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Ustwo: Giving creativity the attention it deserves

Ustwo Games' CCO and CEO discuss how to not lose creative people to business meetings

Starting out life as a creative agency in 2004, Ustwo has gone on somewhat of a journey to become the BAFTA award-winning developer it is today. Even with three games on the market, and a fourth in the works, Ustwo was never originally a game studio.

However, the wild and surprise success of Monument Valley in 2014 saw Ustwo Games grow from a side project into a core part of the Ustwo business. Now, with its upcoming title Repair set to arrive on Apple Arcade in the near future, Ustwo has reshaped how it approaches game development.

As Ustwo Games grew, the company realised it was at risk of losing its creative minds to the four grey walls of a business meeting. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz about her experience at Electronic Arts and CCP Games, recently appointed Ustwo Games CEO Maria Sayans says she found creative people often got swallowed up into discussions around business, rather than the game itself.

"This is wrong on so many levels," says Sayans. "We needed to find a way where we create that space, that structure, that freedom, so that creative people can just focus on creative beautiful games, and not have to spend so much of their creativity thinking about business models and business things."

"You need to stop comparing something you're making to something you made in the past, because you'll only ruin it"

Dan Gray

With the appointment of Sayans, Peter Pashley was promoted to chief development officer, and Ustwo Games moved Monument Valley executive producer Dan Gray from the position of studio head back into a creative role as CCO. Before the reshuffle, Gray noted there was a lack of structure in Ustwo Games, which became more apparent as the ad hoc development outfit grew into something more serious.

"What you realise, is that you do need to put structures around how you approach problems," he says. "And as we hired more people, it wasn't just the eight people who made Monument Valley anymore, it was new people and they weren't coming from that same kind of experience base that we were, so a lot of is formalising that process."

A common complaint from game developers is that moving up the management ladder takes them further away from the creative roles that shaped their careers. Gray says he found himself in a similar position, and didn't want to detach entirely from game development. Though still holding an executive position as CCO, Gray says it's now about taking the DNA that made Ustwo Games a success, and helping foster that spirit at a ground level.

Ustwo Games management reshuffle: Dan Gray, Maria Sayans, and Peter Pashley

Ustwo Games management reshuffle: Dan Gray, Maria Sayans, and Peter Pashley

"There is something really unique about what we do," he says. "We're not a tiny indie company in a basement, and we're not a massive games company. We're born out of a design company, with games-experienced staff members. I think it's important that we kind of really put structures around what we do that's amazing, and make sure that we do more of what we've already done with personality and heart, and not drift away from those values. So actually entrenching it in a role such as mine makes sure that we'll never forget them."

Following the initial success of Monument Valley, Ustwo Games found itself facing the "difficult second album" problem. Countless developers, particularly after a breakout hit, have been faced with this conundrum before.

"Creative people can just focus on creative beautiful games, and not have to spend so much of their creativity thinking about business models"

Maria Sayans

"People have been making art and making media forever," says Gray. "Everyone has had to go through this, but I think it's an acknowledgement that the new thing you're creating, the new idea, needs to be the best version of itself it can be, and you need to stop comparing something you're making to something you made in the past, because you'll only ruin it."

Gray hopes Ustwo Games will continue to surprise people, and excite them -- that whatever Ustwo Games does next has to feel different.

"Otherwise you'll be that band on stage stage writing music that sounds like their first album," he continues. "Nobody wants to be that band. It is difficult. You get scared. You second-guess yourself. But I feel like we're through that phase now."

As the industry moves into games-as-a-service, and the bold new frontier of streaming looms, the answers to questions around business models are becoming increasingly complex. For Ustwo Games, which managed to find rare success with premium mobile titles, those questions are even more pressing. While Sayans wouldn't comment on whether Apple Arcade could be the answer for developers looking for stability in the mobile space, she's acutely aware of the shifting sands beneath the mobile industry's feet.

"There's a lot going on that is happening right now and I think it's only going to accelerate," she continues. "There is also a lot of uncertainty in that... When we think about this, we kind of bring it back to basics. What are the most important things we can do to navigate that uncertainty, and navigate that optionality? And so it boils down to your IPs. Building an IP, building great experiences and focusing on the content, and having the right partnerships."

However, Gray notes that Ustwo Games isn't tied to the premium model, just that it's best suited to the types of experiences the studio wants to create.

"I don't think we can make the types of experiences and games in free-to-play right," he concludes. "But that doesn't mean the types of stories we want to tell can't be viable in other means in the future. I wouldn't necessarily think that we're so retro, a little bit stuck in the past with how we want to do things. It's just that another avenue hasn't popped up yet, but I think it will do."

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