No App Yet, But Singapore Student, 18, Wins Apple’s Developer Awards Twice, Meets Tim Cook & Visits Apple HQ In U.S.

Eighteen-year-old Raffles Institution student and games developer Jiang Tongyu has a secret.

In the last two years since she started developing games on Apple, the relatively shy musician, who plays the piano, guitar and samba, has developed two concept Playgrounds for Apple’s Swift Student Challenge, both of which were among the 350 winning global submissions for that year’s challenge. Named after Apple’s programming language Swift, the international competition, launched in 2020, is designed to support students to showcase their coding skills and creativity by developing app playgrounds. 

Jiang Tongyu with Tim Cook.

The first, City Nights, was a short game about mental health and the hustle of city culture. Her most recent submission, Tambourine Story, made it as one of 50 Distinguished Winners of 2024’s challenge, and for the first time, these 50 students were invited on an all-expenses paid three-day trip to Apple Park in Cupertino, California to join in the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where the students met other like-minded global app creators and developers.

While the trip was a highlight, Tongyu was also one of the rare few who was able to personally present her winning app to Apple CEO Tim Cook, when he was in Singapore for a visit in April, to the Apple Developer Centre in Singapore’s One North. There was a moment when Cook listened to her explain the game’s concept, of an interactive game that is a tribute to music and collaboration, and even grabbed hold of the iPad to have a go at the game.

But unlike the majority of her peers on the Distinguished Winners list, her secret is that she still hasn’t launched any apps on Apple’s App Store, and it’s not for lack of effort.

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Tambourine Story.

She only started work on Tambourine Story last December, and initially developed the music game based on a little girl who wanted to join her elder brother’s band.

“The idea came when I was 16, and I wanted to sign up for a talent show with my friends, so we created a band. During the first practice session, when we played together for the first time, I thought the feeling of playing together with everyone else was so amazing, because it felt like you could be a part of something special and a part of something greater than yourself,” recalled the developer, who also plays video games with her brother.

The idea of playing together as a group was first explored in City Nights, where players got overwhelmed by different things they had to manage, from doing homework to catching up on notifications, and realised they had to rely on friends along the way.

City Nights.

“So the app Playground that I made was inspired by that feeling. I actually started with a much bigger scope, as I already had access to like five different instruments. But since it’s for Swift Student Challenge, there was a deadline, so I had to like cut down to make it.”

She settled on the tambourine and a single character, which also mirrored her own effort in single-handedly writing the music, coding the game, and drawing the art, and was eventually able to submit a three-minute concept by mid-February 2024.

“I combined a rhythm game, the story, as well as the usage of core motion, which allows the game to know the rotation and acceleration of the device, to create my game.”

So will we ever see a full version of Tambourine Story on the Apple App Store? The desire is there, but while she jokingly hopes that that new Apple Intelligence, or AI, announced at WWDC 2024, can help turn her submission into a full-fledged game, Tongyu has another A she has to deal with first – her upcoming A Levels examination.

Tambourine Story.

“I’m struggling to think about how I should expand this game,” she admits. 

“I’m a bit torn between, for example, uploading what I have right now to the App Store or waiting until after A levels to expand on it, and make it longer,” she explains. 

“Since the start of June, I’ve been more focused on my A levels. I’m hoping to, since university only starts in the later half of next year, I have a gap year in between. And I hope to work on more projects, like more games.”

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And the trip to WWDC 2024 has inspired her to do more, especially since Tongyu discovered that of the 50 Distinguished Winners, only four are from Asia, of which two others are female, and have done more than she has, by already releasing their own apps. 

Indonesian BINUS University student, Nadya Tjandra, 21, is a first-time Swift Student Challenge participant and her winning Playground, Circuit Craze, invites players to interactively learn about series and parallel electricity circuits. The educational tool was inspired by her childhood memory of her father who experienced a similar challenge. Prior to her win, she developed other apps, including Tiati, an app with Internet of Things integration to Apple Watch that can deliver alerts to drivers if they start nodding off when driving. 

Thailand student Patcharada Tawaditap, 17, from The Prince Royal’s College School, submitted app Playground Homo Sapiens, which teaches human evolution to children aged 8 to 12. The app, which contains five levels, uses a text-to-speech function to assist children in pronouncing the name of each evolutionary stage.

And in a reflection that leans in somewhat to her first game City Nights and the theme of mental health, Tongyu is both inspired and in awe of the other young student winners.

City Nights.

“I managed to win Distinguished Winner with this, which I’m really honored to have gotten. And of course, it was also really cool to meet all the different Distinguished Winners from all over the world. It just feels really inspiring. I would say that it feels really unreal,” she expresses, before adding, “And sometimes I’m not sure whether, how to say, you know, imposter syndrome.”

“Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be here, because some people’s apps have super complex technologies, and I feel like most of the selling points of my apps are usually the games.”

Immediately though, she reverts to her positive self and starts planning for the future.

“I think that it’s super inspiring to see everybody else around me as well. It’s like some people tell me that when they see my projects, they feel inspired by me. And I feel the same way when I see other people’s projects. So I think it’s a really nice community to have.

So what’s next? It’s exams first, before moving into app development.

“I have some game ideas that I’m working on with friends. And next for the Playground, I also want to incorporate different kinds of technology into the game because I always felt that video games have this unique kind of potential to be really immersive with the technology that it uses.”