Juan Delgado

The Monument Valley login problem

08 Oct 2019

By all possible measures Monument Valley has been an incredible success for ustwo. Critically acclaimed, money maker, players love it. The worst thing anybody has ever said is that it’s too short, please more levels. I have been high fived for Monument Valley many, many more times than for any work that I have actually done myself.

So what is this MV problem I’m talking about?

ustwo already had a reputation for beautiful design and interfaces, but when MV came out it raised that reputation through the roof. The expectations for the level of “wow” or “magic” for anything we do are really, really high these days.

Unfortunately we believe in agile and lean development. So when at the end of sprint 1 of an alpha for a product we demo a barely held together login with just one screen afterwards hilarity ensues.

And by hilarity ensues I mean client’s senior stakeholders are ringing the studio and asking for their money back. How are you presenting me this joke of an interface?!?!?! I came to you for my Monument Valley looking product!


MV is a premium game and was always going to be a premium game.

Is your product or service meant to be a premium product or service? It’s very easy to answer yes since we all want the things that we do to be amazing. But do you have the budget for a premium product? Even more important, do you have a business model that supports a premium product or service?

MV had a business model in the form of Mills. The whole brief to the MV team was to win Apple game of the year award (spoiler: they did). The business model was that ustwo was ready to see no return from the 8 months of MV development. Those were the days!

But how are you going to recover the premium cost of building a premium product? Are your users ready to pay premium? If not, how are you going to monetise?

IMPORTANT: squeezing agencies / suppliers is not a viable model to get your premium product at a bargain price. Someone will be paying for it, most likely the people actually building the thing doing silly hours and getting burnt. And still won’t get you a MV because unhealthy teams aren’t sustainable. Also, it’s wrong!

How do you arrive to premium

But how do you even arrive to premium?

MV did not start as the beautiful final product that you see in the app store. It started like this:

Monument Valley sketch

And then got like this:

Monument Valley sketch

And so on and so forth. It turns out ustwo games also believe in lean and agile.

The team iterated and iterated on cheap prototypes on internal user testing sessions until they had a very high level of confidence that the interactions were right and the levels had the right difficulty. Then and only then they cranked up the wow to 11.

If you have that level of wow from day one you are unnecessarily increasing the cost of change, the risk of waste and the fear of learning. Don’t implement the 10 minutes version before you have proof that you are on the right path with the 10 seconds version.

So when at the end of sprint 1 we “only” have a barely held together login with just one screen afterwards what we are doing is spending your money wisely. We are trying to understand whether we are on the right path. This is particularly important for early product discovery and validation, which is the area of the product and service lifetime that ustwo focuses on. These are the questions we want answers for:

It’s only after we know that we are onto a winner that it might make sense to crank up the wow. And I say might because maybe even after knowing that you are building the right thing it might make more sense to build more of it or you might not even need premium after all.

Premium is relative

Think of premium restaurants (Michelin stars), premium cars (Ferraris?)… now think about what premium is in the context of your industry. Some industries have already a very, very high bar when it comes to wow but some others do not.

I’m not going to name names, but I would always recommend having an honest conversation with yourself. Do you even need a MV looking product to have a successful product or service in your industry? Or is there a bit of ego and bling slightly clouding decision making?

Some people will call this lack of ambition, some will call it being mindful of resources.

If you are already delivering best in class by building what your users actually want, not screwing up interactions and delivering stable software, is premium design where your money is best spent at?

Sometimes premium is your product vision and unique selling point though. If that is your case then I’m more than happy to spend the hours on every tiny detail of user delight. You are building the 3 stars Michelin restaurant of your industry, you have the budget and the business model, congratulations (and I mean it).

But if premium is not your vision or you don’t have the business model for it, let’s have a conversation about the appropriate level of wow for you product and spend your money wisely.


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