A lot to digest in this interview, so some quick highlights up front:
- Monument Valley 3 is still “a long way off”, but the team is closing in on a concept
- MV3 doesn’t have a platform just yet (and we’d bet Apple and Netflix are ready to fight over it)
- Ustwo will move into making free-to-play games, but on its own terms
- Netflix game Desta will run more like a service – a first for the studio
Desta: The Memories Between represents several firsts for Ustwo Games. It’ll debut on Netflix, and it’s much more mechanically complex than the studio’s previous games – a roguelike with six months of content planned after its September 27 launch. A PC and console release is coming in 2023 sometime, too.
Chief creative officer Danny Gray says that with three teams working on different projects, Ustwo has come through what was once a “dark time” before Apple Arcade and Netflix came along.
“We only had the App Store, and premium games were not that viable above a certain budget,” Gray tells us. “We almost felt like we didn’t really have a home. It’s really great that now we have two potential homes to go to with that kind of audience.”
Today, in Netflix and Apple, Ustwo has two suitors with deep pockets, and platforms that fit the Ustwo ethos. “We’ve ended up in this really, really nice position where, luckily, when someone has a new platform or product usually we’re one of the first people who get a phone call about it,” says Gray. “And that’s kind of what happened this time – we didn’t even know Netflix were doing games stuff.”
After Apple Arcade games Assemble With Care and Alba, Gray and his team thought their only options were to do “something free-to-play or something for Arcade.” Then Netflix called.
“We were already making [Desta] and we were speaking to Apple for Arcade and trying to figure it out and then Netflix contacted us,” he says. “As soon as we started talking to them, they were just really, really excited to try and start something and figure out what this cool new platform they had was.”
With a new platform comes a new approach, too. Desta will be run a little more like a live game than the Ustwo team is used to. “It’s important that we try and grow and that we add more strings to our bow,” says Gray.
“For us, the idea of moving from two hour experiences to giving people something new to do every week is a massive departure. So it’s been cool to move in that direction as a design challenge.”
Readers with long memories may recall we revealed some early details about Monument Valley 3 back in March. With Ustwo’s long history and relationship with Apple, you’d assume that it was a guaranteed Arcade exclusive – but with Netflix on the scene, that’s no longer the case.
“There’s not a partner that we’ve decided on for Monument Valley 3 yet,” says Gray. “I still think that as a company, we’re driven much more by platform fit than the finances.”
And he says of the MV3 team: “They’ve really started to kind of narrow on a concept, which is really great. And they’re starting to add more people to the mix so there’s some really exciting stuff going on there. But they’re a long way off.”
There’s a third team at Ustwo Games working on prototypes for whatever’s next after MV3, too. And that could turn out to be the studio’s first free-to-play game.
“I’ll say categorically we do want to do it,” says Gray of free-to-play. “And if we do, it needs to be in a way that makes us feel comfortable. So being respectful of people’s time, being respectful of people’s money, avoiding certain dark patterns and UX stuff. It’s got to be in the right way.”
“The other side of it is you’re talking about company culture as well – do we want a team of 40 people on one game? I don’t know. Suddenly you’re throwing in a whole ton of marketing people, analytics people, inventory buying people – stuff I don’t really understand.”
“If we prototype something and it still didn’t feel right, we won’t do it,” he continues. “That’s the beauty of all this being independently owned. There’s no pressure from shareholders just saying ‘the line must go up!'”
“The objective isn’t how do we join free-to-play, it’s how do we change it,” Gray continues. “That seems like a really lofty goal, but we will only do it if we find a new way to do it. I consider us to be in a new era where we’re trying different things…I never want us to grow to be like 100 people or something, but we’re willing to take a few more risks, try a few different things.”
And releasing Desta through Netflix is part of that. “Of course, not all 200 million subscribers are going to decide they want to play a game,” adds Gray.
“But if you convert half of those people to try a game, that’s a massive audience. That’s another thing that just feels quite exciting – it feels like a good way to hit large amounts of people while still getting to make super creative and risky games.”