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Design Teardown

Secrets behind the success of Monument Valley

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In the award-winning video game Monument Valley, a faceless and voiceless character named Princess Ida leads users through a series of architectural mazes on a quest for forgiveness.

There are no enemies in the game and nobody is killed, and yet since its launch in April 2014 Monument Valley has sold 5 million copies and generated $13 million in revenue by attracting a broad base of fans beyond hardcore and experienced gamers including kids, old people, families, and newcomers.

Ken Wong, Lead Designer at ustwo, the London-based studio that designed Monument Valley, says its success is further proof that “gamers aren’t just teenage boys in their basement being anti-social.”

Speaking at a Designer Fund event during Bridge, Ken pointed out that games have a much wider appeal and are played by “men and women and boys and girls and LGBT people in the Middle East and China and Brazil—and they’re not just about violence and sex.”

Ken speaking to a small group of designers at Designer Fund during a Bridge 4 evening.

Ken speaking to a small group of designers at Designer Fund during a Bridge 4 evening.

In his talk, Designing a Better Video Game, Ken outlined a vision of what games could be.

“Games are about cancer and love and relationships and friendship,” he said. “Everything you experience in life could be made into a game and expressed in a way that can’t be in a film or a book, and that’s why it’s an exciting time to be designing games.”

A key source of inspiration for Monument Valley was Ken’s interest in architecture.

A key source of inspiration for Monument Valley was Ken’s interest in architecture.

The inspiration for Monument Valley, for instance, was his layman’s interest in architecture and the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Ken also wanted to take video games in a new direction. His audience would be those who engage with games for all the usual reasons, like improving skills, engaging with opponents, and, yes, having fun and slaying dragons.

But he also wanted to reach people who like good stories and characters, and striking visual and audio stimulation, and are eager “to see strange new things and be immersed in new worlds,” Ken told us.

Ken’s early concept sketches for Monument Valley features and interactions.

Ken’s early concept sketches for Monument Valley features and interactions.

Simple, subtle, and elegant

Monument Valley disrupts the traditional game design paradigm in a number of ways:

  • It’s quiet and restrained: Princess Ida roams a de-cluttered world without loud music (what Ken described as “ambient, Zen-like sounds”)
  • There are no artificial rewards to incentivize users
  • Ida’s lack of a distinct personality lets users imagine what she’s thinking and tell their own story to foster a sense of empathy

The less-is-more philosophy applied to length, too. “A short experience may actually be better for a game, perhaps no longer than a movie and with a sense of catharsis at the end,” Ken said.

“To design a great video game, don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom.”

Also critical to the game’s success is an elegant onboarding process. The opening screen has a big, beautiful visual to entice users, many of whom might be “naturally skeptical and have a low commitment to a new game,” Ken said, and “need some encouragement to stick around for a while and go deeper.”

valley-2
Monument Valley worlds as works in progress.

Monument Valley worlds as works in progress.

Discussing the design and development of Monument Valley, Ken said he outlined the prototype for the architecture-based game, and then the team took over and “kept iterating and failing fast, failing aggressively” in a fluid process. The design, though, wasn’t simply about visuals or graphics.

The 8-person design team balanced an artistic voice and artistic expression with the story they wanted to tell, aiming for a “tight integration of art and programming,” Ken, a former art director, said.

“Gaming is a highly interactive experience, so focus on UX.”

At the same time, the team never lost sight of how users would interact with the game, and how they’d be drawn into “little worlds” where structures, levels, and arrangements float in a void.

Once inside the “little world,” users must solve puzzles that were influenced by everything from architectural models to poster design and bonsai trees.

Monument Valley is designed to attract both traditional gamers as well as people who don’t consider themselves gamers.

Monument Valley is designed to attract both traditional gamers as well as people who don’t consider themselves gamers.

Designing games with soul

To design a great video game, don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom—and don’t worry about traditional gamers,” Ken suggested.

It helped, of course, that ustwo is not a games company, an environment that continually reminded the designers that some people don’t play games or always feel comfortable about games, although they may have a mobile device.

“We had to think, how could we get that audience by asking if the games are too hard? Do they exclude people? Are they only for boys, or for serious people?”

Then you need a great story—one that doesn’t begin with “once upon a time there was a thingamajig,” Ken said.

Instead, create simple narrative arcs that are more like a music video than a game, and then slowly build up the world of the game and introduce characters as well as a compelling goal.

Don’t treat the user like an idiot with tons of boring levels and repetitions and built-in frustrations. Experiment with exciting visuals, perhaps inventive typography and bright alluring colors, to create a unique personality.

“Let’s try to make games that are more culturally viable and relevant—and for everybody.”

“Try to figure out the game’s soul,” Ken told us. And remember that gaming is a highly interactive experience (some say Monument Valley is more like interactive art than a game), so focus on user experience.

“There’s lots of similarities between how people consume apps and the way they navigate and learn and play games,” Ken said. “A UX-driven approach allowed us to frame the team’s high-level goals like this: what’s the most amazing experience we can create on a mobile device?”

More of Ken's early concept sketches.

Ken’s early concept sketches.

Video game designers keenly debate what a game is, who gamers are, and what they really want. But for Ken, the games industry “doesn’t have a very good grasp of what video games are.” He sees games as digital interactive experiences, an emerging art form that brings together “gamey things” as well as our most captivating interests.

“There are tons of games out there that are trying to be more visually exciting and more personal and exploring how we can bring in influences from architecture, dance, and photography,” he said. “Let’s try to make games that are more culturally viable and relevant—and for everybody.”

Takeaways

  • Think beyond what hardcore and experienced gamers may want or are used to. Your audience? Everyone.
  • For inspiration, follow your own interests, passions, and, yes, obsessions
  • Conjure great characters and stories with compelling narrative arcs that take users into new, strange, and exciting worlds
  • Disrupt the traditional game paradigm: video games can be quiet and restrained and even elegant, and users don’t always appreciate tons of boring levels and repetitions and built-in frustrations. Don’t treat users like idiots.
  • Remember that video games are digital interactive experiences. A UX-driven approach will help you create the most amazing experience on a mobile device.

Watch the video of Ken’s Bridge presentation:

For more examples of innovative game design, check out Designer Founder Lessons from Elevate, Apple App of the Year. And if you’re interested in more insights from leading designers, consider applying to our fifth session of Bridge by Tuesday, October 20th.

CTA for those not in hs to DO UI kit
CTA for those not in hs to DO UI kit
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Bridge
Bridge is a professional development program for experienced designers hosted by Designer Fund. To learn more about Bridge, go here. Apply directly for Bridge 5 by Oct 20th by going here.

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