5th Cell keeping vision in video games

GDC 2010: Scribblenauts developer talks about staying true to the studio's vision, even when it meant walking away from all the business they had.


Who was there: Caleb Arseneaux, producer at Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life developer 5th Cell, appeared during the Game Developers Conference Mobile and Handheld Summit to give a presentation on his studio's experiences going "From Mobile to Handhelds & Beyond."

Max may not look like much here, but he's representative of 5th Cell's uncompromising vision.
Max may not look like much here, but he's representative of 5th Cell's uncompromising vision.

What they talked about: Just prior to the kickoff of this year's Game Developers Conference, 5th Cell announced its latest project, a DS sequel to last year's hit Scribblenauts. While those enticed by a hinted switch to console development may have been disappointed by the news, there was hope for more details along those lines in Arseneaux's presentation.

Unfortunately, that hope was fleeting. In a 15-minute presentation, Arseneaux didn't talk about any of the company's upcoming projects, let alone a debut on consoles. However, he did refer to 5th Cell as a developer of both handheld and console games. (The studio's Drawn to Life franchise has appeared on the Wii, but it was developed by Planet Moon Studios.)

Arseneaux began his talk with a quick recap of the company's history, starting as a mobile phone game developer in 2003. After a few original mobile titles, Arsenseux said the studio switched to working on licensed mobile games like Full Spectrum Warrior and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in order to make ends meet. Before long, the company was financially reliant on making licensed titles, which stood in stark contrast to its mission statement. The developer's last original mobile game was to be a massively multiplayer online game, but 5th Cell was unable to sell the project, which brought an end to its time as a mobile developer.

Reinventing itself as a handheld developer, 5th Cell created the original intellectual property Drawn to Life for the DS. The gamble paid off, Arseneaux said, with the franchise selling more than 3 million titles to date.

After the success of Drawn to Life, 5th Cell received plenty of offers to make games for children, but it wanted to show that it wasn't just a kid game developer. The result was Lock's Quest for the DS, a mix of tower-defense strategy and action game designed to appeal to core gamers. Having established the breadth of its capabilities, the developer turned to the project that would put it on the map, Scribblenauts.

Over the last seven years, the studio has learned a number of lessons, Arseneaux said, chief among them the importance of vision. He offered advice to developers in the audience, saying that when people in the industry line up to lecture about what can't be done, "the most important thing is to have a vision, something you believe in."

Arseneaux also urged developers not to be afraid of competing. When first-party DS titles dominated the sales charts, 5th Cell didn't shy away from going headfirst into the market. Instead, Arseneaux said 5th Cell designed the game with "marketable innovations" in mind, such as the Scribblenauts mechanic that let players materialize any noun in the gameworld in order to solve puzzles, or Drawn to Life's player-created character art.

Quote: "Once you have good people, you will have a great company."--Arseneaux, on the importance of wise hiring.

Takeaway: One point Arseneaux returned to time and again in his presentation was that developers need to commit to their visions. For example, 5th Cell sacrificed its financially viable mobile development business when it became clear it would not allow the studio to create original games. It also stuck to its vision of handheld game development in the face of conventional wisdom that said original third-party intellectual property couldn't compete on the DS.

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