In March 2013, a team in ustwo hung a piece of concept art on the wall in their workspace. It showed an elegantly geometric series of connected towers, stairs and doorways. The reaction from the studio (a broad creative space that creates digital products and services) over a few weeks led to it being prototyped as a game over a week. Ultimately, this depiction of impossible architecture was the seed that grew into Monument Valley.
Alongside critical adulation, the game (and its 2017 sequel Monument Valley II) have achieved huge commercial success. The potential realised by ustwo in exploratory, experimental titles has invalidated the approach that dictates success as a product of playing it safe.
This March, Daniel Gray – the producer who coordinated the Monument Valley team, and now Head of Studio at ustwo games – will speak at Offset. The conference sees a broader spectrum than ever of creative leaders on the main stage, with illustration (Chris Ware), fashion (Simone Rocha), and design (Gail Bichler, NYT) represented in a particularly strong line-up. Ahead of this I caught up with Dan to ask about ustwo, Monument Valley and himself.
Monument Valley has carved out its own place in our collective culture — not just as an influential game but as an influential creative work in its own right. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like being on the inside of a project that has that kind of impact and exposure. “Scary to be honest! One day you stick a piece of art on a wall for a laugh and the next your game is in House of Cards, you’re collecting a BAFTA and you’re getting people in their sixties telling you it’s the first game they’ve ever finished. Some of the things we’ve seen happen in China for MV2 specifically have been completely mind blowing. An artist on your team spends a day making a piece of art and then you find out your Chinese partner has made a fully animated and acted documentary on that thing, that’s sent to hundreds of millions of people.”
“I think it’s really hard not to let that kind of thing sway your decision making and as much as possible we try to maintain a feeling of a happy group of people having a good time making things they love. We’ll continue to make things with the same love and hopefully the public wants to continue playing them.”
“I think one thing that’s helped us along the way is that we made games without being in a game studio. I left a well-known indie studio in Hello Games to come here and build this team, and although it seemed like a huge risk I just knew we could make something unlike anything else out there. We just had to, we were surrounded by a whole bunch of different people and outlooks, we weren’t just going to be a load of triple-A experience game dev dudes in a basement. The user-first design approach we took from the ustwo studio helped us approach things in a completely different way to normal games developers. I’ve got to admit it’s incredibly difficult to make lightning strike twice, but I’m hopeful the thing we’re working on at the moment is again going to flip those expectations of mobile players.”
Gray’s path to his current position as studio head has been “a combination of hard work, luck and being alright at talking to people.” He adds: “I’ve been running ustwo games for the last two years, with me spending another three years before that running games projects at the main ustwo studio. The games company itself has grown into its own separate entity and we’ve grown a lot since then. Clearly one of the most eventful times in my whole career journey has been the release of Monument Valley, it won awards, gave us the money to set up this new company and continues to give us opportunities to this day.
Going back further, his own path to ustwo came via another games studio and through the support of his family. “My most life-changing day was managing to get unpaid work experience at Lionhead Studios eleven years ago. I’d been unemployed for four months straight out of university and was finally given my chance in the industry. I’d always been given the belief by my mother that I could achieve the thing I want if I work hard enough, and I’d started to lose hope in that. Unfortunately the exact same day I was offered this opportunity my mother passed away from a long battle with cancer. I’m not the most spiritual person in the world, but I can’t but feel highest of highs and the lowest of lows occurring on the same day meant something.”
For him, events like Offset are a chance to talk and listen about his work and the work of others. “I believe you can always learn something from another creative, you’ve just got to have the humility to listen. This is a personal preference, but I also think it’s important to be able to convey your excitement and passion for something.
Passion is an overused word, but even if the content of what you’re saying doesn’t make sense, people will walk through hot coals for you if they believe your intent.”
“I’m flying straight to Offset from San Francisco and the Game Developers Conference so it’s going to be a great change of pace and the perfect end to that week. It’s going to be great to meet people from other fields, have some beers and hypothesise about the future of storytelling.”
Words: David Wall