set process or any single inspiration,” adds Wong. “I designed some levels myself, others we’d sketch out and then build in the games engine. For some, we’d develop a puzzle then pad out visuals. We might have a theme or concept for each level like, ‘what if this one was contained within in a box, or this one is upside down’ and then we’d just be jamming on that central concept until it came together,” he adds.
“I don’t think we ever reached a point where we knew exactly what it was going to look like. It was a constant process of prototyping, testing and aggressively cutting,” says Gray. “Even after we showed the game to [Miller] and he said ‘it’s a great product’, we still ended up making a bunch of terrible levels. It was a huge learning process, and I’d say we made the game wrong two or three times before we made the shipping version,” he adds.
While the team is made up of level designers, programmers and artists, Gray and Wong describe their roles as fluid, with each taking on different parts of the design and development process as projects evolve (one of the programmers, for example, also created the Monument Valley soundtrack). The group operates independently of commercial teams – it doesn’t work on client projects, or recruit designers from elsewhere in the business – but colleagues from across ustwo’s Shoreditch studio took part in user testing and were on hand to offer advice on the user experience throughout the process.
“It really matters that the staff here aren’t all gamers and developers – it’s hardly surprising that if you create a game in a studio full of ‘normal people’, so to speak, rather than a cell of hardcore experienced gamers, you end up with a game that ‘normal people’ can play,” says Gray.
“One of the things that limits current video game design is that it’s a very self-perpetuating culture,” adds Wong. “People grow up playing certain games and when they become a game designer, they want to pay tribute to that, making their version of Mario or Zelda, so it all becomes very trope-y … Our advantage was being able to step back a bit, take everything we know and love about video games but attack it with a fresh approach, more from a user experience and interaction design perspective,” he explains.
During the game’s development, Wong and Gray say they were never given any fixed deadlines or revenue targets (when it was released, Gray says he discussed with ustwo’s management the hope to recoup its $852,000 development costs by December, a target that was achieved in just one week). Having such freedom is an unusual luxury for a games developer, and one Wong and Gray say few companies would be willing to grant without a clearer idea of returns.
“We’ve both worked for medium to large games teams and at the end of the day, someone has to pay the bills – if they’re spending x million dollars, they want to establish a plan and a schedule from the beginning, and if you don’t meet that, they want to know what’s going on,” says Wong. “The difference here was that [Miller] never tried to interfere or change the way we did things – he just said he had faith it would work out, and that allowed us to make quite an innovative game. I’ve never had that experience before, and don’t really know anywhere else where it would happen.”
While some might take the opportunity to embark on a wildly ambitious project, Gray and Wong say this freedom encouraged them to place some realistic limits on the type of game they wanted to build and the timeframe in which they should do it. “It made us feel more of a sense of responsibility than if we had been given more limits, I think,” says Wong. “We decided among ourselves that we should ship something in the first year, break even in two and make something that was creative and different, but still a successful investment,” he explains.
Ahead of its release, the team hoped Monument Valley would achieve a similar level of success to puzzle game The Room and indie adventure game Sword and Sworcery, but had no idea it would appeal to such a broad audience: most downloads took place in the US but the game also reached audiences in Russia, Canada, Japan and across Europe, and was adapted for 13 languages. With iTunes gaming charts mostly dominated by free games trying to upsell in-app purchases or those offering endless hours of gameplay, it was an unusual success, and proof that a relatively simple, ten level premium title can make a profit, if done well.
“Because of its very artsy, minimal style, I thought it would mostly appeal to hipsters or people who read design blogs. It did … but we’ve also heard from people that their parents or their three or six-year-old child enjoy playing it,” says Wong.
While the game’s popularity was largely due to five star reviews from critics and players, Wong and Gray are keen to point out that PR played an important role in its success: as well as releasing intriguing trailers and a free-to-access beta version, the team generated excitement ahead of its release via a blog and social media, and promoting the game to design press – a tactic they say other games developers have been relatively slow to embrace.
“We speak to a lot of developers who really believe that to be successful in the app store, you just have to make a good game, and that’s not the case,” says Gray. “It’s about the hype you generate on social media and assets like screen grabs and trailers, and PR-ing it the right way.”
Wong agrees: “When you make music or film, or any other kind of media, you acknowledge that you’re running a business, and that promotion and advertising are a big part of that. [With Monument Valley], we were very careful with our business decisions, even to the point where distinguishing it as an ‘artsy, design-y game’ helped it stand apart in the market. If other games were focusing on shoot ‘em ups or fast action, we could make something different which focused on visuals, and quality user experience, and be one of the few people doing that,” he adds.
Monument Valley may seem like an overnight success, but ustwo has spent years investing in creating its own apps and games, without enjoying the same level of returns – in an interview with CR in 2010, Miller said the studio had spent £250,000 in 2008/9, but had only seen £130,000 in return. Given Monument Valley’s success, most companies would surely be keen to roll out a sequel, but there are no plans to release a Monument Valley 2 in the near future (though an eight level expansion pack, Forgotten Shores, was released in November).
“We want to try something new and completely different. It’s scary, because you’re starting from scratch, but that’s the holy grail as a games designer – not just to make one great game, but to keep putting them out,” says Wong. It’s a risk, of course, with no guarantee that the next venture will be as successful, but the pair insist ustwo is more concerned with developing new ideas than making millions rehashing old ones.
The next project is yet to be decided – the team has been working on experiences for VR headsets and are keen to explore the platform, but say it is more of an R&D venture. The long term aim is to create more mobile and tablet games which place design and visuals at the heart of the user experience. In turn, Gray and Wong hope to encourage others in the industry to make innovative releases which will help challenge perceptions of gaming as a niche activity.
“People have these fixed ideas of what video games are – they usually think of things like Space Invaders or Call of Duty,” says Wong. “You’d never think of movies in the same way, because it’s understood there’s a movie for everyone, and I think the games industry needs to work harder to let people know that there’s a game out there for everyone too.” Gray agrees, adding he’d like to see games discussed in mainstream media in the same way as books, films or plays.
Turning the games team into a standalone business has been a long and costly process but for ustwo, it’s a gamble that is paying off. As well as turning a profit, Monument Valley has given the company one of its most forward facing products to date, even leading to new commercial commissions. “The team was never set up just to advertise the company … but we’ve had a great response, with project managers saying people had contacted them because they had seen Monument Valley,” says Gray. “I don’t think we ever set out with a grand vision or goal,” says Miller. “It was initially about having fun, whilst enjoying the freedom of creating and experimenting, but the process actually helped push our own skills forward….We’ve continually recycled everything we’ve learned from launching our own products back into our client service work, and it’s that marriage that’s become our competitive advantage,” he adds.