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When quality comes before making money: Developing Monument Valley

October 19, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield

October 19, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Video, GDC, GDC China

Monument Valley creator UsTwo is primarily a UI and design firm, working for clients. They don't usually make games. But Monument Valley, the company's third game, sold over 1 million copies, at a "premium" cost of $3.99. At GDC China, Monument Valley and UsTwo lead designer Ken Wong described how the company went about creating this niche hit.

Most of UsTwo's work is for clients like HTC, Google and others, but they do have a dedicated game development team. As games aren't a main source of income, the team had considerable creative freedom -- a rather unique scenario in game development. "The primary purpose of the games team is not to create revenue, but to create great products that we can call our own," says Wong.

The team is small, so anyone is free to submit ideas. "This allows people to submit ideas that are more personal to them, and more related to their own lives and interests," he says. "Our games team does not always yield commercial success - but we still consider these projects successes, because our small team size minimizes risk, and the games give us something that's our own."

At the start of the project, the higher-ups didn't assign a timeline or a budget. "They said, 'Don't worry about making money, just make a high-quality product,'" says Wong. "We had freedom to make whatever we wanted, and we felt this freedom came with some responsibility."

What should they make, and how would they know if they were doing it well? This was a curious conundrum with no particular financial constraints. "If you don't measure the success of a game by the amount of money it makes, or the number of downloads, how do you measure it?" Wong posed. "Are we trying to maximize fun? Are we trying to create something artistic? Or maybe we're trying to gain respect from players or other developers."

So they just started coming up with ideas, trusting that something would emerge. They were primarily inspired by the art of MC Escher's Ascending and Descending, and the game Windosill by Vectorpark. Windosill doesn't require anything more than swiping to explore. "The game just trusts that beautiful animations and intuitive controls are enough," Wong adds.

"We find you need to make a game wrong at least two or three times before you find the right path. ... We took a lot of opportunity to design and explore, knowing that a lot of it would be thrown away."

He was also inspired by what he calls "little worlds"; Pieces of art that contain a complete world, all unto themselves. "There's something really comforting about seeing the whole load at once," he says. "There's something about having everything you need to solve the puzzle right in front of you."

"Game design documents are kind of useless," he adds. "Ideas you think are great at the start of the project inevitably turn out not to be fun. You need to make a lot of mistakes in order to do something well. We find you need to make a game wrong at least two or three times before you find the right path. ... We took a lot of opportunity to design and explore, knowing that a lot of it would be thrown away."

At first, the team had four guiding values, dictated by pervading wisdom. These were:
- Over time, increase the difficulty
- More content is better
- More choice is better
- Clear instructions and rewards.

"During development we came to challenge all these ideas," says Wong. In the end, they wound up with these guideposts.
- Quality over quantity - make each level unique
- Difficulty is not that important to the user's experience in Monument Valley
- Allow players to discover for themselves, don't tell them what to do or how to feel
- Focus on the things that make the game special, rather than adding content
- The ending is important to the story

In all, the team tried to make everything enjoyable from the user's position. "It's been common wisdom that premium mobile games are dead," says Wong. "But instead of following traditional values or looking at what the majority of developers were doing, we put user experience first."

"Price communicates value," he says. "In ordinary life, it's thought that high quality goods are worth spending money on. We wanted to communicate that our game was a premium experience, like staying in a five star hotel, or driving an Audi, or owning an iPhone."

Most games are going free to play, and many users asked them how they could charge so much for such a short experience, when free to play games last forever. But he responds, "What is the quality of those hours? We think that 90 minutes of only our best work can be worth more than hundreds of hours of doing the same thing over and over again. If we can create something of value for a small amount of people, it doesn't matter what the rest of the industry is doing."

Gamasutra and GDC China are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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