Ryan Cash & Eli Cymet from Snowman have kindly allowed us to share highlights from episode one of their podcast Art & Craft in which they interview Ken Wong, lead designer of Monument Valley. They discuss Ken’s influences, how he entered the industry and the alternative ending to Monument Valley that didn’t make the cut.
Welcome to the Snowman speakers series, an indie game interview series hosted from inside an indie game studio, where we talk to studios, developers, creators and artists of all types about what makes them tick, the creative process, and how they got to where they are today.
My name’s Eli and I’m the producer at Built By Snowman, creators of Alto’s Adventure, and my guest on this very first inaugural podcast is Ken Wong, Creative Director of newly formed indie studio Mountains, and former lead designer at ustwo, on the everybody-knows-it game, Monument Valley.
So, just as a quick ice-breaker question, I’d love to know, what game you played or gaming experience you had that brought you from thinking, games are really awesome, I love these as things that I play, to, well maybe I can make these or create these?
Oh, wow, that’s a great question. I grew up playing Nintendo games, like the NES and the Super NES, and I had a Commodore 64 growing up as well, and I used to borrow books on basic programming from the library when I was about 8 years old, and try to make games, and you know it was very restricted to just very simple text inputs and outputs …
Are you familiar with Mario paint? … So, when I finally saved up enough money to buy a Super Nintendo, you know the obvious choice was to get it bundled with Street Fighter, because that was amazing, but I thought that I would like to be more creative and I got the Mario Paint pack, which included a mouse … and so for those who don’t know, with Mario Paint, it’s basically a beefed up version of Paint in Windows. So you can paint with the mouse, and do very very primitive animation and sound, and so that was a really simplified multimedia suite, but I loved it, that was kind of the first digital creation tool I ever used. I would spend hours in there recreating scenes from Mario and Mortal Kombat by painting things, and you could do 9 frames of animation, that’s about how much it could handle.
Right, and so growing up, was there a lot immediately available by way of programs to create art or design games, did you jump right from your high school years into that or was it a bit of a windy path there?
I guess I cut my teeth on making web pages. When I was 14 I ran a Street Fighter fan site, which is basically a way for me to create Street Fighter art, and so I kind of got used to digital creation tools by doing that, and for graphics I used Paint Shop Pro for a long time before migrating to Photoshop … I’d often spend lunch times getting to know the programs better, trying out Flash and Dreamweaver and that kind of thing…
I went to University for Multimedia, and I thought that I would basically be doing web development for a living, and then the games industry came knocking and I answered the call.
So how did it come knocking at first, I see on LinkedIn you’ve been at Spicy Horse … what was the first opportunity for you to sink your teeth into the games industry and how did that come about?
So what happened was in the year 2000 a game came out called American McGee’s Alice, and that was designed by a guy called American McGee … and in 2000 EA gave him the opportunity to direct a game based on Alice and Wonderland, and it really captured my imagination, the art in the story was so different. I did some fan-art of the game and submitted it to a fan site, and American saw this art and he asked if I would like to try doing some designs for his next game.
Wow, that must have been surreal…
It was very surreal and I’d never done art on a game before, I’d never considered it…
Now as a quick divergence, there’s the sense that there might be diminishing returns on this idea of creating fan art … As somebody that’s now been part of studios and has founded a studio of their own just now, would you still recommend that as a course for people looking to break in, just sending creators fan art and creating stuff for the sake of creating, or has that changed?
Oh absolutely, if anything I think the way that the Youtube community’s set up, the way that cosplay and conventions are so important, I think that there are so many avenues into games and fan art is certainly one of them. I think that by doing fan art you’re proving that you understand characters and that you could do good output. I wouldn’t rely solely on fan art, a prospective artist should flesh out their portfolio with their own ideas and showing that they can follow a brief. But I still do fan art…
I know that I’m inspired actually quite heavily by the Monument Friends Tumblr, we just launched our own art club Tumblr for people to create art based on Alto … we want to see how amazing some of this work is and it’s a great way to get people’s attention if nothing else.
It’s wonderful. Yeah we actually stole the idea from Sword and Sorcery.
And so you submitted some art, you ended up getting noticed and you ended up coming on board as a concept artist for Spicy Horse?
Originally, the first project I worked on was called American McGee’s Oz. And it was a dark version of The Wizard of Oz, and that was a long time ago, it got cancelled in the end, and American and I worked together on a couple more games and properties before Spicy Horse was started in Shanghai.
And so in that way, was that first foyer into the industry, being a cancelled game, was that discouraging, was that a great learning experience, was it both, how did that affect you at all?
That’s a great question, I don’t think that cancelling really affected me. I did see it as an opportunity to learn and a little bit of money, and really I didn’t make a profitable game until Monument Valley! So I got really used to working on games that didn’t work out and I think learning skills and having a good time with the people around you, that’s the real reward, that’s the thing that I care about a lot, whether the game is received well by the public, I mean sometimes it’s just out of your hands…
There’s certain trends and behaviours in the games industry that I don’t think are very healthy. We have all these idols, these superstars of the games industry, who seem to just constantly create successful IPs and franchises and games, but for many people that’s just not their reality. For many people they’re going to have their ups and downs, and I’d like to create a studio where we celebrate our ups but where we can also survive our downs and that we don’t get burnt out either way.
When I talk about Mountains being a studio where we put people first, I really mean that we’re going to celebrate the fact that we can come in and do great creative work every day, and if that’s received well by the public then that’s almost like a bonus.
I think something a lot of people don’t realise … is that Monument Valley was in many ways a sophomore follow up to Whale Trail, which was their first foyer into the games space, and Whale Trail … was really just as high quality with its craftsmanship, but it was a quite highly publicised commercial failure. So the narrative has been taken over by the success of Monument Valley…
Yeah, every member of the Monument Valley team had worked on games that had not met expectations in some way, so that was actually an incredibly experienced team, and Monument Valley definitely did not come out of nowhere, there was a lot of experience and a lot of lessons learned that went into that.
I’m curious in terms of your early formative years … is there a lesson you feel like you learned in that first Oz project that you just harness daily, or is something that you’ve taken forward, probably the earliest formative lesson you’ve taken about design or working in the industry that you want to pass on to others?
Well, one of the big lessons I took away, the first two games that I art directed, were called Bad Day L.A., and Grimm … and one of the big mistakes that I made on both of those was not understanding that art direction is all about visual comprehension. At the end of the day what the author intends, or what the creatives want to express, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t come through to the player, so you really have to consider what is entering the players eyeballs and how does that compute in their head.
So I was designing these worlds in the editor of the game, but it would often look really messy or distracting or confusing to the player, and it’s a mistake that I see other beginner developers make, where they’re making choices based on what they think looks good, or what kind of art they would like to do, and they’re not thinking as much about what effect that is producing for the player.
One of the aspects that make the productions of Monument Valley different was that ustwo, their bread and butter is doing UX … so that was an environment that really treasured the user, we really believed in creating experiences that were for the user, and bringing that perspective to game design was really helpful for us.
Absolutely and I think it’s surprising how many folks maybe haven’t been taught that game design is such a multi-disciplinary space, Alto was our first formal game, we came from a productivity app background, a UX background, exactly like ustwo…
From your perspective of visual design, is there anything you know that makes good visual design versus what makes inherently off-putting visual design, at least from your perspective?
I think that some of my favourite pieces of art, I felt an element of disgust at first, so my favourite artist if I had to pick was someone who has influenced me a lot it would be Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter, and when I first saw his work I was like, it’s grotesque, why does he paint humans like this? But I would go back to that painting and stare at it and I think that there’s an element of when the elements in an image don’t quite add up, when there’s a little bit of disharmony there, it makes it more interesting, it holds your attention because it can’t resolve in your head…
Now did you have to kill any of your own darlings … throughout the process of Monument Valley, I’m sure there were many, is there any one that sits with you as an idea that you had hoped would make it through to the end product and that just didn’t?
Sure, I think that killing our darlings was an incredibly important part of the process and a reason why the game was any good, you know we culled so much from the game. I think if anything stands out I think it might be the ending of the game, where we had a much longer and grander ending in mind that was a bit more layered than the ending is now.
Can you talk about what that ending was?
So originally the ending was similar to the current ending, but, spoiler for Monument Valley coming up, Ida doesn’t get her crown. The crown starts to descend and then it evaporates. And the game is saying that no matter what you do you can’t undo your past deeds, you can’t become a queen again. And at this time the ending was on the top of a tower, and the last level involved you having to climb this tower, and so after the crown is not given to her, Ida has to walk down the tower by herself, and the player actually has to do this.
The whole walk of shame?
Yeah like a walk of shame, and she goes to the bottom of the tower and she feels really alone because she realised that she was supposed to be the queen of the crows and now they’ve all flown off and she’s left alone, and at that point the totem comes and finds her in the snow and the totem cracks open and becomes the thunderbird, which is this massive bird, and she climbs on the back of him and they fly off. And then you see the final scene is the crows flying and Ida is still trapped in a human form, but at least she can fly with them on the back of the totem.
Right so she finds a way to a sense of peace, if not specifically righting the past wrongs?
Exactly, and this ending was in our second beta test, and just nobody responded to it, it was just really long and convoluted.
Now, something that I think it just perpetually true but just doesn’t get talked a lot about is the struggle of things like imposter syndrome and creative block … are there any persistent struggles that you have as a creative designer … that you have to contend with on a daily basis and how do you deal with those?
I mean, I feel like I trained myself to be this creative fountain, like I just have creativity out the wazoo, I have no shortage of ideas, and I believe everybody can do this, I believe you can train yourself to find inspiration in everything.
How did you do that in some ways, what were some of the things that got you to this place of being able to just pour ideas out?
I think as an artist, one of the things that make artists different, is not that they can output creative works, but that they see the world in different ways, so that you learn to see light and shadow … and you notice people, you notice them differently, you observe their posture and their gesture and their animation and so it’s a different way of seeing the world … So to answer your question, I don’t feel like I run into creative problems like that so much. For me the struggle has always been how to work with others well.
Now I’m curious, because the jump you made to Mountains and back to Australia from ustwo on the heels of Monument Valley and Lands End and really being THE name in the mobile games space on everyone’s lips as to what was coming next, was that hard for you, was there a sense that you were leaving when things were at their best and was there an internal struggle about doing that?
I had always intended to not stay for a very long time in the UK. For me it was always an adventure that was going to come to an end, and I was very curious about Melbourne. Melbourne has a wonderful games scene and it’s a bit closer to home … it felt like the right time to leave and I think that it allows me to continue finding my own path and it’s going to allow ustwo to find the next stage of their growth as well.
What would you say was something you’d want to pass on for somebody who’s looking to jump into their own venture, to just be aware of?
I spoke to as many people as I could about starting up studios and I think one thing that came up a lot was do things right from the start. Register the company properly, get an accountant, get a lawyer, and have a producer, have someone who’s job it is to oversee things and organise things. I see a lot of other start-up studios that may be entirely consisting out of programmers and artists, and maybe they’re all friends to begin with … I got a lot of it from people saying even if you’re friends get everything in writing, be very clear about who owns what…
I would love to know a little bit more about the scene you founded your studio in, because you’re based in that coworking space in Melbourne called the Arcade right, where there’s just a ton of raw talent there, there’s Hipster Whale, there’s pretty much every small indie Australian studio there able to work together, I’d love to know a little bit about that environment…
Sure, so the Arcade is two floors, in a building just south of the city, and it’s home to about 30 different studios and individuals, and they vary in size from people working by themselves to maybe 12-15 people, including Mighty Games, League of Geeks, Loveshack who made Framed, and it’s just incredible that everybody is so generous with their time … and so it’s tremendous because we like being a small studio but being in this coworking space we’re not isolated, we have this tremendous support network and it’s such a great way to make games.
I’m curious in that regard, is that something you feel is a through-line to success in the industry, this idea of relying on and being in some ways very generous and giving to others … verses sometimes keeping things closer to the chest lest you have a situation like we saw with Vlambeer and Ridiculous Fishing?
Sure, I think there are multiple paths to success … we see a lot of indie studios now where they haven’t worked at an established studio before, so you might have three kids who have just graduated and they’ve decided to start up a company, but they’ve never been through a proper production cycle before, they’ve never dealt with publishers, they’ve never crunched before … and for those kinds of outfits I think it’s tremendously beneficial to be connected and to have a supportive network that you can ask questions about and ask for help.
I get a bit worried about people enshrining, you know these kind of lone developers who crunch for years on their passion project, because some of those work out, but a lot of them don’t, a lot of them never get finished or get finished and don’t meet their expectations and it’s kind of crushing.
They romanticise that too, they romanticise that your first project has to be epic in scope.
Yeah, and one thing that I talked about recently was Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott directed commercials for ten years before making Alien, and that was his second movie. If you look at George Lucas, Star Wars was his third movie and THX was based on one of his student films, so there is this ladder of stepping stones that many video game romantics don’t recognise, and certainly I want to in the future talk more about the steps that it took for me to get to what was perceived as my big success, Monument Valley, but actually there was a lot of hills to climb before that.
I’d love to know from your perspective, not speaking for anyone else on the team, can you talk to me about a couple of low points or even one really low point in the development of Monument Valley, what it was, how you got past it, how you ran into it…
Sure, I think my lowest point was when we were completing the extra levels of Monument Valley.
This is Forgotten Shores?
Forgotten Shores, and I was actually back in Australia during the end of that and I was here to renew my visa and because of a technicality I wasn’t able to do that and I had to stay in Australia for longer, which meant I wasn’t back in London when they were completing that … and I felt incredibly isolated from them because there was this horrible time difference between here and the UK and we were not set up to work remotely at all … being in the trenches with my team, that’s the most special thing, that’s the thing that I value the most. I was certain that the new levels were going to be received well, but not being there for sort of the birth of the child was really crushing.
Are there a few creators that you really draw inspiration from in movies and art and any other field that you feel informed the way that you hope to approach what you do with Mountains?
Not particularly, I think when I was starting out there were certain creators that I learnt a lot from, I mentioned Gustav Klimt before, Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy, I think a generation of artists really learnt a lot about drawing and visual design from him. But as I went along I started just learning from everybody and everything around me … when we figure out what our first project is, we’ll delve more deeply into whatever influences are most relevant at that time.
In the way that you’ve described Mountains … and the very beautiful mantra you’ve put on your website about creating games that linger in hearts and minds, is it fair to say that that’s the same sort of thing you’re going for?
We did a lot of talking at ustwo about what values we have, and it was a very interesting experience, trying to encapsulate what we meant when we say that we want to make good games, that we want to make meaningful games … lingering in hearts and minds is something that I came up with when I was doing talks about Monument Valley, and it’s something that I noticed where Monument Valley is a very short game, it’s only 90 minutes long, and yet after people have finished playing, many of them continue to think about it or they continue to feel things about it, and I thought that was interesting for a mobile game, and it’s maybe more similar to the way that we consume film, or books, that the experience or the value is in how it has touched you or how it has moved you or how it’s made you think, so I would aspire to do that kind of thing for our games here at Mountains now.
Absolutely, and it’s interesting that you mentioned books specifically, and I think that that aspect is part of why some of our favourite games as a studio, some of my favourite games personally is the really really creative written content coming out of Simogo, Device 6, Sailor’s Dream, that it feels so lingering and permanent.
Yeah I mean Simogo, I know I just talked about like not enshrining any particular creatives, but what Simogo have done is stunning, there’s such confidence in their work and I love that they move from project to project without worrying about is this a Simogo product or not, their products are all so unique.
Something I’m curious about on a totally different subject is the name that you arrived at with Mountains, can you tell me a little bit about how that sprung up and what that means to you if not to the public?
So for me, Mountains has a couple of meanings. One is that it’s hard to fit mountains plural in your vision … I think it’s hard to conceive a whole mountain range, what that looks like, or the shape of that, so I really like that idea of this mysterious grand formation. The mountains are a place that are still a bit mysterious in our hearts, where very few people have explored, and perhaps where magical things still live … that word seems to evoke some of the things that we are interested in.
Thank you so much for taking the time Ken, I’d love to just offer a chance to let people know where to find you, where to find the studio and how to keep up with what you’re doing.
Thanks again to Ryan and Eli for allowing us to share this really insightful interview. You can hear the full episode on the Art & Craft podcast.
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