‘Tengami’ dev explains how to be premium in a free-to-play world (and what’s up with that freaking bell puzzle)

March 5, 2014

Tengami is not without its problems, as we found in our review. Nevertheless I wouldn't dissuade anyone from picking it up and exploring its folding Japanese papercraft story for a couple of hours. A little frustration at one or two obtuse puzzles doesn't offset the intense beauty of what the team at developer Nyamyam Games has created.

To learn more about the game I spoke with Phil Tossell, who co-founded Nyamyam over three years ago with two other veterans of the famous Nintendo-owned studio Rare. At Rare they worked on classic games for Nintendo consoles and, later, on Microsoft games like Kinect Sports, but they left together so they could develop exactly the types of games they wanted to play.

We spoke about the divides between tablet and smartphone games, the pros and cons of premium vs. free-to-play (Tengami is relatively expensive at $5), the Japanese influence on the game, and that gods-forsaken bell puzzle that many players have had trouble with.

Read on for the full story, and don't forget to check out part two of our interview, in which we discuss the tech behind Tengami, including Nyamyam's work with the popular Havok development tools.

TabTimes Games: Tengami was in development for three years. What was it like working on a mobile game for so long?

Phil Tossell: Because of my history at Rare I've always been used to working on long games. I think my first game took five years, and my second took three years. Kinect Sports was actually really quick; it was only one year. But I think because we were doing it as an independent studio, the finances were the toughest part of it, because we were funding development of the game entirely on our own through our own savings. We had no investment or outside funding.

So it was really tough to manage—it was like going from having a steady salary to basically back to being a student again, and having to live as frugal as we could be and also try to find enough money to fund the game and the tools and everything we needed. Toward the end it was getting pretty tough. We definitely needed to get the game out around that time.

Did you guys ever consider any other business models?

Not really. In the beginning I think we didn't think the game was going to take three years. I guess like a lot of developers we were overly optimistic about how quickly we could get it done. But when we started the game it was when the iPad 1 first came out, and we saw the iPad 1 and we were really excited about this new platform that was going to offer maybe a little more substantial experiences than the phone typically does. So we were pretty adamant we wanted to make something that was a high quality kind of game that would hopefully stand out from all the other kinds of games that you typically see on iPad and iPhone.

I guess at that point freemium wasn't as big as it is now, and I know originally we were looking at the prices of things coming out, and they were a little bit higher [on the iPad] than the phone. And so we kind of thought that it would make a good, viable platform. But in the three years in between the market's changed quite substantially. Freemium really does dominate now. But I think still we really want to make creative, interesting, unusual experiences that make people enjoy something that they haven't seen before. And I don't think we would change that.

"People who have iPads look for something a little bit more substantial or a little bit more interesting."

Do you still see that divide between tablets and smartphones?

I think absolutely. They're quite different markets. It's actually really difficult, because you have these kind of universal apps. That's best for the consumer and Apple kind of encourages to do that. But actually the pricing—it hurts you on the iPhone when you have something that's like $5. It's hard to convince people to buy it. Whereas on the iPad people seem much more willing to pay that price and they don't seem to mind that.

In the ideal world you'd get to price it a bit cheaper on the phone and a little bit more on the iPad, but you can't really do that with the universal apps and the way that works. But we're definitely seeing that people who have iPads look for something a little bit more substantial or a little bit more interesting. We've definitely had more success on the iPad than the iPhone so far.

So more people are playing it on iPad?

I'd say that it's kind of split probably 75/25 toward the iPad. And we definitely designed it as an iPad game and it plays better on the iPad for sure.

Can you talk about the Japanese influence on the game and any specific sources that inspired you?

Yeah, I don't know how much you know about the three of us [at Nyamyam], but one of us, Ryo [Agarie], is actually Japanese. And he also worked at Rare for about ten years. And then Jennifer [Schneidereit], she worked for a Japanese company called Acquire for about three or four years before she came to work at Rare. We all met at Rare and that's how we got together. I think all of us had some kind of attachment to Japan, a kind of fascination with Japan. Mine came originally from video games and anime and manga and so on when I was younger. But then after I actually visited Japan a number of times I kind of fell in love with the more traditional side of Japan, particularly the arts and crafts, and the dedication that they put into those things.

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You know, you get people who dedicate their entire life to making traditional paper, for example. And I guess we wanted to try and present that to people who had no experience of that. In some ways it wasn't too difficult for people to understand, so it was a little bit accessible…Definitely the main influences come from traditional Japanese fairy tales and stories and also the arts and crafts. And we spent a lot of time looking at how Japanese paper is actually made, and it's fascinating. I could bore you for hours probably but it's an incredibly time-consuming and hard process. And so we kind of felt like we wanted to try to portray the passion that we have for that to players who may have never experienced it before.

Can you talk about any experiences at Rare that had a particular influence on Tengami?

Probably Tengami was actually a reaction to the games that I used to make. So much of the games I used to make were skewed a little big longer, and they were very fun games, very colorful, you know—Rare had a reputation for making games with kind of anthropomorphic characters with googly eyes. And I think we felt like we wanted to make something that was a bit more mature. 

But not in the sense of, like, violent, or that kind of mature, but mature as in a bit more restrained and subtle and something that could be appreciated by people who are perhaps a little bit older, who aren't traditional gamers. And definitely as I get older the experiences I enjoy are very different from what I used to enjoy. And so maybe it was a reaction to that: I've done lots of games like this, and I'd like to do something that's very different, like the opposite end of the spectrum.

"To be totally honest it's a terrible puzzle. It's not even really a puzzle."

I got stuck on the bells puzzle, and other players did too. What is the logic behind that puzzle?

To be totally honest it's a terrible puzzle. It's not even really a puzzle. What really happened is that for the first level, the forest, and the third level, the ocean, we did a lot of play testing on those levels. And we went to various shows, like PAX…and we had a lot of players play them and from that we refined those levels quite a lot and multiple times. And the middle level, the mountain level, to be honest it was a little bit rushed. And we needed to get the game out because financially it was becoming very difficult.

In an ideal world we would have had maybe another month to kind of polish and refine and play test that section a lot more than we did. And definitely it's the bit that's kind of hurt us the most in terms of when people have played it and/or they've reviewed it, and they've picked up on these parts. It's kind of a little bit disappointing for us because we know that some of those bits aren't as good as they should have been. So yeah, there isn't really a great deal of logic to that puzzle to be honest.

Do you have plans to patch or update it?

Yeah, we actually have an update that we submitted a couple days after we submitted the released version which had a lot of improvements in it. But we've held off pushing that out because of the way the App Store works. It kind of pushes all your reviews to one side as soon as you release an update. We wanted to let people see the impressions and the reviews.

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But since then we've also kind of looked at the stuff that's come back from the released version, and we're in the middle at the moment of making a whole bunch of tweaks and improvements for the game which should go out in the next week or so.

A good example is that there's no hint system in the game. On iOS that was a really risky thing to do because there's a lot of kind of casual players who don't necessarily want a really challenging game and they like a bit of help as they get stuck. And a lot of our support has been helping people who've got stuck. We did have a hint system that was 75 percent of the way there but we haven't had a chance to refine it and finish it up. So that's something that we're definitely going to get in for a subsequent update.

Check out part two as well!


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