Interview with Alex Nichiporchik of tinyBuild!
Publisher of hits such as Punch Club, SpeedRunners, and Party Hard, including No Time To Explain and Lovely Planet on Xbox, tinyBuild Games is an independent studio and company with a proven track record for fun and addictive games. Alex Nichiporchik, co-founder and CEO of tinyBuild, as well as advisor to game developer and publisher conference DevGAMM, kindly agreed to an email interview where we discussed the trials of tinyBuild’s early years, smart marketing, thoughts on Xbox, and more!
XboxOneUK: How did you first get into video games, both as a pastime and professionally?
Alex: When I was about 6 I spent all summer designing Mortal Kombat characters. That’s when I realized I can’t draw. I realized I wasn’t a good programmer after every website I built would crash. Neither was I good at pro-gaming as I’d get destroyed in Warcraft 3 in LANs outside of my region. It took a while to realize that I’d be good at writing, so I became a journalist — and that was a good window to get a job as a Game Producer. I have an odd career. Between starting God knows how many businesses (most businesses flop), and spending 5 years on online marketing for any industry I could get into, I found that a combination of different experiences is what helps me right now. Anyone looking to get into gamedev — don’t, go ahead and explore what you’re really good at and then apply it to your passion (if that’s still gamedev after you’ve discovered what you’re good at!)
I realized early on games were what I love doing. All the kids were playing outside during the summer, and I was locked in with hundreds of games. This was in a little country called Latvia, and my dad was working in the US and constantly bringing me the latest games and consoles. I remember not caring about any social interaction whatsoever, I just wanted to beat MGS1 without taking any hits.
XOUK: The story of how tinyBuild Games came to be is akin to a dramatic novel, with highs, lows, and even a wedding. No Time To Explain, your first game, appears to have been a particular roller coaster ride: starting in 2011 with one of the first successful Kickstarter campaigns for a video game, then followed by the promise of approximately $20k in backing from a publisher which never materialised. You and fellow tinyBuild co-founder Tom Brien split No Time To Explain into two Seasons; the profits of Season 1 funded development of Season 2, but the second Season sold tantamount to zero. Where did yours and Tom’s sources of determination and dedication come from during this time?
Alex: When Season 2 (before we got onto Steam) flopped, we were destroyed. That was it, closing down shop. We focused on other projects — we were doing very interesting things in webgames, building A10.com. We knew that market and were seeing a lot of Unity developers making Web Player games, that was growing insanely fast. Unfortunately the Unity Web Player got shutdown not long after it exploded in growth.
XOUK: After a number of months it so happened that Steam Greenlight launched, and No Time To Explain was quickly given the go-ahead on the platform. By January 2013 you re-released the game on Steam, but had to contend with development burnout and depression. Only a month later you visited the Casual Connect Hamburg conference, ran by your friend and the soon to be next tinyBuild co-founder Luke Burtis, and came across the game “SpeedRunnersHD”. By August 2013 the “HD” was gone and SpeedRunners was released on Steam Early Access, quickly garnering in excess of $1m worth of sales. After the trials of No Time To Explain, what factor influenced you to pursue SpeedRunners?
Alex: I have no tangible skills except connecting the dots. I saw a huge opportunity. The game was phenomenal but looked like crap and was on a different platform. That was a very similar situation with No Time to Explain — it started out as a funny flash game, so that was the wrong platform for it. I had this Eureka moment when playing SpeedRunner HD that if it was styled differently and successfully transferred that competitive feeling to online gameplay, it’d be very successful.
XOUK: Thankfully SpeedRunners appears to have proved a far less bumpy ride, and the game has now sold over a million copies. Likewise, Punch Club, published in January by yourselves and developed by Lazy Bear Games, has already sold over 300,000 copies and made $1 million in ten days. Do you at tinyBuild have a natural talent for partnering with developers whose games have the potential to be popular, or is there a specific aspect you’re on the look-out for when considering which games to publish?
Alex: We know that today livestreaming appeal can be very powerful. We also know that people are much more interested in game development — the behind the scenes aspects of their favorite games. We’re really looking for games we can add value to, in the same way that No Time to Explain, SpeedRunners, Punch Club — we are looking for good games that we can do something interesting with.
One of the interesting things we’re doing now is porting all of our 3rd party content to consoles for the devs. Our devs are small teams from around the world, and they want to focus on actually making the games — we do the heavylifting for them of getting onto PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, and others.
XOUK: To change tack for a moment, as branded clothing goes tinyBuild’s luminous orange hats are a sight to behold. Was the colour chosen because of one of your studio’s location in Holland, or is there another reason?
Alex: The color had nothing to do with the Dutch national color oddly enough 🙂
We were at PAX East in 2014 and accidentally got a large spot between AAA companies. Our booth was dark and didn’t standout. We knew orange could be our color based on the No Time To Explain dude being in the logo and we had these stupid orange hoodies we wore to GDC — so we went to Costco and were searching for random things we could buy to make our booth interesting. It just so happened there were bright orange bean bags. Bright orange tape. Towels. Everything we needed!
Because of this approach we had tremendous response from fans. There we were – between Blizzard, NCSoft, Ubisoft… with a large ass space filled with bean bags and orange towels wrapped around tables. It was great. I loved every moment of that PAX. We realized we could make an impact on a shoestring budget, and we were just genuinely having fun.
XOUK: Over the past decade there’s been a great upsurge in not only the number of independently developed games released, but also the quality of those games. With SpeedRunners you’ve utilised heavy discounts on the price of the game in bundles to actually increase sales of the game post-bundles, and even released a demo version of the game on ThePirateBay to entice those players to purchase the full product; as well as the imaginative Twitch Plays Punch Club. Do you think canny marketing and advertising will be one of the key determiners to the success of an independent game moving forward, and no longer only quality or gameplay innovation?
Alex: The market is definitely crowded right now. So you have 2 options – outspend or outinnovate. Innovating on gameplay isn’t mutually exclusive to innovating on marketing, they both go hand to hand.
This is actually part of what we look into when considering games — can the game itself be put into a specific spotlight, where its content facilitates an innovative marketing campaign?
We’re definitely not going to try and outspend to get exposure (we actually don’t do much paid advertising at all). It’s all about finding a game that’s really good and finding a clever way to make as many people aware about it as possible.
XOUK: Consoles have increased their support for independent games and developers over the last few years, but those platforms still aren’t as open as PC. Do you think there’s something of an untapped market in console players for indie games?
Alex: There’s now plenty of content on consoles, so it’s not some sort of goldmine — but it definitely expands your reach. Considering the amount of effort it takes to get on there, I believe it will be important for us to align launches so we launch on PC+Consoles at once and it will only add value. If I say it’s a goldmine everyone will rush there 😉
XOUK: Microsoft have recently stated that they’re ready and willing for cross-platform play – is this something tinyBuild are interested in exploring for their games?
Alex: Yup! The only big issue with cross platform multiplayer is the social interactions. Many multiplayer games have deep voice integration, lobby systems, and all that — and with cross platform multiplayer it’s really difficult to elegantly connect things between the platforms. It’s great for having filler when you need good ping-based matchmaking, but sucks when you can’t communicate with the people you’re playing with.
XOUK: Finally, which game or games have you found most influential, and why?
Alex: I probably clocked in most hours into Counter-Strike if you count all of them together — the pre-Steam versions, up to 1.5, Source, and no CSGO. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of hours. I found that community of players to be exactly my group of people — before home Internet came along, we’d spend nights in Internet Cafes playing on public servers, then gradually making our way into the competitive scene. Reporting on local tournaments is what got me into journalism as well. That game has a special place in my heart and probably shaped the competitive aspect of my personality.
I wanted to make games much earlier though, probably since I first played Mortal Kombat on an arcade machine.
XOUK: Thanks very much, Alex!
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