Leaving the comfort of a well established, successful developer to create a new studio is not an easy decision, nor task. But that’s exactly what Ken Wong did in 2016, leaving London-based studio Ustwo as the firm announced that Monument Valley had made $14.4m in revenue in two years.
As the lead designer, Wong was instrumental in Monument Valley’s world coming to life but, having triumphed with the title, he was ready for a new adventure.
“After the success of Monument Valley, I did one more project with Ustwo, Land’s End. I felt like I achieved what I had set out to do and I thought starting my own studio would be the next set of challenges,” Wong tells MCV. “I’d been observing the Melbourne game scene and how much talent there was there and I felt like it would be a good opportunity to come back to Australia and use the sort of clout that I achieved to be able to pass on some of the knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way and help foster the next generation of game developers.”
And that’s how Mountains started in April 2016. Then came the game, Wong explains: “When I set up the studio I really didn’t have an idea about what kind of game we were going to make together. My priority was on the team, and I thought: ‘Together we’re going to figure out what this game is’. As we started prototyping we talked about how important it was to find something meaningful. Because that was the reaction that Monument Valley got: it meant a lot to people. We were having all these conversations about our relationships, our significant others and who we were dating and I realised that this was this very common human experience, but it was sort of a blind spot for games. Movies and books and songs are always celebrating this but games haven’t explored this as much, so I thought it would be a really good challenge to try and use game design to explore this theme.”
What falling in love feels like: that is the incredible feeling Florence manages to convey. Mountains’ debut title launched on iOS on Valentine’s Day and benefitted from an incredible buzz as it offers an original approach to storytelling, mobile games and game design.
To start with, Florence is almost wordless. The story of how Florence and Krish meet and fall in love is entirely told through Wong’s art and Kevin Penkin’s music, as well as gameplay actions that make the title more of an interactive story than anything else.
“I don’t think it was as much of a decision as that’s just the way that I like to make art,” Wong explains. “When you’re communicating with visuals, music and gameplay scenarios then the player can interpret these events as they wish. They can take away a deeper meaning rather than one that we tell them directly. And I think that almost makes the work more relatable because people can read into things and put themselves into the story. And I think that’s definitely the case with Florence. For example when Florence and Krish have an argument we don’t specify what the argument is about because that’s not important. What’s important is that they have an argument and hopefully people will be able to see that and be like ‘oh I know, I’ve had this kind of dickering with my partner’.”
The soundtrack also has a crucial role in Florence – almost feeling like the narrator of the story. To find the right artist, Mountains worked with a company called The Otherworld Agency, which connects game developers with audio designers and composers. That’s how Wong met Penkin.
“Kevin understood what we were going for and we talked about how in the absence of words the music filled in for the voices of the characters,” Wong says. “When the characters are sad, when they’re arguing, when they’re laughing, the soundtrack is doing the same thing.”
Complementing Florence’s unique mechanics and music is Won’gs art. It is diametrically opposed to Monument Valley and, even for an artist as experienced as Wong, finding the right art direction for this title was not easy.
“I think it’s important to find the right style for the story and at the start of the project I was focusing too much on trying to find these stylistic flourishes that I thought would be important and I got a bit too caught up in there,” he explains. “And as we were trying to shape the story and the characters, I relaxed. I stopped thinking so much about it and just let the images flow out of my hands. What we ended up with is actually more like how I draw naturally, which is rare. Usually I’m consciously doing a stylistic thing and the art in Florence is me with almost no style.”
Interestingly, putting so much of himself in Florence was also a challenge for Wong, as he wanted to make sure the title was a team effort: “As an artist, it’s my natural state to be expressing my own personality so for me the challenge was to leave things open for the rest of the team to be able to have input and to challenge me and to help make the story better than what I could do by myself.”
Launching a mobile game these days offers a great deal of challenges, discoverability being one of the biggest. Wong was already a figure in the games industry so that fortunately “wasn’t a big part of [his] worries,” he says. “I think for a premium mobile game you need two things. One is featuring by Apple and the other is word of mouth.”
To tackle the first one, Mountains could count on its publisher, Annapurna Interactive.
“When I left Ustwo, word got out and different people reached out to me and asked if I needed help with my next venture. Annapurna quickly rose to the top of my list
because it really felt like their goals aligned with ours,” Wong explains. “They had a tremendous reputation with filmmaking and some of the members of the games team were previously at Sony Santa Monica and have a great history of supporting... I wouldn’t even say indie games, but games that are attempting to be art and are trying to position themselves as beautiful and meaningful.”
Mountains and Annapurna worked hand in hand to bring Florence to the App store, and find the right price tag for the title – something that can be tricky for mobile games.
“We looked at the landscape and we considered people’s buying habits,” Wong says. “$2.99 US felt like the right balance between what we thought the game was worth and what we thought people would be willing to pay.”
For Wong, free-to-play was never on the table.
“From the get go, I knew that I wanted to make a premium game and I think it’s very hard to change pricing model during a project because you have to design towards it. You have to know how you’re incentivising the player to have certain behaviour. So if we know that the player has already paid money for the game then we can just focus on giving them quality content whereas, with a free-to-play game, you are welcoming anyone and everyone who has dallied with the game for free and then you have to provide a good experience while at the same time hopefully incentivising them to pay a bit more.”
Premium was definitely the way to go for Florence, based on the success it has met since launch.
“I feel like you’re never quite sure what to expect,” Wong smiles. “We had tested the game a lot before launch and we had a great response but you never know when it hits the wide audience. You know, everybody from total non-gamers to hardcore gamers to people who just read about it on a website. It’s hard to gauge what their response is going to be but we’ve been delighted that it has been so positive.
“I think people recognise that we were trying to do something different and that we were quite successful in making a different kind of game and experience.”
And the adventure is certainly not over for Florence, as it's launching on Android today.
THE FUTURE OF STORYTELLING
In an unexpected turn of events, I happened to meet Ustwo’s head of studio Dan Gray the day before interviewing Ken Wong about Florence.
Gray was part of a panel on the future of storytelling during Creative England’s Be More Manchester event and mentioned Florence during his talk, as an example of what the future of storytelling could look like. During our interview, he said Florence is “a perfect example of how you convey story and emotion through mechanics.” He added: “The metaphors and the parallels for how you do those things, you can only do in creative entertainment. As an industry, we’re only just starting to learn that, moreso than the other media we’re on the cusp of discovering what storytelling and interactive entertainment truly is.”
Telling Wong about this conversation, he laughs: “I mean, that’s a huge compliment!” Discussing the future of storytelling and how mobile is a great platform to shape it, he continues: “I would say something slightly different and say that because games have occupied consoles and PC for a lot longer, there are more opportunities with mobile because it’s less explored. There are still interesting experiences that you can create. Mobile is still evolving very fast, with AR and geolocation, as we saw Pokémon Go exploit. So I think there are tremendous opportunities.
“Our publisher Annapurna brought the world What Remains of Edith Finch last year and I think that it’s really interesting that Finch and Florence have a lot of similarities in the way that we’re trying to tell a story using gameplay. There is not one future for games – I like to embrace that games are so diverse and there are multiple futures and people will find new ways to tell stories on traditional platforms. Then as we look to VR and mobile, there are new storytelling opportunities.”