Monument Valley's Ustwo: There’s more to mobile gaming than ‘tapping candy and opening loot boxes’

We catch up with head of studio Dan Gray, who talks about new IPs, the business models of mobile, the limitations of VR, and moving into publishing like-minded developers
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Ustwo’s head of studio Dan Gray

Ustwo’s head of studio Dan Gray

As I sit down with Ustwo’s Dan Gray on the comfy sofas at Manchester’s Old Granada Studios, he immediately jokes about having been “a bit in hiding” since the launch of Monument Valley 2 and not having done a lot of interviews in a while.

And it’s true that Ustwo’s head of studio let the game speak for itself since its fantastic launch in June 2017. The team announced and launched Monument Valley 2 on the same day, to tally with Apple’s new App Store reveal at WWDC, making it a “fully-featured poster child for the new App Store,” Gray says.

“It’s hard to know what you can learn from a set up like that. It’s like a unicorn of a launch, I guess,” he continues. “But financially it’s done really well. One thing that’s really interesting is we currently make more money in China than the rest of the world combined, daily, for Monument Valley 1 and 2. Which is crazy, who would have thought!”

Ustwo's Monument Valley 2

Ustwo's Monument Valley 2

2014’s Monument Valley was already incredibly successful, and received DLC as a result. For this follow-up though, Gray says the team is “not sure yet” about DLC plans.

“We’re always working on stuff. And actually it’s the reason why we originally made Monument Valley 2. We were going to leave it as one entry and then we hired some new people and, of course, they joined you because they love Monument Valley and then their excitement led us to make more content. Not many people know this but Monument Valley 2 started as a selection of short stories and we ended up choosing one to make the game about. So we still have other stories to tell within that universe. At the moment we’re just enjoying having the majority of the team working on prototyping brand new ideas. We’re working on two things that are not Monument Valley related.”

"We still have other stories to tell within [Monument Valley's] universe. But at the moment we’re working on two things that are not Monument Valley related.”

When asked if he can tell us more about these two new IPs, Gray’s answer feels final: “No,” he fires back, laughing. “But okay, let’s just talk in generalities about what we’re trying to do with those two games,” he adds, smiling.

“I’ve always said we try and take all these awesome things about video games, that core video game players love, and try and bring them to a wide audience. So with Monument Valley we allowed millions of people to care about a character for the first time. Whether you like it or not, your average person on the street is not going to spend a hundred hours on The Witcher 3. We gave them a snippet of a story for the first time, to a group of people who thought mobile games were about tapping candy and opening loot boxes. So whatever we do next is going to be about interactive storytelling.

“That’s going to be key and in a way that makes sense for games. I love playing Uncharted, I love Metal Gear, but I don’t want games to try and be movies.”

THE TWO ROOMS ANALOGY

Despite having already developed a VR game, 2015’s Land’s End, and despite interactive storytelling increasingly finding its place in VR, Ustwo is not yet ready to return to this territory.

“These two things we’re working on now are not VR,” Gray says. “I really love VR and Land’s End was a massive success for us. We made a profit on a VR game, which is crazy. But I would say things haven’t progressed in that space as quickly as I would want them to.”

Ustwo's Land's End

Ustwo's Land's End

The technology still has too many limitations, Gray believes, mentioning London’s location-based VR experience The Void as a counterexample.

“The reason why [The Void] works is because there’s a physical representation of the game world for you to interact with. There are walls. When I was at Oculus Connect this year I played a VR experience and you’re in a canoe and the character across from you puts a hand in the water as the canoes go in and you can see a splash in the water. And I want to put my hand down but I can’t do it! [laughs] It doesn’t work! So there are still various things that snap you out of that experience. I think it’s going to be years before we get to that point because there’s still so much of a disconnect between the virtual and the physical. That’s why when we made Land’s End, you control everything with your head. It’s a one-to-one track. The angle at which you look at things and the speed at which you look at things are exactly the same as you would do with your eyes in real life. We don’t pretend that you’re holding a sword that has weight or that you can walk around when you can’t. But maybe we will do [more VR] in the future.”

Another thing that Ustwo doesn’t exclude doing in the future is free-to-play, though Gray is reticent about it.

“A lot of people today have talked about the idea of not being driven by money, being driven by creativity,” he says, hinting at the speakers of Creative England’s Be More Manchester event at which we’re meeting. “And if you fulfill that creativity then the commercial aspect will follow. It feels like the new business plans, the new business models that we have in place are having a negative impact on creativity. So we look at things like free-to-play mobile games or we look at things like loot crates in big triple-A games; we’re having to jeopardise what we truly want our projects to be creatively for business reasons.

Ustwo's Whale Trail

Ustwo's Whale Trail

“We’ve considered doing free-to-play before. Before I joined Ustwo, they released a game called Whale Trail, which was a free game. I’ve always said that it’s not off the table for us but we would only do it if it made sense for the creative vision of the project. Monument Valley would never exist as a free game. Can you imagine something that’s like just over an hour long, would you really pay for chapters? It doesn’t make any sense.

“The analogy I always use is I imagine there are two rooms. One of the rooms that we work in, which is the premium mobile game space, we ask for a ticket. We let you in the room. Our room is designed in such a way that we just want you to have fun. It needs to be beautiful. It needs to be engaging. We want you to leave this room and remember something. Now there’s another room – you don’t have to pay to get in the room. But once we get you in the room my main objective is to keep you in the room. You want to provide people with enjoyment still, but you want to keep them in the room. That’s the analogy of premium and free-to-play. So maybe we will do [free-to-play] in the future but I think it’s probably unlikely that we will.”

Ustwo's Monument Valley 2

Ustwo's Monument Valley 2

GETTING IT RIGHT

If free-to-play is not in Gray’s mind then there’s another project for Ustwo that is much closer to his heart: publishing like-minded developers.

“There are certain things I know we do well: speaking to platform holders and press and getting people excited. And there are hugely talented people who want to concentrate on the production of their game who maybe don’t want to think about that aspect of things,” he says. “Being a design and UI/UX studio originally, we understand how your average player is going to interact with this thing that you’ve made. There are lots of skills that we can provide. I had it down as a goal for this year to experiment with that. I’ve gone back on it a bit recently – at least in the short term, because the number one priority is to prove that we can do something that’s not Monument Valley. For as much as I believe we could do loads of awesome things, supporting a lot of other smaller teams, I want to make sure we get this right first.”

"There are lots of skills that we can provide [to developers]. I had it down as a goal for this year to experiment with that. By 2019 I definitely want to be doing this.”

Ustwo has already started helping fellow developers, Team Alto. “Harry [Nesbitt, lead artist and programmer] works from our studio but he’s not affiliated with us. We just let him work from our studio because it’s cool. But throwing around those ideas and bouncing stuff, that’s massive. So imagine you want to network different people who are working together, sharing resources and making this work... By 2019 I definitely want to be doing this.”

Closing the interview, Gray mentions how attached he is to greater Manchester, where he’s from and one of the reasons why he wanted to take part in this event.

“Everything is so London-centric,” he says. “But the games industry in general is so much easier to access now. Think about all the free engines like Unity, for example. You can get in and publish something to Google Play. So it’s really important to come to do stuff like this, to increase the profile of investing in creative industries outside of London, especially games.”

He continues, smiling from ear to ear: “And I obviously want to come because I have a connection here and I’ll come and open a new game studio here one day.”

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