I had the pleasure of going to see Nyamyam Games a few weeks ago to play their new game Tengami. My thoughts on that can be found here
. While I was there I was also able to sit down and chew the fat with the lovely Phil Tossell and Jennifer Schneidereit, founders of Nyamyam. Here's what they had to say ...
What is the inspiration and meaning behind Tengami?
Phil: Well Tengami, if you wrote it in Japanese characters, is actually made up of two characters which are 'heaven' and 'paper'. But if you actually wrote it in Japanese and showed it to a Japanese person it would look a bit strange to them; so that's why we've gone for the Romanised version of it. So it approximately translates as 'heavenly paper'. We chose that because it sounded good, but also because the game is based around paper and some of the themes are about Japanese spirits and the Japanese religion Shinto, so the spirit and the paper seemed to make a good name. The game is based around the whole world being made from paper and it uses a pop-up mechanism which you probably wont have seen from the screenshots, but which you'll see when you actually play it.
Jennifer: It's basically a made-up word made out of two real Japanese words but the word itself, Tengami, doesn't exist in Japanese. It wouldn't have any meaning to the Japanese. So, what's nice about the first part, the 'Ten', if you saw the Kanji, like do you know the red gates? The Torii gates that they have on the shrines? Well that is what the Kanji for 'Ten' looks like and it just really works well because we are drawing inspiration from Shinto and Japanese fairytales.
So if you were to release this in Japan what happens then?
Phil: (laughs) Yeah, well that's why we're using the Romanised version of the word rather than the Japanese because Ryo was like: "This doesn't actually mean anything". It's a bit strange because a Japanese person could misunderstand the Tengami kanji as a type of paper you use to absorb oil, when making Tempura (crispy battered vegetables). That's why we'll just use the Romanised version, which they do a lot in Japan anyway. They throw characters together to get a word that sounds good, even if it isn't strictly a word.
Jennifer, I'm assuming that a lot of this is based on your time in Japan because you spent some time over there, didn't you?
Jennifer: Yes, for four years, I was working in Tokyo for a Japanese game developer called Acquire. During my time there I mostly worked on Samurai and Ninja games. Authentic Japanese games are kind of Acquire's speciality.
So, were you into this Japanese theme as well Phil or was it something that Jennifer presented to you?
Phil: I've been to Japan about twelve times over the years. I love Japan; it's such a contradictory place with the traditional meeting with the modern. It's a bit of a cliché to say that, but it is true. You can be walking down the street and see this nice little shrine in the middle of urban Tokyo so it's a really cool place. I've always been fascinated with various aspects - more so the traditional side - but I got into it because of games, as a lot of people do. But then over time I became more interested in the traditional arts and crafts, the history and the religion and how that feeds into Japanese culture as well.
The whole 'Shinto being used in horror' thing is very common but your take on it is quite unique amongst games, isn't it? The only thing I can compare it to is Jade Empire from a few years back which is set in ancient China with very similar themes of the historical mixed with the mystical.
Phil: I think it's hard to express your own culture in a way that's interesting for other people. I often think about if I were to make a game about England, to me it would be boring because you know it; you know the history, and so it all just seems so ordinary, just as it must seem ordinary to the Japanese. But when I look at Japanese culture there's so many things where I'm thinking "We could use this, this would be really interesting.". It's fascinating and we wanted to draw on some of those things that aren't used so much in games and to bring those things to people who aren't so familiar with that aspect of Japanese culture. There's a lot of clichés you see with the way that Japanese culture is used in games; samurai, ninjas, that sort of thing.
So what else can you tell me about Tengami other than this 'Heavenly paper' theme you have?
Phil: There's two main influences to the game. It happened organically really. We loved Japan and we felt that we wanted to do something connected to that. I'm not sure how we originally came to it but I was always interested in pop-up books when I was a kid. I'm not sure how we came to it but ...
Jennifer: Didn't we see a movie or something?
Phil: Oh yes, I think it was a video on YouTube, and it was at this point that we thought it would be an interesting way of constructing a world that we hadn't seen before. We'd seen a few where people had done a fake pop-up style but we thought it would be really interesting, both in terms of how you make the world and the game play possibilities, if you were to make the world where it could pop up out of nowhere and you could turn the page and you've got another piece of the level or something completely different. Once we'd combined that with the Japanese aspect, the Japanese washi papers and the Shinto, we thought we could make a really interesting game out of that. We went through a few different phases of trying to figure out what the game was actually going to be. It started off as more action-based, but we found that the iPad isn't the best platform for that. So that steered it more towards an adventure game and that's when things started to click I think.
Jennifer: At first we were looking at using the pop-ups in a more traditional action platforming type of way so it was a fast game and you'd interact with part of the world to create platforms that you can jump onto, but the iPad isn't really very good for platformers in my opinion because it isn't very precise and in all these games were you have to jump, the fun - or what's good about that - is that you have precision over the jump, even while you're in the air. In the end we went with the idea that Tengami is all about exploring, doing things at your own pace and as many times as you want. For example playing with the pop-ups for as much as you want without having to worry about pressuring outside factors.
So you control the pop-up between pages?
Jennifer: Yes, to see how it is actually constructed. When I look at pop-up books I'm always wondering: "how do they do it"? How do they glue the paper together or how do they fold it and cut it so that it folds up and out of the book. So I hope that when people play Tengami they will look at our pop-up constructions and think "How did they build this? How can I build this?". This is what's great about paper games, even though other paper games don't explore this, is that in theory people can rebuild Tengami just with paper, glue and scissors.
So they could go and make all the levels?
Jennifer: Oh yeah, they could, it's all real pop-up structures.
Was that hard to develop?
Phil: It was very difficult, that was where too much time went I guess. First of all we had to figure out how pop-ups actually work because none of us were familiar with it. We did a lot of research and found some good books that really helped us. We recently contacted the author of one of the books who is a pop-up expert. Anyway, eventually we figured it out, so then we had to build a set of tools that made it easy to construct pop-ups. The tool kit, which we call the 'Paper Kit', is used to create all the different elements of the pop-up, which bits connect to other bits, and then you can cut them as if you were cutting them with scissors. Then Ryo does his art magic on top of that and you get a finished level. But it's taken a long time to build the tools and then figure out how we make the levels, and how the world fits together. I don't think anyone's done something like it before. We've learned loads but we're still learning!
So that process of having it all working the background and then sitting down to plan out the actual progress of what the player has to do in the game, how have you done that?
Phil: It's an iterative process. We had an image of how we wanted the first part of the game to be set in a forest. So we decided early on, because of the atmosphere and the mood and the tone, that we'd start like that.
Jennifer: I don't want to say too much about what the actual story is, but one of the coolest things about the pop-up is that if you have to flip the page you don't know what's coming. So we wanted to explore several settings within the game. The forest that you've seen in the screenshots we've released so far is one of the settings and we have this over-arching story that gives us enough flexibility to explain why the central character is exploring all these different areas. We looked at the places in Japan that we loved the most. But this is a very individual choice, so obviously at times all of us felt quite differently about which places fit best. It is one of our mission statements that everyone who is involved in making Tengami should have the chance to express what it is that they love about Japan, so we're having different settings in order to give everyone the chance to make suggestions. When it comes down to deciding which settings to choose we look at how they fit with the overall theme of Shinto, traditional Japan and Japanese fairy tales. We're not trying to make a completely authentic Japanese game but what we're doing is taking all these things that we love about Japanese culture and draw inspiration from them to make a cohesive experience that works in our fantasy universe.
So it's historically and factually-based with fantasy elements?
Phil: I'm a big believer in an underlying authenticity because, even if people don't realise it, they can sense when something is authentic or not and I'm sure Jennifer thinks I go too far sometimes. I mean, I've got floor plans of real Japanese temples and Shinto shrines because I love Japanese architecture. So in the forest level there's a shrine that we have that's based on a real shrine and it helps to have that as a basis, particularly when you're trying to convert it into a pop-up version of it. So the process was to decide on what kind of setting we wanted and then think about the flow of the gameplay and the story through that and what kind of constructs you need to make that happen. Then we do a first version, like a rough version, and put it all in. The first level we did was very slow because we were trying to figure out so many things, like how does it all fit together, how do we make it look good because we were thinking that you have to treat it like it's real paper so all you can do is cut things - you can't move anything - so Jennifer would give Ryo a rough version of the level and he would say "It would look better if I could move that there, and move this here" so that Jennifer could go and make the changes so it would be back and forth and it's a constant process. You look at it and think to yourself "That's not very good." and you just keep going with it until you think you've got it.
So, how long do you think the game would take to play through?
Phil: The plan has always been for it to be small because we're a small team and we knew that we were trying to do something quite ambitious and very high quality. Something has to give basically and from my experiences with Rare it was often the case that we tried to do too much, so the plan was always to keep it a small and tightly focused experience. We never put a definite figure on it but it was never going to be more than a few hours. Three to four hours, something like that.
That's still pretty big for an iPad game when you consider that most are designed to be played for half an hour on the bus.
Phil: But it's so hard to gauge. We've given the game to a few people just as a quick test to see how they get on. It took one person something like an hour to get through the first bit and we were like "an hour?!?" as we thought it would take ten to fifteen minutes.
What is your reaction to that when you are told it took an hour when you're envisaging fifteen minutes or so?
Phil: You have to look at the reasons why it's taken someone that long and are they getting stuck, where are they getting stuck and therefore is it too difficult? What is it they are not noticing? Is a puzzle too difficult? But then some people will get frustrated really quickly, especially modern gamers, so I don't mind if it takes them a bit longer as long they're not saying "I'm not going to play this any more.". I would say that we're definitely aiming for a more thoughtful kind of game. It's not a quick bash-through, it's intended to suck people in and make them think about what they're doing in the setting and the story.
It's refreshing to see you doing that as, as you say, there is this big focus these days on quick accessible stuff and sometimes it's nice to just sit back and have something a bit thought-provoking and absorbing.
Phil: It was a conscious decision when we started the company. We looked at what our experience and skills are. We come from mainstream development so we have a lot of experience making games and making high quality games, but we didn't have much experience with casual games and mobile. That was all fairly new to us. My feeling was that a lot of people, when they come from mainstream to mobile, they instantly start making casual games which was always a bit puzzling for me because that's not where their strength is. So we decided we would focus on our strengths and with the iPad coming along there's this whole new market - the tablet market - which is a little bit different from phones and the kinds of games that people play on them. We wanted to try and take advantage of that so that's why it's primarily an iPad game and not an iPhone one so that it can all be a little bit deeper.
You also have PC and Mac versions planned. Have you looked into getting it ported to the 3DS because that looks like it will be a perfect fit, what with the pop-up?
Phil: We haven't looked at the 3DS yet. We've gone for platforms that are easy for entry. Originally it was just going to be on the iPad and that was all that we were focusing on, but then after giving it some thought, we came to the conclusion that Tengami would also be a good fit for Mac and PC.
Is it easily done to make it for the iPad and then port it over?
Phil: We had a choice when we started of using an existing engine like Unity or we could do our own stuff and, perhaps rather stupidly, I decided that we were going to do all our own stuff as much as possible. We licence an audio solution called wWise and we also licence Havok for physics, animation and path-finding so that's fairly significant chunks of work. But I don't actually regret doing the rest of our own stuff because we wanted to ensure the work flow was the way we wanted it to be. We've suffered on previous projects before where it's not how you want it to be. So everything's ours and written in C++, rather than in Objective C, which is often what you'd do on the iPad, and this makes it relatively straightforward to port it to other platforms, particularly to the Mac because it's the same ecosystem.
Is there also scope to release the game via Steam?
Phil: Yeah, definitely. Steam would be the logical choice for distribution on PC and Mac, assuming of course that they would have us!
Jennifer: The App Store is very unpredictable. There are a lot of really good games that haven't made a lot of money so it's not like we can say Tengami is really high quality, beautifully made, unique and therefore it will sell. When Tengami is released we'll have spent two or more years on it and to put all your faith just into the App Store to generate enough revenue to make the next game is too risky in my opinion. The moment you decide to develop for the iPad, PC and Mac you've already got three times the chance of making the investment back, as well as finding people who really appreciate the kind of game that you've made.
So whereabouts in the game's development do you think you are? When do you think it'll be finished?
Phil: The goal was to have the game finished by the end of this year, but I suspect that it's going a little bit beyond that to get us to a stage where we're happy with it. What we have at the moment is a first playable version and, looking at it, there's lots of things that are not right and things that need improving. In some respects we'd almost like to throw out what we've done on the first level and start it again because it was a learning experiment as much as anything.
So Rezzed will be really useful for you to get some feedback from the floor? [Rezzed is a PC and indie game show taking place on 6th July. Full details here; http://www.rezzed.com]
Jennifer: Exactly, just to see what people think of the game, what we have. What do they like about it and what they don't like. Basically any feedback is great for us.
Phil: It's really tough making an adventure game because you become desensitised to it once you've played it a few times. You know everything that's going to happen, which makes it very difficult to gauge yourself. So you have to keep getting new people to try it and watch them play. Inevitably people get stuck on something you thought was easy. For example there's one bit in the first level that we thought was very obvious but it stumped a few people. You never really know until you give it to people to play and Rezzed will be really good for that.
Have you had any ideas on the price yet?
Phil: We've been observing for some time and it's been evolving. If you separate the iPhone and the iPad, the iPhone is pretty much 69p territory. People seem willing to pay a bit more on iPad, and I don't know if that's because of the bigger screen, but they do and bizarrely they'll pay a bit more again to play the same game on their PC. We've always been aiming towards a £2.99 price point, but we're constantly monitoring it and a lot of the games we like on the App Store that we consider to be similar experiences to Tengami are going for the £2.99 price point so that's where we're looking to be as well. I really liked Sword & Sorcery and it was £1.99 I think and I remember thinking I'd have happily paid £5 for it.
That's the thing because I've often wondered why certain games are so cheap when you consider the amount of work that must have gone into them.
Phil: Yeah, and that's why the Humble Bundles work so well because people can pay what they feel the game is worth. Sure, some will pay 50p or whatever the minimum is but then others will say this is worth £10 to £15 and they'll pay it.
Can you tell me a bit more about the meaning behind Nyamyam and why you chose it as a name?
Phil: It's something Jennifer used to say ...
Jennifer: I don't know why I started saying it but I guess it comes from my time in Japan because they have a lot of 'sound' words. For example, if your heart is racing with excitement you could just say 'doki doki' and everyone will understand what you are feeling. There are entire books dedicated to these 'sound' words. They are playful and fun and it's something that I've always loved about the Japanese language. So that's what we wanted for our company, something fun and a little crazy ... a little different. It actually started one day when I sneezed. I'd sneeze and say "nyamyam", just to entertain myself. Nobody else was supposed to hear it!
So, you left Rare, set up Nyamyam and on your first day what did you do?
Phil: I was delighted to be out of there to be honest. I loved Rare, it was my life for nearly fourteen years. I started there straight from university and it was my dream job. But over the years things changed and then Microsoft came along and it just wasn't what I was looking for any more. So it was a delight to be free and planning what to do next. It was my dream for about five years to do this. I'd been thinking for quite some time that it was time to be moving on. I was getting older and thinking, "If I'm going to do this company thing I'm going to have to do it sooner rather than later.", but it's tough to find people to do it with. I'd known Ryo for many years and we'd often talk about doing something together, and then Jennifer started working at Rare on Kinect Sports and we hit it off straight away. So that became the nucleus. I mean, three's a good number. I'm a programmer primarily. Jennifer's a designer and programmer, Ryo is an artist. Although we all contribute to all aspects of the game really. So, the first day ... just sat and drank a lot of coffee I guess.
Well the reason I ask is that I read an interview where Peter Molyneux was talking about leaving Lionhead and he was saying that on his first day at his new company he sat down and cleared out his diary and he realised that it was all meetings that he didn't need to be at, and that made me wonder what it would be like for you to leave Rare and have this brand new company with a blank canvas.
Phil: Well what Peter said is certainly true for me. The position I was in at Rare at the end wasn't at the coal face of making games, which is what I love doing. I was Director of Gameplay, overseeing other people. Lots of meetings, lots of e-mails ... constantly checking e-mails until ten o'clock at night and not feeling that involved in the game development process. So to put all that to one side is like a weight being lifted from your shoulders. But it was so bizarre because I was so used to checking my e-mail and now my inbox was empty and I was thinking "I've got no e-mails, what's going on?", and it must have been like that for at least the first week. At first you feel a bit lost as everything you've got used to over the years is gone, but then it's just really exciting because you can start throwing around ideas and thinking about what you can do.
Jennifer: We all came into it with a feeling of wanting to learn something new and expand our development skills. When you work in mainstream development it is usually in a very specialised role. You only do programming or you only do design, but then even that is split so you're doing UI programming or combat design and you're only involved with a very specific and small part of the game. We don't think that game development should be like that. At Nyamyam we see ourselves as game creators because we are striving to have all the abilities needed to make a game. At the beginning Phil and I started learning 3D modelling and that turned out to be really useful, because it reduces the number of people you need to flesh out ideas. Otherwise you spend a lot of time trying to explain your idea to someone else. Spoken language is not necessarily very precise and that holds especially true for our team, which consists of only one native English speaker out of three. There is a lot of potential for misunderstandings, especially when it comes to nuances. If you have the ability to implement a sufficient version of your idea and set up all of the elements that are important to you, then you have a very visual way that does not have to rely on verbal communication to get the idea across. This kind of approach is quite fast, but also make it easy for everyone to chime in on a given idea and use their specialist abilities to increase the quality.
Is this 'all mucking in together' ethos still how you do it now you've settled into a rhythm or have you developed your own little roles within the team?
Phil: Well I'm the main programmer because that's what I did but one of my desires was to express myself more artistically and on the design side as well because I knew I had more to give, which is the case for all of us. I got very frustrated at Rare because people took the view "you're a programmer, why are you commenting on this?" and it's like a straight jacket, you've got nowhere to go. But by and large the gameplay programming is split. Jennifer aggregates the design and gets it into a form where we can actually make something. Ryo does most of the art but we all still try and maintain this idea of trying our hand at new things.
How did you get David Wise involved?
Phil: Well I worked with Dave on Starfox Adventures. He's brilliant, just fantastic music, and I had it in mind to work with him, but it was actually Dave who came to us and said that he wanted to work with us on our new game. When you have to try and convince someone to work for you, it's not the same as having them come and volunteer their services. They are seeing what you’re doing and want to be involved and that's so great. He's done six or seven tunes so far. He had never done anything in this style before so I suppose he was like a kid in a candy store. I was absolutely astonished at how good his first tune was, considering the fact he hadn't really done a traditional Japanese style before.
There's so many games on the iTunes App Store. What do you have planned to make sure you're not lost in all that content?
Jennifer: A lot of the games on the App Store have a very short development cycle, which means you don't have a lot of time for people to even hear about it. Tengami has quite a long development cycle and that means there's a good amount of time for us to network, show the game at events, get people to play it and just spread the word in any way we can. For example we are showing Tengami at Rezzed Game Show next week in Brighton and are excited to see what the reactions will be like. I also noticed that the App Store features a lot games that get nominated at festivals like IndieCade or the Independent Games Festival. Obviously there are no guarantees for any kind of nomination, but we will definitely submit Tengami for consideration.
How do you fund of all of the development of Tengami?
Phil: We're totally self-funded. The three of us pay for everything, no external funding whatsoever, and that was something that was a fundamental decision for us really. He who holds the purse strings holds all the power. We want complete control over all aspects, so taking someone else's money is not really an option for us.
Jennifer: I always felt that it is a little bit insincere to ask someone else to fund your game if you're not willing to put your own money into it as well. If you don't believe in your game enough to put everything you have behind it, why should somebody else do that?
Phil: It's a risk for sure. It's personal savings built up over years. You have to set yourself a get-out point though; the point where, if the money gets below a certain amount then you know to call it a day. Until that point you just don't worry about it and crack on. The nice thing about our approach is that the development costs are fairly fixed and they are fairly minimal: general living costs, software licenses, broadband, development hardware and that's about it. Of course, the killer is that you don't get anything until the game is out, so you have to make sure you have enough to see you through the development cycle.
So for any budding games developers at home what advice would you give them?
Phil: Well definitely the basics of programming. Tengami is coded in C++ for example. Game development overall takes in multiple disciplines, but at the base level a grounding in programming is the start. If you want to accelerate your learning, then definitely go for jobs with games studios and within a few years you will have learned an immense amount, even if that's not what you ultimately want to do. Personally, I think too many people try to shortcut and jump straight in to making their own game, doing everything, and it never gets finished. It's too much for them. There are exceptions, and all respect to them, but for most people, and like any skill, you just need to work on it and practice.
What's next after Tengami, or haven't you thought that far ahead yet?
Phil: Oh, just focusing on getting Tengami finished. It's so all-consuming, thinking of ways to make the game better.
My thanks to Phil and Jennifer for taking time out of their busy schedule to talk to me.
Categories: Interviews, iPad, iPhone, Mac, PC