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

Jeremiah Slaczka of Scribblenauts creator 5th Cell talks future plans -- including XBLA development -- and why he refused to create the SpongeBob and Wii versions of Drawn to Life.

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."


Did you play Crayon Physics before or after the concept came about?

JS: Oh, well after.

The grabbing of the shiny object as a goal, using procedural things to do so, it's quite similar. "Well, what's the most simple kind of goal?"

JS: Yeah. And that's how you make something really accessible to everybody. That was the whole point. You have the hardcore gamers, you have the casual gamers, and we wanted to make sure we could fit everybody because this is the Nintendo DS.

When I was actually looking at new ideas for us to do, I had to consider, "What's the DS about? What's the platform about?" It's about everybody. It's the most casual platform there is, but there are gamers on it, too.

It's a good point, because I feel like people are really going 100 percent either/or. They may say, "Yes, I want this appeal to everyone," but they're just saying it. They're not designing something that has the ability to appeal to both.

You shouldn't just make a first-person shooter, but you also don't have to necessarily make like a game about puppies or something. You can still have weird humor and quirky stuff in there, and make an interesting game. I feel like people get trapped.

JS: They do. They absolutely do. When we started 5th Cell, we wanted to make games that are completely different from everybody else, and not just different in a quirky weird way that's not going to sell and nobody likes it. We wanted to make awesome games.

We almost have that indie mentality, except for the fact that we understand that demographics matter. We're not just like, "Oh, we're making games just for us." We want to make them for everybody. I think that if you look at all of our games, they definitely try to do that broad appeal. That's kind of what we're about.

I guess I heard [5th Cell co-founder] Joseph Tringali saying, basically, "We want to make games that nobody else has made." I was like, "Whatever, guys. You guys just made a couple cell phone games. You think you're hot shit now? Well, okay."

JS: No, it's true. Actually, I was talking to Stephen Totilo at Kotaku, and he asked me, "What's the hot games?" And I'm like, "Scribblenauts." And he's just like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. A developer would say that about their own game." And I'm like, "No, no, no. I'm serious. Everybody's exploding at E3."

And people, journalists, are so jaded to PR people just slamming "It's the next best thing since sliced bread," that like when people are genuine about it and say, "Look, no, we're trying to change the industry. We're trying to do awesome things," they say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever."

It's funny, I tell Stephen things now, and he says, "I tend to believe you when you tell me these ridiculously amazing things that I don't believe." But then I'm like, "Dude, have I lied to you yet?" He's like, "No, you haven't. You have not lied to me." We're not about that. I just tell the truth. We're gamers. We want to make awesome stuff.

The thing that to me is amazing about it is that the simple behaviors that these objects and creatures have when they're put in the world; they're simple, but they're logical. They're so logical that they can surprise you, that these simple building blocks can tell a story, and you can just extrapolate it.

JS: It's really cool. The stuff that you came up with -- I don't think people have written "gallows" as their first word. That's from your brain. That's where your creative process is going. That's what's so great about Scribblenauts. Like Mark [PR at Warner Bros.] was saying today, he was just watching people play, "I haven't seen some of these things ever been written or seen these things in the game ever."

That's what's sort of great, because you have no idea. We just give you a toolset and say, "Do it." Other people say like, "Oh, open world! Sandbox!" and all this stuff. But it's not really. You're in a giant square, and you can drive a car anywhere... sort of. But that's not really emergent or anything, you know what I mean?


Logistically, did you have to go literally word-by-word...

JS: To find the words? Yes.

I guess you had to put them into groups? When I wrote "gouda", I just got a Swiss cheese wedge. Did you do something like, "Okay, all these words are under cheese."

JS: Yeah, definitely. There are definitely synonyms. It just depends how important it is. Is gouda a big thing? What you're going to get back in terms of the art, it's still going to be cheese. Gouda is the same thing. Maybe like Limburger is slightly different. It makes people run away because they're afraid of it because it's stinky.

Other than that, if it's really basic, like a box and a crate, it's the same thing. People aren't going to go, "Where's my box? Where's my crate?" That doesn't make sense. When things really make sense, we have android, robot, and cyborg. We thought those were different enough so we made them different. We made sure that they're all completely different, acted different, look different. It really just depends.

Obviously, we have a limited development schedule, so you can only fit so much in. We just try to make sure that everything... We have like brown bear, polar bear, and black bear. They're different bears. They look different, and they act different.

How many different behaviors do you have?

JS: It depends. Here's another thing that's going to sound PR-y and like fake but it's true -- we had a QA plan that was set up during the middle of development, and we were wondering how we were going to QA this. We found we can't. It's not possible. No human can ever interact with everything. It's not possible. We just kind of hope that it all works and that it doesn't crash and that it doesn't break.

We just make the system and make sure it works. Then we check every object and say, "Oh, does it work?" We have no idea. If you freeze your airplane, take it back in time on a time machine, put an old man on it, come back, and set it on fire, what's going to happen? I don't know. You can't test that. How do you test that? It's impossible.

Do you have to do that stuff all on a case-by-case basis, or is there stuff where with brown bear or black bear, or brown cat and black cat, we're just going to do palette swaps on these or something like that?

JS: Every object has been tweaked. There's a system that takes the hierarchy of everything and says, "Okay, where does this go? Where does that go?" And then we tweak them. It fills out the basic. This is AI, so we know that an AI is going to walk around. And then you can insert what is it afraid of, what it likes, how many hit points it has, can it swim, will it fly, it will drown, does it like fire, does it hate fire, is it going to die in fire? All these things you can tweak, and then you can get really, really nitty-gritty with everything.

So, those are all tweaked by hand.

JS: Yes, yes.

A lot of projects are programmer-led or artist-led. There's a lot of art in this game, but it seems in a way that this game requires almost as many designers as artists to tweak that stuff.

JS: Yeah. I think our company is very designer-led. If you look at our games, all through our games, Drawn to Life, Lock's Quest, Drawn to Life 2 even, and Scribblenauts -- Drawn to Life 2 not as much -- but they're all very, very different. They're all on the same platform, that's about it. That's the only thing that's the same between them. Everything else is different.

Lock's Quest is isometric, completely revamped everything. It's normal to program things like, "Oh, we're going to make an FPS engine, and then we're going to make a boring FPS with a boring story and random enemies." Who cares about that stuff? We're just like, "What's cool? What can we do? What's the next great idea? Let's do it. I don't know how we're going to do it. We'll figure it out as we go."

That's Marius's job. He's really on board, and so are all the programmers. They're really on board with following the design and saying, "Look, we're doing something completely different. We're not taking a racing engine and then making another racing game, and then taking that and making the sequel to that racing game." All our games are completely different from each other. There are not many companies that do that, to be honest. That's kind of an indie spirit. A lot of independent developers will just be like, "I want to make this. This is cool. I want to make that. That's cool."


Yeah, Scribblenauts definitely resonated well with press in the pressroom at E3 because when most people were asking what people liked at the show, just making small talk because everyone's tired, Scribblenauts would come up, and they would tell their individual story about what kind of weird thing that you'd done. It's weird to actually be excited about a game.

JS: I know. That's what's funny. I think that's why Scribblenauts has resonated so well with the press because you guys see everything. You see so many shows, and it's like, "Here's another FPS, and the reason why it's innovative is because it has an ice gun!" And you're like, "That's not innovative. That's an ice gun."

I literally saw -- and you're one of my favorite examples -- just these hardcore jaded journalists like, "Okay, I'll check this game out. I heard it's kind of cool." Literally, the whole facade of being jaded and stuff, I'd just see them smile and be like, "This is fun. This is cool. What is this?" They're like 10-year-old kids again when they first discovered video games. They went back to that. It was awesome. Just time after time after time, journalist after journalist after journalist just kept on doing that. I was just like, "I knew Scribblenauts was cool, and I knew we had something on our hands, but I never knew it was gonna be like that."

I think for the journalists specifically, it has to do with everyone at least on some level enjoying writing. And your game deals with words and language. I can try to think of a weird word and have it actually show up; that's kind of cool. It makes it feel like what's happening is a product of your imagination.

JS: Yeah, yeah, right. It's yours. It's your imagination. It's your thinking of it. What's really cool is that Scribblenauts is -- I play a lot of DS games. I've played probably every major DS game that came out, and even a bunch of minor weird ones.

I haven't seen another DS game where there's like a party, where people just sit over each other's shoulders and they'll be like, "Look at this. Look what I just did. I want to share it with you." Nobody's like, "Hey, check out my puppy." They maybe will for like five seconds, but they're not like, "Yeah! Let's all crowd around and watch the puppy for an hour."

How long was the development process, from concept to completion?

JS: About a year and three months, which is crazy. That's probably the only thing I don't like about 5th Cell's development. It's just how it is. That's the way it is. We're competing against companies like Square Enix and Nintendo, triple-A products.

People hold us to the same standard, which I'm totally fine with -- I want them to hold us to that standard. But they get three years, and I get one year. That's the big difference. I feel like a boxer with one hand tied between my back. I can make incredible stuff in three years, you know. I made Scribblenauts in one year. What could I make in three years with their budget? That's just how it is. That's just what you have to deal with.

Well, they have three years because they have multiple teams and all.

JS: Unlimited pockets. That's fine. That's just how it is. They deserve it because they got there. They built themselves up to that point. We'll get there eventually.

Do you foresee yourself becoming large in that way?

JS: Yeah. I'd love to. I'd love to be large. We still want to do original stuff. We'll always do original stuff. Self-funding, self-publishing. I don't know, we'll see where it goes.

Do you want to move on from handheld?

JS: We are. We're already doing that. This year, we're actually done with handheld for original titles. We're not going to spend our stuff on new original titles. We'll put that onto consoles. Not that we're going to ever do handheld again, that's definitely not true. It's just for right now, that's just where we want to go because we want to expand and get to where we're comfortable, and then see what happens.

What kind of scale are you looking at on console?

JS: Right now, we're making a $120 million... No, I'm just kidding. [laughs] We're doing an Xbox Live Arcade title next, and it's going to be pretty big. It's going to be really cool. We're very excited about it. It'll be cool.

Did you announce that yet?

JS: No, it's unannounced. It's totally not ready to be announced. It's far away. The only thing that we've really announced is we're working on console stuff, and we'll see where it goes.

I wish you success on that. But do watch out, because getting bigger is how people become generic. That's all I'm saying.

JS: I don't think that will ever happen with us, though.

A lot of people have said that.

JS: I guess. Well, everything we say comes true. [laughs] See, but we grow up smartly. We learn. Because we actually grew really big way back in the mobile days, and we learned that that's a bad thing. So, we grow smartly. We don't grow just by hiring 200 people and firing them in six months after we don't need them. We've been around for six years, so we vet potential employees. We just go through tons of people, and do a big, deep interview process to make sure that we're really happy with people that we've got and grow smartly, not quickly.

Growth for growth's sake is stupid. I guess on paper, you could be like, "Look, we have 200 employees. We're awesome." But at the end of the day, if they're no good and they're making crap, it's stupid. That's why we stuck on DS for so long. People always ask us, "Why did you do four DS titles? Why haven't you gone to consoles yet?" It's because we have all this awesome tech [for the DS]. We still have ideas we can do, and it's all about the idea. Like I said, if I come up with another Scribblenauts idea, and say it would fit on DS, we're going to do it.


You're branching out in terms of your publisher interaction right now. How is that going?

JS: With Scribblenauts, we talked to almost every major publisher. We chose WB because they're really large and they have a lot of money and they want to do a lot, and really want to be a player, but they're really new. They have the fervor of a much smaller publisher who's like, "Look, we'd totally be behind your game but we don't have money! We're sorry." WB had the best of both worlds.

Large companies figure, "Eh, we have 20 original IPs already. We don't really need your IP." Warner Bros. embraced it. They've been totally awesome. I don't know if you went to Germany at GamesCom, but half of WB's booth was Scribblenauts. That's never happened before. That's like Nintendo-esque.

Nobody does that for a DS game only. It's DS game only. It's not a multi-SKU or anything. They've really, really embraced it. There's been a big marketing push and stuff. But it's also grassroots. They basically saw it. They saw the press and the fans getting into it, and they were like, "Hey, wait. We have something really good on our hands." I think we made the right decision with WB. And we're also doing Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter with THQ.

Again, this is another PR thing that people think I say, but it's totally freaking true. We don't do products that we don't believe in. We're not a company that's has the mentality of, "Give me money because I just want money." We didn't do Drawn to Life Wii because we didn't believe in it in the sense that it could be done at a very good scale. But THQ wanted to do it, so it's like, "Okay, if you want to do it, that's fine. You guys own it. Do whatever you want with it. That's fine."

As far as us, it's like we weren't 100 percent. Especially if that's going to be our first console title? We didn't want to do it. And [Drawn to Life] SpongeBob? We didn't do SpongeBob. We turned that down. We could easily have just re-skinned it. With SpongeBob, if THQ wants to do that, that's fine, but it's not our thing. We can say that proudly, because we pick and choose what we want to do.

So, we really did want to do Drawn to Life 2 because we felt there was still more to do. The story is just way deeper. I'm really, really proud of the story. I really hope you play it and play the whole story. I'd love your opinion on it. I'm actually really proud of the story. Scribblenauts has no story, but with Drawn to Life 2, I'm really, really proud of the story. The art is all hand-drawn by Edison, who did the Scribblenauts stuff, so he hand-drew all these different villages and stuff like that. It looks really beautiful.

He's really got a good style.

JS: And his depth. He did Lock's Quest, he did Drawn to Life. He goes everywhere. It's crazy. I've never seen an artist that does that.

And the hero. You can add limbs, remove limbs, resize them, and stuff like that. The gameplay, we've actually had a lot more designers. We hired like a whole team of like five guys that are just doing levels. The original one just had one guy. We really just beefed it up every way we could.

We figured, if we're gonna make this thing, we're not just going to port, get us a little money, and then we'll make the backend again. We sunk all our money into it. We sunk our money into Scribblenauts as well. This is publisher-funded, but the publisher said, "Well, here's this money." And at a certain point we had a couple more months, and decided to just spend money because we wanted to polish it. It's kind of a Valve mentality, like, "We'll get it out when we can." Of course, we don't have 10 years like Valve does to make an episode. [laughs]

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