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Ken Wong

Lead Designer at ustwo games and Monument Valley

Ken Wong is a lead designer and artist at ustwo games where he worked directly on their wildly popular iOS game Monument Valley and their latest VR venture Lands End. Ken talks about the challenges of following up a success like Monument Valley and how he and the team are always finding ways to remind themselves what it is they love about creating. He shares his passion for game design and how he believes the industry is pushing the boundaries like never before. It was clear talking with Ken that he is a true artist with a serious love for his craft.

Tell me a little bit about your current role and the work that you're doing right now?

At ustwo games we've been pretty loose about roles and responsibilities. When we worked on Monument Valley I really didn't have a formal title. I became the lead of that project sort of organically. Afterwards, when I started talking publicly about Monument Valley I had to make up a title for myself [laughs]. I called myself "Lead Designer", and we've run with that. I suppose in other places it might be the equivalent of Creative Director. I have a role in art direction, coming up with stories and game ideas. Also working with some of the less experienced designers and working with producers and technical folks to get projects made.

Things are always changing. I don't know how much you know about game development, but unlike say, film or writing the medium is so fluid. You're constantly inventing. It would be like film except if you were constantly re-inventing the camera or inventing the language of film. The language of video games is constantly shifting, and because of that our team is constantly in flux and changing.

Currently, my role is helping some of the other guys get into the field of game design. They may have done some level of design work; or art direction before. A lot of people, they want to have their shot at being a game designer. The way we see it, it's a bit like being a director of a film, with a lot of responsibility in terms of making decisions. I'm coming up with exercises, and passing on what I know and training them up.

“The interesting thing about mobile gaming is that mobile games have to be simpler. So, a smaller team can take an idea and make something simple, beautiful and innovative without the overhead of a big studio.”

What was your path to your current role? Did you come on for Monument Valley or were you there before?

My first job in the games industry was as a concept artist. I began drawing and designing characters in different environments. I worked closely with a game designer, and he got me my first full-time job as an art director. That was scary because I've never had an art director, so I don't know what an art director is suppose to do [laughs]. I did what I thought an art director should do, and made a lot of mistakes. I learned a lot on the job and eventually, got better at it.

After a few years of doing that in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the iPhone and the iPad came out. Mobile gaming became the thing. The interesting thing about mobile gaming is that mobile games have to be simpler. So, a smaller team can take an idea and make something simple, beautiful and innovative without the overhead of a big studio. I thought, "This is my chance to finally get into game design." I wanted to go off on my own and fill in some gaps in my skillset. My goal was to understand all facets of game development. I improved my programming skills, learned a bit of animation and then, I had to take on the whole business development and publishing side of things.

I moved back home to Australia and made a game by myself. It did okay, but more importantly I learned a lot on that project. Just before that I applied for a job here at ustwo and landed it. The primary motivation was actually just wanting to move to a new city. After living in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I thought London would be an interesting adventure. I arrived here, started pitching game ideas, and one of those ideas became Monument Valley. Things just took off from there.

What are the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing right now?

After Monument Valley we did a VR project called Lands End. VR is an emerging field, and a lot of people are having their first taste of VR. It's so unlike other platforms. There's no screen, you put on a headset and you're in that virtual world. You can't see your hands. Unlike other games or app experiences, we have to invent a whole new control scheme. We're creating a whole new paradigm for moving around and interacting with things. Doing a VR project was an interesting challenge for us, but that's how our team operates. We like to take on tough briefs and try and bring interaction to a wider audience.

There's still a perception that games are for hardcore geeks, or for teenage boys or for people with too much time. They're not seen as expressive or as important as films, or books or music. We see a big part of our role at ustwo as bringing games to a wider audience by using design skills to make them accessible, beautiful and forward-thinking.

It's challenging because we're talking about ideas, and trying to predict what these ideas are going to look like if we flush them out. Is it really going to make the impact that we're hoping for, or have achieved in the past?

Of course, everything is going to be compared to Monument Valley. It's a tough act to follow. Some people are being very generous and assuming that we can strike gold twice. But this is invention, it's a bit like doing multiple startups almost, it's never the same process. We have a lot of freedom, but there is obviously pressure to continue raising the bar. We've been searching for that real special thing, and trying to devise methods and manage people to fulfill that goal. That's a big challenge that my team is facing now.

“We have to remember why we love making games. We almost have to forget all the wonderful things that people have said about Monument Valley and just focus on doing great work.”

Screen from Lands End, VR game from ustwo.

I can only imagine how tough it is to follow Monument Valley. I'm curious then, when you're faced with those kinds of challenges, how do you approach that? What's your process for not letting that overwhelm you?

We try to remember what is was like before Monument Valley, and remember why we were passionate about in the first place. I think about it like music. When you decide to form a band and make music it would of course be nice to be the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, but that's not necessarily why you do it. You do it because you love making music.

We have to remember why we love making games. We almost have to forget all the wonderful things that people have said about Monument Valley and just focus on doing great work.

It's also about becoming better as a team. Things went so well on Monument Valley because me and the producer, Dan, we had just joined the team. We brought this new energy and a lot of things weren't certain. A lot of roles were undefined, and that made for really good collaboration. There were no assumptions, and that worked really well on Monument Valley. It hasn't really continued that way.

We've needed to learn how to do the standard things better, like communicating and knowing when to have meetings and when to stop having meetings [laughs]. That's all really tough, and it's weird because things worked well on Monument Valley. We can't just do the same thing, we have to move forward and go into the unknown. It's part of what makes every day interesting.

On a day-to-day level or on a weekly basis, is there any specific techniques or routines that you employ yourself to help you accomplish what you need to do?

Oh, good question. We have stand-ups once a day. That's not particularly unique. It's partly because we're in a very different phase at the moment where we don't actually have a project, and we're searching for a new one. As soon as we find that project, one or two projects, things are going to become more rhythmic and we'll set up a routine. Again, it's a bit like working in a film studio. The start of working on a film, and the end of working on a film and the bits in between films are going to be different.

How do you manage your time amongst like email and communications versus other more heads down work that you need to do?

It helps that our whole team is in one location, and we're just 11 people. A lot of our communication is done face-to-face or at meetings. Email is usually external stuff, and a lot of that I can ignore for awhile. The ones that are important tend to be fun things like interviews. A lot of the boring stuff I usually delegate to my producer.

The easy answer is that making games is usually a lot of fun and you can do it all day and then, you take it home and keep working on it because you love it so much. It's not particularly balanced, but it works. When I have less enjoyable tasks that's a bit harder. I just have coffee [laughs].

“There's a certain magic when you can imagine something in your head and get it down onto paper or onto the screen. When you can communicate your imagination to someone else and they get it. That's powerful.”

What would you say are the five tools that you're using a regular basis, stuff that you're touching daily?

Pinterest - It's cool that you have an interview with Tiffani Jones Brown, Creative Director at Pinterest. I love Pinterest. I find it's a great way to do mood boards, to collect a bunch of ideas, and influences together and collaborate on them. We use that on a lot of our past few projects including Monument Valley.

Photoshop - I use it every day.

Unity - We make our game with the Unity engine, so we use Unity everyday.

Standing Desks - Half of our team uses standing desks at least part of the day. When I first joined ustwo only one person was standing and now, a lot of people stand. A lot of us are into that.

White Boards - We do a lot of drawing on white boards.

This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, remembering why you love making games. Keeping that in mind, do you ever experience burnout or periods of time where you forget that or feel a little bit disconnected from doing it? How do you deal with that?

Absolutely, last year in particular was really tough. The VR project we worked on called Lands End, just seemed like challenge after challenge. There were technical challenges, personal challenges, and visual and design challenges. It bore down on us, morale was really down. We just punched through it, just putting one foot in front of the other. Asking for help is useful too. When you don't know what to do or you know what to do and it's just really tough, just asking someone else on the team, "Hey, what do you think about this? I'm facing this problem and it's tough, and I'm having a hard time with it. What do you think?" Sometimes just talking it through with a team member will 'grease the wheel' so to speak.

“There's so much you can do that you can't do in other mediums. It's an emerging form, and it's a young art form. There are great gains that take advantage of not just the latest technology, but the latest in design thinking, the latest in how can we participate with the audience.”

Another screen from Lands End.

Why do you love what you do and what makes the work that you do meaningful to you?

There's a certain magic when you can imagine something in your head and get it down onto paper or onto the screen. When you can communicate your imagination to someone else and they get it. That's powerful.

Animation is one step further. Through movement, animation, sound and music, you're telling a story. You're conveying these things in even more detail. Interactive video is one step beyond that, where you're not just setting up visuals and audio, but you're setting up a playground. You're inviting people to come in and participate. Instead of the whole thing playing out by itself, the audience member has to become a part of the artwork. The work is not complete until someone engages with it. There are things you can do with that, that you can't do with any other art form. You're making someone part of the play, and involving them.

For a lot of games the automatic method of conflict resolution is violence. That is largely because it's easy to simulate, it's easy to make games where someone wins and someone loses. You take out your enemies and if you're the last person left, you win. We're at this stage in the evolution of games where we're understanding how we can offer more narratives. How to present other kinds of choices, and how to resolve conflicts in other ways, or how to setup conflicts to have resolutions other than violence. That's super interesting. It's incredible that we can make games that can make people cry or can teach people things.

There's so much you can do that you can't do in other mediums. It's an emerging form, and it's a young art form. There are great gains that take advantage of not just the latest technology, but the latest in design thinking, the latest in how can we participate with the audience.

It also used to be games were very much dominated by straight white men. Now you're getting people with all sorts of backgrounds making games. Kids are making games, people with diverse backgrounds are making games, people from non-English speaking backgrounds making games. All of this added together makes a tremendously fun and interesting field to work in.

Lands End

Who would you like to see on Ways We Work?

Rami Ismail, indie game developer
Scott C, artist
Ash Thorp, graphic designer, director, podcaster
Nathan Vella, game developer (in Toronto!)
Noelle Stephenson, comics artist