Tasty Gaming: HotGen Talks To-Fu: The Trials of Chi, To-Fu 2 and Mobile Gaming
Posted on Monday, August 15 @ 16:11:37 Eastern by Sebastian_MossIt's hard to get noticed on the crowded iOS App Store with 450 thousand apps all competing for your money and attention. HotGens believe that they deserve your interest, and after being featured as the game of the week on iTunes, it's clear that Apple think that they deserve your love as well.
A game about a squishy cube of tofu that must complete over a hundred platforming puzzles, To-Fu: The Trials of Chi has all the hallmarks of a successful iOS game, with a loveable character and an enjoyable game mechanic. To find out about To-Fu, its sequel, and their future plans for the franchise, we talked to Stuart Ryall, Lead Designer for HotGen Ltd at the Develop Conference in Brighton.
Hi, Stuart, could you start by introducing yourself and telling us about your work at HotGen?
I am Stuart Ryall, I am lead designer for the company. We’re here at Develop as part of the Indie Showcase. 10 games are here on show as part of that, and we’ve got our game To-Fu: The Trials of Chi to show off.
Obviously the game works well with touch controls. Was it designed from the beginning with touch screens in mind?
Initially, the concept started as a game mechanic… I’m a big fan of platformer games, but I’m not the hugest fan of digital D-pads so it was really a case of trying to get a classic platform game working on the touch screen – getting away from using the buttons to jump and moving around with the D-pad. And that was really where the idea was born from, and then from there, you start introducing new puzzle elements and the different platforms and the different surface types and stuff like that. It very much started as a touch screen mechanic that worked exclusively for those devices.
It’s on iOS devices, but are there any plans for an Android launch?
We’re discussing it, so it’s definitely in our plans to look into it, and we’ve had a very good response from the show, a lot of people asking about the Android version.
But if you look at the sales charts, Android doesn’t match up to iOS – does that worry you?
Not really, I think the iOS app store has a lot more games released, so it’s a very competitive market, and I think the great thing about Android is that the app store isn’t quite as busy or as flooded so there’s more of a chance to stand out. There are pros and cons to both: You want to get exposure, and you want to get featured in as many places as possible.
I have been talking to a lot of developers today, and most of them say that they partnered with a publisher primarily to get exposure. As you were self-published, was that a problem?
It wasn’t really a difficulty in terms of getting our game released, but the big challenge that a lot of indie developers have is getting more awareness once it’s out there, and that’s the kind of thing we’re learning all the time. We initially got backed by Apple and that was incredible. They featured us on the app store, which was great.
But now we’re in the process of trying to keep the momentum going and stay in the charts, I think that’s what you have to weigh up with a publisher – they have the backing and the marketing that you don’t necessarily have as an indie. But then again, it was very painless for us to release the game from a control point of view, we had a small team and we were able to work closely together to do the game that we wanted. So it paid off from that sense.
So looking back at it, are you glad you were self-published?
Yeah, definitely, I think it worked out well, and it is a learning curve, I think people are learning all the time in the mobile market. There’s a lot that we’ve learnt from To-Fu and there has been a learning curve, and I think it is something that we are now looking to build upon.
And what are your thoughts on different pricing methods?
It is another thing that we’ve learnt, we launched To-Fu at an introductory price of 59p ($0.99), which has obviously gone up to 69p now. But we have noticed that you can affect sales by dropping price. Obviously the EA games go to the top of the charts when they cut their prices for seasonal events, and that has a big effect on games as all the prices are tracked. So that’s something we’re looking to use now, to fluctuate the price to try to stimulate the sales.
Is EA’s aggressive pricing a problem then?
I wouldn’t say it’s so much a problem, just something you have to be aware of, and something that you have to factor into your business and to the market and the game. It’s not just EA who do it; a lot of other games do it.
What are your thoughts on freemium?
It’s ultimately the way that things seem to be going, but I come from a design background obviously. I think the thing with freemium is that you don’t just put in-app purchases in any game, I think. If you are going to work with freemium, you have to make a game that works around that business model. The classic examples are your Farmvilles and your Smurf Villages; a lot of those games are designed to work with that in-app purchase model. You’ve got to be careful where you apply it, but there’s no doubt that it’s the way forward really.
Will Tofu have in-app purchases, new levels, etc.?
Yeah, that’s one of the things we planned from the start – we launched with 100 levels and now we’ve been out for 2 months, and in those 2 months we’ve already done 3 updates: We’ve added an extra 30 levels, GameCenter support, fixed a few of the bugs from feedback. So, yeah, we’re constantly updating the game and it has been designed for us to easily add levels, and that’s something we’re doing as a free update every couple of weeks.
So why are you giving the levels away for free?
For support, ultimately. You build up a fanbase and you support that fanbase, and hopefully you build support for the brand and for the company. Hopefully, the thinking is that if people enjoy To-Fu and are on board with the stuff that we’re doing, ultimately that is going to pay off in the long-run in terms of our future games. I think it’s important to say thanks to the fans that support the game, and that’s an easy way for us to do that.
But as mobile games are cheaper and often smaller, there’s a tendency for gamers to play multiple different games in a day with a disposable attitude to the title. Does that make building brand loyalty difficult?
Yeah, I think the price model has a bearing on that. If you look at boxed products that are going out for £40, there is a tendency almost to force yourself to like a game, or invest the time in it, because you put so much money in it. In the mobile market, games are a little bit more dispensable and throwaway, I guess. I think that’s where the challenge is as a designer and as a developer—you’ve got to come up with interesting gameplay and interesting game mechanics, you’ve got to make your game very intuitive. I think there is an emphasis on making a game that people can get to grips with quickly, fewer tutorial screens, etc. You have to grip people from the start, but I think that a lot of people are doing that now, so it’s becoming a standard.
Do you think To-Fu would work with PlayStation Vita?
It could, yeah, the game has been designed to work with all touch screens, so there is no reason it couldn’t work.
But could it be designed with the back touch panel in mind?
I think it’s an interesting feature, in the case of To-Fu we’d have to think about how we could make the best use of it, but I think the game would work with any touch-based system.
Are there any active plans for it?
We’re not looking at Vita at the moment, but our doors are always open. As you said, we are looking at Android, we are also able to do a PC version, so we’re also looking at maybe making it work with keyboard and mouse, which we know it does from our testing systems that we’ve got in place. So, yeah, we’re looking at all platform types. We’re not closing our door to anything.
Why did you decide on a cube of tofu?
It all started as a game mechanic, having a character you can flick around the screen, and then it was a case of looking at different characters that would work with that mechanic, and we wanted to try and stay away from the cliché bubble-gum blob character. Myself and the artists were big kung-fu fans, so as we were thinking about cuboid designs, kung-fu to-fu made sense. And that’s why it’s got the Asian themes as well, so big influences from kung-fu films as well.
I’m sure people draw comparisons with Super Meat Boy, though?
Yeah, we get that a lot. Looking back, that’s one of the things that seems to pop up in a lot of reviews, and I guess it does make sense—we’re a platformer, we have a similar 2D approach. But I think it’s one of those comparisons where, if people get their hands on the game, they do realize it’s a very different game. Ours is more akin to a turn-based game really—you are not running across a level and jumping. So I can see where the comparisons come from, but once people get to grips with the game, they dispel that.
Do you see the Tofu as a long-term character?
Yeah, again that was something that was part of our plans from day one. We wanted to build a character that people wanted to invest time into. We’re now looking at expanding it into a sequel, and I wouldn’t rule out other mini-games involving that character. As I said, branding is a big part of it, so if we can do other merchandise around the character, then that’s definitely something that we’re open to, sure.
What are your plans for the sequel?
There are a few other obstacles that we wanted to add to the game but weren’t able to the first time around. We had a relatively short development time so we had to be very strict as to what we included and what we didn’t. It’s going to be a different setting, without giving too much away. We’ve also got another few ideas in there in terms of GameCenter stuff, integrating leaderboards, etc. In the first game we added achievements, whereas this time we’re looking at a way to add a score system so there can be a leaderboard – this is all stuff that we’re in the process of now trying to implement and are looking into.
Will it have the same pricing method?
That’s still stuff that we’re working on, but I would say, at this stage, we’re going to have a similar situation to the first game and we don’t want to go too crazy with it and change it up too much.
When are you planning to release To-Fu 2?
We’re in production at the moment; about halfway through development, so we don’t have an exact release date yet. But we’re looking at a couple of months realistically. Because we have a lot of the technology from the first game we’re able to build upon that, so we’re looking at a similar development time.
If you look at the big players like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, they have seasonal updates – is that something you’d consider?
That’s something that we’ve talked about, but we haven’t got any active plans at the moment. We are working on two other iOS games at the moment, that we haven’t announced, but in the case of To-Fu, I think it would lend itself really well to seasonal content. We have talked about in the past extending it with Christmas versions and seasonal versions, but at the moment we are very much tied to To-Fu 2. It could be something for the future.
Which do you think is going to come out first: To-Fu 1 for Android or To-Fu 2 for iOS?
We are actively working on To-Fu 2, so I’d assume that will be first. But we’ve had a lot of interest at the show, so it’s something that we are investigating at the moment.
What about Facebook games?
We have got no active plans at the moment, but we’re keeping all the doors open.
What about Facebook integration with your iOS games?
This is again something that we’ve learnt with one of our recent updates that has now started to add social links. I think that’s a big part of our marketing, building up a fanbase through social media. Naturally, Facebook leaderboards play a part in that, but it’s not something that we’re actively looking into. The To-Fu 2 GameCenter leaderboards could one day have Facebook integration.
A lot of people say that iOS is for new gamers. Do you have to take that into account when you develop your game?
In the case of To-Fu, we had to create a game that is very intuitive and that anybody can pick up and play. But at the same time, I’m a gamer and I play as much console as I do handheld. We were very conscious of creating a game that was for the casual market but also had depth. The main objective in To-Fu was to reach the exit, which is pretty simple, but then we’ve also got two sub-objectives: One is to collect all of the collectibles in a level, and the other is to do the level in a certain amount of pings. You’ve almost got different ways to play it, and you find, in the case of the ping objective, it can be quite challenging. There’s hidden depth there if people do want to unlock everything.
When you look at console games, something like 80% of players don’t finish the game – is that a concern with To-Fu?
There’s a lot of levels, and with some of those levels we have had feedback that certain people are getting stuck, and obviously creating a good difficulty curve is part of the design. I think on the most part people have played their way through the game – when we release an update, we can see most people update, and people are still playing the game.
As there are people who did have trouble with the levels, have you thought about a ‘Great Eagle’-style in-app workaround?
We have, and that’s something that we are actually adding to To-Fu 1 in an upcoming update. The game was made free for a weekend and it was updated with the ability to unlock levels via an in-app purchase.
Have you given it a name like the Great Eagle?
We haven’t actually, but it’s something that for To-Fu 2 we will try. zWe have got some ideas that we might do.
When 2 comes out, is that the end of support for 1?
No, not at all. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time for us to create levels; the work really goes into trying to think of the puzzles behind the levels. The creation of the levels is grid-based, so we can have levels up and running within half an hour or so. So, there is no reason to stop supporting To-Fu 1 when To-Fu 2 is out. I think, naturally, there will come a point when we put more time into 2 than 1, but definitely not when the second has just come out.
You mentioned how easy it is to create levels. Would you consider allowing players to create their own levels?
It’s something that we’ve talked about, we do have an in-house tool that we use to put the levels together, but at the moment that’s pretty much for development. But we have talked about having level design contests in the future, and ultimately, I think that’s the way that we’re leading, we would like to get to a stage that we have a level editor, and we can build a community who upload their levels. There’s a lot of work involved in that and it needs to be done properly, but it’s something that we’ve discussed.
Do you think that you would need a publisher to handle server-side costs?
Potentially, yeah. We haven’t thought about it in that much detail, but when it comes down to the logistics of doing that we would probably need a publisher.
So, how long term are you planning ahead with To-Fu?
As long as people are buying and enjoying the game, really. If we get more sales from the second than the first then that’s a good sign. As long as people enjoy the game we’ll support it, and continue the character in different areas, different mini-games.
Have you broken even with the first game?
Yeah, we got a lot of support from Apple in the early days, so that really helped us with sales. But the real key is now trying to keep the momentum going. Hopefully, with the second game, we can bring brand awareness to the game and the character. It’s just a case of step by step building upwards.
Are you happy with the way Apple presents the top-selling games – it’s generally the same names?
Our experience with Apple has been good—they really liked the game and we got some support from those guys and got featured on the app store. I think the "game of the week" is a really good thing from them as it supports new flavors. With charts you’re always going to see the same games, and that means people will buy those games, so they stay in the charts, so that fuels the charts. But I think Apple are pushing new games as much as they can.
Would you like the tofu to become an iconic symbol of HotGen games?
It would be great, if the feedback is there and people are really liking the character and thinking he’s cute and loving what they are seeing. Then obviously it becomes a bit of an icon and something that becomes synonymous with the company. And so far, people seem to be really enjoying the character and how cute he is.
Do you eat meat?
I do, yes [grins]. I am not vegetarian, so that didn’t play a part in the game design at all.
Are you a fan of tofu, though?
I am actually, I don’t mind tofu. I know a lot of people see it as a Marmite kind of thing—they either love it or they hate it. To be honest, we’ve been working on this game for the last few months and it’s been tofu every day, so if anything, when I get home I want to eat meat. It’s pushing me more towards that [laughs].
Tofu: Trials of Chi is available now on the App Store, along with a free demo.
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