Success seems to follow Dan Gray wherever he goes - or is it Dan who is creating it? He seems to leave a trail wherever he sets foot; little buds of achievement sprouting and flowering on whatever he touches, like a Mancunian Amaterasu. Starting his career with Lionhead Studios in Guildford, Dan went on to work as producer at Hello Games before finding his way to usTwo.
It is in usTwo's lobby and break area that I now await Dan's arrival. It's impossibly trendy; space-age coffee makers, printouts of team members branded with memes, stencils, sketches, slogans. Also there is a very large plastic cow. I turn my head to investigate a commotion and see a group of men with beards high fiving each other following a game of table football. I have died and passed into Hipster Valhalla. Good job I came in disguise, then, what with my large, groomed beard, video game tshirt and low carb lunch purchased from Pret a Manger. Kale crisps anyone?
In truth, this seems like a great place to work, and the general air is of an artist's playground, as opposed to a forced, soulless, corporate "thinkspace". Those on their breaks in the lobby are friendly and open, happy to accommodate a conspicuous stick insect with a jesus haircut slinking around and photographing them.
Dan appears and welcomes me with open arms; he's always so laid back for someone who is never off his feet. In fact, I have had to arrange two separate visits to the studio in order to get everything I need, as he is permanently busy. He is happy to make time for me and takes this extra thing to do in his stride. Much has happened since we last spent time together in Cologne in the murderous heat of GamesCom 2012: an iTunes chart topping mobile game, two BAFTAs, but he remains exactly the same Dan, padding around, shoeless, in the studio, calm and just a little bit strange, but in a loveable way; he made a kunai at the weekend and brought it in. Nobody knows why.
We venture upstairs, past some sort of old fashioned cargo elevator, and into a minimally decorated, large studio space. The usTwo studio seems like the most natural place in the world for Dan to be, although this might just be his ability to seem at home wherever he is. He lies on a soft leather sofa, laptop resting on him, tapping away at his work, as I document the area. Although it's not immediately apparent, it's been a long, hard working and sometimes painful journey from his hometown of Glossop to this comfy leather sofa in the middle of East London. Videogames have always been an important part of his life, and this becomes increasingly apparent as we talk, exploring his childhood and beyond.
When Dan was ten years old, he sat down to a meal with his extended family. All the children were being asked what they want to do when they grow up. Dan told his family that he wanted to make videogames for a living. The family chuckled at his sweet little aspiration, shrugging it off as a cute answer. As a ten year old in an adult's world, nobody realises how serious you are when you say things. In response, Dan ran into the kitchen and made a commitment to following this dream, by writing it on his nan's notice board in permanent marker. Admittedly their smiles may have fallen a little when they realised they needed to buy nan a new notice board but, as Dan grew older, the assertion of a child started to become a reality.
Dan made his way through school, college and university, always with games on his mind. After working a variety of odd jobs - supermarket checkouts, window cleaning, retail, anything that paid - Dan began badgering Lionhead for an unpaid work experience placement. He was told that there was no space for at least another four months. So he called them again, and again, every Friday, hoping to find a cancellation to fill. On the sixth Friday, he was in luck and Lionhead offered him a cancelled slot. The perseverance paid off, his family were ecstatic; they had had an appreciation of his dreams and goals since he first committed them to cork on his nan's notice board.
Support from his family, alongside his own hard work, are the foundations of who Dan is, and throughout our interview he makes a point of praising the whole team. It's not that he's uncomfortable to talk about himself, it's about the importance of making everyone feel valued. He recognises that it took everyone on the team to create Monument Valley. When a company focuses on a handful of people, other hard working, intelligent, creative people don't get the recognition they deserve. In the studio I see Dan support, encourage, include and empower his workmates. Dan holds a genuine respect for anyone who puts time effort and sacrifice into a game for the good of the team, and I believe there's a reason for that.
Back when Dan was offered a week's placement at Lionhead in Guildford, he had moved back north to work at home and be near his mum, who had fallen ill with cancer. The weekend before his placement was due to start, Dan spent a lot of time with her. She told him "Daniel, I'd wish you luck but I know you're not going to need it because you work too hard, and one day you're going to make a game that everybody really loves". Dan's family knew that he would give up the week's work experience to spend more time with his mum if he knew just how ill she was, so they underplayed the seriousness of her situation. They knew this placement could mean big things for him, and they weren't about to let him slip up now.
At the end of the placement week, Dan was called into the boardroom at Lionhead and offered a permanent position. It was a huge moment in his life, he had finally managed to get a foot in the door, the perseverance and hard work had paid off. Still giddy from the offer, Dan hadn't even left the boardroom when he received a call. He was to rush back home immediately.
Dan's mum passed away the same day he was offered the position at Lionhead. It was a sacrifice only a parent could make.
A month later, Dan was left wondering how he would actually afford to set up down south to begin working for Lionhead. There was no way he could let this position slip through his fingers, but affording it was a major issue; he was still paying off student loans, overdrafts and credit card bills. He also needed a deposit on a place to live. His mum had left him £10,000, which she had been saving up. This final act set Dan on his journey to an award winning studio in East London, the place where he helped create Monument Valley.
Dan tells me that, as part of their last conversation together before he left for his week's work experience, his mum assured him "I'll always make sure you can do what you want to do", something she had proven to him time and time again in the past and throughout his childhood; supporting, encouraging and empowering him. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree; gratitude for others, hard work, recognising the value in supporting and empowering those around you are all qualities I see in Dan.
And just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes people working together and supporting each other to achieve something truly special.