Alex Nichiporchik, TinyBuild’s talkative CEO, appears before us in a very bright orange jacket. Usually that would raise an eyebrow, but we saw the same jacket only a few days before when Nichiporchik hosted the first TinyBuild Direct, a showcase of four new titles from the publisher. And it’s no secret where the choice of name came from.
“Nintendo has a great format. And it gives you an idea of what to expect,” Nichiporchik tells us. The format, a series of new titles with trailers, is certainly familiar, there’s even demos on Steam to play straightaway after. However, Nintendo has a fanbase that knows what to expect from the company. So with that in mind, does TinyBuild have a similar connected appeal across its titles, we wonder?
The publisher is best known for the smash-hit Hello Neighbor franchise, you could say the Neighbor is Mario in this analogy – but he doesn’t define the company, argues Nichiporchik, despite the IP having clocked up 16m installs to date.
“The original game came out in 2017, then a prequel came out in 2018, a multiplayer spin off in 2019. And now we’re working on a sequel and a Stadia spinoff [Hello Engineer]. So that’s a lot of products and 16m downloads between them.
“Then last April we launched Totally Reliable Delivery Service (TRDS) on seven platforms, basically everywhere except Steam because it was an Epic Games Store exclusive. And that one game has over 14m downloads already in less than a year.” A fact which is all the more impressive as Steam is where TinyBuild built its reputation.
All of that has added up to today’s £340m valuation as TinyBuild launches on London’s AIM market.
IP OVER PIRACY
The publisher has long spread beyond its initial Steam stomping ground though, and is now keen to establish and grow its IPs everywhere. One aspect of that is getting its games the widest possible exposure. For example, both Hello Neighbor and TRDS are on Xbox Game Pass, something that Nichiporchik calls a “really awesome programme for game developers.”
And that aspiration to get in front of as many people as possible has adjusted Nichiporchik’s outlook on piracy too, something he was once, understandably, very vocal in his opposition of.
“Actually, we’ve kind of decided to ignore that for now. I think what’s really happening is games are becoming more of a commodity. Between the likes of Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, all of these subscriptions, it becomes more about competing for people’s time.
“And then if people want to get my game on the pirate seas, they can still enjoy it, they’ll be exposed to our brand, and eventually they will buy something,” he says unconcerned.
Building an IP, though, requires longer term thinking than simply selling a title, which is why just after the recent TinyBuild Direct, the publisher announced it had acquired three game studios, bringing previous partners in-house in order to focus their energies going forward.
TINY BUILD ACQUISITIONS
First of the three is TRDS developer, Minneapolis-based We’re Five Games. The five-person team is currently working on an updated Steam version of the game, as well as being in pre-production for a second entry in the Totally Reliable universe, expected to be revealed later this year. Clearly following Nichiporchik’s template for building up IPs.
There’s also Moscow-based Hungry Couch, who is working on Black Skylands – an open world action RPG set to release Q2. The initial solo developer has grown to a team of twelve. “The studio will remain independent, and the acquisition allows it to continue scaling and working on more projects,” says Nichiporchik.
And then there’s Moon Moose, also based in Russia, in St Petersburg. The team of eight there is working on Cartel Tycoon – a drug-trade spin on the city-building genre, which is set for an early 2021 release (pictured below).
TinyBuild already owned the IP for all the titles from the three developers. With Nichiporchik telling us that the acquisitions were instead about changing the “transactional nature” of the usual publisher-developer relationship.
“So in that transaction, the game gets released, it may do phenomenally well. But if the developer and publisher are not aligned in one direction – to continue working on this, making it bigger, or making spin offs – basically turning it into a franchise, then you have just created something, that has value as an intellectual property, that can reach really high levels. And then it doesn’t, because you stopped working on it!”
“So it’s about how do you create aligned incentives between a publisher and developer so that it doesn’t feel like ‘we’re the publisher, you’re the developer’.
“And that’s what we have shown with the Hello Neighbor franchise, we have shipped three games, we have two more in development, we have books, we have everything else. There was like a central hive mind behind that franchise.
“And when the team is external, it’s just so much more difficult. Because they may not be incentivized to continue working on this IP. And what I want to prevent is situations like a typical third-party publishing relationship.”
TinyBuild has previous form in this area, having “acqui-hired” the developers of the original Hello Neighbor from original development partner Dynamic Pixels. As Nichiporchik explains:
“We co-owned the intellectual property with Dynamic Pixels. And then we decided that it makes sense to consolidate everything internally. And during the transaction with the owners of Dynamic Pixels, the only thing that they wanted to keep was the Dynamic Pixels brand, Because they had a history before as an outsourcing studio.
“So, I know, it’s a little bit confusing, but essentially, we took the whole team that was working on Hello Neighbor, started relocating them to Netherlands, bought the IP, and that’s why we say it was acqui-hire. Because we didn’t actually acquire the company, that was the technicality.”
Nichiporchik is keen to build up small indies and then take them on in order to grow them further still: “Most of the teams that we partnered up with, early on, they were like two to five people. And so in the example of Black Skylands, initially we just found a guy who was working in a web design studio, and part-time making a prototype, sharing it on Facebook, we noticed that and reached out to him saying, ‘hey, you want to make games full time?’
“And today, there are over a dozen people moving towards launch. And it took only 18 months – we helped build that. So that was kind of like, you know, we started dating, and then put a ring on it.”
Ahh, romance in the games industry. Though this is no two-person tango, with TinyBuild now scaling up to a sizeable community of polyamorous relationships: “Now we are over 127 people. We have seven internal studios, including those we just announced. We have launched 40 projects to date, and we have 23 projects in the pipeline,” summarises Nichiporchik.
TinyBuild is no longer an ‘indie’ publisher then, but a mid-sized games publisher with numerous in-house development teams… not unlike a tiny Nintendo then. Which brings us back around to our early question, does TinyBuild have a defining style of game, something coherent that justifies cross-marketing its titles via a Direct-style video.
Well, much like Nintendo, there’s no one defining genre or audience, but there is an identifiable Venn diagram of mechanics that hold together many of TinyBuild’s key offerings to date.
The core here is that TinyBuild’s games are largely influencer-friendly. Hello Neighbor has been hugely popular with streamers thanks to the inherent tension in its stealth-based gameplay and the myriad of secrets and easter eggs hidden waiting to be discovered.
TRDS is also a popular choice with content creators, but for very different reasons. As a multiplayer, physics-based title it has a lot of comedic, emergent gameplay.
Of the titles featured in the TinyBuild Direct, Pigeon Simulator is closest to TRDS, centering on physics-based emergent fun, with players taking control of a super-charged avian menace. That said, its city is procedurally generated and it will undoubtedly contain hidden hilarity that content creators will be able to unearth to delight and inform viewers.
While inverting the camera is live-action title Not For Broadcast, which is receiving an Episode 2. The game charges you with running a TV new show under a dystopian oppressive regime. Choose news, cue the ads, and censor anything that might upset your paymasters, or not. Again you can see the appeal of the game to those who spend their lives on camera.
Then there’s Expedition Zero, a survival horror title, which is firmly on the Neighbor side of our Venn diagram with its tense gameplay. And back in emergent fun, there’s Potion Craft, an alchemy simulator, where brewing potions to help the local villagers will bring both reward as well as some unpredictable results.
Finally there’s Despot’s Game, which Nichiporchik describes as “FTL meets Kingdom Rush.” In which the player is given a random selection of off-the-wall powers and weapons to assign to their army of “puny humans” which are then run through a Smash TV style series of procedurally generated levels of action, pitted against equally bizarre and varied sets of foes.
You can take it from us, these titles are something quite special.
In fact you don’t have to take it from us, as demos were made available of Despot’s Game, Expedition Zero and Potion Craft, from as soon as they made their TinyBuild Direct appearances. There’s a previous demo of Pigeon Simulator too, but more on that later.
“Today, it’s really important to release something playable, when you announce things” Nichiporchik tells us. “Because that shows what the game is, you’re not trying to pull a CGI trailer on someone.
“Getting a playable demo out there, when you can, is paramount,” Nichiporchik reiterates. “That’s one of the most important things to drive your marketing. Because if your game, really early on, gets traction, that gives you confidence that what you’re working on is going to get attention.”
But it’s not just marketing either, the demos provide feedback: “It gives you valuable information on what works and what doesn’t work in the game. Because then if the [demo] doesn’t get traction, it still gives you a lot of information. And then it’s about pinpointing why.”
To that end, there’s no release date set for any of the new titles yet. “The demos that are out there today on Steam, we’re evaluating all of them really closely. And then based on the player feedback, deciding when we could consider them ready.”
We suggest that it’s a kind of softer early access, no money taken, but still an opportunity for potential players to feedback and the developers to see their titles in the wild.
“Kind of, pre-early access,” Nichiporchik qualifies. “Because, you know, that famous saying that ‘a game is ready when it’s ready’. With our upcoming portfolio, we really take that to heart.
“There are some [of our] games that have been delayed, not because the developer missed some milestones or something. But instead, where we, as a partner just come in and say, ‘Hey, guys, this looks like it maybe needs some more time’. So it’s kind of like the opposite way, where usually a publisher will say, like, rush, rush, rush…”
Nichiporchik is open that Despot’s Game required just such a patient approach. With the title needing a lot of iteration to get the core loop just right: “I’m a production guy, so I need timelines. I used to go: ‘OK, six months for this, three months for that.’ But when you trust a creative person to deliver on their vision, And then that magical moment comes when you go ‘Oooh!’ It’s like, OK, my loss of hairline was worth it for the result.”
THE BLESSED BIRD
Another title that has seen iteration of a different sort is Pigeon Simulator. Originally announced by Bossa in 2019, publishing duties have now shifted across to TinyBuild. It’s rare to see a title with such obvious potential switch hands in such a way, so we ask Nichiporchik about the background.
“Pigeon Sim is being developed by Hack Jack, from Idaho, previously he was a sole developer that made Guts and Glory,” a well-received physics-based title, “where a father and son get on a bicycle and ride through deadly traps. And it gets as bloody as you would imagine… and he spent a lot of time brainstorming his next game.”
Meanwhile, “we were talking to Bossa, I really love Enrique, their CEO, and we’ve spent a lot of time learning from each other on company organisation. They have this internal game jam process, that’s really empowering for creative people.
“And one of the creatives there came up with this concept of Pigeon Simulator two years ago. But a company like Bossa can deliver on production, but working on too many projects at once it’s difficult to focus. So they had to choose which projects they put into production.
“And personally, I just love Pigeon Sim. I love the idea. I love everything about it, so it was a three-way negotiation. Hack Jack has this idea of a physics destruction sandbox for his next game. And we were thinking, what kind of IP should we develop? Or maybe what kind should we buy?
“So we went to Bossa and said, ‘Hey, can you sell us Pigeon Sim?’ And they did. So we made the deal there. I can’t discuss the terms in detail. But it’s a deal where all parties benefit. And we’re working on an IP that has essentially proven itself at concept level.
“Typically, when we do investments, we need data points, we like being driven by some sort of data, because then you combine data with intuition, and you have a higher likelihood of a good outcome,” and that brings us nicely back round to TRDS, a great example of data and intuition coming together.
Complaining about deliveries has become part of the fabric of life – although in recent months the perception of your local Hermes driver has likely shifted from ‘that bloke who chucks stuff behind our bins’ to ‘local hero of lockdown who can do no wrong.’
Either way, deliveries are a big part of our online retail addiction. And it was Nichiporchik’s move to the US, and a door camera that captured a laptop “going airborne” in the last few meters of its journey to his door, that really cemented the hook behind TinyBuild’s physics-based multiplayer sandbox. And a game about hilariously terrible delivery drivers was born.
So that’s the intuition side, but how did TinyBuild cover the data points to see if their new idea had legs? Well the success of Human Fall Flat certainly provided a touchstone here, Nichiporchik had even been pitched that title when it did the rounds of publishers before settling at Curve Digital, though he had chosen to invest in Hello Neighbor instead at the time.
“I know what the market wants. But we still needed to verify the vision of this game,” continued Nichiporchik on TRDS. “So very early on, summer 2019, we did a beta. No one had done an open world online multiplayer game before with physics – think GTA but with physics characters. And we made it very emergent so that it would appeal to both very casual players and to the core YouTube style players. So when we did the beta, over 700,000 people participated.”
Most impressive and it’s gone on to do 22 times that in downloads of course. But what if the hook wasn’t right, what if delivery drivers hadn’t hit the mark, how committed at that stage was the publisher in terms of the budget, fifty per cent?
“In this example, we knew that the game had the potential to be mass market,” Nichiporchik replies. “So therefore, it would need to launch on every platform possible, so a lot of the budget was for ports. So therefore, if we include that, it would be less than that. If we did not see the results that we saw to reaffirm our hypothesis, we will essentially pivot.” Utilising the underlying tech but with a different hook.
From talking to Nichiporchik, he shows both immense passion and knowledge about every game that’s under development, or every one that we’re allowed to discuss. But with 23 projects in the pipeline it seems certain that his relationship with individual titles will distance.
“There was definitely a tipping point in the company’s growth when you can’t be hands on anymore on everything. So we have a team of close to a dozen producers. And each producer has a few projects under them and then we sync up constantly, we figure things out, I still help try to help with some things. But in general, yes, much less hands on.”
Nichiporchik’s less hands-on approach certainly seems to be working, though. And TinyBuild’s next phase, as a sizable group of internal studios alongside third-party titles, appears to have potential. An upcoming Direct will have news about Hello Neighbor 2 and the next installment in what will become the Totally Reliable series is now underway. Tiny has got big.