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Interview: Scribblenauts creative director Jeremiah Slaczka


During E3, word of mouth changed 5TH Cell's Scribblenauts from a promising DS oddity to one of the most highly anticipated upcoming games on any system.

Following this sudden and drastic rise in interest level, we spoke once again to creative director Jeremiah Slaczka, whom we last interviewed when the procedural adventure game was first revealed. Just how well has the world reacted to Scribblenauts' public debut? And who at 5TH Cell is a zombie? Read on!

How many "Best of Show" awards have you racked up so far? How does it feel to perform so favorably against huge, established franchises?

We won three Best of Shows from three major websites, and tons of Best Original and Best DS Game awards. It feels incredible - we're all very humbled to receive such huge praise. A handheld game has never won Best of Show, so no one expected that to happen. It shows people can still be wowed by great concepts which are executed well.

Did you expect the reaction that people had to Scribblenauts at E3? Did you know that letting people try it out would result in such a response?

We've always had positive reactions to the game when we had people playtest it, but I don't think we were ready for the kind of grassroots promotion we got. It's the best kind of marketing: people playing our game and telling others to come play as well - no celebrities, no buckets of cash, just people genuinely having a blast. We had no idea it would explode in popularity this much.

Does it seem like the game has gotten a lot more coverage since the show? How many interviews have you done since E3?

Oh yes, definitely a lot more coverage, but even better, a lot more coverage among forums and friends telling friends to check it out. The hype machine isn't coming from us at all - it's coming from people interested in the game, which is so incredible to us. Things like Post 217 and the god vs. Kraken video had nothing to do with marketing; it was just the game selling itself. We haven't done that many interviews because the E3 ones are still trickling out, but I'll be doing more soon.

Was there ever any talk of highlighting Scribblenauts at Nintendo's E3 keynote? Had there been any talk about the title with Nintendo at all?

There was, but it was just too late on our end to get anything ready in time. I've demoed the title personally to a lot of people at Nintendo and they all have loved it and seem very supportive of Scribblenauts. We'll see where that leads in the next coming months before launch.

Just how many people stumped the game at E3? Were we the only ones to come up with a word that needed to be added?

Not many people did, I remember a journalist friend of mine came by and said, "I'm going to stand here and stump your game for 20 minutes, so leave me alone." And this guy is hardcore even among hardcore gamers. Afterward he had to admit he had a real hard time stumping it and shook my hand. People will always stump the game if they really try, but the fact is there so much in Scribblenauts that stumping the game is only fun for a few minutes. Then people say, "Forget that - I want to play with the objects I'm creating!" – and you can!

How has the game evolved? Did it start off differently than it's ended up?

All our games are very different from their original game design documents. I'm not very document-heavy, and instead I believe deeply in iterative design. The way I work is by laying down the ground work and then as systems need fleshing out you work on the fly, play it, and make adjustments. If issues come up then we just roll with it. I'm not big into rapid prototyping though. I feel that if a mechanic doesn't make sense on paper, then it's not going to make sense in the game. But things can always and will always improve once you play it and you are able to see how you can make it better, and discover things you never thought of during the paper stage. That's iterative design and that's how you make the best games.

How do you make a sequel to Scribblenauts? Are you working on ideas for one?

We're just focused on the original Scribblenauts for the time being, but I have plenty of ideas for a sequel. If you look at Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter (DS) you can see how we don't just do rehashes when we make a sequel. That game was rebuilt from the ground up and it's fantastic. We take sequels very seriously.

Any DSi plans? Adding new words with the camera, for example? Or any other kind of user-created content we haven't heard about?

There are no DSi plans for this game. The DSi came out too late in development, unfortunately.

Can you explain how the creation utility works? You can set custom behaviors for objects in this mode?

The way I usually explain this is that our level editor is the icing on the cake, but it's not the cake. The cake is the normal game. I don't want people overestimating this system. The core of our focus was on the main game, but we felt we wanted to give people a little something extra. Basically, the editor works like this: you can edit any level you've beaten by spawning any obstacle you want, and if you add AI you can assign it properties like "is scared of" or "will attack", or "will consume" to other objects, AI or otherwise. So you can make a bear eat a plane while the pilot is afraid of a fruitcake. It's completely up to you how you make your own levels, and share them with your friends online.

One of our people experienced some touch-screen sensitivity issues. He reported that the game would either fail to register his taps, or he would tap too hard and end up holding an item. Is the interface still being tweaked? Did anyone else at the show run into this problem?

Sometimes DS's need to be recalibrated, so maybe his wasn't? The game wasn't finished at E3, so there's been a lot fixed since then. But unfortunately the DS isn't a powerhouse system so sometimes when a lot is going on, things like that can easily happen.

We didn't try any vulgar language, because we're grownups, but how does the game handle that? Does it just fail to recognize the words?

Yes, it just doesn't understand those words.

You breakdance in the game, and artist Edison Yan appears as a dinosaur in a bandana. Matt Cox told us he hadn't decided what he wanted yet. How do some of the other 5TH Cell staff appear?

One of our designers, Liz, is a zombie version of herself, which looks pretty awesome, but honestly I don't even know half the things that are in our game. It's just too much for a single person to keep track of. I'm continually surprised by what's in there. There are a ton of Easter eggs like the developers, though. I guess you could say the whole game is an Easter egg, huh?

Is there any one item or creature that has proven to be much more useful than others? Or is there anything in there that acts as a "cheat code" -- something deliberately put in the game to solve all kinds of stuff? If not, can we be one?

We've tried very hard to balance the game to ensure there are no uber characters. That way people can have fun experimenting without fearing that they aren't using the best object possible to solve a puzzle.

What's the craziest thing you've seen in the game so far?

This game has a lot of crazy moments. One recent one was that I was flying a helicopter over some enemy soldiers, but I was too close to them and so one decided to hop in the backseat with Maxwell still flying and I was shot in the back of the head. I was like, "Wow, this game keeps on surprising me." It's hard for me to keep playing a game after working on it for so long when you're done with it, but I continue to laugh and have a blast with Scribblenauts and I think that says a lot.

The design for the main character is very cute, but unusual. What exactly is Maxwell wearing? Is it a hat? Does he have headphones on?

Destructoid called it a Rooster Helmet, so I'm going with that. We went through about 20 different designs of Maxwell before we ended up with what we have today. And yes those are headphones, he's probably written those.

Do you know if there's a deal in the works with Prima or someone to make a strategy guide? If so, how exactly would you make a strategy guide for this game?

We'll see, it's a good idea though.

How do you beat the leprechaun? Seriously, just spoil it for us. It's been driving us crazy.

*laughs* Just think outside the box! Don't give up after you've only tried a few things. You really have to use your brain on some of the puzzles, but that's the point right? It'll come to you. I promise.

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