Developer Interview: ustwo games

Since 2014, ustwo games has been raising the bar for the video-game medium with every new entry. Their debut title was Monument Valley, a mobile project of such renown that–years later–other studios continue to name it as a source of inspiration for their own work. London-based ustwo games most recently launched Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, a feel-good experience that has both an in-game and real-world goal of helping the environment. Despite the chaos of a pandemic lockdown, Chief Development Officer Peter Pashley was kind enough to take the time to share some ustwo games lore, reflecting on the team’s journey and their learnings along the way.

ustwo games Logo

|| How did the ustwo gaming branch begin, and how does it now feed into—or operate separately from—the other divisions of ustwo? The ustwo company was founded in 2004, but Monument Valley wasn’t released until 2014. What in that decade gave rise to collecting the talent needed to craft Monument Valley? What unique ustwo philosophies does ustwo games carry forward into videogames, if any?

ustwo was founded as a digital design agency in 2004 and over the years we grew from just the original “us two” founders to a multi-studio company with over 100 employees. The company had always done small self-funded projects alongside client work but, with the growth of the App Store after 2008, creating our own apps got more focus and small, experimental games were part of that. 

There had always been games DNA at ustwo, but in 2010 I was hired as the first pure game developer. Over the next few years we released Whale Trail and Blip Blup, we learnt a lot and got much more serious about making games, hiring a bunch of really talented people and transitioning people internally until we had a dedicated 8-person games team. This was the team that created Monument Valley.

Monument Valley was an incredible, unexpected success for us. We had just been following our noses trying to make a perfect touchscreen game but we were lucky that it launched at the right time and did very well! We wanted to keep applying our philosophies to making more games, making Forgotten Shores MV add-on and Land’s End for VR quickly after.

Around this time it became clear that it made more sense for the “games team” to become its own company, giving us more room to grow and do things differently, so we left the mothership and moved across London into a new space where we still are today (although we’ve been working from home since March!).

Even though we’re now a separate company we still have strong links with the Design Studios and share resources where it makes sense. Our sensibility as a games company is totally defined by where we have come from. Our focus on UX, on making games that are appreciated by the general public, on taking inspiration from outside of games culture, the power of small teams and a proactive culture, all stem from our early days making games bathed in ustwo’s design philosophies.

|| As the ustwo games team has grown and changed over the years, what were some of the lasting lessons and ideas people brought to the table that will always have a place in your process? ustwo games prides itself on being a diverse group with talent from both within and without the gaming industry. Were there any collaborative lightbulb moments you’ll never forget?

A lot of our original philosophies stem from the lessons ustwo had already learnt from making non-games apps for clients – the importance of user testing, agile development, and thinking of the user experience (UX) not just as interface design but thinking about how the user engages with a product from first hearing about it, to initial onboarding and ultimately how it fits into their lives.

I remember making Monument Valley levels and always being humbled by how nothing ever worked well the first time – we ended up usertesting every change to every level – and ever since have tried never to rely solely on our own intuition. We saw the importance of having everyone on the team do user testing; it’s so inspiring to see people enjoying your game and also so motivating to fix anything that doesn’t work well for them.

It’s been really important to us as we have grown to hire people from diverse professional and personal backgrounds – it just gives us broader internal perspective and inspiration. For example the team would never have made Alba without those personal experiences of Spanish childhoods, and the filmmaking background of various people on the team has helped with cutscene composition and design of the in-game camera mechanics.

More recently we have learned a lot about working on larger projects with Alba, where we had almost 30 people working on it at its peak – and remotely too! It wasn’t easy to adjust our ways of working to work with a larger team but the extensive industry experience of people like Robyn, our producer, who joined during the project, have helped us to manage.

|| What about the video-game medium wasn’t originally satisfying to ustwo games, inspiring the studio to reach for something new–something greater? It’s stated elsewhere that ustwo games creates “interactive entertainment that challenges the medium.” In what ways do you challenge the norm? What other games and studios do you see doing the same?

Because of our roots we have always wanted to make products that bring what we love about games to people who don’t normally get to experience that. The majority of games companies are focussed (understandably!) on existing markets but we don’t want hardware ownership or free time or familiarity with game tropes to limit who can enjoy our work.

I think we sit in a relatively lonely niche, nestled between indie titles and bigger budget productions. What we want to achieve doesn’t fit that easily with existing routes to market so (perhaps sensibly!) there aren’t that many other people in the same space. There’s a lot of overlap with indie titles though, people like Dinosaur Polo Club, Fireproof, Giant Squid.

|| How has your method and subject matter for storytelling transformed from game to game? Are there themes that are pervasive throughout all your titles? Were there any narratives you decided to tell that surprised you? What sorts of stories and relationships would you be interested in exploring in the future?

Normally I would say that one of our development principles is to do as much storytelling with game mechanics, animation, and the player’s imagination as possible – but our two most recent games have actually contained a lot of dialogue… That doesn’t represent a permanent shift, more just what made sense for those games. It’s hard, and unnatural in the context, to convey the civic tensions of a small Spanish island without using words! We do still try to convey as much as possible with environmental storytelling and animation though.

We don’t really have pervasive narrative themes but we do consistently think of narrative as one of the tools that serves our ultimate goal of giving a certain emotional experience to the player. In Assemble with Care, narrative serves the purpose of making the objects meaningful to the player and elevating the experience from a ‘fix the object’ puzzle game to one that hopefully triggers the kind of emotions that people would have when picking up momentos from their childhood.

We’re always interested in giving people experiences that reflect on elements of human experience that are unusual to find in games, whether that’s by explicit story telling or thematic elements to game mechanics. It’s essential to us that the messages of a game originate from the team making it, so we don’t really have fixed plans for the future – just that we make things that come from the heart.

|| Is ustwo games headed toward deeper device waters? Currently ustwo games calls itself a “mobile games studio,” but the recently released Alba: A Wildlife Adventure launched for PC and consoles in addition to the standard mobile fare. What new challenges await you with this shift, and at what point does a “mobile games studio” become, simply, a “games studio”?

We love to make things for mobile devices because ultimately that means the broadest range of people will have access to the things we make. Some games, like Alba, are also great to play on a big screen with a controller so, when it makes sense, we want to let people play our games on their platform of choice. So I think you will see us do more on non-mobile platforms whilst keeping our roots in making games for mobile – the hardware that most people have access to.

We’ve always seen ourselves as a company that makes a certain kind of game – accessible, polished and innovative – that would be great on any platform and that pretty much anyone would enjoy. Our first game after Monument Valley (Land’s End) was for VR! So I think we’ve always thought of ourselves as simply a “games studio” even if our platform of choice is mobile.

Over the next few years, with increasingly powerful phones and the roll out of streaming, I think we will see the distinction between mobile and other platforms blur considerably. It’s going to be an interesting time and we’re looking forward to making our kind of games regardless of the hardware that ends up being involved!

|| How would you advise or respond to indie studios who draw hope and encouragement from your art and achievements? Countless other developers have openly cited your work as having inspired their own. What would you have told yourselves if you could go back to before you released the first Monument Valley?

Firstly to respond that we actually draw hope and encouragement from them! Monument Valley wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for other games like Sword and Sworcery or The Room leading the way, and we continue to be buoyed up by the wondrous things that the indie community creates. If we do have a part to play it’s hopefully to prove that there is a market for nuggets of calm amongst the other more competitive aspects of the games industry.

If I’ve learned anything from Back to the Future it’s “don’t use time travel to give tips to your past self”! Monument Valley was the product of a certain group of people at a certain niche in time with relatively low expectations and I wouldn’t want to do anything to disrupt that, even if there are some design flaws that make me cringe now!

|| The current ustwo games team is snowed in at a hotel together and can make one phone call to a previous ustwo games member to bring the following to share: three video games from any system, one board game, and one movie or TV series. Who do you call, what games and media do you ask for, and why?

Oooh tricky, I’d like to call them all! I’d call Florian Veltman, ask him to bring Journey (it’s a running joke I am inspired by it, having never played it, maybe this would be the time), Nidhogg and Mad Verse City for some group fun times. For the boardgame it would have to be Monikers which has become an ustwo games standard for our annual trips. I’ve really enjoyed the heartfelt silliness and interesting philosophical questions of “The Good Place” so maybe we’d go with that.