Deep Inside the World of Monument Valley II

Deep Inside the World of Monument Valley II

Monument Valley was a phenomenon – downloaded over 30 million times, awarded Apple's 2014 'Game of the Year' and referred to by WIRED as 'the most beautiful iPad game ever made'. Just released some three years later, Dan Gray (Head of Studio, ustwo) takes us through the sequel and the internal processes that helped create it. 

Hi Dan, how's things?

Hey. I'm doing okay. I'm a little bit tired. I'm at the airport now and I think I just got over my jet lag, just as I’m about to fly home.

I can imagine you've been traveling a lot lately with MVs release?

It’s been the story of my life since the 5th of June when the game came out. Since then I’ve been to San Jose, San Francisco. Then back to London, then New York, then to L.A. then to Barcelona, then to London, then to Sydney, and now onto Dubai. It's massively exciting to come out and talk to everyone but I’m looking forward to getting home and chilling out.

Sounds like good times either way you look at it?

It sounds like I'm complaining, but I'm not at all. It’s been such a great experience. It's the first game I've made where we didn't actually tell anyone about it until we'd launched it, so spending 15 months in the studio making it without any feedback has been really intense. So, actually being able to get on the road and go and do talks up to four times a week has been an amazing experience.

Inside a Monument Valley II level. Dan Gray, Head of Studio at ustwo
Inside a Monument Valley II level. Dan Gray, Head of Studio at ustwo
Inside a Monument Valley II level. Dan Gray, Head of Studio at ustwo

Let's come back to Monument Valley II in a minute. Could you Tell us about ustwo as a company from an insider's point of view?

It's a really interesting setup, and one that I don't think is going to be easily understood from the outside. Maybe if I jump back in time to start - About six or seven years ago, there was just the ustwo London studio, and within that studio there was a team that had nothing to do with games called CWA (Content With Attitude) that got things going.

I joined about four and half years ago, specifically to focus on games. I got to bring on a dedicated team and although we worked within the wider design studio, we focused only on games. The first game we made was Monument Valley, then Lands End and now, Monument Valley 2.

We recently moved out of the London studio in Shoreditch, and moved to South London in our own little set up in Oval, which is really nice. Our studio does carry some of that DNA, but it’s also unique. And I think it’s this dynamic that has made it so easy for us to work and collaborate with some of our other offices like in Sydney. You’re on the same level straight away.

We now have the two studios in London, one in Malmö, Sweden, one in New York, and Sydney.

It sounds like a really unique setup. Did you have any clues to this before you joined?

Yeah, it's the reason I joined UsTwo in the first place, and the reason I left my previous job.

I'd worked at Microsoft, at Lionhead studios on high profile games. And then at Hello Games, which was a well-known indie studio. But from that first interview at ustwo, I knew there was no one making games like they had in mind.

In your office, what is your favourite thing on your desk?

Ha, funny. My favorite thing on or about my desk is that I don't have one - I like to drift around within the studio. We kind of set it up next to the developers, artist, and every other member of the company. Just a laptop, and no set deskspace. So, depending on what you’re working on you might find yourself sitting close to somebody different each week. Sometimes you end up in a silent room for a week if that’s your thing.

For me, I mainly like to hang around the communal areas. With my laptop, I sit on the sofa or one of the communal tables. So yeah, the best thing that I have on my desk is emptiness.

"From a strategic point of view, trusting one another and our creativity allowed things to flourish. It’s what enabled Monument Valley to work, and enabled Monument Valley 2 to work".

Dan Gray, ustwo Games
Character development took influences from many sources, even Ru Paul's Drag Race.

Nice. So let’s talk about Monument Valley. I haven't played part two yet but I loved the first release and was awed by how fun and beautiful it was. Did you work on both games start to finish?

Yeah, I did work on both games from idea to release. Eight people made Monument Valley, and all of those eight people, minus one, were still there for the second game. Ken Wong, who was the lead designer on Monument Valley, was only in London for a few years... he's Australian, so after the end of Monument Valley 1, he moved back to Australia and set up his own company in Melbourne.

I was a producer on the first game, and then when we spun off the separate company, I became CEO of that company, so Head of Studio, CEO, MD, whatever the terminology that anybody prefers. I like ‘Head of Studio’ because it makes it seem less corporate.

"I know the type of person I like to get a response from; somebody who says, "I never would've played or never would've downloaded a game before, but I downloaded Monument Valley because it's really interesting".

Dan Gray, usTwo Games

As a design-led studio, do you go through any other development processes that are different to a regular game studio?

The biggest thing we've taken through the company is the emphasis on user testing. So, most game studios don't do anywhere near the level of user testing that a design-led studio does. Because we're trying to make something for a very, very broad demographic – not a broad ‘games’ demographic – you're got to make an application that's gotta be usable by the entire customer base, so an emphasis on user testing is essential

The other thing is, we test with a broad variety of people. In the game studios that I'd worked at in the past, it was kind of a homogenous, mostly white males that liked rock music and video games. I think the design industry is a lot more diverse and inclusive than what games are, so we follow through that. We have a big emphasis on people being interested in cultural and artistic endeavors outside of video games.

Did you design the game with someone specific in mind like Tim Cook (CEO, Apple) as a player, or anyone else specific?

I’m pretty sure Tim has played the games but no, we don't design it for him specifically. Although, you could say it more broadly about Apple. We try and hold ourselves to the same principles that Apple do; an attention to deal and everything needs to feel precious. It's not about being first, it's about being the best. Things are ready when they're ready. So we do hold some of the principles; those are in the back of our minds. I wouldn't say we design the game for a specific person in mind. I know the type of person I like to get a response from who plays the game, and that's somebody who says they haven't played games before, somebody who says, "I never would've played or never would've downloaded a game before, but I downloaded Monument Valley because it's really interesting. The visuals are really interesting. I didn't think I could feel this way about a game. I didn't believe that I could have an emotional reaction to something." That's the kind of core person who I get a massive personal buzz out of whenever I speak to.

There was one lady after the San Francisco retail event, and she came up afterwards. She was like, "I wasn't even supposed to be here to see you guys come and talk, I was just walking around the store. I've got seven grandchildren and I never would think to recommend a game to them, but I think you've converted me. It sounds like you've got morals, sounds like you've got values. It's not about killing or revenge or anything, you're trying to tell the story of a mother and a child." When you meet those people, that's the kind of thing that makes it all worth it. Those 15 months I mentioned ... actually being able to get out there and realise that the thing you tried to do actually works is an amazing feeling.

Can you talk about how you user-tested the game that was different from the norm?

When I worked in more traditional games companies, it was very much a case of, trial the game with your family and friends. If it was fun, it was fun, but on top of that, there was a big emphasis on making a game that you think is ‘cool’, and hoping that everything else falls into place. Again, I think the thing we've taken from the UsTwo family is that we want everybody to enjoy what we make in their own little way. Yeah, and that's kind of represented just by the scope of the user testing that we've brought.

We’ve tested with thousand different people over the course of the Monument Valley franchise.

"Your actual place as an entertainer or a creator in this world isn't a worthless one. It's not just a distraction... You help facilitate greater meaning. Entertainment happiness is not to be downplayed."

Dan Gray, ustwo Games
The ustwo South London studio
The ustwo South London studio

Tell us about something you loved about the creation of the game?

I'd say, our openness. When I think about the way that we develop things, it’s our openness I hold most dear. Even if it comes with downsides from time to time, and even myself as the Head of Studio, I like to create an environment where everyone can criticise me. I want everybody to be better. I want everybody to criticise each other in a constructive way, but ... you know, seniority or job title isn't going to stop people from discussing positives or negatives about something they've created, in the same way that someone who's very junior can be trusted with a lot of responsibility and come up with some great ideas. That's definitely one thing that I'm really proud of with the setup that we've got, and I hope that if we do scale past the 20 people we maintain that in UsTwo Games.

Are there any specific learnings from Monument Valley that you can take into other parts of the ustwo business?

I'm probably not the best person to ask, but, I think that from a strategic point of view for ustwo, that trusting one another and our creativity allowed things to flourish. It’s what enabled Monument Valley to work, and enabled Monument Valley 2 to work. And even some other things we have made like Sway, Moodnotes and Pause... These are all projects that were a labor of love, that was really allowed time to breathe because the success we had in Monument Valley.

Can you take the game into VR, with the game being restricted by its fixed point perspective?

So VR is really interesting. We made Land's End VR after we made Monument Valley, and originally, that was just a little experiment. Oculus came to us and said, “We’ll happily pay for some R&D if you can explore what Monument Valley would feel like in VR”.

The tricky thing is, as you mentioned, it's kind of impossible. Because, it is only possible from one specific angle, and if you try and rotate that camera in the engine on Monument Valley, you see all these ... the parts to the level are on these disparate chunks, spread around in 3D space ... It doesn't quite work. This question gets asked all the time, like the question about AR, especially after Apple's announcement with the ARKit.

"I think the design industry is a lot more diverse and inclusive than what games are, so we follow through on that. We have a big emphasis on people being interested in cultural and artistic endeavours outside of video games".

Dan Gray, ustwo Games

We also hold one thing very dearly - this idea of platform perfect. So, when we made Monument Valley, we took a look at our core device, which was the iPad at the time, and said, "What is the most beautiful, perfect iPad game that we can make? What makes the most of all the interactions and the hardware itself? What's the perfect thing that we can make?" And that's how Monument Valley ... we came up with that. And when we looked into VR, it was really a case of saying, "What's the best experience we can make specifically for the Gear VR?" It's not a case of just shoehorning games or experiences from other platforms just to make a quick buck. I think we need to treat every platform with respect. So, if we were going to go back and do VR, it would be a VR specific game. If we were going to look at AR again, it would be an AR specific game. I think that's how we make the very best content that the people respect as well.

What's your prediction for games in 5 years? What's something you can see, that others might not?

Hmm… that’s a tough question because even that experts and professional games business strategists never get it right. Even in terms of our specific sales, it's never right. I think there's going to be a bigger emphasis on AR.

I think Apple has made a great move by putting what was a kind of a hard to access a piece of technology, into hundreds of millions of devices. The problem we always had when we were creating VR experiences was the fact that we had to rely on quite smaller instal bases, like the Gear VR, or the Rift, or the Vive, to actually be successful, whereas now, we're going to be able to put these experiences in everybody's pockets. So I know that we're going to go back and look at prototypes in AR, and I know there's a massive buzz about what everyone can do, so I think five years from now, whether it be normal applications, or whether it be games, I think there's going to be a bigger emphasis on how these experiences are represented within the real world using that technology.

What's a problem or challenge in the world that you think gaming could help solve?

Now, this is an interesting question. I had a bit of an epiphany about six months ago with a friend of mine. The friend of mine is a doctor, and whenever we were talking about our jobs, we kind of got into the conversation where I was like, "You do important shit, like save people's lives and stuff like that, and all I do is make video games." He said something that really changed my mind. He was like, "Yeah, but what do you think people like me do when they get home? Where do you think people escape to, to help them out with their job? You provide happiness, you provide entertainment to people. Like, your actual place as an entertainer or a creator in this world isn't a worthless one. It's not just a distraction. The types of things you make enable people like me to save those lives. You help facilitate greater meaning. Entertainment happiness is not to be downplayed, I don't think." That was a nice thought.

Apart from that, I see things like AR and VR hopefully allowing people to feel a better sense of empathy with the world. I think that when we see news articles and other things, with good and bad things that happen on the planet, you feel quite detached. You see them on the 2D screen, or you read them on a website. VR has been really amazing for this so far. We can actually show somebody what a refugee camp is like, or, you know, hopefully in AR, we'll be able to put someone in this room with you and have you interact with them... would be an amazing thing to actually humanise all this bad stuff that's occurring. So I hope that also happens.

Thanks for your time

A complete pleasure. Thankyou!

Back To Top

Subscribe to our Newsletter