Q&A: tinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik on the ideas that ‘curl up on you and manifest into game design’

Alex Nichiporchik of tinyBuild. (YouTube screen grab)

I met Alex Nichiporchik, co-founder and CEO of tinyBuild, in the lobby of the Marriott hotel near the Staples Center in Los Angeles during this year’s E3. As promised, he and his co-worker, tinyBuild’s director of public relations Yulia Vakhrusheva, were easy to spot, because nobody else was wearing fluorescent orange.

There’s probably a metaphor in that if you try really hard. tinyBuild, which is headquartered in both Washington state and Amsterdam, publishes and develops games that are deeply, distinctly weird. It got its start in 2011 with No Time to Explain, the full retail version of a popular browser game that, true to its name, begins as a reasonably standard action-platformer before spinning off into pure insanity.

The rest of tinyBuild’s catalogue over the last few years has been equally idiosyncratic, featuring a lineup of games that are, well, difficult to summarize. This year, it’s gone all in on the Nintendo Switch, bringing games to the system such as Garage, a horror shooter where a man must navigate a zombie apocalypse in an underground parking facility that may or may not be an intense drug-fueled hallucination; Clustertruck, where you try to navigate a constantly-moving path along the tops of moving tractor-trailers; the boxing simulator/RPG Punch Club; Party Hard, a sort of bloody puzzle game where an aggravated city-dweller must figure out how to efficiently murder everyone in a crowded nightclub without being caught by the police; Mr. Shifty, a top-down action game where you play as a professional thief with the ability to teleport short distances; and Hello Neighbor, a survival horror game where the player attempts to break into his creepy neighbor’s basement to figure out what’s hidden there.

The only real unifying factor in the tinyBuild lineup is that, when attempting to describe them to someone, it usually involves the words “I’m not making this up.”

tinyBuild was at E3 this year to discuss its forthcoming Gothic farming game Graveyard Keeper, proudly advertised as the “most inaccurate medieval cemetery management sim of the year,” and its upcoming collaboration with the popular black-comedy webcomic “Cyanide & Happiness” (note: frequently but not necessarily NSFW), a battle-royale spoof called Rapture Rejects. Most notoriously, the company’s E3 press conference this year took the form of a musical number, in which it announced the upcoming Hello Neighbor spin-off Secret Neighbor.

I sat down with Nichiporchik and Vakhrusheva on the last day of E3, in June, to talk about tinyBuild’s projects, output, and general approach to the industry. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

GeekWire: Your office is in Bothell?

Nichiporchik: Bellevue. … Actually, it’s complicated. We have one office in Bothell, but that’s just a garage. Our actual development studio is in Seattle. We just literally last week outgrew it, so now we’re moving to Bellevue. … And then we have a development studio in Amsterdam.

GW: Bellevue’s turning into a really big hub for that sort of thing.

Nichiporchik: It really is. Everyone is there. I lived in New York, and I really like the proximity of walking everywhere. I like to be able to walk to the office, walk to the mall, and Bellevue facilitates that.

GW: I like how Bungie is hidden in the middle of downtown Bellevue.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. You have Unity, Epic, and Valve, all in that building.

GW: So [Yulia] was telling me all about Rapture Rejects [before the interview], and how it’s being locally produced. You guys are developing it in Seattle?

Nichiporchik: Yes. We’re working with a studio called Galvanic Games. They’ve done some work-for-hire before, and some self-publishing, and it just so happened that they pitched the game to us a couple of years ago. Everyone who has worked with me knows that I’m pretty direct, and I think I facilitated a couple of nervous breakdowns. Sorry, Patrick [Morgan, producer at Galvanic].

They were a team that have proven they can release games. And we really like teams that can release games. It doesn’t matter if the games are good or not, if you’ve done A to B and you’ve released something, that’s great. We approached them with an idea, like “We’re starting to work with these guys who make ‘Cyanide & Happiness.’ Do you know the comic?” They said yes.

So we sat down and brainstormed about how a game like this could work. We knew it had to be multiplayer, and it had to be session-based, and it had to be in [the comic’s] universe. We experimented with some visuals, then did some tests on them, and it just turned out that the animators and artists on the team were perfect. So we made the proof of concept, and then started production. That was well over a year ago, and all of that was under wraps.

GW: I’m actually really impressed with “Cyanide and Happiness’s” weirdly memetic quality, where even people who don’t read the strip regularly tend to know it. A lot of the comics have this weird second life, circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and all of that.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. If you don’t know the “C&H” brand, you’ve seen them. You just don’t know that you’ve seen them.

GW: Especially the really, really dark ones.

Nichiporchik: Yeah, it’s pretty dark. The thing about the “C&H” humor … many will compare the game to the “South Park” games, although what they do is deliberately target certain groups and then make fun of them. It can get pretty offensive.

Here, it doesn’t really trigger that many people. You would be surprised at how not as many people are offended by the “C&H” comics.

GW: No, I can see why. With a lot of the jokes in “C&H,” the joke is on you, because you thought you knew what the punchline was going to be, and they turn it around on you at the last second.

Nichiporchik: Yeah, pretty much.

GW: Or, more frequently, the joke is that the people who make this comic are terrible people.

Nichiporchik: Yeah, they just released this book about parenting. It’s called A Guide to Parenting by Three Guys With No Kids.

GW: [laughter] So Rapture Rejects is a multiplayer game?

Nichiporchik: Yeah. So it’s a session-based, last-man-standing game, a.k.a. a “battle royale.” That’s the current trend. It’s set in the “C&H” universe. It plays similarly to how Don’t Starve handles its gameplay, so that means the camera is three-quarters isometric. You can shift perspective at any time, so the sprites will still be facing you, creating the illusion of a 3D space.

The emphasis is on wacky weapons and combat. You spawn in your closet with no weapons, you can decide to be naked, that’s up to you, and you go out to scavenge for weapons. By that time, a circular area starts to shrink, to confine players in an ever-decreasing amount of space, and [suddenly cheerfully] you just kill each other!

GW: [laughter]

Nichiporchik: What we do differently from other battle royales is one, it’s not a first- or third-person shooter. For me, I used to be a CounterStrike professional player, but now I’m almost 30, and my reaction time’s gone down. I just remember being very, very good, and now I’m not. So whenever I play PUBG [PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds] I hide in a bush.

In this game, you don’t have that. This will appeal to fans of the top-down player perspective, namely, the MOBA-heads. So League of Legends and DOTA. We believe we’ve made something that players who don’t like first- or third-person shooters will appreciate, in the battle-royale genre.

The game has a heavy emphasis on stealth. At any point, you can press the Ctrl button, and if you’re, like, next to a bush, then you turn into a bush. Then you can sit and camp there.

GW: “Turn into” a bush?

Nichiporchik: Yeah. That’s how we handle stealth. One of the most fun mechanics in survival games and battle royales is sitting in a bush and seeing other people just run past you. It feels like you’re playing a single-player stealth game, but those are actually other people, which makes it exhilarating. If you’re playing with a FitBit or smart watch, your pulse rate just spikes. It’s a really great feeling. We want to keep that in a top-down perspective.

Also, top-down means that you can do a lot with character customization, and everyone sees it, because everyone sees more or less the same street. So we actually went nuts on customization, which is one of the things I’m most proud of about the game.

GW: I feel like I have to ask just because we were talking about the comic. When you say you can start the game naked, are we talking about a mosaic over the genitals?

Nichiporchik: So we’re not animating genitals.

GW: [to laughing Vakhrusheva]: It’s possible I just wanted to hear him say that.

Nichiporchik: Well, one thing we’re doing that’s absolutely different, which we only realized a couple of days ago, is in the character selection. We don’t have a gender selector. You can create your character, and then can decide whether or not there is male genitalia or not, and if there are boobs or not. That’s literally what the tick box says.

GW: …can I have both?

Nichiporchik: Why not?

GW: OK. That’s very important.

Nichiporchik: That’s the way we approach the humor. It’s up to the player to decide what they want to do with their character. … So yeah, the main theme of the game is that the Rapture has happened, and you’re one of the few people left behind. There’s only one slot left in heaven, and whoever’s left gets to go there.

GW: So your “chicken dinner” [the in-game reward for being the sole survivor of a round of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds] is admission into heaven.

Nichiporchik: Hopefully. That’s what we tell you. [laughter]

GW: What are you guys targeting for a release window?

Nichiporchik: This summer, we’re going to do a closed alpha, and based on the results of that, we’re going to see what we do. Fans should definitely look forward to PAX West, because that’s where we’re going to have the first public playable version available, at our booth.

GW: And the other thing you’re showing off this year is Secret Neighbor?

Nichiporchik: Yes. It’s the first expansion of the Hello Neighbor universe. Fans have been asking for a multiplayer version of Hello Neighbor for a long time, basically since its announcement, and this is it. This is what the multiplayer version of Hello Neighbor is.

I call it a “social horror” game. It’s for eight players, who are sneaking into their creepy neighbor’s house, namely into the basement. They have to find keys to open all of the locks on the basement door and get in, to save their friend that’s being held there. (Spoilers for the original Hello Neighbor game.)

The only problem is that one of the players is actually the neighbor in disguise, and since it’s got proximity-based voice chat, it’s all about that social experience, of not knowing who is the traitor.

GW: Is the neighbor going to be randomly selected, like Jason in Friday the 13th: [The Game]?

Nichiporchik: Yes. I’ve been comparing it with Friday the 13thor Dying Light. The difference here is that you don’t know who the neighbor’s going to be until the person reveals himself. Also, the neighbor player has a lot of weapons up his sleeve, or abilities. For example, if you and me are in a room together, and I’m the neighbor, and you don’t know that I’m the neighbor, I can click on a light and turn it off. If you don’t have a flashlight, and I do, you’re screwed.

GW: So you can do a lot without revealing you’re the neighbor. It just looks like weird malfunctions, or what-have-you.

Nichiporchik: Exactly. What we’re hoping to achieve is the feeling of that famous scene in The Thing, where people are like, okay, who among you is the traitor? Everyone’s standing around with weapons trying to figure it out.

The most fun is when somehow, the neighbor is able to manipulate others into thinking that the other guy is the neighbor. And then, the other player gets crucified.

[chuckles] We’re going to have to deal with the ESRB because all the characters are kids, and a grown man’s stalking them.

The cover of the first forthcoming Hello Neighbor novel, published by Scholastic.

GW: [Vakhrusheva] was saying to me that there’s going to be a Hello Neighbor novel to expand the universe?

Nichiporchik: Yeah, I think the first one’s coming in September?

GW: OK, you said there was a novel. You didn’t say it was the first one.

Vakhrusheva: Because we didn’t announce it yet.

[Note: Publishers Weekly had announced the second novel in February, as part of its “AFK Initiative” of video game tie-ins.]

Nichiporchik: Hmm. OK. Well, there is a novel coming in September.

Vakhrusheva: [laughter]

GW: What’s the name of the author?

Vakhrusheva: Carly Ann West.

Nichiporchik: That book, it explains a lot of the motivations of the characters, because at the surface, Hello Neighbor is … “Your creepy neighbor is hiding someone in his basement. Go!” We throw you into one of many situations that lead up to that, and then there’s a whole story that can span, well, hopefully multiple media outlets including books, maybe TV shows someday.

GW: The Hello Neighbor cinematic universe?

Nichiporchik: Yeah! The Neighborverse. [laughter]

When you have a brand that actually turns out to be a hit on your hands, it’s very important to one, follow up, because fans really love expansions of your universes, and two, maintain the quality level. Coming into Hello Neighbor, we actually had to decide which parts of the story we were going to tell. Originally, we were only going to tell what we call Act Three of the main game — the game is split into three acts — and then we were going to do DLC for what became Act Two and Act One. But we felt like it was going to be a more understandable story done the way it is.

GW: Okay. So, you guys were one of the companies that got a big cash infusion from the Makers Fund earlier this year. [Vakhrusheva] was saying that you rolled that money into Secret Neighbor, Rapture Rejects, and some more stuff that’s in the pipeline.

Nichiporchik: What we did is we invested heavily into brands that we’re working on. We have expanded most of our teams’ budgets to make sure that the quality bar is, you know, up there. We also invested into expanding our recording studios in the Netherlands, because when we publish games, we want to make sure we’re going to release them everywhere: PlayStation, Switch, Xbox, and PC, and at the same time. Party Hard 2 is coming up.

GW: I’m looking forward to that. I really appreciate how straightforward it is, about how slim the main character’s motives are.

Nichiporchik: You have no idea how much my actual neighbor played a role in the creation of Party Hard.

GW: … oh.

Nichiporchik: I’m — no, no, no. I’m not admitting to murder here. Not on record. [laughter]

What happened was that we got pitched Party Hard. It was just a Flash game prototype, made by a studio in the Ukraine that was doing social games.

GW: I want to say I’d heard that the original Party Hard was part of a game jam.

Nichiporchik: Yes, it was. During the Global Game Jam in 2013, I believe. They pitched it to us, and we were like, well, you know, we weren’t really a publisher at that point. We were like, you know, we could help, but we don’t have the money, we don’t have this and that and whatnot.

But then my neighbor started listening to music at like 2, 3 a.m. every morning, and I sleep with earplugs, but when you can feel the bass pounding in your pillow, that’s already so annoying. I called the cops on him multiple times, and then I’d lay there, waiting for the cops to arrive, and I’d think, how would I stop this party? You know, I have a very sharp kitchen knife.

Some ideas, they just curl up on you and manifest into game design. [pause] That was a very happy accident.

GW: So two of the highest-profile games from your studio are about evil neighbors.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. Basically.

When we started working on Hello Neighbor, I had just moved to the US, and we were staying in a proper American suburb, where there are large houses, just huge boxes, and it’s so depressing because no one talks to each other. Everyone looks out their window like they’re thinking, “I hate you, neighbor.”

Vakhrusheva: [laughter]

Nichiporchik: There was this feeling like, holy crap, this is actually going to work with the American audience because it’s exactly like that. You don’t know if your neighbor is hiding someone in their basement. You want to sneak in and find out.

It’s been a balancing act of surreal and real, because there are real events that have happened in the quote-endquote real world of Hello Neighbor. Then there are events that are manifestations of essentially the main character’s PTSD. Because, well, spoilers, horrible things have happened to good people and that puts them into impossible situations. That’s what Hello Neighbor is all about.

GW: So you’ve got Secret Neighbor, Rapture Rejects with a closed alpha this summer … anything else you’re announcing?

Nichiporchik: Graveyard Keeper is something that we’re proud of. We launched the Alpha a couple of weeks ago, and it’s coming Aug. 15.

GW: Oh, yeah, I’m in the alpha. I was saying that it’s a lot like Stardew Valley, but much creepier.

Nichiporchik: I won’t lie that Stardew Valley has been an inspiration, but really, it’s Harvest Moon. Stardew Valley is based off of Harvest Moon.

GW: Well, yeah … I got a kick out of how you’re in a small creepy village as its graveyard’s caretaker, and they drop off a fresh corpse every day despite the fact that the village has maybe 12 people in it.

Nichiporchik: Oh, there is another city nearby that’s not included in the alpha. You will not be able to go to it, but there’s a whole major story around the village.

For example, one of the mechanics we’re exploring, we hope it’ll make it into the final game, is consequences based on your actions. You can throw bodies into the lake, but what happens if you throw in way too many bodies? Do you think there’s filtration in the water in medieval times? Of course not. Then you start having more bodies come in, but less people come to church. So you make more profit from burying bodies, but less money from church donations because there are fewer people. The alpha has the core of the game, but not the meat.

GW: Yeah, I played it. I was having a lot of fun with it, although I was starting to run into stuff like the tech tree not being fully populated. There’s only so far you can go.

Nichiporchik: Yep.

GW: Which was good, because that meant I got my weekend back.

Nichiporchik: [laughter] Yeah, we’re actually counting on about four hours of gameplay from that build, and that makes us really happy, because we were actually super worried that there would not be enough content in the alpha.

GW: Anything else in the pipeline this year?

Nichiporchik: We’ll have a few major announcements at PAX West. We’re hosting a press conference there and we’re announcing anywhere between two and seven new games, depending how ready they are by that time.

GW: … two and seven?

Nichiporchik: Yeah. We don’t want to announce anything that’s very far off. We want to announce games when we know they have a launch date.

GW: That’s still pretty impressive. There are big AAA companies at E3 this year who are showing off maybe two games, and you’re talking about as many as nine.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. We have a total right now, counting the games we were just talking about, of maybe 17 games in the works.