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Fountain of Scribbles: 5th Cell's Jeremiah Slaczka Speaks
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Fountain of Scribbles: 5th Cell's Jeremiah Slaczka Speaks

October 9, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Scribblenauts entered E3 as an unknown and transformed into a must-have game on the back of the buzz generated by its showing there. Four months later, it's a tentpole Nintendo DS game that gamers everywhere are familiar with.

It's the third Nintendo DS game from developer 5th Cell, which built its expertise developing mobile titles but has, more recently, pursued a strategy of making original DS IP. Where did that idea come from? And what is the strategy of the 5th Cell, growing its business on the back of unconventional hits like Scribblenauts?

Here, co-founder Jeremiah Slaczka lays it all out for Gamasutra, including the company's future plans -- such as Xbox Live Arcade development -- and why he refused to create the SpongeBob and Wii versions of Drawn to Life.

How did this Scribblenauts idea come to be? To me, it sounds like the kind of thing that someone would be like, "Wouldn't it be cool if?" "Yeah, but that's too hard." "Oh well."

Jeremiah Slaczka: The cool thing is after Drawn to Life, we had a couple more pitches I wanted to do. One was Lock's Quest. And then I had another idea about writing.

What if you could write Mad Lib style, where you could write sentences, and they would come to life in the top screen? I would say, "The dog is walking through the forest," and the dog would pop down and the forest, and he would walk through. I thought to myself, "That's a really cool idea."

The problem is there's no gameplay. It was crazy -- I actually had a dream. I never dream of video game ideas. But I had a dream where I was in this Aztec temple, and you go in this room. In every room, there'd be these weird puzzles. In one there were three paintings hanging on the wall and you have to make them straight. And then you get down and open the portal to the next room.

I thought, "This is a really cool idea for a game, but it doesn't have a hook, and there's no replayability." I was kind of working on that and seeing where that would go, like, maybe that would fit on Wii. Maybe that would fit on DS. I don't know. Then I though, "Wait. What if we take the writing idea and slam it with the puzzle idea, and all of the sudden you've got instant replayability because you could write anything."

Then I talked to Marius, our technical director, and he was like, "Yeah, dude, this is awesome. Let's do it." And he was really pumped. He was the one that actually loved the writing. Before that I didn't know where it was going. It was boring at the moment. It's wasn't a game. It was just an idea.

A lot of people actually at 5th Cell were like, "This can't be done. And even halfway through development, people at 5th Cell said, "Dude, it's not happening." And we just had to say, "Yes, it is. Don't worry. I've got it, me and Marius. We see the vision. We know exactly where it's going."

In traditional video games, you have level one, and then there are enemies for level one, and then there are the platforms or whatever there is for level one. And like you make it, you polish it, then you go on, right? In this, in level one, you can write anything. So the second the bear doesn't work or the anvil isn't heavy, people will go, "What the heck? This game sucks. I don't understand."

So, we had to get everything in before level one could actually work, so that was about 80 percent of the development, just doing that. Then we got about 80 percent, and then we actually showed publishers and stuff. Because before that, they couldn't really demo it. "Oh, this is a cool idea, but nothing works."

It seems like there's obviously a huge top end on the planning side, because you have just like a big box of everything to draw from immediately. I could imagine it being difficult to see that actually coming together.

JS: The second it all came together, it was like a light switch. Bang, everything works. It's like, "Dude, this is now fun."

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Josh Milewski
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I like the spirit of 5TH Cell's games and their attitude about their own work.

Stephen Northcott
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Interesting read. I think people should watch Zero Punctuation's review as well as read this.

Stephen Northcott
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Croshaw is indeed "tiresome, repetitive, smug", as you say.

But he's also pretty accurate at picking out a game's problems most of the time, and he doesn't base his views on the advertising inches the publisher has bought from him. It also doesn't take genius to spot obvious flaws, it has to be said. :)

My point was that Scribblenauts is flawed. Great idea. Badly implemented. I don't get any feeling that the guys behind Scribblenauts in any way get that the game has these glaring flaws, which is easy to miss / overlook when you sell bucket loads of a product. So I personally think Croshaw's comments are a fair rebuttal to what is also quite a "tiresome, repetitive, smug" interview above. :)

Joe Tringali
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>I don't get any feeling that the guys behind Scribblenauts in any way get that the game has these glaring flaws

Trust me, we follow all reviews and understand the game wasn't perfect. As Jeremiah said in the interview, one of our biggest gripes is lack of development time to move our stuff from a 80s metacritic average into the 90's. That 10 points is all polish.

Alec Shobin
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Great to see someone from the studio on these boards! Thanks for sharing your input. It's interesting that you point to the Metacritic review score as the definitive rating of your games... But I guess that's the best tool we have for determining the public's affinity towards a product.

Stephen Northcott
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@Joe : Appreciate the reply. And good to know that you're tracking these things. :) I do love your concept.

@Jeffrey : Oh, I actually agree with you. I hate the rinse - repeat - churn out format of the big publishers. And applaud anyone who tries something new, regardless of it's commercial success or not. And yes I guess it seems harsh that when someone does something original and then misses the mark a bit that we all jump on them. But I think developers would rather have honest feedback than fawning admiration. Well, I know I certainly would rather it that way.

My criticism was of the implementation, not the concept (which is awesome).

I certainly did not advise people not to buy it. I think anyone reading here is very likely to make their own mind up regardless of any comment made here. So comments I make are based on the premise that we're all professionals and as such don't need to embellish our words with twinkly bits to mind people's egos.

My only hope is that the concept gets refined and implemented better in a revision or new release, and my comments were because I feel the game is being sold on the concept whereas the implementation disappoints somewhat. I say these things because I care about the Art, not the publisher - to be perfectly frank.

If you take a look at the implementation that people behind PixelJunk put into their ideas I would say that is a good yard arm to measure your attempt to hit the concept / implementation sweet spot. :)