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5th Cell focuses on new IP, self-publishing
5th Cell focuses on new IP, self-publishing
January 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

January 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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Earlier this month, a sort of happy accident led to Bellevue, WA-based 5th Cell launching its first new IP since 2009's acclaimed Scribblenauts. At the same time, the studio is embracing self-publishing.

Company co-founder and creative director Jeremiah Slaczka said he was inspired by the simple mechanics he noticed in a Flash game by Chris Jeff, called Space is Key. From there, 5th Cell thought of entering the one-touch "runner" genre on iOS "as a side project."

The development of that game, Run, Roo, Run, was so pleasing to the team that 5th Cell decided to properly back it with more effort, adding a level designer, artist and sound staff to flesh it out. Working off the basic concept Slaczka loved about Space is Key, Run, Roo, Run adds more complex level design and more items and objects to the game.

Simple runner-genre games are very well suited to the iOS platform, which 5th Cell is exploring for the first time aside from Scribblenauts Remix, a port 5th Cell did with a partner, which Slaczka says is doing "very well". But it's not an easy space, the team is learning: "Unless you're a hit, it's very, very difficult to make money on the [App Store]... if you spend 5k, you could make 10k back, but typically, it's very difficult."

"For us, it was more a fun experiment... and it's doing pretty well for us so far," he says of Run, Roo, Run.

"The biggest thing I've learned is that there's no such thing as a simple, easy game," Slaczka reflects. Although an iOS game may require a much smaller staff, the idea of Roo as a no-frills side project was quickly dispelled: "You have to devote all your attention at specific times to that game. We have to put people on the game who are dedicated to it and really care. We really care about our brand, so we can't just release whatever we want; we can't just do little side projects for fun. Those take effort."

The studio is bigger than many people tend to think; currently it's at about 65, with much of the team devoted to Hybrid, the studio's upcoming 2012 shooter that will launch on Xbox Live Arcade, with the possibility of other platforms later on. The studio will release three more new IP games in 2012; the original Scribblenauts team is working on one of these unannounced projects.

When it comes to Hybrid, 5th Cell built a team from the ground up for this foray into high-end 3D games, a learning experience for a studio known largely for 2D art. Why change what audiences have come to expect from 5th Cell?

"It's important, because if we call ourselves an innovative company, to be truly innovative you have to consistently be doing new and interesting things, not just in the industry, but for yourself," Slaczka explains. "If we're just going to keep on doing quirky 2D games, we're not going to be innovative."

Hybrid is the exact opposite of something like Roo, and that was intentional. "We're not a tech-driven company in that, 'oh, we have an engine, and that's what we're going to do,'" Slaczka explains. "It's what's fun for us, what do we think is a cool idea."

That requires a certain degree of attention to the hiring process, he believes. Talent is important, but passion is moreso. "If somebody is a great programmer or artist, and they say, 'oh, I want to make the next Call of Duty,' we're like, 'then you should go work for that company,'" he says.

"The hardest challenge here is you're going to be asked to solve problems that no one's ever solved before, and that's very daunting; we vet a lot of people to get the right attitude," adds Slaczka.

Hybrid's team is entirely new to 5th Cell, comprised of staff that have done 3D games before. That doesn't mean it's easy -- not nearly. "Iteration is much more difficult," Slaczka says of working in the high-end 3D space. "Instead of being like a little nimble speedboat, you're much like a freightliner in the ocean; you really have to be careful."

"We iterate a lot, because we're doing such a unique kind of control scheme," he continues. "We're not just going to do a shooter; we're going to do a 5th Cell shooter... so we spend a lot of time changing the ideas. Some of the people on the team are kind of like, 'wait, what? I thought the game is good right now.' We're much more fluid than that; we're never satisfied with resting on our laurels."

All in all, it's an interesting time for 5th Cell: Not only is Run, Roo, Run its first new IP in some time, but it's also the studio's first self-published game. Slaczka says the team is enjoying the sense of freedom and control that comes with self-publishing, despite some challenges: "A publisher has done 20, 30 iOS titles, so they have a rhythm," Slackza notes. "For us, we're learning on the fly."

"It's actually really exciting," he adds. "We don't have anybody to blame but ourselves if the game doesn't do well."


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Connor Fallon
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I've always admired 5th Cell's ability to create original IP's that do well -- maybe this one will be an exception, but their track record is pretty good.


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