Ask a Game Developer Anything: Your Excellent Questions Answered.

Jeremiah Slaczka, Creative Director, 5TH Cell

Hey Kotaku readers, I'm back at it again this month. Apparently things went well enough last month that Kotaku decided to keep me going… Well either that or they just forgot to revoke my press badge. Anyway, sorry if I'm a little late, my wife and I had a daughter this month! Our very first child.


To give you a quick recap, I'm the CEO and Creative Director at 5TH Cell; we're the people behind games like Scribblenauts, Run Roo Run and our newest upcoming IP: Hybrid for XBLA.

You have questions about what it's like inside the game industry, making games, working with publishers and hopefully I can give you answers. Got it? Ok good. We got a lot of great questions from the readers this month so let's get right to ‘em!

AttorneyAtMusic asked "As a director, if someone on your team has an idea to throw in, how easily can they make that become a reality in the grand scheme of the project? How often does this happen?"


Well it largely depends on the studio and the team itself. It's funny how vastly different game development is from studio to studio. At 5TH Cell we have an open door policy in regards to new ideas within a project. This means we encourage any employee to go to the owners or any leads with feedback on the project or on the company itself. It doesn't mean we'll necessarily act on the feedback, but the option is always there for people to speak their mind.


About the Author Best known for his multi-million unit selling franchises, Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life, Jeremiah focuses on creation of innovative new titles. His latest project, Hybrid, is due out this summer on XBLA.

We've implemented all kinds of changes to both our games and the studio due to constructive employee feedback. From changes in our development pipeline (how, say, art assets go from the artists to inside the game) to work hours, vacation policy or even dress code and a bunch of other things.


When it comes to the game itself, usually the idea has to fit within the game's scope, key features, our schedule and budget. Sometimes the idea is good, but doesn't fit well for a number of reasons. For example, someone could come up and say "Hey, Scribblenauts should be a seamless world". That's a good idea, but on the DS that just wasn't technically possible. So we just couldn't have done it.

Rio-GT along with zsakul2 and Classic example of our failed educational system (Yes that's his commenter name) questioned "As a developer, once you've poured so much love and attention into building the perfect game; can you, after having shipped said game, enjoy playing it just as much as you enjoyed making it? Or when it's shipped do you take a sigh of relief and forget about it, knowing you don't need to worry about it anymore?"


This really depends on what you worked on for the game. On larger projects, you might spend most of your time on a smaller subset of the actual game, so playing from start to finish might still be a fresh experience. I think most developers do play through the games they make, but it's not the same as picking up another developer's title, and experiencing the magic of a new experience.

I learned a valuable lesson of quality over quantity. It's better to have a game with a few great hours than lots of mediocre hours.


But I'll tell you what, you know you've made something special when you're working on something for years and it's still fun to play. Scribblenauts always has some fresh new pairing you can mess around with and Hybrid has been in development for almost 2.5 years and we still have tons of fun playing it and owning each other.

Dasyat asked "Have you ever had to sacrifice a feature you REALLY, REALLY didn't want to give up to keep a game in budget or meet a deadline?"


Every single game. You're never truly satisfied with your work. As a programmer you could always have done something cleaner or more robust given the time, as an artist it could always make something look cooler and as a designer you could always come up with a ton of extra features that would make the game that much more awesome.

In Scribblenauts I really wanted adjectives, it was a really cool idea. But we decided against it simply because it took 10 months out of the 13 month schedule to get the basic idea of getting objects to interact with each other. We just couldn't fit it in time, so that feature came out in the sequel. Time is always a giant thorn in your side for game development. The original Scribblenauts levels—all 220—were built in the last 2 months because the objects didn't work until then. I learned a valuable lesson of quality over quantity. It's better to have a game with a few great hours than lots of mediocre hours.


LordThayer writes "How many ideas have you had to abandon or drastically change because someone beat you to the punch? A situation I'm sure dozens of commenters here have experienced."

Great question! It happens all the time. But you shouldn't get bent out of shape if it does happen to you because you can just come up with something different. That's the amazing part about ideas; you can be inspired and come up with a new idea all the time… for free! And if you can't come up with something else, because you've only ever had one good idea, and someone else beat you too it, well maybe being the game designer isn't your thing. But there are plenty of other jobs in the industry that are creative and just as fulfilling.


With medium sized companies onward, the price of development rises to a point that Kickstarter doesn't really make a dent in the total development budget.

bbilbo1 questions "If you had the power to remove one trope/cliché from the entirety of the Video Game industry, what would it be?"


You know what's a stupid overlooked trope? Female breastplates that look like bras. You know why it's stupid? Not only is it crass but it actually helps direct the arrow or sword toward the middle of their chest into, you know, where your heart is, instead of deflecting the pointy object away to the sides like a normal breastplate would.

cowmilk9 wrote "Have you ever had to deal with multiple projects at any one time, and if so, what sort of priorities were put in place to make sure those projects were done on time? I know it's sort of a specific question, but I basically just want to know how your team deals with multiple projects at once."


Managing multiple projects is extremely difficult, especially if the development schedules and scope for both projects are similar. There are a lot of time consuming tasks that can't be shared across projects, specific resources, leaders, and sometimes your best talent needs to be focused completely on one title.

For example, with my role as a director, it's impossible to have a daily interaction with the people working on a project if you have to manage more than one. Another big issue is trying to maintain a company culture alongside the culture that develops on individual projects. Sharing resources between projects can be difficult, often a decision to help one project will impact the second project in a negative way.


Finally, if you have multiple external partners, there is dealing with the different cultures of the publishing partners.

It's very hard and only a few studios choose to tackle multiple projects of significance, and even less do it successfully. I wouldn't say that we're 100% successful either, but we keep on trying to listen to our employees and change for the better. Each project we do improves upon the last one.


romanmaroni "If you had a Kickstarter campaign, what kind of game would you seek to make with it?"

I haven't thought about it really and I'll tell you why… I think Kickstarter is a truly wonderful new alternative funding model for smaller companies, but with medium sized companies onward, the price of development rises to a point that Kickstarter doesn't really make a dent in the total development budget.


Even Tim Schafer's company can't be fully funded on the Kickstarter campaign alone. They have over 60 people, if you assume the average employee costs about $10,000 a month or more (this includes benefits and overheads), that 3 million dollars would only keep their studio afloat for about half a year. And they were only originally asking for $300,000. It would have been a very small project indeed. Of course they could have multiple projects going on to help offset the cost, but like I said above managing multiple projects is very tough. The fewer projects you have the less you are spread thin.

Many new designers think in terms of story or characters or specific scenes. But remember a game is about the moment-to-moment gameplay first!


Don't get me wrong, I welcome alternative funding models and I'm also very happy to see so many classic games and teams getting a second chance, but I'm not sure whether or not Kickstarter would be right for everyone, including 5TH Cell.

SteamPunkJin askes "What do you find is the best approach for starting a new project? Do you think about the story (or characters or style etc.) you want to get across or do you worry about mechanics and gameplay first?"


Everyone's method is different and so is every game. For me I think of a "hook", something that you can get excited about really quick. Sometimes that hook could be the story or art direction, but usually it's a gameplay mechanic.

Gameplay is a lot harder to prove than art or story because it requires play testing and actual code work to prove it out. Many new designers think in terms of story or characters or specific scenes. But remember a game is about the moment-to-moment gameplay first! If you're much more interested in writing stories or fleshing out characters try writing a book or a screenplay.


Roth of Kotaku's TAY fame questioned How do you pronounce "xyzzy"?

It sounds like success to me. I find that rolling your tongue helps a lot.

That's it for this month's Ask a Developer Anything. Keep those great questions coming. See you next month Kotaku!

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