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“In games, people shy away from life and death and love and sex”

Monument Valley creator Ken Wong discusses his new 'craft games studio' Mountains

Mountains, the new studio set-up by Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong, describes itself as a 'craft games studio', so naturally, when sat down with the Australian games creator, we had to ask what that actually meant.

"What does craft mean to you?" he asks.

"Well, at school, crafts usually meant sticking bits of cardboard together," we reply.

"That's just it. I think the word 'craft' suggests things to different people, and it is totally relevant for you to talk about memories of making things with your hands as a child. Some people think of craft beer. Some people think of the word handicraft, or craftsmanship... all of these things are relevant. [The word] puts the focus on having a personal touch, and refining your skills. You are not trying to mass produce things that are disposable, you are trying to craft beautiful, bespoke things that are maybe a bit more meaningful, or more lovingly made."

Wong is very much a designer that likes to extol the virtues of video games as an art form. Something that perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise considering his work at UK studio ustwo, a company that was initially a design agency.

He also strongly feels that the industry's games makers need to further explore the art form, by learning to express their feelings through their work.

We should be aiming to be as relevant as literature and film and all those other art forms.

Ken Wong, Mountains

"There is something that Jonathan Blow said in Indie Game The Movie, he said you should put your flaws and vulnerabilities into the game, and I think about that a lot," says Wong. "When people write songs, or books, or when they dance... it is not strictly an academic thing, or a technical thing... your soul is bared and your feelings are on the line. For whatever reason, in games people shy away from that a bit, and are afraid to make it personal and about life and death and love and sex and sadness.

"All of us here at Mountains have interests outside of games, and that really helps us remember that we are part of the story telling tradition, and the artistic tradition. We should be aiming to be as relevant as literature and film and all those other art forms."

Wong set-up Mountains in April alongside producer Kamina Vincent, lead programmer Tony Coculuzzi and programmer Sam Crisp. The studio is based in The Arcade, a games development hub that began with just three studios on a floor and has now expanded to 30 teams across two floors. The Arcade is also home to the likes of Hipster Whale and League of Geeks.

Wong explains: "The way I see it is that we have all the benefits of being a small independent studio, as well as the collaboration you would get from a larger studio - by having these 100 people around who are creative, opinionated and interested in your work. I've never been in this kind of environment before and it has informed what we do. Part of the reason for coming to Melbourne and starting the studio is that I wanted to be part of this."

Mountains is a smartphone developer and just like Wong's breakthrough hit Monument Valley, its first game will be a premium title. In a market increasingly dominated by free-to-play, it makes a rare change.

"I sort of see it like a meta game," says Wong. "You are taking certain risks by doing free-to-play and by doing premium. If we want to run a sustainable business in free-to-play, then there are loads of things we need to do to incentivise those players to cough up some money. That doesn't really play to my strengths. We have a lot of friends that use that business model and are really good at it, but it is just not what this team is setting out to do. Maybe we don't need casually disinterested people.

"We will do our best to create a beautiful icon and trailer, and hopefully people will see a reason to spend a couple of bucks on that. And once they've spent that money, we can put all our efforts to making sure we are not wasting people's time and not putting ads in there."

Wong wouldn't go into details on Mountains first project, it is still early days, he says. But it won't be following in the footsteps of his last project, ustwo's mobile VR game Land's End.

I'm actually a huge VR sceptic. VR doesn't work tremendously well on me, and I am a bit sceptical as to whether it is going to find that wide userbase

Ken Wong, Mountains

"I thrive from learning," he says, discussing his experiences on that project. "I like to jump into the deep end and figure things out. I'm actually a huge VR sceptic. VR doesn't work tremendously well on me, and I am a bit sceptical as to whether it is going to find that wide userbase that will sustain creatives like me. But I think it was useful coming in as the sceptic. I didn't want to mess around with gimmicks, I wanted it to be good. Pushing games into a whole new area was a really good experience.

"For me as an art director, the most important thing is that there is no screen in VR. The game world is all around you. This spoke to some of the things we learnt on Monument Valley, which is that gameplay is not the be all and end all. Some people play games more for story, more for art, more for that visceral experience, and VR amplifies that even more. In VR, the driving force is not going to be beating your opponent, or even beating your game, it is going to be putting you in someone else's shoes.

"It was really fun to work in that arena where every single visual and audio thing you do feels way more amplified than it does on the screen. Instead of making a game about explosions and aliens and terrorists... just having rocks and trees and shadows and waters, those alone feel tremendously interesting."

"If the designer of Monument Valley can't continue to survive in those waters, then what hope does anybody else have?"

Ken Wong, Mountains

Wong says the Mountains team may revisit VR eventually, but for now it wants to prove itself in the mobile arena - and he's confident that their game will be able to stand out from the mass of titles being released on iOS and Android every week.

"Obviously, there is a lot of competition there," he acknowledges. "But I feel if the designer of Monument Valley can't continue to survive in those waters, then what hope does anybody else have?"

The Monument Valley element will certainly get Wong's next game some attention, but it also brings with it additional pressure. Wong acknowledges that he is feeling the weight of expectation around his next time, but he's trying not to dwell on it.

"Well, I do and I don't [feel the pressure]," he concludes.

"I don't feel the need to one up Monument Valley. I think some people see video games as something that needs to escalate, and that was especially true when graphics were getting better every year, and technology was getting better. I see my work more like a series of albums. You know like Radiohead albums, where each one is like: 'I wonder what it will sound like this time?' and 'What experiences did the band go through that led to this creative work?' So as much as I feel the pressure, I don't want to focus on that. I want to focus on the four people in this room, and what we are doing each day, what is driving us, what we are having fun doing and what can we do creatively that is going to be meaningful to others.

"I think it is a humble mission, but it comes back to craft games. I want to focus on the craft, rather than this outlandish success that one of my games just happened to reach."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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