In the fifth entry of this 2014 'Year in Development' series we chat to Phil Tossell, co-creator of Nyamyam. The UK based studio released its first game in 2014, Tengami, an experience with a pop-up storybook vibe and hugely attractive paper-based aesthetic. Including music by fellow Rare alumni David Wise, it's a contemplative, beautiful experience; that's our opinion, at least.
First of all, can you introduce us to the team and give us a brief history of Nyamyam?
Nyamyam was formed in September 2010 originally by 2 ex-Rare members Phil Tossell and Jennifer Schneidereit. Around March of the following year another ex-Rare staffer Ryo Agarie joined to form what is the core of Nyamyam. Our intention with Nyamyam is to create beautifully crafted games with a sense of individuality and a spark of magic. We began working on our first game Tengami straight away after forming the company and it took us three years to complete. Tengami was released earlier this year.
2014 has clearly been a big year for you. Can you talk about the early weeks building up to the iOS release? Was it a 'crunch' period?
2014 has been a huge year for us as it saw the release of our very first game Tengami at first on iOS in February and then later in the year on Wii U. The period prior to the iOS release was crazy and very much a 'crunch' period. While we all would have preferred not to crunch it was unavoidable as we had committed to a date with Apple for the release and we didn't want to blow any chances we might have of getting featured. I think we put together the final build at 5am in the morning before doing some final testing and then uploading it to the App Store. I wasn't at all confident that there wasn't a serious bug in there somewhere, so it was a very nervy time waiting to see if any issues came up. We were of course also incredibly excited to see how the game was received by players.
Once it arrived on iOS, how much of your time (in the initial month or two) was on post-launch activities, and how much focus was on the Wii U version?
At least for the first couple of months it was almost entirely post-launch activities: promoting the game, doing interviews, adding additional features and fixing any issues. It took more of our time than we anticipated and prevented us getting on with the Wii U version as quickly as we would have liked. I think also we were all suffering from burnout to varying degrees, having worked so hard to get the game finished. For a while it was hard to get focused clearly on the Wii U version.
Can you talk a little about the process in Spring / Summer of completing the Wii U version? Were there any particular challenges in development, submission etc?
We already had a mostly finished version of Tengami by the time the iOS version was finished. This is because we had shown the game at Pax Prime on Wii U. I think this probably fooled us into thinking that we were most of the way there, but I should have known better having worked on console before. We lost way more time than we expected getting the game through the various age rating agencies around the world, as well as to Nintendo's lot check procedures which proved to be very time consuming. Having come from iOS where submission is straightforward and quick, Nintendo's procedures (like all of the console makers) are overly bureaucratic and error prone and geared more towards disc-based games than digital games.
How would you summarise the key differences between publishing on iOS and Wii U, then?
There's a number of key differences. Looking at submissions, on iOS Apple leaves almost everything down to the developer. If there's an issue in your game or your app then it's your responsibility. They do basic quality checking and some conformance testing when you submit your game but not much. If there's defects then it's up to you to interact with customers directly to fix them. On Wii U it's still very much how consoles have always been. The console manufacturer wants to protect their brand and their name, and so they are much more rigorous and careful about what they let through.
With respect to interacting with the publishers, we found both Nintendo and Apple to be approachable. Nintendo Europe in particular were great to us and were always there to help in any way that they could. We really did appreciate their support. Apple are definitely more hands off but if they take an interest in what you are doing then they will also keep an eye on you and track how things are going.
The other obvious difference is that on iOS there are no age ratings which is a tremendous time and money saver.
Is it accurate to say that Tengami achieved some notable success on iOS, through being featured, for example? In comparison, how has it fared on the Wii U?
Yes it's accurate to say that. Tengami has done very well for us on iOS. No doubt the worldwide Editor's Choice was a large contributing factor. I hate to think what might have happened had we not been featured. I'd say that the Wii U sales have been somewhat disappointing. Although we had much lower expectations than iOS, I think even taking that into consideration we've been disappointed with the sales so far.
Have you met any resistance due to the pricing discrepancy between versions, and what determined that gap from your perspective?
Pricing was one of the most difficult decisions we faced. In an ideal world we would price the game the same everywhere but the reality is that each market is very different and will support differing price levels and sales volumes. The price gap came for those reasons and also because of the additional development costs for a platform that we knew was unlikely to generate a lot of sales for us.
We always felt that Wii U would be a low volume platform and so if we priced too low we just wouldn't even break even. Would we have sold twice as many if the price was halved? My feeling is probably not. In contrast on iOS the market will just not support higher prices. We went with what is still considered a premium price on that platform (£2.99) and were happy in the end with that decision. All of us feel that the game is 'worth' more than £2.99, but that has no real relevance to anything. I do sometimes wish I could sit people down and explain just how little goes to the developer after all is said and done.
With a title of this nature there's naturally a possibility that opinions will vary wildly. Overall, have you been happy with Tengami's reception?
Yes, very much so. We knew, and we accepted from the very beginning, that the game would polarise opinions to some extent. What we wanted was to make something that had a strong vision and was uncompromising in its design decisions. In doing so you will always get those people who don't like what it is that you're trying to do. But then you also get people who totally get it and love it. We had so many people, especially from atypical gaming demographics, that told us they loved the game and had never experienced anything like it. How can you ever be unhappy with that?
As you look back on the year, how would you grade 2014 for Nyamyam?
That's a difficult question to answer. I think as an individual, and as a company you always have to be clear about what it is you're trying to achieve. It's only then that you can really assess how you've done and where you can improve. I think Tengami achieved beyond anything that I was expecting and met the goals that we set out with for the game.
Are you able to say anything about plans for 2015, and are you considering a return to Nintendo hardware with your next project?
We're just now finishing up a few other versions of Tengami. Then we'll reconvene in January and consider what we will do next. We really don't have any firm plans at all so far!
We'd like to thank Phil Tossell for his time.