Monument Valley is a beautiful thing: an architectural puzzle game for iPhone and iPad where you twist and drag bits of geometrically-impossible monuments to guide a princess named Ida through its eerie world.
Released earlier in April, the game has won critical acclaim from reviewers – journalists and App Store raters alike. But it’s also been selling strongly too, topping Apple’s paid charts around the world.
Oh yes, it’s a paid game: £2.49 with no in-app purchases. Like The Room and Year Walk, it’s a reminder that creative, original pay-upfront games can still be commercially successful on smartphones and tablets, even if “freemium” has become the dominant business model on these devices.
Monument Valley is the work of ustwo, the London-headquartered digital design studio which does the bulk of its work for brands like Sony, Barclays, Channel 4 and American Express. But this work funds a separate division making its own apps and games.
Previous projects including games Whale Trail and Blip Blup, fiction apps Papercut and Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime, and now-retired photo-sharing app Rando. Monument Valley uses the lessons learned from all those previous apps, and has become the company’s biggest hit yet.
“We made the development costs back in launch week, which is fantastic,” says Neil McFarland, director of games at ustwo. “We always believed in what we were doing, and we’d had good feedback from people before it launched, but until something’s out on the store you can never be certain: people might hate it!”
With more than 4,000 reviews across Apple’s US and UK App Stores averaging 4.5 stars out of five, it’s fair to say they don’t. Its artwork, controls and ingenious puzzles are going down handsomely, and even the main criticism – at under an hour and a half the game is quite short – also has its defenders.
“We were given the freedom by ustwo to just make something great,” says McFarland. “When you’re given that freedom it’s a double-edged sword though: it’s amazing, but at the same time there’s no excuse to fail. But we just wanted to make something that would make people go ‘wow’ – to make the best thing we could make without being fearful for the roof over our heads.”
The game’s artist and designer Ken Wong has talked about the intention to make “a game where architecture was the main character”, inspired not just by games like Fez, Portal, Windowsill, Ico and Sword & Sworcery, but also by art (M.C. Escher’s impossible constructions have been mentioned most often in reviews, but there's a deeper tradition to draw on) and films (Tarsem Singh’s The Fall).
McFarland says ustwo spent 10 months making the game, with a big focus on throwing away elements that didn’t work, as well as regular user testing with gamers and non-gamers alike to tune it.
“We were very much influenced by a couple of core ideas. One, we wanted it to be a game that people would finish: a complete narrative that we wanted people to get to the end of. And second, we wanted it to be broadly accessible to people,” he says.
“That meant testing with as many different types of gamer as possible, to make sure the puzzles were accessible and solvable: hard enough to be rewarding, but not so hard that people drop out. We found that it’s really easy to make a hard puzzle, but much harder to make one that gets that balance right.”
Right from the start, ustwo knew that Monument Valley would be a paid game rather than a freemium title, although McFarland points to Whale Trail – which started paid before switching to free with in-app purchases – as proof that the company isn’t against the business model.
“We’re not saying free-to-play is bullshit and we shouldn’t do it: with Whale Trail we have one of those games out there. But we want to make each game in the way that best suits that game, and Monument Valley wouldn’t have worked as free-to-play,” he says.
Judging by those early reviews, people love the game, but they want more of it. McFarland sets it in the context of a wider trend of shorter games, including Journey and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons on other platforms.
“It should be something that games offer: you want the thrill and the delight and the magic that a game can give you, but you don’t necessarily want to repeat that thing for 40 hours,” he says.
“It’s not like you see people coming out of the cinema saying ‘that film was brilliant, but it was only three hours long. I paid eight quid for that! I’m going to ask for my money back…’.”
The structure of Monument Valley – a series of self-contained puzzles – does spark the question of what next, now that it’s made its development costs back in a couple of weeks on the App Store? More puzzle packs, for example, or a fully-fledged sequel?
“We are making some more levels, but the reasons we’re doing it are artistic reasons: there are some ideas that we didn’t get to work so didn’t put in there, but which we’d like to see work. There are some other things we’d like to try,” says McFarland.
“The only thing is we presented a complete story in the game, which we don’t want to mess with, so what we don’t really know yet is how we’ll present new levels within that narrative. We don’t want to break it! But there are things we want to explore without destroying that experience.”
In the meantime, ustwo is watching Monument Valley sell strongly around the world, including China, where Apple advised the studio to fully localise the game including adding traditional Chinese language support and tweaking its logo. It has topped the paid iPad apps chart there too.
Success in countries like China raises another question: when will Monument Valley be released for Android? “That’s the next thing: to release it on Android and work out how we’d best do that,” says McFarland, who says ustwo is talking to Google about distribution through its Google Play store, but realises that in countries like China and Brazil, other Android stores are an important route to market.
Other platforms are in ustwo’s thoughts as well. “We’re looking at getting it on the PS Vita, and a lot of people ask about a PC version, but we’re portrait and touchscreen, so it’s not easy. We could do it, but it would be a bit crap!” he says.
Oculus Rift? Now there’s a thought. Possibly not a sensible one. “With it being isometric, there’s no depth,” says McFarland. But one of the most exciting things about the mobile games world for developers right now is the potential to have a hit, then have these kinds of discussions about where to take a game next.
Even so, McFarland says the team behind Monument Valley is more excited about having delivered on their original vision, and also having found that its trompe l’oeil aesthetic can find a mainstream audience of mobile players.
“It’s delightful, isn’t it,” he says. “People do love to be tricked!”
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