Designing games that gamers can play for thousands of hours | Alex Nichiporchik

Alex Nichiporchik is the CEO of TinyBuild, which he started with Tom Brien back in 2011 to develop and market, No Time to Explain, via Kickstarter. Over the years, Nichiporchik has picked up a lot of experience in indie and double-A game publishing, and how he’s sharing some of it.

It was a struggle but TinyBuild grew over time and published Hello Neighbor, and in 2020 it acquired the development team behind the game from Dynamic Pixels. The firm went public in 2021 on the London Stock Exchange and acquired more development studios.

The firm is focused on building a publishing and development studio focused on creating games players can enjoy for years. The Seattle-based company has hundreds of employees.

Nichiporchik gave a talk at the DevGamm gaming event in Cascais, Portugal. It had the intriguing title of “Designing games that gamers can play for thousands of hours.” I interviewed him after that.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Alex Nichiporchik cofounded TinyBuild in 2011.

GamesBeat: What was your talk about again?

Alex Nichiporchik: It’s about designing games where players can spend thousands of hours, which is a very tall order. Normally, you have like 10 levels. That is 10 hours of content for the player. You add level number 11, you added 10%. You add number 12, you add just over 9% and then you get diminishing returns on linearly designed games. And what I argue is that let’s say you have 10 systems that you have created 10 hours of gameplay in like a sandbox game like Minecraft or Rust and whatnot. And then you add system No. 11, but system No. 11 can interface with four existing systems.

Therefore, you’ve added 40% of content or time spent to the game. And I argue that these systems driven approaches are much more cost efficient, especially in today’s economy and what is happening. And about how like if you focus on designing just pure content as consumable once. That is how we get to unsustainable teams. That’s how we get to obnoxious budgets. And when we combine that with mostly new intellectual property that many must go to, you have a recipe for disaster.

GamesBeat: Interesting. What, what’s like a good example of the system you’re talking about here?

Nichiporchik: So I used an in-depth example for a game called Rust by FacePunch Studios. I have 15,000 hours in that game. In seven years. It’s stupid at this point, but, okay. My defense is running on my second monitor, honestly, because the way the game works is its fair player-versus-player. And what I mean by that is I have a base. But anyone can knock down a wall with some explosives and take all of my stuff. Therefore, the game is always running. But an example there is when in a game like that, and we also have a game called Dead Side, which is very similar, but I use Rust as a more mainstream example. Let’s say you add electricity to the game. They’ve done that a couple of years ago, that means that you can now automate your base. Suddenly all of the existing items in your base like doors, switches and lights can now be connected to electricity and therefore be automated. Now you have much more use for the same items that you’ve had in the game for years. And it just scales exponentially.

TinyBuild focuses on indie and double-A games.

GamesBeat: Can you electrify anybody who wants to knock down your wall too?

Nichiporchik: Yes. You can build a trap. And then from there, they added an app that allows you to put sensors. And then the app says, I just detected someone in your house. In your virtual house. But the anxiety is the same. Like getting a shotgun in your virtual house going like, ‘Who’s there? Identify yourself.’ But that’s the argument.

And it’s about a very different design philosophy that I’ve been really working hard on instilling within our designs to use. For example, look at a quest. You know what quests are. You have something that has a predefined goal by the game, predefined outcome, which is the win scenario. How do you beat that quest? And what I argue is that we don’t need a win scenario, the definition of win should be flexible. You as a player should decide if you won or not.

And in games like the sandboxes, my definition of win is that I sat in front of your base and didn’t allow you to come out for three hours because I’m a troll player like that. But your definition of win might be that you did come out and you did kill me, or our both definitions are that we became friends or that we became rivals. There is no rule book there. And I’m just really excited about this flexible approach because of the emotions behind it are so much more powerful compared to a game tells you something. Hey, go here because the princess is there. Now I will go there because this guy took my route that was earned. And I made a mistake. Not a mistake, but I still hate that guy. And we’re going to have a conversation about it.

GamesBeat: All those sound like great examples. Like the one example that is coming to mind is like a mixed one for me in Call of Duty. They reused a lot of things like multiplayer ground war maps this year in the single-player campaign. They used to have very linear single player missions that were very dramatic and cinematic. And so everybody loves that about the single player campaign. But this year then they threw in the large multiplayer map into the campaign.

And then it’s one of those replayable ones where you can go and accomplish three different things within the map, but in any order you wish. And so it doesn’t have to be the same thing every time. And I think that part is good, and so it is replayable. And it’s a general system in which you can do a variety of things. But I think the thing that some people are knocking it for is that we’re used to those single player missions. And they are so dramatic and tense and like second by second, when is all hell going to break loose. And then instead you get this open world like experience where you can do anything and take your time, take it easy, and then you eventually get to the cutscene again where your friend is dead. And it is like, there’s such a long gap between this dramatic moment that happens at the beginning and the one at the end. You do all your open world stuff, and then at the end you like your mourning your friend.

Nichiporchik: It’s actually something that I had a really good question about after the presentation. The guy asked, ‘How do you build a narrative into these styles of games?’ And the simple answer is you don’t because you get a mess like you just described. And I argued that in this style of game, the best way to do storytelling is through the environment.

You just put pieces of the story of the world as it was before you came to it. But after you are in this world, the story is yours to craft. One of the final slides was an example of a video from a YouTuber (Blueprint). And he made a video that is three hours, 45 minutes long. Which makes no sense in today’s world that something like that would become popular.

Over 15 million people have watched this so far. If you do the math, that’s like thousands of years of watch time, give or take. Again, it makes no sense. But I argued that it makes sense for people who understand the style of game, who understand the pain that people are going through. And it’s also like Liam Neeson’s Taken, it’s a power fantasy. Because this guy does this in the game. It creates a story, has enemies, he has arcs. All of that is non-scripted. And he goes over the top because he’s a really good player. So to me, that’s like watching Liam Neeson. And apparently to two million other people as well, and that powerful storytelling that I think is where we’re going to see media converge in unpredictable ways.

TinyBuild has hundreds of employees.

Because so far video games have been like we have the standard adaptations. Mario was awesome. The film made a lot of money. But I think we’re going to see a different kind emerge there, where the creators that create these kinds of in-game stories will become characters in their own thing that coexists in the real world and the other world. I’m thinking something like the Lego movie, if you remember that. When it’s a story that happens within Lego. But there’s also Will Farrell, who is a dad, and it’s all happening like in the basement. Here’s the actual Lego set. I’m imagining something like that will take over the zeitgeist.

GamesBeat: Interesting. That makes me think of Alan Wake 2 right now.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. I haven’t gone to play it yet.

GamesBeat: Yeah. There’s all these self-referential things inside Alan Wake 2. It’s interesting to think about the mix between storytelling and I guess emergence.

Nichiporchik: Well, storytelling is great. The way that I look at it is that we have these phenomenal triple-A games that deserve the Game of the Year Awards. And I play all of them. And there is a space for them. But what I do is I take a break from playing my main game. I take a break from playing Daisy or Dead Side or something else to play that. And what I’m seeing in especially younger gamers’ behavior, who are now in their mid-teens, they grow up playing Minecraft, Fortnite. And they take breaks for Call of Duty. Like a lot of them played DMZ. That’s my favorite game. And you don’t want to be the game that people take a break for. You want to be the game that people take a break from, which is obvious, but it’s a very different way to think about it.

GamesBeat: Yeah. The time sink game.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. You fire up Discord and you go, ‘Hey, what are we doing?’ And there is a huge market for that. And I see a lot of developers accidentally stumble into that market, like we did. We did a game called SpeedRunners, which is a very simple 2D side-scrolling, extremely competitive racing game. You have these running characters and it’s very easy to pick up. The skill ceiling is about 3,000 hours, I’d say, before you actually get good. And then someone with 7,000 hours completely destroys you. And we were the game that people were playing when H1Z1 was down, when their Battle Royal was down. So that was so weird. We saw a spike in sales in direct correlation with H1Z1 being down. What is going on here?

GamesBeat: So what about the company? What’s a good update, if you can give one?

Nichiporchik: I mean, it’s challenging. It’s challenging for everyone. I feel like what we’re seeing is that new IP is becoming increasingly difficult to get attention for. On one hand, you want to be extremely creative and create new things. On the other hand, you also want to mitigate risk. And that’s when you get into this franchising territory. Like this year’s Game of the Year nominations. None of them were new IPs. Alan Wake 2 is a sequel. Mario is. So it just shows how, in an oversaturated industry, existing IP, even if it’s really old, has a huge advantage. So that’s what we’re looking at now.

And we do have a lot of sequels in production now, and we’re seeing just that direct correlation. Marketing is already a fire, and you’re already like pouring gasoline on and making the fire bigger. You announce a new IP. You have to rub two sticks together and hope that something happens. And it’s an interesting and terrifying situation at the same time.

Hello Neighbor
Hello Neighbor

GamesBeat: I guess is it a blessing and a curse to have something like say, Hello Neighbor. And just to be able to always have something reliable there that you have, and yet you don’t want to become the only Hello Neighbor company, I guess.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. There’s a little bit of imposter syndrome there. Especially with our creatives. Like the original creator just took a break from the franchise and will be talking about what he’s doing next. But you do anything Hello Neighbor related and, just in marketing, you get millions of views. You do put much more effort into a new IP, into something else. And then it doesn’t get 10,000 views. And the imposter syndrome there is like, ‘Oh, this is too easy.’ That’s where the value is. I’ve been doing a lot of research looking at Minecraft. When Microsoft bought it (for $2.5 billion in 2014), it seemed like a lot of money. In hindsight….

GamesBeat: Yeah, they got a good deal.

Nichiporchik: It’s so much easier to make something that is already successful bigger than to get from like zero to the first million players. Once you have the first million, it’s actually so much easier to scale.

GamesBeat: Do you think of yourselves as more indie or closer to triple-A?

Nichiporchik: It’s such a difficult label.

GamesBeat: Because then you’d start making some assumptions about how the job of indies is to innovate and to really just come up with original ideas of the job of the big companies is really to exploit the franchises, right?

Nichiporchik: I feel like it doesn’t really matter that much anymore because once we got past the shelf space issue like going from retail to digital it became less raw. PUBG is the prime example when that came onto the scene. They were a big part of a big company. But the team itself was relatively small. And it just shattered all records compared to triple-A. It could stand on the same level as them. So are we in the double-A area. We’re definitely not triple-A. We don’t have studios with hundreds of people. I don’t want that. We have studios with two, three people, or with dozens of people.

It really depends on the project. But what I wanted to do is to have that internal flexibility for when you catch lightning in a bottle. And a lot of indie developers do. They do catch lightning in a bottle and then they don’t scale or aren’t able to scale fast. You shouldn’t scale ahead of this, but if you do catch lightning in a bottle, if you have the infrastructure of several other studios being able to essentially drop everything, then they’re going to just jump on this one. That is when you get Fortnite-level success.

GamesBeat: I remember you were speaking up about the Unity price increase. And I was thinking, ‘Hey, there’s a respectable mild-mannered CEO ready to go right in the streets right now.’

TinyBuild’s Streets of Rogue 2.

Nichiporchik: I feel like a lot of people were ready to riot there. Their Unite just happened. They announced Unity 6. We’ll see. We’ll see.

GamesBeat: I mean, it does seem to have died down as far as just them backing off enough to address everybody’s concerns.

Nichiporchik: Yeah. It just feels like the communication was just so poor. In hindsight it was just banging. But for us, we were just excited about getting some multiplayer tools. Because we have a lot of multiplayer games in development in Unity. We had things from Unity that were supposed to solve a lot of issues when you have a lot of characters on screen and they’re synchronizing between different PCs and online multiplayer. We had to write our own fix. And glad we did.

GamesBeat: I’m curious because people want to solve this problem. We’ll do multiplayer for you. Or we’ll convert anything you have into a multiplayer game too. I wonder if Unity should just do that.

Nichiporchik: Maybe, but you also don’t want to be fully dependent on someone else’s code. There were a few examples when companies promised the world in terms of tech, and this can be easy plug and play. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t work. The whole performance issues with City Skylines, to my knowledge, got to a point where everyone knows that. It’s because of instancing and it was supposed to work, but it doesn’t. So they had to write their own instancing engine.

GamesBeat: Are there other interesting feedback comes from the conversations you’ve had about this topic?

Nichiporchik: It’s clear that people have trouble grasping the issue on thousands of hours in games. I have a stupid amount of hours in these system-style games. Not many executives do. And if you don’t have decision makers who can understand the emotions that players are going through, you just can’t greenlight the project like that on paper. It makes no sense.

And every time I meet someone in the games industry who gets it, we immediately meet, make eye contact, have beers, and just talk for hours. And when that happens, you realize who’s actually doing that. I’ve actually met a couple of really famous people in games just because I recognize their voice from a game. I’m this guy that screaming at you was a Mickey Mouse voice changer. Because That’s how I play those games. I’m one of those guys. But being plugged into the community, I think is just super important to understand what’s going on. I get to play a lot of games. And I see you playing a lot of Modern Warfare as well.

GamesBeat: Yeah, but not as much as I’d like to be able to. I still keep my feet in the water. How many people are at the company?

Nichiporchik: It’s in the hundreds. Spread through a few studios. It’s a lot, but we have a very decentralized structure where we can easily adjust scale. I got annoyed when a couple of years ago when we started growing the publishing unit and it wasn’t seven people anymore. It was like 40. And we had to hire management and you get layers, get departments, and get department heads. At one point I was like I don’t know how do I post a TikTok now. What hoops do I have to go through? Can someone just give me access? And what we did is essentially, if you imagine like a standard hierarchy, departments and then heads and then directors and VPs, we just sliced all of the heads off, metaphorically.

And essentially we now have product groups which are between three and 10 people. It really depends on the product group. No more than 10. Where there is an executive producer, community manager, and the rest are really multi-talented people that work on the products themselves. So we have one group that is really skilled at the games that I play. Another group that is skilled at more linear games and things like that. And we essentially empower those small groups to make decisions. Do you want to use internal marketing? Yeah. You have a marketing director in your own little group, and the marketing director needs to be able to do the actual work. Do you need a PR agency?

TinyBuild’s Deadside.

Just go out and get one. For others, we have internal structures for that. Or you can just go out and do it yourself. And that really revitalized the startup environment. The benefits are quite clear with all of the decentralized approaches. But then it’s all about how do you make sure that people share knowledge between each other. And while everyone’s competing at that point, it’s natural. People are competitive. People are also supporting each other. So now my job is more about playing games and then also facilitating this collaboration between the groups.

GamesBeat: What roadmap do you have ahead of you as far as what’s coming out?

Nichiporchik: We are in the process of announcing our 2024 slate. We essentially took Q4 off this year because of the amount of game launches you’ve probably seen. I can’t announce any plans, but, what is clear is that we’re now doing more multiplayer projects and more core games. More games with slightly higher production values, which is really exciting to me.

GamesBeat: Good. Do you have some perception of where the industry is now? The thing that is on everybody’s mind is we’re seeing so many layoffs happen all at once. All at the same time. What does this mean?

Nichiporchik: Like, well, it means that everyone was hoping everything was going to be good during the summer. And then September, October came. It was very not good. Yeah. And [we had] over-investment into the industry.

GamesBeat: Too many games, not enough consumers?

Nichiporchik: Too many games, not enough consumers, too big of expectations on budgets. A lot of speculation happened on the investment front. And at the same time, now with the interest rates being close to double digit. For many investors, it makes no sense to continue investing into a hit-driven industry. And investing into new IP right now is extremely risky.

All of the other IP is already bought up and consolidated. So we’re now in — what’s the word? A pickle, as an industry. And what’s interesting is that I will just assume that a lot of the big free-to-play games have had revenue drops because we see layoffs in those companies. But I’m not seeing a slowdown in the amount of people that are playing those games.

So that means that people continue playing. And then they stop spending. So that’s sign No. 1 when something is about to collapse. Because with premium games, it’s a little bit more difficult to see and analyze because you’re still going to have those big launches. You’re still going to have the wishlist. There are still going to be day one sales. But then what’s the long term? The long tail on those games to add is really the big question.

TinyBuild is a rare indie IPO.
TinyBuild is a rare indie IPO.

GamesBeat: Interesting. I think slightly quantitative stuff is coming out of this guy Amir Satvat who’s on LinkedIn, he’s a biz dev guy at Tencent. And I don’t know if you ever heard his story, but we had a couple of articles on it where he’s a quant and he knows how to crawl websites. He’s now crawling more than a thousand game companies for their job openings. And so he’s collected all the job openings in the world, he’s put them into a well organized spreadsheet that any job seeker can now go to and find the jobs that are open around the world. And then, he said that I think they’ve now crossed getting jobs for 800 people so far.

And at the same time, like he’s aware that like the, the job cuts this year have been like 10,000 or so. And so he just did some analysis of all this data that he’s collected then, and I don’t know, he came up with a natural projection that things weren’t going to really get better until August of next year. And so that was part of it. That didn’t sound good. But it is interesting that somebody has found a way to get actual data on the industry. Where otherwise you have, we have no data.

Nichiporchik: What I’m seeing is that the most negative impact is in high cost of living in some regions. The U.K. The U.S. And it is absolutely terrible. Like we’re going to lose a lot of people from the industry. We’re going to have a brain drain. Because once you have that and then you just don’t come back. In Poland or even here in Portugal, I’m sure you know but the prices are very reasonable here. The cost of living here is very manageable. I’m seeing that game development is still rolling, still ongoing, but that’s because of the low cost of living. When you have like $100,000-plus salaries in the U.K. or on the West Coast, the risk is just so big.

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