When Lizardcube released Monster Boy: The Dragon's Trap back in 2017, it wanted to keep supporting its colorful remake. It released several patches for Monster Boy; the only problem was that Nicalis, its publishing partner, allegedly never got around to releasing them.
Like several studios, Lizardcube says it was ghosted by Nicalis. In addition to not releasing patches, co-founder Omar Cornut said on Twitter that Nicalis wouldn't respond to their emails or calls for months, nor share sales reports following its release. Lizardcube could survive, Cornut said, but only because "we were doing okay financially."
Lizardcube is not alone in this experience with Nicalis. Previous reporting from Kotaku's Jason Schreier, recent statements from developers, and stories from USgamer's own sources suggest that Nicalis has a history of routinely ghosting (i.e. cutting off all communications with) its business partners. Since Kotaku's report, more developers have come forward with stories of problematic business relations with Nicalis.
More Stories of Ghosting Surfaced on Twitter and Through Our Reporting
With over a dozen titles to its name including Cave Story+ and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Nicalis has an outward-facing history of successfully bringing indie games to market. Nicalis most commonly handles console ports and physical releases for games developed by external partners. It has been attached to troubled projects in the past, and Tyrone Rodriguez, the company's founder and president, has previously confronted Nicalis' critics and at least one partner developer publicly on Twitter.
Following Kotaku's report, Rodriguez went silent on Twitter while others took to the platform to share their own experiences of Nicalis—in some cases, specifically Rodriguez—dropping all communications with them.
Ludosity CEO Joel Nyström, developer of Swedie indie Ittle Dew 2, recently took Twitter to call Nicalis a "piece of sh*t" developer. Nyström alleged that after Ludosity canceled their publishing license agreement with Nicalis, it took the publisher 6 months to respond. Once Nicalis got back in touch, Nyström says the publisher "agreed to transfer the games over to [Ludosity]."
On the morning of September 20, Nyström discovered that Nicalis pulled Ittle Dew 2 from the Nintendo Switch eShop, PlayStation Store, and Microsoft Store. "Another promise to us they just straight up broke—and a shitty move for the customers," says Nyström. Currently, Ittle Dew 2 can only be digitally purchased through Steam. Nicalis' online store page still lists Ittle Dew 2's physical release for Switch.
Some small teams and lone developers say Nicalis abruptly cut off contact before any contracts or agreements were reached. Developer Brenton LaBanca says he was ghosted after working on a pitch for Rodriguez and Nicalis related to community content for a Binding of Isaac release. Indie Pogo developers Lowe Bros. allege the company was stonewalled by Nicalis "on two separate occasions," adding that "luckily the conversation never went far enough" to impose a financial burden.
Two sources tell USG that Tyrone Rodriguez cut off communication with them. Some of USG's sources wish to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation: one such source identifies Rodridguez as their sole point of contact at Nicalis on the subject of contract work, and says Rodriguez ghosted them in the middle of hashing out terms. Illustrator Christina-Antoinette Neofotistou recounts working with Rodriguez on two projects under non-disclosure agreements for which she completed character designs and pixel art.
"Tyrone paid me for my work, ghosted me for 2 years, and gave the animation of my character designs to someone else without consulting me," Neofotistou tells USG. Neofotistou acknowledges that Rodriguez's decision to give the animation duties away was within the terms of the "gentlemen's agreement" they struck together.
According to one anonymous source familiar with Nicalis, the publisher once ghosted a developer between a game's completion and its physical release. USG was able to independently verify the following story, but is shielding certain details. Nicalis abruptly stopped communicating with the developer partner concerning a physical release of the developer's game. "Months with zero response" from Nicalis went by.
While Nicalis wasn't responding to the developer's inquiries, it continued working on the release. Thanks to an online store listing made prior to Nicalis' release announcement for the game, the developer discovered "that their game was not only going physical [...] but had already gone physical and was produced and in-hand with the publisher that was not communicating with them."
Nicalis Declined to Comment on How It Cuts off Communication
The Kotaku report also raises other allegations from former Nicalis employees and developer partners concerning Nicalis founder and president Tyrone Rodriguez. Sources claim Rodriguez pressured them into drinking alcohol and frequently used discriminatory language. The piece includes several screenshots of internal Nicalis workplace Skype chats where Rodriguez used ableist, racist, homophobic, and antisemetic language. In response to Kotaku's piece, Did You Know Gaming? creator Shane Gill came forward on Twitter to say Rodriguez "was rude and talked down to [him] on more than one occasion" while working as a freelance artist for the company close to a decade ago.
In the course of USG's reporting, one developer familiar with Nicalis corroborated the allegations raised by the Kotaku piece concerning both ghosting and inappropriate humor.
Before going silent on Twitter, Rodriguez issued a statement where he admitted to writing "terribly insensitive, stupid remarks in DMs that don't represent who [he is]," but has yet to address the allegations that Nicalis regularly stonewalled developers.
We reached out to Nicalis for comment on the pattern of ghosting raised by our reporting, the statements made by individuals on Twitter, and Kotaku's original report. Nicalis responded with a statement that only addresses the delisting of Ittle Dew 2 on consoles:
Our Ittle Dew 2 publishing agreement with Ludosity has ended. We've been in communication with the Ludosity team and the first-party platforms during the transition and attempted to transfer the publishing from Nicalis to Ludosity. The game was successfully transferred to Ludosity on Steam. Unfortunately, not all storefronts have a backend system in place to transfer or "re-home" a game to a different publisher. To abide by the terms of the original contract and Ludosity's request to assume control of publishing Ittle Dew 2, it was necessary to delist the game on these platforms.
We remain fans of Ittle Dew 2 and we wish the Ludosity team all the best in the future.
Abrupt Stops in Communication Can Harm Developers Without Ever Coming to Light
Though concerning stories about Nicalis' handling of a La-Mulana port for the Wii and its sparse updates on Kickstarter-funded project Super 90s GP may have been red flags for some developers, these aforementioned stories of ghosting have either remained secret or filtered out through whisper networks for years.
Delays resulting from a game or a piece of content simply not being ready for release are commonplace in the industry, and NDAs are frequently used by both developers and publishers to protect the terms of contracts and working relationships. For these reasons, it can be difficult to ever verify if delays or related difficulties ever resulted from unprofessional practices from a publisher.
While the allegations of other misconduct leveled against Nicalis and Rodriguez in particular are troubling in their own right, the stories of ghosting point to a particularly stark power imbalance in the games industry. Even in situations where contracts have been signed and money is owed, developers and contractors are often at a loss to do much beyond continuing to reach out to the publisher that controls the process.
Omar Cornut made this point while sharing Lizardcube's experience on Twitter is that a worse-off developer in a similar position might not survive the lack of communication. "Imagine being a small dev at the end of a long dev cycle, out of cash, expecting to receive some form of report/royalties on month N+1 or N+2 and instead having to wait e.g. 6+ months," he writes.
Someone bearing these costs has to choose between staying silent and going public. Remaining silent means not incurring further damages, while going public about any dissatisfaction with a publisher opens up the risk of being retaliated against or passed over for future opportunities. The longer the gap in communication, the more you've already lost in time and, potentially, money.
"This can kill your studio," Cornut warns.
Editor's Note: Omar Cornut took to Twitter to correct part of this story, saying that Nicalis wasn't directly a cause of LizardCube's issues. "Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was released, it was a very minor patch. Delay wasn’t caused by Nicalis, but by miscommunication between the three parties, which we sorted out after the misleading support tweets were made," he noted.