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Head Games

Jeremiah Slaczka, the mind behind this year’s most innovative video game, challenges you to think of something he hasn’t yet. Good luck.

 

t’s five p.m. on a rainy weekday afternoon, and a spirited conversation is under way in an office park not far from downtown Bellevue.

“When was art deco?” asks Jeremiah Slaczka.

Looking out from a cluster of workers relaxing outside one of a dozen cubicles, Slaczka seeks confirmation of his belief that the art deco movement began in the 1920s. The creative director and co-owner of 5th Cell Media is talking video games. His team is trying to determine what era the “Rapture” level of the popular massive multiplayer online game Bioshock is based on. Slaczka believes the answer lies in the architecture.

“Well, the world is based on Atlas Shrugged, the Ayn Rand novel,” says the resident of the nearest cube. “When was that written?”

“1954,” someone offers up.

Punching the title into Wikipedia, another worker says, “1957.”

“And when was art deco?” asks Slaczka again.

“It says here it lasted from 1925 to 1940.”

“Well, that makes sense,” says Slaczka.


Photography by Mike Kane

Welcome to the creative space where Slaczka and his forty employees create imaginary worlds that make sense, inviting millions to think differently about gaming. Like many offices in the area, this space looks a little drab on the surface: with blank walls and rows of gray cubicles lit by fluorescent lights that cast harsh light on whiteboards and office ephemera scattered about high-powered computers. The only thing that sets this space apart is the omnipresence of Maxwell, the cute, headphone-sporting hero of the company’s prized title Scribblenauts. That and Slaczka, the man who literally dreamt up the game that has put this company in the spotlight of the video gaming industry.

“It was originally another idea about letting users write their own stories and have it come to life,” says Joseph M. Tringali, 5th Cell’s general manager and fellow co-owner. “But Jeremiah was concerned because there wasn’t much of a game behind it. So he went home one night and had a dream where he was going through all these rooms, solving puzzles. He combined those two ideas and came up with Scribblenauts. Whatever you write, it comes to life and helps you solve puzzles. Everyone talks about the elevator pitch, but to actually have one that is real and does sell your idea in two sentences is rare.”

The company had already had success with Drawn to Life, a title that, like Scribblenauts, was made for Nintendo’s handheld flip-book gaming system DS. The game, which sold more than a million units, allowed users to draw their own characters and accessories necessary to liberate a village otherwise doomed to darkness. Scribblenauts goes one step further, not only empowering players to create their own reality, but adding a sense of discovery by equipping the game with a vocabulary tens of thousands of words deep that the user taps into while trying to solve puzzles. The very apt catchphrase is “Write Anything, Solve Everything.” Need to rescue a woman in distress? Write “helicopter” and one will show up to fly you and your charge to safety. Need to get a star out of a tree? Write “ladder,” and one will appear. Want to set that ladder on fire? You can. You just have to figure out how. On one level, the game is about problem solving. On another, it is about attempting to stump Slaczka’s game by making a request the creator and his team did not anticipate.

Like any good idea, it sounds simple, but the technology had never been seen before the game’s September release. Users noticed and have led Scribblenauts on a trajectory to surpass its predecessor. The industry noticed too. The company walked away from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo with three Best of Show awards. Never before had a game created for Nintendo DS won even a single Best of Show award. With DS’s very small screen incapable of incorporating flashy visuals and complicated gameplay, the challenge of winning awards and beating out immense, complicated 3-D console games like Halo and Bioshock is herculean. In the end, 5th Cell won not by having the most money or the biggest staff, but by being innovative.

Jeremiah Slaczka does not seem to have an actual desk at 5th Cell. Walking between the cubes of his colleagues, bantering with them at will, the twenty-eight-year-old clearly owns the place. Like an artist confident in his vision, he is a little cocky, though still playful.

“It’s like music or movies or writing,” he says of his creative outlook. “Anyone can be a critic; anyone can break down a game and say, ‘This is why it failed.’ But the artistic side you can’t just make happen. If you are a good writer, you are a good writer; if you are a good movie director, you are a good movie director. Why are people better at some sports than others? It’s talent.”

Slaczka is a talker. A very fast talker. Ask him a simple question easily answerable with a brief reply, and he’ll launch into a stream-of-consciousness dissertation. It is as if his inner dialogue can’t help but escape in a breathless, sometimes muttered string of words. The question, “How does your creative process begin?” barely escapes the questioner’s mouth before the cavalcade of words tumbles forth.

 

“I look at the market leaders to see what the trend is: you know, Nintendogs, Brain Age,” he says, citing two of the most popular Nintendo DS titles. “When a lot of companies see those games, they just decide that they are going to make clones. So they see that Nintendogs does well, so instead of puppies, let’s make a cat version. I take it a little further and say, ‘Why do people like this, why is it popular, why is it selling?’ So then you say, ‘Who is the audience? You have non-gamers, you have female gamers, you have kids. So you say, ‘What appeals to all those people?’ Puppies kind of makes sense. It’s puppies; who hates puppies? So that’s good, that’s a hook. Then you look at Brain Age, and what do people like about that? It’s a challenge, they have math puzzles. Some people will just clone that idea and just say, ‘Hey, here’s a math game.’ Then there are the design aspects. I look at the market and the audience demographics and why these games would appeal to this audience and that’s where the artistic side of it comes in. So now I have the data; now I can plug things in. So, what is everyone interested in?”

Given the frantic pace of his mind, it’s hard to believe that Slaczka can ever sleep long enough to dream. His thoughts keep him pacing the floor of his Bellevue home late into the night, ruminating on an idea. Slaczka’s fertile mind also keeps his workers busy, which doesn’t seem to bother them. The staff of 5th Cell, Slaczka will tell you, is a happy one.

“We haven’t had a single person, in our six years, leave to take a job at another studio,” he says. “Some had kids or moved, but no one has left for any of the bigger offices.” He’s referring to the glitzier digs across the Interstate where Microsoft casts a shadow over his blossoming company, which is quickly growing into a major player in an industry with more than a hundred rival studios in western Washington alone. Each of these studios shares a common goal with 5th Cell: to make a sustained impact on the gaming world. But that is where the similarities end.

The origin of 5th Cell goes back to 1998, when Slaczka and Tringali met on gamedev.net, a gathering spot for developers to discuss the work of creating the games the larger culture was increasingly embracing. Both eighteen, neither had formal training in programming or development. Tringali had just started college; Slaczka had just dropped out of high school. What they did have was a passion for games, as well as a knack for intuitive storytelling. The two decided to go into business as Epix Interactive Studios and develop a game for the Xbox console, the most sophisticated personal gaming device at the time.

“We failed at everything except the idea,” says Tringali. “The idea was cool. At one point we were the third most desired Xbox game, and this was actually before the Xbox came out. It’s a testament to the idea and our PR. We actually had Microsoft contact us and say, ‘Who are you, we’ve never heard of you, why are you saying you are on Xbox when you’re not?’”

The company created a storm of publicity because its goal was to create something that no company, massive or boutique, had created before: a role-playing game where multiple players all inhabit the same virtual play space, connected by an internet connection. Now commonplace, the massive multiplayer online game was uncharted territory for gaming consoles back at the turn of the millennium. It was an idea ahead of its time — so far ahead that the fledgling studio, run by two broke teenagers, could not find any backers.

“We tried to get funding,” says Slaczka. “That didn’t work. That lasted about a year, year and a half. We were dumb kids trying to shoot too high with no experience.”

By the end of 2001, Epix shut down and they went their separate ways. Tringali went on to work for a pair of video game publishing companies, ending up in Hong Kong. Slaczka took odd jobs and began teaching himself screenwriting. The two kept in touch, with the idea of maybe working together again when the time was right. It didn’t take long.

In Hong Kong, Tringali caught wind of the burgeoning culture of video games made for cell phones. The development costs were minimal, and the games were, in relative terms, simple. The equivalent of the Nintendo Entertainment System of the late ’80s, this type of development required, above all else, creativity. Tringali called Slaczka.

“At first I really hated it,” Slackza recalls. “I didn’t want to do mobile games, that’s too easy. But Joe was like, ‘No, no, we’ll build the company out and we’ll get to console again. We did mobile games for a couple years, then did the DS, and now we’re working on our first console game.”

Slaczka is understandably not forthcoming with the particulars of 5th Cell’s first foray into the market that he failed at with Epix Interactive. He is, however, very clear about why this time will be different.

“We learned at mobile how to work with limitations,” Slaczka says as he prepares for his office’s after-work flag football game. “There is a lot you can do with a console, but it has to be marketable; we have to make money. A lot of developers don’t look at the market; they just want to do something cool, which is fine, but you can’t expect to sell a million units. There’s a balance.

“I’ve come up with some good ideas already,” he adds with a grin. “We’re not a one-hit wonder. We’ve proven that.”