Inside The Ghosting, Racism And Exploitation At Game Publisher Nicalis

At E3 in June of 2015, the game designer David Crooks was hanging out across the street from the L.A. Convention Centre when he met a man named Tyrone Rodriguez. Crooks needed support for the console versions of his quirky top-down dungeon crawler, Enter the Gungeon, and Rodriguez’s company, Nicalis, seemed willing to help out. In the parking lot where Devolver, Enter the Gungeon’s publisher, sets up tents and beer kegs every year, Crooks and Rodriguez started talking about how they might work together.

Crooks, Rodriguez, and Devolver marketing boss Nigel Lowrie struck a deal: Nicalis would handle the PlayStation 4 port for Enter the Gungeon when it came out the following year.

Crooks and his team had Nicalis sign a non-disclosure agreement and gave them access to their source code for Enter the Gungeon, then went back to work on the game. But soon after that, Crooks and Lowrie both told Kotaku, Rodriguez stopped responding to their calls and emails. Days, weeks, and months went by without a word.

“There was some light correspondence about helping them to get it to compile, then we never heard anything else back regarding the arrangement,” Crooks told Kotaku. “I believe that Devolver prodded them a couple of times, but we never heard anything back. Due to the lack of communication, we were forced to move on, and found another partner to help us with the port.”

Ghosting stories like these are common when it comes to Nicalis, a game developer and publisher that has grown big in the independent scene thanks to smash hits like Cave Story and Binding of Isaac but also has cultivated a reputation for mistreating employees and outside developers.

Nicalis, based in Orange County, California, employs a staff of around 20 and handles a number of ports, re-releases, and original games, usually developed with external partners. In recent years, fans have noticed some public scuffles between Nicalis and game developers, but the extent of Nicalis’s troubled history has not yet been revealed.

For this story, Kotaku spoke to four external developers who worked with Nicalis and seven former Nicalis employees, most of whom requested anonymity because they were afraid the company would retaliate against them. (Some of those employees left the company out of frustration; others were let go.) Some shared anecdotes about the company ignoring them for months on end.

All described Nicalis’s founder and president Tyrone Rodriguez as a friendly but often difficult boss, prone to behaviour that some called controlling and exploitative. Multiple former Nicalis employees said Rodriguez pressured them to drink heavily, made racist jokes in the workplace, and would oscillate between berating them and ignoring them.

A few shared Skype logs of Rodriguez using racial and ableist slurs, racist jokes, and antisemitic comments during work conversations. (We’ve included some of those logs later in the piece.)

When contacted with interview requests by Kotaku, a Nicalis spokesperson sent over a broad statement and said the company would not comment further:

Developing and publishing games is a dream for the staff of nearly 20 that work at Nicalis, Inc. Some of our team have been with the company almost a decade and we work hard to create an environment where we treat our team members with respect. They are what make the company.

We do not condone abusive workplace environments or discrimination and have people from all walks of life. We hope for the continued success of our internal team and our external developers.

Regarding the companies under mutual NDA with Nicalis, Devolver (publisher of Enter the Gungeon) and The Game Bakers (developer of Furi), we can only comment that we do not have any signed publishing agreements with them and never have.

While reporting this story, we reached out to Edmund McMillen, the creator of Binding of Isaac, who has been working with Nicalis for console ports and remakes of his games since 2012. When informed of the specific allegations against Nicalis that Kotaku planned to report, McMillen said that Rodriguez “wasn’t ever my boss, he’s always just been a publisher of my work” and that he would be halting his plans to work with them on two future games.

“I won’t be moving forward with Nicalis when it comes to the port of The Legend of Bum-bo or any console versions of Mewgenics,” he said in an email. “[Binding of Isaac: Repentance] will still be releasing as originally planned, the team poured their heart and soul into this DLC and it’s very close to releasing.”

Over the course of reporting this story, some game developers who have worked for Nicalis told Kotaku they were terrified to speak out because of Rodriguez’s power in the indie games scene. Although Nicalis is not a household name, some of the games it publishes are, like Cave Story, the snappy platformer that Nicalis brought to Steam and consoles starting in 2010, and Binding of Isaac, an addictive dungeon crawler that has sold millions of copies across various ports and revisions.

Later, in 2016, when Nintendo started recruiting third-party developers for the forthcoming launch of the Switch, Nicalis was one of the first companies to get Switch development kits, according to two people familiar with that process. “They proceeded to order as many of those kits as they possibly could, and acted as a go-between for developers who wanted to get their games on the console early, re-shipping their extra kits to their partners,” said a former Nicalis employee.

With that kind of access and a track record of successful ports, Nicalis became an appealing publisher for independent developers who had made games but couldn’t get companies like Sony and Nintendo to pick up the phone. Problem was, some of those developers told Kotaku, they couldn’t get Nicalis to pick up the phone either, even after signing deals that gave Rodriguez’s company control over the release of their games.

One developer who published their game with Nicalis described, in a detailed memo shared with Kotaku, periods of months in which the company wouldn’t respond to their messages, leaving the fate of their game in question multiple times. The developer would not put their name on the record out of fear of reprisal, but a former Nicalis employee confirmed details of their account.

People who worked full-time for Nicalis say that flakiness is just one of the problems they’ve faced there. In interviews with Kotaku, seven former Nicalis employees painted a picture of Rodriguez as a boss who wielded his power over staff in exploitative ways.

“The level of control he has over his employees is definitely a problem,” said one former staffer. “It was, ‘Anything I tell you to do, you have to do this, because I’m the boss.’” Sometimes that meant employees wasting days or weeks of work because Rodriguez wouldn’t respond to their questions; other times it meant more personal grievances. For example, two former Nicalis employees said they’d be rebuked for taking dinner breaks during crunch hours or taking time off to go to the doctor or take care of sick relatives.

One former staffer who stuck with the company for several years said that for them and many of their colleagues, Nicalis was their first job in the video game industry. The lack of experience combined with the chance to work on games like Binding of Isaac and Cave Story led people to stuck around even when they felt exploited, the person said.

“I was just gritting my teeth the whole time,” they said. “I feel like that’s something he really takes advantage of in general, is the fact that he knows people are passionate or would be excited to work on these things. If he does something crappy to somebody, they’ll probably be like, ‘Oh well, at least I’m working on this cool thing.’”

On business trips to Japan and at other events like E3 and PAX, former Nicalis employees say that Rodriguez would push them into uncomfortable situations, giving them specific orders about how to act and behave. Two former employees told stories of Rodriguez ordering staff not to cross their legs or put their elbows on the table at dinner.

One said that Rodriguez would monitor employees’ Twitter accounts and tell them not to interact with certain people. Six former employees who spoke to Kotaku said that he’d pressure them into drinking heavily, ordering shots of gin or vodka and belittling anyone who refused to participate. “He’d order the highest alcohol content shots, push us to drink them, and we’d be hesitant,” said one.

“He’d be like, ‘Come on, don’t be a little bitch.’” (This is a phrase we’ve also seen Rodriguez use in Skype logs and on Twitter.) Several said they’d notice that Rodriguez would hand out shots and drinks but not have much himself, and two former Nicalis employees said they’d seen him get developers drunk before talking about business deals with them.

During one dinner in Japan, according to two people who were there, Rodriguez said he would pay for an employee’s aeroplane tickets to another country if they drank a disgusting concoction that he’d created at the table, made up of raw eggs, beer, soy sauce, and other assorted food items that Rodriguez had found.

Given that Rodriguez owned the company and was responsible for all of their paychecks, Nicalis employees said they felt pressured and uncomfortable during occasions like this. “It’s not very professional… In any other company that’d be a big HR thing,” said one former employee. “But there is no HR at Nicalis, so that went unaccounted for. We were expected to self-report, but you can’t really do that when he’s the one violating HR stuff. Who are we supposed to report to?”

One Skype log shared with Kotaku by a former Nicalis employee shows Rodriguez calling external partners “retards” and his employees “you gays.” In another Skype exchange shown to Kotaku, an employee talks about watching Star Trek and Rodriguez says, of Jean Luc-Picard, “I like that nigger.”

Two other former Nicalis employees said that Rodriguez would, as a goof, encourage one employee to use the n-word in Skype group chats. Said a third, when I asked: “I haven’t experienced anything like Tyrone demanding people use racial slurs, but he likes to say ‘white is right’ often in a ‘jokey’ way.”

Kotaku obtained a number of Skype logs from the Nicalis group chat in which Rodriguez communicates with employees. The logs are filled with racist, antisemitic, and homophobic language from the Nicalis founder. Here are some excerpts:

Kotaku has reviewed dozens of Skype transcripts full of jokes and messages like this.

One former Nicalis employee, who was overweight and suffered from health issues, said that Rodriguez would make comments on his weight and often told him to go for walks. (This employee requested anonymity but was willing to publicise these specific details, even knowing they might make him identifiable to Nicalis, because he felt it was important.)

During a business trip to Japan, the former Nicalis employee said that he’d been walking around so much that his inner thighs began bleeding, and he wanted to rest in his hotel. When Tyrone Rodriguez and his brother, Nicalis CEO Victor Rodriguez, asked him to go on a trip to a nearby landmark, the former employee said he refused.

“Tyrone started saying things like, ‘Who do you think paid for your trip?’” he said. “He was essentially trying to coerce me into going… I said, ‘No, I’m not going.’” Soon afterwards, he said, Rodriguez fired him. “When we got back from Japan I feel like that might have been why they got rid of me. Because I stood up for myself.”

Other former Nicalis employees have told similar stories about being rebuked or punished for refusing to go on trips with Tyrone Rodriguez. Three former employees said that Nicalis removed them or people they worked with from the credits of their games once they left the company. “Tyrone can be very generous and a really good guy,” said one. “If he needs something from you. But I’ve seen him turn pretty quickly when you’re not needed anymore.”

It all adds up to a company where people have felt mistreated and exploited. Some of the former Nicalis employees and developers who have worked with the publisher said they’re concerned about those who have been harmed by the company, and about those who still work there.

“Everybody there is insanely good at what they do, especially given the amount of work Tyrone piles on them,” said one former Nicalis employee. “It’s just not a comfortable work environment.”

Mismanagement at Nicalis has also cost external developers like the people behind Enter the Gungeon a lot of time. A second independent developer, The Game Bakers, shared another ghosting story with Kotaku.

In 2017 they wanted to port their boss-battling gauntlet game Furi to Switch, and started talking to Nicalis about putting together a port as quickly as possible. It was important to strike early; they knew that within the next year or two, the Switch eShop would be oversaturated with indie games and that getting noticed would be tough.

“We sent the project, they evaluated the cost, sent a first contract draft that we sent back with changes,” said The Game Bakers co-founder Audrey Leprince in an email. “But then they started ghosting us. Not answering emails, Skype calls. We waited three weeks, tried to contact them several times… Finally they answered that they were sorry and would send us a mail the next week. Time passed. We were going at E3 (they were there), offered to see them there. We reminded them how acting fast was important. So eventually we sent a message saying the deal was off considering the communication breakdown.”

Leprince added that they didn’t lose any money, only a few months of potential sales — ”annoying but not a major deal” — and that they did eventually release the game on Switch in January 2018, without Nicalis. “We thought they must have had good reasons on their side, it’s not always easy,” she said. “But considering the problems we heard from other developers, we are starting to think we were not the only unlucky ones.”

On Twitter in July of this year, the company’s other co-founder, Emeric Thoa, posted vague words of caution about Nicalis. “If you are a small indie and consider working with Nicalis and want an opinion about them, please don’t hesitate to DM me,” he wrote. “It’s a small industry. Actions have consequences.”

A number of public stories corroborate the pattern of Nicalis failing to communicate with other developers who work with the company. In February of 2018, the makers of the platformer Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap said on Twitter that they had submitted a Switch patch to Nicalis but been ignored. (Rodriguez publicly denied this, saying he hadn’t received any emails from them.)

Earlier this month, the developer of a Game Boy-styled platformer called Save Me, Mr. Tako told a similar story, writing on Twitter that he’d submitted a new patch for his game that added an easy mode and fixed some of players’ complaints. “But it’s up to Nicalis to decide when it will come out,” he wrote. “It’s ready, and I guess it will come out on Steam first. Really hope it will be soon because it’s frustrating to see people complaining about issues I fixed a while back.”

In response, Rodriguez wrote on Twitter that Tako hadn’t sold well enough to justify implementing the patch. “Unfortunately, the game did not yet make back what we put into it,” he said. “We have a policy of stringent QA testing before pushing releases, and we do not have the space in our budget to QA test the patch so we can push it out.”

Similar controversies have swirled around previous Nicalis-published games like La Mulana, whose Wii version Nicalis cancelled after a long period of silence, and the crowd-funded 90s Arcade Racer, which has been MIA for years.

When I mentioned this pattern of ghosting to one former Nicalis employee, they suggested that it was all a matter of prioritisation. “Nicalis have a history of taking on more development projects than they have time for,” they said. “I think this comes down to favoritism and unpredictably shuffling development priorities. When it comes to development, they always prioritise their specialty games such as Binding of Isaac and Cave Story over other developers’ ports.” Others have confirmed as much, saying that when they worked at Nicalis, their projects on any given day would be based on what Rodriguez told them to prioritise.

In recent months, the video game industry has reckoned with a number of systemic workplace issues, ranging from rampant crunch to mismanaged projects to powerful men said to have committed sexual abuse. For those who have worked at Nicalis and other companies, there’s hope that speaking out on these issues will lead to change.

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