FFF Podcast #02: Dan Gray on creating Monument Valley 2

FFF Podcast #02: Dan Gray on creating Monument Valley 2

We made the least anticipated mobile game of all time, because no one actually knew it was coming yet.

Monument Valley is an award-winning puzzle game for iOS and Android that’s been downloaded and played more than 30 million times, has inspired countless pieces of fan art and was even played by a fictional president in House of Cards. In this second episode of our podcast I’m very happy to have a chat with Dan Gray who’s the head of Studio at ustwo Games in London about Monument Valley 2 the much awaited sequel.

Listen to the podcast here or find the edited transcript down below.

Glenn Garriock: Welcome to the FormFiftyFive podcast Dan.

Dan Gray: Cool. Thanks for having me, man. You’ve caught me on a rare day that I’m actually back in the studio after launch.

GG: That was going to be literally my first topic, how do you even start to launch a game like this across the globe and how did you keep it a secret for this long?

DG: I know. That’s the hardest bit. The secret bit is genuinely the hardest bit because I’ve been working in games for ten years now, for big companies and small companies. But usually what happens is you announce something, then it’s all about the hype, you get on a hype train for those six, eight months before that game comes out and then when you’re in the studio either late at night and you tear your hair out and you’re wondering whether it’s all worth it, the things that end up keep you going are seeing videos on the internet or seeing people on Twitter talk about how excited they are. Now the worst thing about keeping this a secret is, we didn’t get any of that, any of that really cool feedback. Not only that I had to keep the whole thing a secret. It’s been hard, it’s genuinely the hardest project I’ve ever worked on.

GG: That’s sort of part of the motivation as well, isn’t it, seeing the excitement online and on social media and people that you talk to. How do you still motivate the team to keep going with the project when you’re not getting any feedback in the early stages?

DG: It’s funny. I remember when we first decided we were going to come back and make a sequel, I told the team and I told Apple: “this is going to be the most anticipated mobile game of all time.“ That’s what we’re going to make. We’re genuinely going to make that and then over the course of time it turned up being that we made the least anticipated mobile game of all time because no one actually knew it was coming yet. So, it’s turned out the opposite of what I promised everybody. It just dropped on stage during a WWDC.

GG: That a pretty nice teaser for a release though.

DG: I know. It’s all been worth it. It’s all been massively worth it and the amount of stuff we’ve done in the last four weeks has been crazy. Buy yeah, as you said, it’s hard to keep everyone motivated because you say these things, you say reasons why you want to make a certain game. So, for us, we wanted to make a game that people would enjoy even if they’ve never played a game before and you tell yourselves that and you have meetings and you know these are principles you’re trying to hold yourself towards but you don’t actually know whether you’ve done it or not until you put it in people’s hands. So, we released the game 5th June now so it’s been just over a month. The payoff you get when you do some of the public events or podcasts like this and you get people speaking to you afterwards, you’re like God, did we really do it? Is that the thing that we managed to do? Usually, you know much earlier but yeah, the painstaking nature of making a secret sequel is that we didn’t actually know until the week of launch.

GG: I should probably do a quick spoiler alert before I get into anything for people that haven’t played the game yet. We will probably talk about some things that are going to happen in the game so if you haven’t played it, I recommend you play it first then you come back to this.

So, Monument Valley 2 follows a mother-daughter narrative as they explore this world that the character from the first game helped create and you play as both the mother and the daughter as the daughter learns how to get around this world and then has to go on her own journey. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about how you got to this idea of having the mother and the daughter characters? It’s a very rare duo to see in gaming these days.

…storylines and characters that we thought were underrepresented within video games and one of those conversations ended up revolving around motherhood…

DG: The best way to describe is, it’s the growing relationship between a mother and her child. So, it’s how that relationship changes over time. I guess when we think about where we ended up settling on that as a goal, we started working on the game back in February of last year and we were prototyping a whole bunch of different ideas whilst at the same time having conversations on a regular basis as a team about storylines and characters that we thought were underrepresented within video games and one of those conversations ended up revolving around motherhood because usually there are hardly any mothers in games whatsoever and when they are present, they’re usually seen as some kind of side character or escort quest or something to protect because mothers are vulnerable things, summarised by the fact that their only value seems to be the fact they have a child. Now that’s obviously complete rubbish.

So, for us, we wanted to try and tell the story of a mother who yes, she had to bring up her child to be an adult in this world but she has hobbies, she likes to play the flute, she’s one of the original architects of this world, she builds the sacred geometry that powers all this architecture that you see in Monument Valley 1 and Monument Valley 2. She has a lot of depths to her character and just throwing that on its head and saying Monument Valley 1 and Monument Valley 2, they’re not games about walls of text or cutscenes or what we refer to as quite heavy-handed storytelling. If we can manage to tell the story of motherhood in 90 minutes with characters that have no faces, then you kind of have no excuse if you have bigger teams and longer stories to actually tell. In our own way, we’re just trying to branch out and expand on what video games can actually be.

GG: I think you’ve done a great job. As you we’re pointing out there that they don’t have faces and there’s no dialogue but there’s a strong narrative throughout the game. There’s some text that supports each cutscene at the end of the game but that’s not really related necessarily to their journey together but they’re overarching ideas.

DG: Yeah, if you think about the design of the story, I mean there’s a reason why there’ll be people like yourself who are interested in design, who have an interest in this as a game, there’ll be the small kind of hardcore indie gamers who also like Monument Valley but then also there’s the people who might not ever see our game on iTunes, they might not listen to this podcast or go on many websites and they don’t consider themselves to be gamers whatsoever. They install Facebook and that’s probably it, not even Instagram or Twitter on there and they never do anything else. So, it’s about how we make a story that appeals to those people as well. Yeah, that’s just mostly a sense of we need to put the information out there if you want to delve deeper into it. So, as you said, there’s snippets of poetic text that happens at the end of some chapters but also if you want to skip all that stuff and you don’t care, you can do. We’re not going to put a blocker in your face and say if you don’t understand the story, you can’t continue. So, it needs to operate on a whole spectrum of different players.

GG: Were there things that you learned in the first game that clearly influenced the second one to help you improve? I mean, I might be biased, but the first one I thought was pretty perfect so to make the second one even better, where do start to analyse the first one to lead you into the next game?

DG: I think one telling thing that I thought when we saw people’s reaction from Monument Valley 1 was — again, this is kind of a bit of a spoiler if nobody’s played Monument Valley 1 but it’s been out for three years now so I’m going to have to do it — but there’s a part where the totem character that you meet kind of descends into the ocean and the amount of reaction we had from players, people sharing images and videos of that between themselves, we were like wow, we can actually have an impact on people with very little story or dialogue or anything. We did that in the first game and I think you can tell that with the second game now it’s slightly more narrative driven than the first one, not in that heavy-handed way we talked about, but we really took that idea of how we can make you feel in an elegant and simplistic way and really drove it home over a slightly longer game with more focus on character. So, that’s one of the things we took on board.

Also, just a lot more user testing again, just testing with hundreds of people and this is a good bridge for your podcast and your audience is that for anyone who doesn’t know about Ustwo, it’s predominately been a design and development studio for client work. It’s not been born out of just video games. So, we’re in a very unique situation where we straddle a number of different industries and I’d say the emphasis on user testing is something we took from the wider company, the idea that you’re not the type of person who’s going to fail a banking application. There’s no you’re not doing it right, there’s no you’re not good enough. You need to create something that everybody can — not necessarily enjoy but everybody can understand. Those same principles count for us in making a game. It just happens to be that what we make is entertainment.

I really want us to change people’s perceptions of games and the people that play them.

So, we took the same principles of user testing, how we record that, share it and learn from it and actually just applied it to interactive experiences as entertainment. So, it’s a bit of a unique take on things. When I’ve been at say Microsoft for example or I was at Hello Games before this, you’d very much just test with your mates and other developers. So, it’s hardly surprising that at the end of that, you’d get game that is really well liked by other developers and other gamers but not that much beyond that. Again, just an emphasis of trying to broaden the appeal of what video games are. We don’t really have a set kind of vision statement for Ustwo Games but one thing I’ve settled on internally in my own head is that I really want us to change people’s perceptions of games and the people that play them. Those two elements are massively important to us.

GG: I think you’re doing that without a doubt. Before I get onto the team that’s behind a game like this, the point of user testing is really interesting. How varied are the people you pick for these tests? Do you go across the board, different age groups, different locations or do you just pick anyone who’s walking past the office?

DG: I’m trying to think of some good examples to show you the breadth of stuff. Probably anything from the cafe underneath our studio to John who is the lead designer on the game. He took it to his mother’s book club in Cornwall and tested it amongst them. Or people’s kids, yeah, really trying to get that kind of breadth of people. The kids one is actually an interesting one because the game’s really popular with kids because it doesn’t have time pressure, it’s quite relaxing and it’s a game that parents don’t mind their kids playing. But that was never intended for the first game. I’d love to sit here and say “Oh we’re so good, we designed a game that had such a broad appeal” but it really wasn’t. We made Monument Valley 1 to be a game for people who were interested in design and interesting puzzles. The kids thing came across just by accident between Monument Valley 1 and Monument Valley 2.

GG: So, tell us a little bit about the people that are behind a game like this. I think I read somewhere you’ve got about 20 people now in the London office. Is that roughly correct?

DG: Yes. It’s really changed over time. I mentioned before that we’re part of the wider company, ustwo, and they have a studio in London, Malmo, Sydney and one in New York as well. But my team only concentrates on games, there’s actually no crossover between those teams. Including myself there are 20 people and we only focus on the games and vice versa. It was only November last year that we moved into our own studio. Only months ago actually. We moved into our own studio in South London and kind of renovated this space to be everything that we wanted a creative space to be, all the kind of room and shoved everyone on laptops. No one’s in a fixed position, give people the kind of different modes of thinking. We have a soundproofed room and a big soft area and everyone’s desks move. We’ve really made it into a little atrium of thoughts and madness.

The people have changed a lot over that course of time. As I said, we were eight people when we made Monument Valley and since we split off into a different studio, we’ve had to hire a lot more support stuff as well. So, we’ve got a studio manager and a financial controller and so on. But I’d say when it comes to the actual development team, we’re very cross disciplined and that’s intended. We want all of our programmers to be creative in the way that they edit things, we want our artists to be able to go into our game engine and create the shaders themselves so that their vision can be truly represented in the thing that we make, we want the level designers to do first pass on the visuals for a level so that they can convey to the artists exactly what they were thinking when they designed a puzzle a certain way. It’s really important to us that — not that everybody can do everything but everybody understands everything so that we’re all on the same page.

I’d like to hope you were playing Monument Valley 1 and Monument Valley 2 and they see it as a consistent vision for what it’s trying to achieve and I think that’s due to how cross disciplined people are.

GG: One thing that I noticed from 1 to 2 is the music was even more in tune with the game. I played it only on my commute so it’s always on the train where there’s lots of people around me and I was zoned into the game and I just felt the music was really calming and really helped me through the game — I think it helped the story but also helped me play the game more. At which point of the creative process does music come into play?

DG: I’m really glad you played with headphones because the number of people who play mobile games without listening to the audio — as somebody who makes stuff, you’re like God, we put so much effort into this. I think it’s just because with most mobile games, it’s a catch-22. Not many people listen on their headphones so people don’t put effort into the audio and then because people don’t put effort into the audio, people don’t bother listening to it. So, I mean this time we even went through the measure of — it only happens once when you first launch the game. It says Monument Valley 2 is best played with headphones and it never comes up again after the first time but it was really important that people felt the whole of the experience. As you said, it adds so much to it and Todd Baker who did the audio for this did an outstanding job of seeing this through. But when you talk about what stage we did this, this is very uncommon but we actually got Todd involved right from the beginning and in the same way that you do concept art, we wanted to do concept audio.

We got Todd in and Todd’s a freelancer that we use to do the audio and we said to him here is Monument Valley 1, he’s played it, he likes it, he understands the team. We worked with him on Land’s End which was our VR game as well. So, he understood how we worked and we said okay, go and create an album of music of you taking the world of Monument Valley and taking it in a number of different directions musically and the funniest thing is we actually took that album, we put it on Spotify and on iTunes as an unnamed album. So, really from March last year, anybody could’ve listened to the music. Just keeping things a secret for no reason. So, yeah, he was involved from the very, very beginning because when we talk about this kind of symbiosis of disciplines that happens if you want to make a coherent vision, then audio is a massive part of that. You can’t just turn around with your visuals eight weeks before launch and say can you put sounds on it because it’s obviously going to sound fragmented and terrible. So, just trying to get him involved as soon as possible. I’m actually in the process of trying to get him to join us full-time. He’s so attached to the freelance life that I need to say no, listen, Todd, just stay with us because your work is so good.

You can’t just turn around with your visuals eight weeks before launch and say can you put sounds on it because it’s obviously going to sound fragmented and terrible.

GG: You mentioned Land’s End there briefly. With the constantly falling prices of VR equipment, where do you see the future of gaming in VR heading?

DG: I keep flip-flopping on this all the time because you can’t really talk about VR without talking about AR stuff at the same time and the pros and cons of each way of doing things in terms of that technology. Now VR has been good for us because everybody has a phone. I’m talking mobile VR here as opposed to desktop VR. VR is great for an all-encompassing experience that really cuts you off from the outside world but on the other hand, it’s a high friction platform even mobile VR. There’s a reason why mobile gaming really took off and that’s because you can stand between tube stops and pull your phone out, just out of your pocket with one hand and play something for two minutes. You can’t do that by pulling a headset out of your bag, then attaching it and then putting it on your head. You can’t do it.

The friction is there and less friction is king with most kind of mainstream experiences. So, then you go, okay, what’s happening with AR and you look at Apple’s AR kit announced at WWDC last month as well and you think it might not be an all-encompassing experience but anybody can pull this phone out of their pocket on the tube and look at the floor with their phone and there might be a creature walking around on the floor. They don’t need to attach anything else or do anything else to experience the technology. Maybe we’ll see kind of a fragmentation of that. I also think it’s going to be much harder for design games for AR. It’s going to be much easier to design games for VR. So, maybe they’ll both coexist over the course the next five years. I personally would definitely see AR as being more successful to a mainstream audience just because of the friction aspect of things but we at ustwo want to look at both. We want to carry on looking at both this year anyway.

GG: That leads me onto my closing question which would be: Can you at least hint at what’s next for Ustwo? I mean is there anything in the pipeline? Obviously, judging by your past secrecy, even if you were working or something, you wouldn’t tell us but maybe you could at least hint at where you’re going.

DG: First off, half the team’s on vacation. Everyone’s taking well-earned breaks. I mean where we’re at right now is we’re not thinking about Monument Valley stuff just because we need to get a little bit head space and actually come back to that kind of thing with a fresh way of thinking but yeah, we are prototyping ideas at the moment. Some of those things aren’t even ideas. We’re really relaxed with the way that we think about things so someone might go away for two weeks and just have a research project and it might be okay, is quite a complicated genre that is popular within core gamers right now, how could we take the great things about that genre and distill them down to a mainstream audience so they can also experience those great things? It might be a research project and not a game that you can play. So, we’re very much in blue sky thinking mode at the minute. How are we going to bring what’s great about video games to the masses without treating them like idiots? So, yeah, a whole bunch of things on the table at the moment. We probably won’t even take something into production until the end of this year.

GG: On that note, thank you very much for your time, Dan.

DG: Cool, thanks a lot for having me, mate.

Glenn Garriock