Ahead of the release of their stunning new game Monument Valley, we speak to ustwo‘s Ken Wong about how a project like this comes to fruition. Click through to the post to read the interview in full and get an exclusive chance to sign up for the Monument Valley beta.
Hi Ken, would you mind briefly introducing yourself to our readers?
Howdy! My name is Ken Wong, and I’m a video game artist and designer at ustwo. Last year I made an iPhone game called Hackycat, in Australia. The year before that I art directed a game where Alice battles Wonderland, in Shanghai. This year I’m in London and I’m designing a game about geometry, architecture and forgiveness.
What can you tell us about your latest project Monument Valley?
Monument Valley originated from wanting to make a game where architecture was the main character. It’s a surreal exploration through fantastical architecture and impossible geometry where the player guides Ida through mysterious monuments, uncovering hidden paths, unfolding optical illusions and outsmarting the enigmatic Crow People.
Monument Valley is a beautiful, exploratory experience, somewhere between exploring a toyshop and reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
What has it been like working with ustwo on this game and how did the project come together?
I joined ustwo at the start of this year, at the same time as Monument Valley producer Dan Gray. The team and I spent a few months sketching up ideas for mobile games that we felt hadn’t been explored yet by anyone else. Of the ideas we discussed, Monument Valley really struck a chord with the team and the rest of the studio, so we started work on a prototype. The games team is a perfect storm of imagination, workmanship and the desire to create meaningful experiences in video games. What’s really worked well is not having a solid distinction between programming and art. Several of us can do both, which is perfect when trying to create a game that lies at the intersection of art and mathematics.
Would love to have been a fly on the wall at that initial stage. Can you tell us a little more about your working process? Do you start with pen & paper? How far do you flesh out a concept before you build a prototype?
We don’t really have a process for coming up with new game concepts. Anyone on the team is free to explore ideas, whenever they have time. As an artist, I’ve found exploring ideas using storyboards and posters has worked well – sometimes it’s more about capturing a single design sensibility or gameplay mechanic in a single image which can spark discussion with the rest of the team. If there are several people on the team who feel the idea has potential then someone starts prototyping it. Pretty simple.
You’ve given M.C.Esher some credit for inspiring the game. Are there any other influences that shaped the design and mechanics of the game?
Escher is just an easy way to explain the game to people, there are so many other bits and pieces that inspire the game. Windowsill, a game by Vectorpark was a big influence. We talk about Fez, Portal, Sword & Sworcery and Ico a lot too. The aesthetics of the game have been informed by everything from bonsai plants and poster design, to arabic calligraphy and Tarsem’s film The Fall.
Each level is a unique, handcrafted combination of puzzle, graphic design and architecture. Like listening to an album or walking through a museum for the first time, Monument Valley is about discovery, perception and meaningful beauty.
Why did you choose the iPad as the platform for this game? Did you ever consider any others?
Monument Valley was designed from the start as a touch experience, to be played in portrait orientation rather than landscape. Being a very visual game, it looks amazing on iPad, but we have plans for other mobile devices. We want as many people as possible to try it out, so if the response is good we’ll look at porting it to more platforms.
What’s you favourite game of all time?
That would probably be a tie between Super Metroid and Yoshi’s Island.
Ustwo talk a lot about learning from failure in their project. Are there any pitfalls that you’ve learned from for this project, either internally or externally?
I guess we try to build ‘failure’ into our creative process. If we anticipate that we’re going to throw away a lot of work, but in the process learn how to make better Monument Valley interaction and levels and art, we’re able to experiment quite freely and perhaps explore territory that wasn’t planned.
How do you approach the balance between aesthetics and mechanics in a game like this, which is so heavily stylised?
We try as much as possible to make aesthetics and mechanics overlap. Ideally the player is seeking an aesthetic experience by making aesthetically pleasing interactions, like a Rubik’s cube.
What was the most fun part of producing this game?
Taking breaks to play Street Fighter.
How much do you get involved with sound design/music on a project like this?
We have a fantastic sound designer and we’re giving him a lot of freedom to find the right soundscape to match the visuals and gameplay. The rest of the team contribute their opinions and support.
Are there a lot of pressures in terms of achieving profitability when developing mobile games, which can be notoriously difficult? Do you ever feel as though you have to compromise game mechanics to introduce elements such as in-app-purchases?
The games team is fortunate to have the backing of the wider ustwo™ company, who have strong beliefs about doing work of the highest quality and artistry. There would be no point in our team existing if we were just doing this for the money. So we’re going to make art, and we think if we make our art personal and honest and well crafted, the money will sort itself out in the long run. We’re open to in-app purchases, done correctly, as one way of making games as a business – but we don’t think it’s appropriate for Monument Valley.
Big thanks to Ken and ustwo for taking the time to talk to us. You can find out more about the game at http://www.monumentvalleygame.com/, but if you can’t wait to get your hands on it, sign up here to take part in beta testing an early build of the game.