[OFFSET Dublin] UsTwo games Dan Gray on crafting, gaming and creating his own path
From their BAFTA award-winning hit Monument Valley, to innovative virtual reality experience Land’s End, their dedication to craft and platform specific design is reflected in every product they create.
Ustwo games describe themselves as a mobile games studio that “loves to make interactive entertainment which challenges the medium, with a strong focus on user experience and elegance in presentation”. Originally a gaming division of digital product company Ustwo, success has helped it blossom into a dedicated arm of the firm.
Interview in conversation with ustwo games Head of Studio Dan Gray.
Hi Dan, great to have you on board for OFFSET Dublin this year! You’ve been in the industry for a number of years now. Can you tell us a bit about where you’re from, where you grew up and how you got here? What was your entry point into the industry?
It’s been eleven years in the industry and five years with ustwo so far. Time really does fly! In all honesty education wise I was a bit of a slow starter. I got average grades at school and then attended a disappointing degree course in Leeds. But from the age of eleven I knew I wanted to make games and nothing was going to stop me.
I’m originally from a small town called Glossop on the outskirts of Greater Manchester. Metropolitan enough to feel current, but rural enough to be adventurous and I think it really contributed to who I am and how I approach things.
I spent the last years of university self-teaching and doing tutorials on the internet. I was fortunate enough to get good grades when graduating, but that didn’t mean I jumped into a job. After some months of applying for jobs with no luck I found a work experience program at Lionhead Studios with a four month waiting list. I called up every Friday hoping for a dropout for the first nine weeks, before finally getting an opportunity I jumped on. I came down south for a week and the rest is history!
Where does the majority of your work take place? How much of the day is spent in front of a computer?
I’m definitely not the kind of person who can sit at a computer and concentrate on one thing for the day. I need to be face to face, speaking with people, whether that be in meetings or just wandering the studio.
I have to jump on a flight somewhere for a conference or business thing probably once every 3-4 weeks and that’s always varied and exciting. Getting to travel the world and meet other creatives is always inspiring, especially when we pride ourselves on looking outside of video games for inspiration. When I’m in the studio however I’m definitely not the kind of person who can sit at a computer and concentrate on one thing for the day. I need to be face to face speaking with people whether that be in meetings or just wandering the studio.
Our culture is very much around this form of communication and open conversations are always welcome. Just now I was interrupted to spend thirty minutes debating whether the risk versus reward mechanics of more recent games has diminished in comparison to older ones. We’re lucky enough to have incredibly talented and eloquent people here. Every single day there’s something new to learn from them.
I want my team to feel creatively and emotional engaged in everything they do here. We’ve become better at controlling the variables that lead to magic, but sometimes it just happens out of nowhere.
For some designers, the idea of ‘play’ and experimenting fills them with dread – the blank page, the unknown, the fear of making mistakes – how do you feel side projects can challenge this attitude?
A blank page is always scary. Even for us we struggled with this towards the middle of last year. Eventually I set my teams off with objectives and more solid direction. Although they were resistant to this at first, it’s actually more freeing than prohibitive and I’m really happy with our projects at the moment. Our policies around side projects are changing all the time but in an ideal world my aim is to have an individuals desires and personality present in studio projects, so there isn’t a desire to work on things in their personal time. I want them to feel creatively and emotional engaged in everything they do here ideally. The reality is that team members do sometimes need a completely left field release that can only be provided by doing a wacky thing over a weekend, and in that instance we’re all for it.
Where did the visual aesthetic and design sensibility of Monument Valley come from? How does a project like this come into fruition?
I wish there was a set rule, process, or paradigm I could explain that would help people with this, but even for us it’s hard to create another Monument Valley. The story for this game in particular though was that we were creating visual prototypes and having our artists simply create visual pieces in a variety of art styles without necessarily thinking about how they would function mechanically. We had a whole bunch of stuff up on a wall near our working area and visitors would always stop and take it in. We eventually started riffing on ideas for one in particular and decided to make a functional prototype out of it. This is incredibly rare for any developer, but within a day we knew we were onto something special.
The art style was very contemporary and of the moment. The mechanics were unseen on mobile and we knew we had the team to follow through on the idea. It was a perfect storm. As our team has gotten more experienced we’ve become better at controlling the variables that lead to magic, but sometimes it just happens out of nowhere.
How has your role at ustwo games evolved since you took the position of Head of Studio last year?
It’s been fascinating and difficult to adapt the creative thinking we already had to a more commercially focused endeavour. But with Monument Valley 2 I think we smashed it.
It’s been a rollercoaster and harder than I could have expected. During the development of Monument Valley 1 we were a team of eight people purely focussed on the development of the game and nothing else. The last two years as Head of Studio has seen that evolve. I now run a company of 20+ people, overseeing our transition into a separate business entity from the main ustwo studios and moving to a whole new location.
It’s been fascinating and difficult to adapt the creative thinking we already had to a more commercially focussed endeavour. But with Monument Valley 2 I think we smashed it last year. Marketing the platform relationships – and above all the game – had a level of polish that was a step above what we’d done previously. I admit I’ve still a lot to learn about leading a company. It’s always important to recognise your shortcomings, hubris is the downfall of talented people.
As a studio you’ve had tremendous success with Monument Valley and Land’s End, evolving ustwo games from a small offshoot of ustwo into a dedicated arm of the company. Where do you hope to take ustwo games in the next 5-10 years, both as a company and creatively?
Our first and most important step is to prove to the world that we’re more than Monument Valley. I want the general player base to know ustwo games, and not just our most successful game. That’s what we’re focussing on right now. We’ve got two projects in the pipeline that are completely new IP. Beyond that we’d love to look into another studio and location, also supporting and publishing games for likeminded developers where we believe we can really make a difference. We need to constantly have an eye on new technology. We’ve proven with Land’s End in VR that we’re one of the premier developers for UX and on-boarding of new tech to casual players.
Creatively our objective is to continue to provide all the amazing things about interactive entertainment to a wide audience, the democratization of game design. There’s so many amazing mechanics and stories to tell that your average person isn’t ever exposed to. With MV2 we managed to make millions of people care about characters in a game for the first time. We’d like to continue to do this in other areas.
What have been your personal highlights over the last few years? Can you hint or share what might be next in the pipeline?
My personal highlights have been realising Monument Valley might actually be good in 2014; winning the only awards my family have ever heard of in two BAFTA’s in 2015; the secret launch of MV2 this year, where we announced and launched in collaboration with Apple at WWDC, and most importantly our first company holiday in October just gone. We took the whole company away to Chamonix and Mont Blanc, adventure walking, trekking snowy mountain, with plenty of wine and cheese. It was at that moment I realised just how lucky I am to work with such amazing humans. People I get to laugh with, let my guard down with, learn from, and create with.
On whatever is next… it’s going to be a big secret until probably the middle of this year. The only thing I can say is that it’s in a completely different style. I think it’s going to surprise a few people.
We’re excited to hear your talk at OFFSET in March. Out of all the festivals that happen year on year, what makes it stand out for you?
It’s really important for us, making games for non gamers, that we don’t become consumed with being insular to the games community. In my opinion it’s one of our biggest strengths. I’m really excited to just be around creative people of all different industries. Learning from those people and having amazing conversations. There’ll be something to take from this visit that’ll definitely be injected into our next experience.
Personality is your biggest asset, it’s what makes you you and it’s something nobody else has. It’s unique.
Success is an interesting concept, but everyone has their own definition – be it financial stability, creative fulfilment, happiness, reward. What does success look like to you?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, mainly due to debates around free-to-play and premium games. Free games dominate the industry and the big ones make millions of dollars a day. Where as games such as ours sit far far below that. So undoubtedly we’re making a conscious decision to not chase the money. We just can’t fulfil our creative goals as a company by following that route and for us that’s more important.
I’ve managed to cut down my only personal desires to these things. I want to be around amazing people that I learn from every day. I want to do it in an environment I enjoy participating in. And I want to release products that surprise and move people. Everything else is a bonus.
We often ask our interviewees if they have some advice to pass on to young creatives out there. Can you share something specific you’ve learned?
Personality is your biggest asset, it’s what makes you you and it’s something nobody else has. It’s unique. Discover what this is to you and double down on it. It’s the special ingredient that will set you apart.