Ustwo isn't a typical game developer. A self-described "global digital product studio", it's a company that specialises in user interface design and app development for clients as varied as Barclays, Tesco and Google. As such, its games team's approach is a little different.
Monument Valley is testament to this. A gorgeously presented puzzler made by a small group of eight within ustwo, it's a title that had no initial brief beyond ‘make something special'. Monument Valley's glowing reviews and strong App Store performance suggests the team did just that.
In our latest Making Of feature, ustwogames' executive producer Dan Gray discusses how the game was conceived, the advantages of working alongside non-gamers, and why he wouldn't want to watch Bruce Lee punching henchmen for seven hours.
"After our previous game release Blip Blup, we sat down around early April of last year to prototype new ideas," says Gray of Monument Valley's creative origins. "One of our methods for doing this was for [ustwo designer and artist] Ken Wong to riff on visual concepts."
"These pieces of art Ken produced would then be placed on the wall, regardless of whether they would actually work as a game. They were great starting points for conversations and we kept returning to one in particular until we decided to create a full blown prototype."
The early concept for Monument Valley embraced many of the stylistic traits that would inform the full game, displaying an M. C. Escher-esque impossible structure drawn in a bold, relatively minimalist style.
"The look of the game actually changed very little since that very first piece of concept art," says Gray. "It's always been isometric and clean, and featured stairs and towers. For inspiration we looked at architecture from the Middle East, India and North Africa."
As for Monument Valley's distinctive single-screen levels, Gray says "We also investigated 'little worlds': forms that floated within a frame of negative space such as sculptures, architectural models, bonsai trees, and typography posters."
The challenge for ustwo, once the initial concept was settled upon, was to create puzzles that would prove compelling for players, while ensuring that each of the different creative elements dovetailed.
"Every screen in Monument Valley needs to work in three different ways - as a puzzle, as an architectural structure, and as a piece of graphic composition," says Gray. "If any one of these wasn't working, the play experience just didn't feel right.
If there was ever a struggle between two different paths, we picked whichever option felt more elegant.Dan Gray
"The three level designers passed each of the levels between them to get a variety of perspectives. If there was any secret, I guess it was 'elegance'. If there was ever a struggle between two different paths, or we found it hard to make a decision, we picked whichever option felt more elegant. Sometimes this meant making a puzzle less challenging, or cutting a puzzle out altogether."
The subject of challenge is significant. Monument Valley was designed to be accessible to everyone, not just gamers. As such the team drew on ustwo's non-game focused, user interaction specialist staff to ensure the game felt intuitive throughout.
"We've definitely taken things from the wider studio throughout development, with our main boon being the use of proper user testing," says Gray. "Being able to borrow testers from a plethora of different backgrounds, skill sets and ages really helped to shape the experience and the user interactions specifically."
Another concession made to Monument Valley's broad target demographic was length. The game can be completed in around 90 minutes, which left some players feeling short-changed.
"There are many different experiences on the App Store," says Gray. "Some go for length of play and repetition of a great core mechanic and some attempt to focus on a compact yet bespoke offering. I can say that only a tiny fraction of users have been unsatisfied with the experience whilst the positive comments have blown us away in their quantity."
"We could speak on this subject forever and internally we have done, but our opinion is that length does not equal value. My favourite movie of all time is Enter the Dragon, and I don't believe it would have been improved by watching Bruce Lee one inch punching henchmen repeatedly for a further five hours."
The discussion around Monument Valley's perceived value is made more prominent thanks to the game's premium price point. Gray says that free-to-play was never really an option.
"After delving into development we began to realise that the only way to fulfill the vision we had was to go premium," he says. "We wanted players to be entranced by this world and the journey of Ida, their eyes transfixed on what was unfolding and the only way to achieve this was by avoiding any distractions. That meant forgoing leaderboards, pay walls and heavy social integration.
"People told us we were crazy but we still stand by that decision."
Monument Valley is unique in a number of ways then, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game's development is the degree of freedom with which the team operated.
"We've only ever been told to create something truly special that we're proud to put our names to," says Gray. "We wanted to achieve this within twelve months to ensure we remained creatively fresh without burning out.
We've only ever been told to create something truly special that we're proud to put our names to.Dan Gray
"To be honest it's been a risk, a calculated one but a risk none the less - to allow this bunch of super creative people to make the best game of their careers no questions asked. But it's only through that freedom that we created something special. In retrospect it was undeniably the right decision."
With creative freedom there's always a risk of projects spiralling out of control. Gray says ustwogames avoided this thanks to experience and self-imposed restrictions.
"We're fortunate enough to all be quite experienced so we're much better at reigning things in if we feel it's getting out of hand," he says. "We also set a rough delivery date that we wanted to hit as a team, so make no mistake we had to make sacrifices in order to make our launch window. We're hoping to revisit some of those ideas in the future however."
For Gray, his most difficult spell with Monument Valley came after the game was completed.
"Sitting in the studio a week before release with no idea of what people were going to say about the game was tough," he says. "Putting so much of ourselves into something and throwing it out into the world, knowing you now have no control over it and you can't make any changes."
Gray needn't have worried. Monument Valley peaked at number one in Top Paid Apps on the App Store in around 50 countries across the world and currently has a 9.2 Quality Index rating.
"Compared to our targets we've performed well beyond what we were expecting," he says. "We knew we were going to have a wide audience between gender and age, the only question was whether or not we could reach them. The help we've had from Apple in addition to the reviews and excitement we've had from the community really ensured we hit those people who don't even play games, as well as those that have been following our progress."
Support and ports
Further reflecting on Monument Valley's success, Gray says that much of the game's power comes from the team's initial vision.
"Monument Valley scarily resembles the first piece of concept art we created," he says, "much more so than any game I think any of us have ever made. I think that's indicative of how strong the core idea was. The same reason we stared at that print twelve months ago is the same reason people get sucked into our release screenshots. They leave people wondering how this thing even works as a game, you don't understand it but you're intrigued."
As for the future of Monument Valley, Gray confirms that the team is developing additional content while working on bringing the game to new platforms.
"The cat's out of the bag by this point and we can confirm we are working on more chapters to be released on iOS and our upcoming Android launch. We're not to far away from that Android release now so we're hoping they enjoy the game as much as the iTunes crowd have.
"As far as other platforms go we've really made no concrete decisions yet, we're just trying to see what works and what doesn't for each device. We don't want to be shoehorning features in or make significant changes if it detracts from the core experience."