Monument Valley: Why Free Games Fail to Achieve Art
Written by 吳強頭
Translated by Andrew
Monument Valley is so far my favorite mobile game. Curiosity has made exploration fascinating and charming, like the player-character princess Ida looking for the lost treasure in a world of upside-down and rotatable mazes. As the game begins, the soothing music and gradient sky over the mountains have made up Ida’s world in your mind. Every chapter is a wonderland, and is full of surprises when Ida suddenly walks backwards, comes out from a trapdoor, spaces out in the gaze of breeze, waterfalls, and birds, or gasps at the beautiful scenery.
Aside from putting much efforts on the artistic and sophisticated level design of Monument Valley, it is essential that the team understands the characters of paid users and comes up with a correspondent version of the game. This time, we bring you the director of games of ustwo, Neil McFarland, to share the experience of how to design the perfect pacing to make users immersed in the game. As a fan, I was lucky enough to meet McFarland and talked about my favorite chapter, how social media responds to the game, and somehow McFarland’s username on the Internet.
ustwo Creates Spirits; Mobile Devices Are Just Skins
McFarland said the core concept of ustwo is to help users get the hang of games through digital design. Back to the era of console games, the controllers bore a professional yet complicated appearance and a number of buttons, which most people found them not user-friendly. ustwo noticed the prevalence of smartphones, and the interactive behavior of touchscreens, thus they developed Monument Valley. By clicking on the screen, users lead Ida traveling through moving and spinning mechanisms and eventually to the next chapter. With the private nature of cellphone, one can put on headphones and enjoy the exquisite atmosphere.
Additionally, ustwo is now working with Samsung Gear VR to build a virtual reality game—Land’s End. In the new game, users become Ida, and physically visit every island for a magical journey. They have tried to set Monument Valley directly onto VR devices, but the view would suddenly go upside-down, causing uncomfortable feelings. ustwo believes that digital design must adapt to the nature of devices. Smartphones feature touchscreens, and VR devices feature storyline through vision and motions.
Do good games make VR more common? Out of expectation, McFarland said games are just one of the media; games don’t take lead in content industry. A good movie, documentary, or concert can all provide users with amazing experience via VR devices.
“Mobile games are like black holes. They devour all kinds of entertainment such as puzzles, comic strips, and even boredom. Boredom is an important feeling. Without it, you can’t come up with fun things. That means no games.”
McFarland thinks people use cellphones not to enjoy the game but to kill time. That’s one thing ustwo wishes to change.
Pacing of Monument Valley: One Feed at a Time
As mentioned in his talk, free games aim to make users pay, so the user guide ends fast in 30 seconds, helping users build a castle or grow acres of crop. Instead of being entertaining, free games are more likely to develop relations with users. More levels and bonuses are given out, making users play forever.
Since Monument Valley is a paid game, users often expect more from it, so the team must put efforts on the pacing and content design. In the user guide, they talk about only one thing in a chapter. From simple walks to complicated buttons, they feed users bit by bit with diverse surprises guaranteed without repeated plot. Different from the mission-oriented free games, ustwo left blanks throughout the game, so users have to find goals by themselves. This allows developers to have greater control of the pacing and contents, and it’s also a test of how developers blend rules with story. “The users don’t even realize they are playing a game until they are totally soaked in it.”
Turn Rules into Story, and Earn User Recognition
The Monument Valley team actually thought of only the rules and the artistic styles from the start. They put Ida in and enhanced the story afterwards. “Rules always come before stories,” said McFarland. Still McFarland agreed the soaking feelings of Monument Valley make rules part of the story, which few have noticed. My favorite chapter was The Box. You spin and open the box first, then the story begins.
McFarland uses “Paris Hair” as his Internet username. “I think my name isn’t cool enough!” In 1993, he was playing a golf video game and saw the name Paris Hair. He thought it was an interesting one so he took it as his character’s name. Later on, social media began to pop up, he then used Paris Hair as username until now.
He knows how powerful social media can be. When users like your game, they recommend it to others, and it spreads through social media beyond measure. Social media are the only marketing channels ustwo have, and they keep good relations with Google Play, App Store, and Amazon.
Matt Miller, the co-founder of ustwo, mentioned in the interview of The Guardian that no further chapters for Monument Valley will be released. A company won’t last long if focused only on mobile app. They are seeking more potentials through new technology. In the short term, they still put emphasis on mobile systems, but more than just games. From touchscreens to VR, ustwo is more of a digital design team. “I enjoy sharing Monument Valley as well as stories within different media.” As asked before the talk, is there a game, movie, or music that can make people appreciate the spaces in life, when all the blanks are filled in with cellphones. “Is there a free game can be regarded as art?”