Like clockwork, as blasts of red and orange signal the arrival of fall, independent developer 5th Cell releases a Scribblenauts game. Series protagonist Maxwell and his magic notebook (where he thinks up objects and uses them to solve puzzles) are becoming holiday staples, even if they don't attract the attention of Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. 5th Cell has released a Scribblenauts in September or October for the past three years, and there's only one reason the fourth game in the series is coming out a tad later this year, on November 13th: It's a launch title for Nintendo's Wii U.
For 5th Cell, this is new. Though the studio has been developing games for nearly 10 years, Scribblenauts Unlimited represents a trio of intimidating milestones. It's the first launch title 5th Cell has created, meaning it's the first time it's dealt with the headaches and unknowns of pre-release hardware. It's 5th Cell's first major console release, in fact: the developer has never shipped a game on a disc. Scariest of all, Scribblenauts Unlimited isn't just a Wii U game — it's launching simultaneously on Wii U and 3DS and hitting PC a mere week later.
Listening to Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka describe the development process, though, those milestones sound more exciting than frightening. And if the Wii U hadn't come along, Scribblenauts Unlimited may have been a dramatically different game. If it existed at all.
"We were actually, I think, the first North American developers to see the Wii U," begins Slaczka, as he lays out the history of Unlimited's development over the phone. "We're very close to Nintendo and we've done very well on their platform, so they came by and showed us a prototype of the Wii U and said 'What do you think about it?'"
Nintendo timed its visit well: 5th Cell was already developing a Scribblenauts game for Wii, trying to translate the DS game's stylus-based writing into something that worked well with a Wii Remote. The studio spent nearly a year on the game, grappling with the challenge of a pointer-friendly keyboard, before the Wii U came along. The arrival of the GamePad was a stroke of luck.
"We'd done a lot of prototype ideas ... and then the GamePad came out and we're like 'Well, we should just go with this instead; this makes a lot more sense,'" explains Slaczka. "[Our publisher] Warner Bros. saw it a couple weeks later or something like that, and agreed, and we just moved forward and started working on the game itself."
When 5th Cell first laid eyes on the GamePad, it wasn't functional hardware. It was a carved, wooden mockup that Nintendo used to convey the gist of the tablet/controller hybrid. An October 2012 installment of Nintendo's Iwata Asks series revealed that Nintendo R&D used 3D printers to prototype different designs for the GamePad and hand-carved those models to nail down its form-factor.
The team at 5th Cell, wearing matching Scribblenauts hats
Nintendo's Wii U and GamePad, on sale November 18th
Early Scribblenauts concept art from 2008, before anyone on the development team had any idea that Wii U would one day exist The final version of Scribblenauts Unlimited, running on Wii U
Even when Nintendo sent 5th Cell dev kits, about a year before launch, the hardware had plenty of revisions left to go. But Slaczka is cavalier as he talks about Unlimited's development on unfamiliar hardware.
"Things would break," he says. "That's just the nature of the beast ... [but] we were like 'OK, well, this broke this but we knew it was going to break; we got a heads up early on.' It was pretty par for the course I guess."
"There were times really early on with the dev kits where things would be running at like 10 frames per second. We eventually got it up to 60."
There were no huge roadblocks, no catastrophes. Even crunch time was merciful: 5th Cell lists a "limited crunch philosophy" on its website, and Slaczka says the dev team stuck to that on Unlimited by staggering the delivery dates of the PC, 3DS and Wii U versions.
"What was really cool was [Nintendo] was shipping ... new kinds of dev kits — alpha, beta, different versions," Slaczka recalls excitedly. "Nintendo kept on shipping them over and we'd send back the older ones constantly ... They'd send their SDK and try to be as heads up as possible and be like 'this stuff's really early; it could change a lot.' There were times really early on with the dev kits where things would be running at like 10 frames per second. We eventually got it up to 60 frames per second. That just took a lot of time and effort and learning the Wii U's APIs and SDK and stuff like that."
Working with Nintendo
The Scribblenauts Facebook page teased the Nintendo characters (above) before revealing the news (below).
5th Cell enjoys a close relationship with Nintendo — as Slaczka happily points out, it's one of the rare western developers that's laid its hands on Nintendo's intellectual property. As was recently announced, the Wii U version of Unlimited features characters and objects from both the Mario and Zelda series, an idea 5th Cell thought up and proposed to Nintendo of America just before E3 2012.
The proposal made its way back to Japan for approval, and Nintendo icon Shigeru Miyamoto even gave some input about how the characters should be implemented. "Once the ball started rolling it only took a couple months," Slaczka says. "For business standards, it was pretty fast ... We wanted a lot more IP, like Donkey Kong or Metroid or even Pokémon — Pokémon's huge, right? — but it was just about timing. We just didn't have a ton of development time to get everything done and shipped."
As it stands, the characters are only in the Wii U release — the 3DS version was also a timing victim, making its way onto cartridges before the developers could add in the characters.
Slaczka says 5th Cell's relationship with Nintendo shows that the company is making an effort to reach out to western studios and third parties, which have generally struggled to sell games when pitted against Nintendo's own software. With Wii U, Nintendo offers the processing power to support multiplatform ports — but that doesn't guarantee the new console will be easy to develop for.
Every game console has its quirks. Some, like the Sega Saturn and PlayStation 2, were notorious for their complexity. A programmer — whose Reddit post about coding for different game consoles went viral earlier this year — begins his description of the PS2 with this: "You are handed a 10-inch thick stack of manuals written by Japanese hardware engineers. The first time you read the stack, nothing makes any sense at all."
"Once the ball started rolling it only took a couple months. For business standards, it was pretty fast."
While Wii introduced motion controls unlike anything console developers had worked with, the CPU and GPU were essentially souped-up versions of the GameCube's Gekko and Flipper (hence the long-lived "two GameCubes duct-taped together" meme). Wii U is a different story. Nintendo has overhauled its online platform with Nintendo Network, the console runs on a new multi-core processor, and its ability to stream low-latency data to the GamePad represents a change in technology. These are all good things, but it's easy to envision a steep learning curve (and maybe a 10-inch stack of impenetrable manuals) attached to Wii U development.
Thankfully — at least from 5th Cell's perspective — that isn't the case.
"Our programmers have talked about, from DS to 3DS [to Wii U], it's definitely gotten better," says Slaczka. "Nintendo has continually focused their SDK to be more user intuitive. A lot less proprietary stuff, a lot more stuff that everybody knows already. So it's not relearning stuff. Of Nintendo stuff, I would say it's definitely the best they've done, I've heard from programmers."
"[Nintendo was] really open. They did have their own infrastructure, but we couldn't really use it just because [of timing]. Had we had more time to do it, then we absolutely would've been able to work with the Miiverse."
The same holds true for online. "I definitely saw a policy change," Slaczka remarks. "They're definitely much more interested in, uh, not the friends codes, not [being] as friends code-heavy anymore. They kind of realized and understand online is very very important for a console."
Starting with Wii U, Nintendo Network will support Network IDs (using letters!) in place of the universally hated friend codes. The heavily moderated Miiverse will serve as a social network for Wii and 3DS owners, but Nintendo isn't forcing developers to work within the Miiverse framework. Scribblenauts Unlimited allows objects to be shared online, but in order to finish the game on time 5th Cell had to skip out on Miiverse integration.
"[Nintendo was] really open," says Slaczka. "They did have their own infrastructure, but we couldn't really use it just because ... they didn't even have final stuff for a long time, and we were like 'well we gotta be a launch title; we gotta ship.' ... They didn't have any problem with us doing our own thing ... Had we had more time to do it, then we absolutely would've been able to work with the Miiverse."
5th Cell sent over a series of images showing the evolution of a Scribblenauts Unlimited stage, starting with a sketch ...
... continuing to a mock-up of what it should look like ...
... then a rough prototype ...
... and finally the finished product.
Building bigger, building better
Even without a society of Miis built into Unlimited, Nintendo's new console empowered 5th Cell to expand upon the base of nouns and adjectives established in Super Scribblenauts.
"We really re-jiggered and redesigned the entire flow of the game design," says Slaczka, moving from his relationship with Nintendo to the evolution of Unlimited. In the original games, "there was this kind of title screen that's open world and you can do whatever you want. Then you go into the game and play the individual levels and you get Starites for that. In Scribblenauts Unlimited we basically said 'let's just smash those together so every level is its own playground.'"
Slaczka says the logical "next level" for Scribblenauts was letting players create objects, which meant exposing the company's internal development tools to players.
One of the problems with the first game, 5th Cell discovered, was that people would take the path of least resistance, write "rope and helicopter and gun" and solve each level the same way. Part of that change stemmed from a desire to balance open-ended gameplay and focused puzzle design. But technology also played a role.
Slaczka says the logical "next level" for Scribblenauts was letting players create objects, which meant exposing the company's internal development tools to players. "You were getting close to that with 'zombie petrified pregnant flying helicopter' in the second game; people got a kick out of that," he says, laughing. "We [decided to] give them the tools that we use in-house, [and tweak them so they make] sense on the GamePad, because we use tools that are not super intuitive to the game player."
The GamePad and stylus were key to making Objectnaut, 5th Cell's Scribblenauts engine, accessible to everyone. With controls established, the next step was making the user interface as simple as possible — breaking objects up into categories and using large icons to represent size, color, orientation and so on.
Even with the addition of the object editor, a switch to HD graphics (which required new background art and retouching of the vector object art from Scribblenauts Remix) and a multiplatform release, 5th Cell managed to complete Unlimited with a development team of 30-40 people.
The studio has shipped its first launch title, and made it look easy. That bodes well for the accessibility of Nintendo's new console, but it also makes 5th Cell's next move harder to predict. The Wii U release fulfills the vision of a console Scribblenauts Slaczka and the rest of the Scribblenauts team have been building on for the past two years. But where is there left to go once you've put "Unlimited" in your title?