All it took was a simple phone call, and soon the president was playing Monument Valley.
Ken Wong, the stylish mobile puzzle game's lead designer, says it wasn't any more complicated than that. The creators of House of Cards rang the video game developer Ustwo Games. Simple.
"They called us up," Wong said during a Game Developers Conference 2015 session. "They said, 'Can we use your game?' And we said, 'Yes.'"
The developers received a copy of the script for the episode in which the game would be featured. In it, the description of Monument Valley that President Frank Underwood reads isn't its real-world app store version.
"I told my producer to make that the description of the app," Wong said. "I'm not sure if he's done it."
He hasn't. At least not yet. But you you can see Underwood play Monument Valley and listen to him read a review of it in the video above.
At his GDC 2015 session, Wong also pointed out that "no money exchanged hands" during the process. One party asked. The other said yes. But that doesn't mean it wasn't financially beneficial.
According to App Figures, an organization that tracks app sales, the product placement paid off immediately. Monument Valley appears the fifth episode of House of Cards' third season. And just about five hours after it premiered on Netflix, sales began to rise. And they continued to do so in Google Play and the iOS App Store throughout its opening weekend.
Monument Valley was already a success, even before its presidential seal of approval. In mid-January, Ustwo revealed its sales figures, saying that a $1.4 million investment to create the game turned into $5.8 million in revenue. Today, Monument Valley is the fifth-most popular app on the iTunes Charts ranking, the eighth-most popular app in Google Play and the 11th-most popular app in the Amazon Appstore. Each list includes only paid apps. Monument Valley retails for $3.99 on each platform.
Monument Valley's success isn't particularly surprising, given its charm, its high production values and its creative M.C. Escher-like puzzles. But its success is something of an anomaly. It's a paid game in an ecosystem where free-to-play tends to do best. Wong addressed that, too, citing prior examples of games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and The Room that inspired Ustwo. He supports a diversity of mobile games and monetization strategies and believes that developers should be true to their games. That's what he did with his, and it worked out.
"Really, it's all about having the freedom to follow what the game wants to be," he said. "Our game — the soul of the game, the form of the game — wanted to be premium-priced, and we said, 'Screw it. We'll just do that.' Don't listen to all this marketing, monetization people. Just make the game how you want to make it."