Interview: 5th Cell's Slaczka talks about E3 DS hit Scribblenauts

Night thoughts spark wordy DS game

Interview: 5th Cell's Slaczka talks about E3 DS hit Scribblenauts
| Scribblenauts

One of the big hits of E3 2009 - on any platform - was 5th Cell's Scribblenauts.

The DS exclusive, to be published by Warner, is a platformer puzzler with a massive difference. Rather than having you solve levels by manoeuvring a character through a set of obstacles, manipulating the objects within, there are no objects.

Instead, you have to think about how you can solve each level and type in the name of any object that could be used. No timed-button presses or pixel-perfect jumps are required. The object's the thing.

It's a similar approach to the company's previous game series Drawn to Life, in which players created in-game objects by drawing them.

So, in the spirit of the game (which contains no plurals), we typed our "question" into our "computer". 5th Cell's co-founder and creative director Jeremiah 'Miah' Slaczka came back with many "answer".

Pocket Gamer: How much of the concept of Scribblenauts came from your experiences with the Drawn to Life games?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Actually, Lock's Quest [5th Cell's quirky RPG-meets-RTS game] was more of an answer to Drawn to Life than Scribblenauts. After Lock's Quest, I looked at titles like Nintendogs and Brain Age to see what made them tick and how we could create that kind of experience.

From that process Scribblenauts was born from two different ideas I had. One was a writing game where players could write sentences on the bottom screen and on the top screen you watch those words come to life, but it was a tedious idea on paper. People would rather just write keywords.

The other was a dream I had that I thought would make a fun game. You were trapped in a room, and you needed to do something in that room to get out, but you weren't sure what. Maybe you had to clean some dishes, or move a tilted mirror or flip some switches.

I took both of these ideas, combined them in a way which used the DS's key features, and Scribblenauts was born.

The concept behind the game is elegant but the size of the dictionary must have been an early worry. How long did it take before you realised you could pull it off?

The second I told my idea to our technical director Marius Fahlbusch and I saw his eyes light up was when we knew we could pull it off. We self-funded the entire development until we signed with Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, so we weren't turning back.

The process of making Scribblenauts was run very well. We laid everything we wanted early on and just plugged through.

The biggest problem was the game didn't fully show itself off until later in development. Unlike traditional games where you can polish level 1 and show it off and continue to work on the other levels, Scribblenauts level 1 had to allow the user to write anything, and expect it to work properly.

This made showing the game difficult until we had everything hooked up, but E3 was great timing because by then we were just fixing bugs.

I believe you're supporting 12 languages. That must have been a massive task?

Ya. That was the toughest part of the project - making the game and translating it at the same time. We had to build a lot of tech to manage it all. Honestly, I wish games could translate themselves.

What was your approach in terms of creating open yet constrained puzzles to show the potential of the concept?

We wanted to ensure levels were varied and fresh so players didn't develop what we called a 'toolbox', where every puzzle was solved with the same objects. We made sure each level could be beaten in at least three unique ways and divided levels between Action and Puzzle.

Action levels were focused toward gamers while Puzzle levels were aimed at casual players. We knew early on, you couldn't please both groups with one set of puzzles.

How early did ideas such as Ollars and Merit Badges arise?

Ollars and Merits were always a part of the plan. People like being rewarded for their hard work and they enjoy meta incentives: that's game design 101. So it really was a no brainer to add them. Completionists love to collect achievements on Xbox, Merits emulate the same idea. And Ollars are a great way to gate progression in rewarding manner.

A level editor is a clear winner, so how will you be encouraging gamers to use it?

Any time a player beats a level, they unlock it and can modify it by adding their own objects and interactions. Level editing takes a certain type of person to make it really pay off. And yes, Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support will be up and running for players to trade levels worldwide.

How do you think Scribblenauts can compete with the film licenses, pony sims and make-up apps that are now populating the DS market?

Even though the DS has been out for a while, it still has legs, especially with the DSi just being released. Scribblenauts will do fine on its own.

Everyone who's heard about it or played it has been very excited. Drawn to Life did very well as a standalone, original DS-only game, selling over a million units worldwide, and the response to Scribblenauts has absolutely blown us away compared to our previous projects.

Thanks to Miah for his time. Scribblenauts is due to be released sometime in the autumn.