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Postmortem: Behind The Scenes Of  Scribblenauts

Postmortem: Behind The Scenes Of Scribblenauts Exclusive

November 16, 2009 | By Staff

November 16, 2009 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The latest, November 2009 issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of 5th Cell's Scribblenauts, written by studio co-founder Joseph Tringali.

Scribblenauts, a unique word-driven puzzle platformer, was the third original Nintendo DS property from Bellevue-based 5th Cell. Its widely-discussed main hook is the ability for players to enter nearly any conceivable non-proper noun into its text parser, at which point the game will spawn that item into the world.

Initial Lack of Vision

The complaint most frequently leveraged against Scribblenauts revolved around its often-finicky touch screen controls, and 5th Cell acknowledges that the scheme was not given the attention it may have needed:

"The sensitivity of the stylus controls is easily the biggest issue in Scribblenauts, a fact that has been reinforced by reviewers and users. We knew this was going to take a big hit from reviewers, but we could only spend a limited amount of work on it. We discussed a secondary D-pad control option midway through development only to come to the conclusion it would take a single person 3"4 weeks to integrate it. On our self-funded schedule, that route was not an option.

"The root cause of this issue was limited time, and our decision to focus more on delivering what we had promised with the 'Write anything. Solve everything.' The slogan was the right one in the end, but it hurt the second most important part of the game, the controls.

"We still feel stylus control was the correct decision for Scribblenauts. The DS is a casual platform by design and allowing non-gamers the ease of use of a pencil-like system for a game targeted at everyone over a D-pad only scheme was overall the best choice. But in retrospect; our implementation of those controls was only at 50 percent of where it needed to be.

"It would have been better to cut a secondary feature early on, such as the Wi-Fi connection, to allow us the time to fully realize stylus controls. However by the time we realized controls would take weeks to get right from play testing, it was too late to cut features."


Most games have to deal with localization, but few games rely so exclusively on text not just for narrative concerns but for fundamental gameplay. As one might expect, that aspect of Scribblenauts proved difficult at times:

"Our products have always released worldwide, so we planned for localization in Scribblenauts from the start. We built in localization support for the dictionary in Objectnaut, and planned to handle in-game localization as we had in our previous titles. Unfortunately, Scribblenauts ended up with far more text then we anticipated, and because of the level finalization coming late, our hint text that displayed at the beginning of each level wasn’t localizable until the last minute.

"Our localization system for previous games had relied on a custom tool which pulled text from .txt strings and exported to Microsoft Excel, which could then be sent to the localizers. What was sent back was imported using the same tool and showed up in game. The tool itself was very useful, but optimized for previous titles that only had game text. With Scribblenauts, we had game text plus a huge dictionary, and they both utilized different systems.

"We delivered Scribblenauts in English, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Italian, Dutch, U.K.-English, Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian. We had unique dictionaries for every language, and these word lists were constantly being updated. Version control became a nightmare as we tracked dozens of files for both dictionary files and word lists.

"The system, although severely stressed, made it through, and we shipped all languages. If I could revisit pre-production, we should have either invested in building or licensing a single web tool to manage all the game text."

Level Design From Project Start

Structurally, Scribblenauts is a direct series of levels, in the most straightforward way. That, along with the open-ended nature of the gameplay, meant it was crucial to get going with level design as early as possible:

"We devoted a good chunk of time to designing levels on paper early on in the project. Because Scribblenauts is a game where the designers could use anything they could think of in a level, it was really important to break away from habits in traditional level design and really take advantage of our dictionary.

"While initially our level designs were simple and familiar, the more time we spent designing on paper, the more interesting and outlandish our designs became.

"The amount of time we spent brainstorming, iterating, researching, and challenging each others’ ideas meant we had an increasingly varied landscape to pull from, and from there we chose which levels would go into the final game"to the tune of more than seven-hundred level designs, sampling as much of our dictionary as possible to give players a sense of its scope."

Additional Info

The full postmortem for Scribblenauts explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the November 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a roundup of more than 50 of the year's most interesting industry figures, an analysis of cloud computing, an interview with Sega veteran Naoto Ohshima (Sonic the Hedgehog, Nights into Dreams), and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of this edition as a single issue.

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