Jeremiah Slaczka and Joseph Tringali, creative director/CEO and general manager/COO of 5th Cell respectively, have a lot to be happy about. They did something many thought impossible by making a successful new IP, 2009's <i>Scribblenauts</a>, late in the lifecycle of the particularly difficult Nintendo DS, when conventional wisdom said that it was a hopeless platform to develop for.
In this interview, the company shares the recipe for its success, discussing the frustrations of working within a traditional publisher model, and how 5th Cell handles recruiting team members that gel together and create standout games -- as they work on Xbox Live Arcade game Hybrid.
The pair also opine about the future of the company, the 2011 handheld platforms from Sony and Nintendo, and what might happen when broadband gets to the level where digital distribution can make retail games redundant.
The sense that I'm getting is just that you don't want publishers to enforce milestones on you because they squash creativity.
Jeremiah Slaczka: You just don't want boilerplate. One answer doesn't fit all answers, right? A lot of publishers will say, "It worked on this game," or, "It worked on that game," but just because that's true for one studio doesn't mean that's true for all studios.
Milestones matter, but the point was, first of all, schedules, milestones, meetings, bug reports, all those things -- the consumer never sees, right? So the focus should be on the game first and all of those things second. That's the main thing.
Joseph Tringali: Those things should support the game rather than the game following this process because that's how it's done. If they're needed and if they work, it's like, "Sure, great."
JS: Sometimes it's just that publishers, or developers, or individuals -- producers, or designers, or whatever -- will use that as a metric for how the game's doing, and... the metric should be how fun it is.
JT: Jeremiah in his DICE talk talked about the V, and the problem with the milestone schedule is that it's a very flat line. The V starts really cool, goes really bad, and gets really cool again. If you're applying this straight line to a V, you have this point where the game looks like it's underperforming when it's really not. At the end of the day, do you need to hit gold master? Absolutely. Are there important milestones like E3 and press things? Yeah, but...
JS: And you need to show progress to your publisher.
JT: Of course, but what form that progress takes doesn't necessarily need to be tied to these --
JS: -- checks and balances. "You don't have a pause menu in the game right now, so therefore you've failed your milestone." That's just super arbitrary.
I thought it was in a larger sense of not liking the concept of milestones -- and payment structures are also built into those milestones.
JS: Oh, no, that's really bad too. That's absolutely bad because just being able to have a pass/fail metric on an innovative game and you're saying, "Somebody's not having fun with it." Well, no crap! Because it's not ready; it's not at that point.
JT: And the money issue's a problem. If you ask anybody that owns an independent developer, they want to keep their business. Even if they want with all their heart to make an amazing game and they have to choose between paying their employees and making an awesome game, they're going to choose paying their employees. It sucks that developers get put into that position where they have to make those choices. It should be "We'll support you as long as we believe in the product and are seeing your progress, we'll pay you." That's what publishers bring to the table; they bring money.
JS: It's not an antagonistic relationship with a publisher that we're looking for; we have good partnerships. That's what we were trying to say. The points that we had in our speech were that these are from both sides of the partnership. It's a partnership; it's not a developer/publisher relationship. It's a partnership. We're both after the same goal; we're both trying to make great games that sell. That's the bottom line.
If you have a studio that you trust and people that you trust and they've done it before and all that stuff -- again, this isn't necessarily for every single developer. There's plenty of developers that aren't good and that aren't good at certain things, and need to be held to stricter standards, but if everybody trusted each other more you'd make a better game. That's the bottom line.
You were talking about being first to market, which essentially means taking a risk on something. You guys always want to do something that's different and innovative and "Okay, we've never seen this before." That can also lead to something that people have never seen before that they don't want. How do you guys approach that?
JT: I would say we take calculated risks; I wouldn't say it's a blind risk. We know the market. We don't put games out on platforms where we know they're sort of set up to fail from day one. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you could think that you have a great concept and all of the market research could be there, and it's just not received well. But for us, we're pretty confident. When we come up with a concept --
JS: -- with a concept we like, we'll vet it through our greenlight process and all that stuff and vet it through all these things and then say, "Yeah, I think that this is going to do well." Of course it's a risk, but if you don't have risk, there's no reward. The reward is always less if you do less risk. That's not what gets us up in the morning; we want to do something different. We want to change the the industry -- and all that crazy revolutionary speech.
I totally agree. When my game was actually still happening, I was saying, "Well, it might fail, but at least we're going to fail trying to do something interesting." And then it did!
JS: (Laughs) It didn't fail; it just...
It didn't exist.
JS: Which is probably because of the V; they couldn't trust you to get to the other side of the V.
It really is what happened. How can you tell if a game that has weird ideas is going to be good when you're looking at an alpha, it's really tough because you can't have all those ideas proved. It's just --
JT: Trust. (Everyone laughs)