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Into The Fold: How Nintendo’s Indie Team Courted Tengami

by Tim Turi on Sep 04, 2013 at 02:00 PM

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Nintendo’s relationship with indie developers on the Wii had a promising start with World of Goo and the Bit.Trip series, but it never really took off. Word circulated that the company was difficult to work with due to policies that included requiring indie developers to have an office aside from their homes. With Sony dedicating whole press conferences to support indie games, Nintendo is trying to become more transparent and outspoken about their relationship with independent studios. Nyamyam is one such developer. The company’s game, Tengami, grabbed Nintendo’s attention at a recent conference. I chatted with both Nintendo and Nyamyam about bringing the colorful, pop-up book world of Tengami to the Wii U, and by all accounts it sounds like Nintendo is serious about making it a simple process.

Before being approached by Nintendo, Tengami was only destined for iPhones, iPads, and PCs. Players can swipe and tap the origami pop-up book world to solve puzzles and explore the beautiful environments. 

“The first time I saw that was at IndieCade I think a year ago,” says Dan Adelman, manager of business development licensing at Nintendo of America. “I walked by and it was running on an iPad and it was touch-based and I had a conversation with them. [Nyamyam] is based in Europe so I let some people at Nintendo of Europe know about the game so we reached out and explained how everything worked. Now it’s running on Wii U in the Indie Megabooth [at PAX Prime 2013].”

Adelman’s organic discovery of Tengami at IndieCade came as a bit of a shock to Nyamyam’s Phil Tossel. Tossel formerly worked with Nintendo when he was programming for games like Diddy Kong Racing and Star Fox Adventures at Rare.

“We had considered the Wii U before because we knew it had a touch panel and that it could be a really good fit for the game,” Tossel says. “We were a little surprised when they contacted us because Nintendo has a reputation of being very withdrawn.

“So they got in touch and asked if we wanted some dev kits and we were like ‘Sure, yeah, that would be really cool.’ There were some problems initially because they had some rules about having a dedicated office, which they said they were looking at getting changed. That took a little while to go through; I think it was about a month before they went through that process of changing the rules. Then once that was out of the way they were able to approach individual developers and within the week they sent us dev kits and we started work.”

Nintendo’s reversal on the office space requirement came after the company realized how scattered indie developers can be.

“We got rid of that policy because more and more indie developers are telling us they work from home and that they’re doing coding there and their artist lives in Nebraska and they do everything over Skype and they meet once every two years,” Adelman says. “So we are finally able to support that so we updated our policies to reflect that."

The hardware manufacturer has also made a deal with Unity to make its professional development software available to all indie Nintendo devs free of charge, saving them upwards of $1,500. Nintendo has also covered all of Unity’s licensing fees, which save them tens of thousands of dollars. As was the case with Nyamyam, Nintendo also ships certain studios Wii U development kits to make the process easier. Tossel says porting Tengami to the Wii U only took a few weeks.

“I used to work in mainstream games,” Tossel says. “I used to work on Nintendo consoles when I worked at Rare on the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube. It’s kind of a little bit like coming home again on a Nintendo platform and see how it’s changed since the GameCube, which was the last console I worked on. It was surprisingly straightforward.”

Part of Tossel’s surprise following Nintendo’s attention comes from the company’s reputation.

“Historically [Nintendo] has been pretty unapproachable,” Tossel says. “I think they’ve not shown a great deal of interest in supporting indie developers. I think they believe really strongly that they make great games and that as long as they keep making great games and they put out great hardware that everything is nice but not necessary.”

Tossel’s suggestion that Nintendo has been more focused on their first-party games in the past isn’t far from the company’s current strategy. 

“I think with Nintendo it’s about catering to our fanbase,” says Damon Baker, senior manager of licensing marketing for Nintendo of America. “We’ve got some amazing content coming out for the rest of this year. From a first-party side it makes sense that we’re positioning our hardware messaging with some of those key triple-A titles, whether it’s a Zelda or Mario or Donkey Kong type of a game, or Pokémon in the case of a handheld game. I think that makes a lot of sense for the company.”

Nintendo is still finding a balance between touting its big exclusives and publicly supporting indie devs, but the company seems to be taking things seriously. Nyamyam is certainly happy.

“They’ve been great to work with so far,” says Tossel. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to highlight the game they get in touch with us and ask if we’d like to get involved. Recently in the Nintendo Direct Europe where they showed a reel of various European indie games that are coming out and they asked if we wanted to be a part of that and we said that would be great. I think you’ll see them doing more of that, like sponsoring indie events and showcasing the best indie games. “

Recent months show that when Nintendo decides to hold a press conference, it’s mostly interested in putting its big first-party games in the spotlight. However, pursuing indie developers like Nyamyam and showcasing Tengami in a Nintendo Direct is a step in the right direction. Hopefully in coming trade shows we’ll see Nintendo follow Sony’s lead and bring these creative independent games up on stage.

For more information on Tengami read our preview