The Hard Cell

5th Cell's Tringali and Slaczka discuss the transition from mobile to handheld, console and beyond

Known for breakout hits Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life on the DS, developer 5th Cell surprised fans when it announced its next project was to be an online action shooter for Xbox Live Arcade, titled Hybrid.

Here, general manager Joseph Tringali and creative director Jeremiah Slaczka discuss that transition - the company's philosophy of pursing the self-financed and self-publishing dream, hiring for life and why it's turned down numerous partnership offers to work on projects that the team love.

Q: So you guys are currently working on Hybrid, how's that project going?

Joseph Tringali: It's the first game that we've been able to self-fund from beginning to end.

Jeremiah Slaczka: We do original stuff and it kind of freaks publishers out when you're doing stuff and they can't really quantify what's going on with milestones and stuff. It was the same thing with Scribblenauts. We self-funded about 70 per cent of it and we knew we had to because publishers, when we pitched it, thought it was impossible. They said 'you can't do this. There are features that take a lot of iteration and tweaking and a publisher would just freak out - 'where's the progress?' We would just tell them 'it will get there, we're fine'. Now with Hybrid we're close, it's getting to a really good stage. But a year ago, who knows...

Joseph Tringali: From a studio perspective we really wanted to build our team. We came from DS development so we had a lot of handheld developers with handheld experience. This being our first console game we really wanted to be sure we took the time to get it right. A lot of time publishers expect you jump right in an hire bodies.

Jeremiah Slaczka: We don't just hire bodies. That's really important for the business. To be able to really vet people and spend the time to find the right people.

Joseph Tringali: And the other part of Hybrid is building a core 3D team so we wanted to get the best and brightest in different disciplines. We wouldn't need as many of them because the game is for XBLA, but to have that core team for future games also.

Q: What's the plan in terms of studio size - what would be the optimum number of employees?

Joseph Tringali: We're now at 65 and we'll probably grow more. We're very much - when we make a hire we make a hire for life. We don't do the hire/fire thing. We don't say, 'we know in our minds we're going to let go of 50 of these people at the end of the project'. We definitely want to make sure that we grow and we're comfortable and we're not taking on projects for the sake of it.

Jeremiah Slaczka: One of the things I'm really proud of it we're about seven and a half years old and we only had our first person leave to go to another game company a couple of months ago. In seven years nobody left to go to another game company.

Q: Has it been a big change going from something like Scribblenauts or Drawn to Life on DS, to a third-person shooter on the Xbox 360?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Sort of. It's actually been easier because a lot of people, talent-wise and educations-wise, are trained in 3D. And we're using the Source engine which is widely known. Whereas with Scribblenauts we had to reinvent everything consistently. Even thought with Hybrid the core is shooting, we can still assess play and see how players handled it. It's been easier in that way.

Q: It's a change of audience, or genre and of format. Has that forced the team to rethink how they work?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Well, we're gamers at heart. We play Xbox games so it's something we're comfortable with.

Joseph Tringali: We chose to do it. At the time we chose to do a DS game because of the budget, the team size. It was the right next step for us, it wasn't because we were hardcore DS gamers and that's all we play. We want to make games for different platforms.

Q: Presumably you've been thinking about Hybrid for a while, when you were working on the DS titles?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Not really, no. Actually, all of our game ideas are pretty unique and new. Scribblenauts, Drawn to Life, Hybrid are all ideas that happen within a few months.

Q: They seem to be developed quite quickly, to come to market quiet quickly - was that something you were consciously doing or have you not had the luxury of spending three years on a game?

Jeremiah Slaczka: We definitely don't want to go to five year development cycles. We've never shipped a game so long in development. A lot of people come to our studio and say they hate that process, they hate being the giant cog in the wheel and they like the fact that these games have a shorter pace. It's an organic process and we're still learning, we don't have a developer background at 5th Cell. We don't really know what's best. We ask people what's best and try to work the best way that we can.

Q: Do you think you might have to work harder to convince an audience to pick up Hybrid in the Xbox market that's never short of third-person action games?

Jeremiah Slaczka: I don't think we'll have to work any harder than the game has to work. If it's fun people will play it, if it's not people won't - that's the bottom line. I'm not huge into hyperbole and all that stuff. The game will sell itself. The one thing that people will look for is 'innovative', that's kind of our moniker. And the game is innovative. It's definitely different to every shoot that's out there, we're not just going to copy Call of Duty or Halo or any of those games.

Q: Was there a reason you went for a downloadable title rather than boxed product?

Joseph Tringali: We wanted to self-fund it and if we wanted to do a self-fund a console game it had to be for the XBLA or PSN market. The team size was good and we wanted to build a core 3D team. Holding the IP was important to.

Jeremiah Slaczka: We want to start small but we want smart growth. We're not hiring bodies and biting off more than we can chew. DS to XBLA makes sense as a next step. Whereas Ds to Xbox 360 might be possible, it's maybe going to be a hard road.

Joseph Tringali: And the bar for XBLA is so much higher than it used to be four years ago. We're seeing a lot of people go to XBLA with games that look like console games. When you break the math down we make far more money on Hybrid on XBLA that we would on a retail game.

Q: Are you also looking to self-publish Hybrid?

Jeremiah Slaczka: It is going to be self-published, no-one is going to publish it, it's just Microsoft distributing it. But what's cool about Hybrid is that - success of failure - we've built a cool team and learnt a lot. So the rest is just gravy. All the core tech, the people and staff we've hired and the processes learned and the new software required - all that stuff that has made a bigger and better team has already happened. Hybrid doing really, really well would just be extra.

Q: You had a lot of success on the DS at a time when others wouldn't touch it, whether because they didn't think they could score a hit without being a Nintendo first-party title, or that piracy was too prevalent. So what was your thinking about the platform and support for it at the time?

Joseph Tringali: It's funny. We would talk to publishers and they would tell us the same thing, 'Nintendo is untouchable, nobody competes with Nintendo, don't even bother with original games'. And we thought, why? Nobody could give us that answer. The only answer would be 'because it's Nintendo'. They have advantages of course but there's no reason why gamers wouldn't buy a game from somebody else that was like a Nintendo game. A lot of ways, in the DS space, we sought to emulate Nintendo and its mass-market appeal. How the art is inoffensive - Nintendogs, Brain Age, everybody plays them. For us, we added our hook to Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life. We cornered the market by saying, 'look, even Nintendo doesn't have what we have'.

Jeremiah Slaczka: And it's done really well. NPD just reported Super Scribblenauts was the best selling third-party IP on DS, and last year Scribblenauts was. We're up there with Nintendo. The market can have multiple winners.

Q: What are your impressions of the 3DS?

Jeremiah Slaczka: I think it's interesting. We've been playing with it at last year's Nintendo conference, it's cool.

Q: Do you think Nintendo will have to ride through initial accusations of 3D being a gimmick, like it faced when it showed two screens and a touch screen for the DS?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Everyone's sceptical about everything, right? But if you look at Nintendo's track record on handheld and they never lost. Why would you ever not bet on them? That doesn't make sense. Every single competitor who's ever gone against them has been crushed. It's not like they barely beat them, they've been crushed. Sony's come the closest and the new thing, the NGP, that looks interesting too.

Q: You guys started the company doing mobile games and grew from there. So where's next?

Jeremiah Slaczka: Maybe console, maybe more digital, maybe more handheld. What's cool right now is where the company's at we have so many opportunities that we can't even capitalise on all of them. A lot of publishers want to work with us, first-parties want to work with us. We're thinking what we can do, but again, it's about not biting off more than we can chew.

Joseph Tringali: We're very much a one/two game studio, we're not going to take on five or six projects and try and do them all. We want to make sure the things we work on is the stuff we're really interested in. It has to be original, it has to be on a platform that we think is going to be commercially viable and it has to be something that people want to work on. We might miss out on a lot of opportunities but it's about what we want to work on.

Q: What do you think to the mobile market now - it's completely different to when you started in it...

Joseph Tringali: In a lot of was when we first started we got into mobile because it was the only way you could get into the industry, because there was no indie games scene, the was no XBLA, there was nothing. You made mobile games and hoped to make enough money to make something bigger. If the iPhone was around when we started we definitely would have been on that. It's a great platform, it solves all the issues that we complained about seven years ago - standardisation of screen size, operators, it was so fragmented.

Jeremiah Slaczka: With mobile it was just a name on a screen, you didn't get reviews, there were no demos. So you just bought The Incredible Hulk The Movie: The Game and hoped for the best. We did okay but they weren't the blockbusters, there wasn't the Harry Potter of mobile. And now all that's changed, it's a much better market, I really like the iPhone market.

Q: Do you think there's opportunities there for a company of your size?

Jeremiah Slaczka: I think there's opportunities but you've got to be careful about riding a whole company on it. Especially as experimentation, you can have just a few people on it. Hybrid's 30-40 people and even DS games are 30 people. Whereas with iPhone you can screw around, iterate, try different things. You're not making tons of money and bank-rolling the whole company but you can still make decent money.

Joseph Tringali is general manager and Jeremiah Slaczka is creative director at 5th Cell. Interview by Matt Martin.

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