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The Secrets Of 5th Cell's Success

In this in-depth interview, the creative director and COO of Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell discuss their philosophy toward developer/publisher relations, their approach toward identifying and creating games, and what they expect the future to bring in game technology.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

April 22, 2011

20 Min Read

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)

One thing you were talking about with trying to figure out a hiring methodology for yourselves is that you find talent is more important than expertise. I agree with that to some extent. One question from me would be: how then do you manage those people and teach them the actual things they need to do?

JT: We value experience a lot; we just don't set it as a hard-and-fast criterion. We have a lot of people in key lead team positions that have been in the industry for 10, 12, or 15 years, and there's tons of value in that.

For us, it's important because a lot of these people have more experience than we do! I'm not going to tell our lead animator who's been doing this since the '90s how to animate something.

We don't tell people what to do that know what they're doing; instead, we learn from them. Experience is great; it's just, again, we don't look at it like "This person doesn't have the experience, so they don't fit into our company."

JS: Yeah, and you just trust them with different levels. For somebody that's newer but that shows a lot of promise, you'll give them a little less leash than you would somebody with a little more experience.

You just always see job postings, and it's like "Must have five years of being a game..." and it's like, who cares? I'm a high school drop-out. Whatever; who cares?

JT: In terms of seniority, we would never hire someone out of school and make them a lead. It doesn't work that way. Our seniority system is definitely based on your experience and what you've done, but it's not as strict as other companies where they're like, "Okay, if you haven't worked in the industry for seven years -- it doesn't matter how talented you are -- you're never going to be a senior." If somebody works for us for two or three years and they're doing what a senior's doing, they become a senior.

JS: Even if they're just out of high school or whatever.

JT: (Laughs) You just want to hire your clone.

JS: I do want to hire a clone; that would make life a lot easier.

If you were having trouble previously with hiring the right kinds of people, that sounds like, to some degree, it's an issue of management. If those issues persist, how do you work on improving these people or building them up or giving them guidance?

JS: The number one thing is attitude, and that's why we listed attitude as number one. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you have a bad attitude it doesn't matter. So all of the people we hire, we make sure that attitude is the most important thing. The people that are new are teachable.

We have a mentorship style. We're a pretty laid-back company. We're not like hard style: "This is your mentor; you must listen to him. In six months, we'll evaluate how you're doing." It's all pretty organic. Again, it's just trust: "I believe in you because you show a lot of promise. Obviously, I'm not going to make you a lead, but you'll have this job. You'll start, and we'll see where you go. If you don't make it, we'll try to work with it." We give people tons of chances.

JT: We're not big. We're in a much better position financially as a company. We can offer people more than we could five or six years ago.

JS: You're a different company as a start-up.

JT: The attitude thing is really key. We've always looked at talent. We've always been able to recognize talent. We haven't always been able to pay for it; that's changed. But with attitude, we've always been able to recognize attitude; we just didn't care as much. But now there's no compromise.

JS: You just learn. Starting a business, you just learn things. As a manager and owner, you learn what to look for. It's funny because the Hybrid team -- most of them are new. We have the Scribblenauts team; they're doing other stuff. The Hybrid team is pretty new, and they all gel together really well because we look for the same passion and the same attitude along with the talent. It's very important.

With the vision-oriented design you're talking about, it almost sounds like you've got to have a sort of auteur-oriented thing going on -- because you're saying "Don't design by committee." How do you have that kind of auteurism when many of your games are very user-generated content-oriented? Really the end result of the game is pretty much built by the player in many of your games. But how do you feel about the duality of auteurism versus player impetus?

JS: I'm definitely a big proponent and believer in auteurism for certain people; if it makes sense, it makes sense. We just happen to have a really talented team where our technical director and, on the art side our creative -- we all gel really well. We all kind of know what we want to do. There's no egos -- that's probably the biggest thing, having no egos.

Then, on the player side... It's funny because people come out saying that "Oh, you make a lot of user-generated games." We don't set out to do that; it just happens. We never had this meeting where we said, "User generation's hot. We need to get into that." It's never happened! It's just like, "Let's make something cool. This is cool, and this is interesting; let's go do that." For some reason, user generation has been big in our games. I can't actually explain it; it just happens.

JT: Seeing how many games are successful in that vein lately is pretty interesting: Minecraft, obviously.

JS: LittleBigPlanet was pretty successful.

JT: Insane, yeah.

JS: I think it's all the technology. Back in the day, you just couldn't do certain things that enable people to have those kinds of experiences, and so you had to create much tighter experiences. Now, the code can handle that. I'm not a computer, so I'm speaking high-level.

JT: Yes, those guys are all crazy.

I think we talked about it a little bit before, but it feels like you're sort of moving up the consoles in terms of technical requirements and difficulty of making games -- well, not necessarily that, but fidelity. Is that something that you are cognizant of?

JS: Oh, absolutely. We were very cognizant of that.

JT: We've been a two-game studio for a couple of years now, so just doing Hybrid and the next big game that we do doesn't necessarily mean that you won't see another handheld game from 5th Cell at some point in the future.

We look at every platform. There are some platforms that we talked about in the speech -- Facebook and stuff -- where we don't do it. We don't sit there and play FarmVille for hours.

JS: Or ever.

JT: (Laughs) I've tried it. You won't see 5th Cell there. But 3DS, NGP...

JS: They're interesting platforms. When me and Joe started our first company, Epix, which we didn't talk about in our speech, we did an MMORPG on Xbox. Obviously, it didn't come out, or you would have heard about it. But it totally failed; it was huge. It was shooting for the moon, especially on the consoles. There still isn't really a console MMO -- don't count Final Fantasy.


JS: Yeah, DC.

JT: EverQuest Online.

JS: Ugh. (Everyone laughs) Well, as we shot for the moon, it didn't really work out, so we thought, "Let's do the opposite; go really small and start building." So it was mobile to DS to XBLA -- not doing full console because this is kind of like "learn some more stuff in 3D." Everybody has 3D experience at our studio -- a lot of people -- but not as a studio. It's kind of a stepping stone.

JT: And it's ambition within the platform, I think, that's a big thing. We haven't necessarily said we're on DS and want to do something small on DS; we've always been like, "We want to be the best-selling game on DS. We want to be the best-selling game on XBLA." We always aim big, whatever platform we're in. If and when we do a console game, it will be a huge console game. We won't go and aim for double-A.

JS: Yeah, if there is such a word. You never hear that word; it's always triple-A.

JT: You won't see many of those games anymore. All the publishers are unanimous in their verdict that any middle-ground is dead: "We're doing XBLA, we're doing Facebooky stuff, or we're doing super triple-A high-end stuff."

What do you think about those new handhelds you mentioned?

JS: They're interesting. We've been playing with stuff. Obviously, I was at the Nintendo conference last year for 3DS and stuff, so. They're interesting. I'm not in either camp; I think they're both interesting, and I'm not sure what or if we'll do something for them, especially with new IP and stuff. I don't know; maybe.

It's tough because everybody's like, "Yeah, which? Red or blue? Which do I like better?" I don't know where the market's gonna go. I don't know what the consumers -- we have our own opinions, but they're not necessarily true. I definitely don't have all the information that both the first parties do.

JT: Not only that, but we've never done a game for an unproved platform or an unreleased platform. We've always looked at what the market is, who's buying that console or that handheld, what type of games that they're playing...

JS: It's interesting to us. We're not sure.

JT: It's something we'll have to do at some point in the future. We'll see.

How do you think the stores factor into that equation -- their ability to purchase games within the console? How important do you think those will be? Because they're not necessarily going to be there at launch.

JS: Who knows? It depends again because we don't have the full picture, so it's really tough to tell what Nintendo and Sony have planned for their things. If they're smart, they'll support it because that's this feature.

JT: But we know that retail's still gonna be a key part at least with 3DS. They're still in retail space.

JS: Well, he's saying because Nintendo has their store, and it's going to be a better version; they've learned a lot with DSiWare and WiiWare. So they'll be better, I'm sure.

JS: I don't know. Just give me mega broadband so you can just download games really quick. Give me Korean-style military-grade where it's two-hundred thousand megabytes per second. That's what I want!

JT: As soon as that becomes mass-market it's a great thing for developers because --

JS: -- look at the music industry, right? Nobody buys CDs anymore; only collectors or some hardcore die-hard fan who's like "I've got to listen to this." The reason why is because we can download them so fast. If we can download games so fast...

JT: Publishers take a lot of risk because of making retail games. At the end of the day, they've got to buy x hundreds of thousands or millions of units to stock, and that's at some cost. I think publishers with digital -- you can kind of put it up there. You still have to market it, but if ten people download it you're not stuck with a hundred thousand copies in the warehouse that you paid money for.

JS: Yeah. With digital, there's no warehouse. I think everybody in the industry is on board with it as far as the developing and publishing side. It's just a matter of when it'll happen. I'm excited for it.

How long do you think the traditional publishing model is going to remain viable as it is now? Maybe it's just got to change, but they're really killing themselves a lot right now.

JS: I think the reason why is that there's a lot of different market opportunities, that's what we were talking about with being proactive and reactive. A lot of publishers are saying: Zynga is making an insane amount of money -- their valuation is five billion dollars or something. They're the second-richest company in games, and they came out three years ago or whatever.

They're not actually making that much.

JS: It's just valuation. But publishers -- there's just a lot of different... So I think that this is a very difficult time to be a publisher, because they're all trying to figure out what the next thing is, and nobody knows.

JT: But it's about what you provide. You can call yourself a publisher or whatever you want to call yourself, but at the end of the day what are you providing to the people that create games?

Publishers have always provided three key things: they've provided funds to develop, they've provided the marketing in the market, and sales and distribution for buying units.

Digital distribution takes away the distribution aspect. The marketing aspect is still kind of there, but it takes that a little bit away because you're closer to the consumer.

JS: Ah, I disagree with that. Most developers can't market for anything.

JT: If you go to Microsoft, you're reaching them through a portal, through XBLA. You're not buying TV advertising.

JS: Right, but most developers know nothing about it. I mean, we know something about it, but don't put us -- we're kind of a unique developer.

JT: But with the funding, that's not going to go away. As digital distribution becomes viable for bigger games, you're still going to need ten million dollars to build big games. Publishers will be there; it's just that they'll have to adapt to the market reality.

JS: And that's the bottom line; you have to adapt. If you don't adapt, you die -- in every industry ever. If things change and you're like, "No! I like the old ways," well then...

JT: We've just had the same model for a really long time.

JS: But I'm saying so did music. They changed their model, and now --

-- now the music industry totally is fucked.

JS: But they're making a lot of money.

They're not making a lot of money.

JS: They're making their money in shows, in concerts; that's where they've been focusing all their efforts. That's where they make the real money. In CDs, yes, they don't. That's to my point. Just because the retail model's broken with major triple-A mega games, and if they're not a hit then you've just wasted millions and millions and millions of dollars; okay, maybe you should reevaluate that and try something different.

I think some publishers are doing that. Like I said: concerts. I don't know if that means maybe developers can show up at people's houses. (Everyone laughs)

I feel like the money thing is going to be the only thing that they have left, because I feel like developers have started doing much better jobs of marketing themselves than publishers ever had managed, like the Humble Indie Bundle thing, and what The Behemoth does to get themselves out there.

JT: But then would you call them publishers? It's like the whole merging of publisher and developer; we no longer have such clearly defined goals that you need to have those labels. It's like, hey, could an indie developer start as a developer and end up as a publisher and then start helping other people? Yeah, you see that a lot: Indie Game Fund and everything. And publishers have money to hire talented people.

There's always going to be gates. I don't believe that consoles will ever go just open platform where everybody will be able to put their game out; so you'll still need to know important people. You'll still need to make connections with marketing. Just getting started, you're probably going to need a publisher.

JS: Humble Indie Bundle is great and wonderful, but the money they're generating compared to Call of Duty, where they spent whatever millions and millions of dollars on marketing... Whatever you say about innovative and not, you need both.

It depends on whether you're making Call of Duty or something with five dudes and suddenly you've got two million dollars to split among these people; then you're like, "We're just set."

JT: There'll be services, too, as things go online with persistent worlds and everything. Activision-Blizzard will be around, because they need their thousands and thousands of GMs for World of Warcraft. An independent developer could never do that. They'll need services. You'll probably get to a model where those services are offered sort of a la carte and you can pick and choose what you need.

Yeah, that was something that was interesting in the Minecraft postmortem, talking about how they're going to do their customer service stuff. They might have to outsource it because --

JS: -- there's no way; it's impossible.

JT: And why wouldn't you want to? If you're making games, you're not starting a call center.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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