Most gamers may not be too familiar with developer 5TH Cell, but it's a name they'll be hearing a lot more about in the future. After releasing such hits as Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS, the Washington-based studio recently put out Scribblenauts Remix for iOS devices and is currently developing Hybrid, a third-person shooter planned for release through Xbox Live Arcade next year.

We recently spoke with 5TH Cell's CEO and creative director Jeremiah Slaczka about what it's like being an independent studio today, if review scores really matter, and if the traditional $60 retail model for games is broken.


Game Informer: So how’s 5TH Cell doing these days? How big is the studio now?

Jeremiah Slaczka: We’re doing really well. Aside from launching Scribblenauts Remix with Warner Brothers last month we’ve been pretty quiet this year; but behind the limelight there’s been a lot going on. We’ve grown to about sixty-five people and recently moved into a much larger space, an entire floor all our own with lots of room to grow. We deliberately grow a bit on the slow side, though. We don’t just hire bodies. Instead we look for talented people who are passionate about what we do.

Project wise we’re still focused on Hybrid for XBLA. We also have some other games in the works we’ll be announcing soon, one of which is a completely new iOS game that is launching in the next month or so.

Can you talk about what it’s like being an independent developer in this current climate? It seems like there’s been a push to be independent recently when only a few years ago it appeared the best way to go was to be bought up.

Well there are different definitions of what an independent developer is. For me “indies” are usually small teams making quirky stuff born out of the love of making games, so getting bought isn’t part of their plan. Other independent developers are looking for the next gold rush like social or mobile gaming through IPO [initial public offering, where a company’s founders sell stock in the firm to make money] or buyout. And then there are more traditional independent dev companies that want to build a business and make games at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with any of those approaches. I just think now all those approaches are possible in this climate, whereas before they just weren’t financially feasible. There wasn’t a space for “indies” to do what they wanted and small startup gold rush companies couldn’t exist in a high budget console era.

For us independence means we get to wake up every morning and do what we love and without anyone else dictating to us how to run our studio or how to make our games their way. The reason we can do this is because we were able to start from nothing and work on smaller projects to build our company and retain control.

If a publisher offered you $500 million to acquire 5TH Cell, would you take it?

If you would have said $50 million I would have easily said no, but wow…$500 million is a lot of money! 5TH Cell isn't currently worth $500 million, so it would be crazy for a publisher or anyone to offer something like that for us. It doesn’t mean we won’t be worth that in the future. One big original IP success and boom, there ya go! We’ve had multiple IP successes. The Scribblenauts franchise alone has generated close to $100,000,000 in gross revenue, so down the line it’s totally possible for a company like us to do really big numbers.

Having run 5TH Cell for over 8 years, I know how hard it is to build a proper team that meshes well; it takes a lot of time and effort and the older you get the less you want to deal with that kind of effort. Startups are such a rollercoaster ride. Anyway, I didn’t get into games for the money; I got into it because I love what I’m doing. 

While 5TH Cell largely has only developed portable games in the past, are you eager to at some point create a big-budget console title? Or is the risk too big these days?

We don't view things as risky or not risky. We just ask ourselves: What do we want to do, and what is the best way to grow to do that? If the answer is a big-budget AAA console game, then let’s do it! If the answer is a giant MMORPG then sure, why not? If it’s a small iPhone game then so be it. For us, there’s no risk because whatever we decide on we’ll be passionate about and pour everything we have into it. It’s exciting to go from quirky original DS game to core shooter to iOS title. You only live here on earth once, right?

At what point do you envision we’ll have all-digital consoles and handhelds? It seems like the popular prediction is that the next console cycle will be the last with physical media.

I share the same view that the next console cycle will be the last to rely heavily on physical media. I’ve been on the digital bandwagon for years. It makes too much sense from a monetary perspective not to do it; especially cloud publishing. For publishers, they have such a huge incentive to end things like used-game sales, retailer middlemen, paying for manufacturing of goods, fighting over limited shelf space and piracy.

If you follow the trends of other similar industries, it's easy to see why people predict this. Music went digital, who buys CDs anymore? iTunes alone is a multi-billion dollar industry. Movies and TV shows are now following music through services like Netflix and Hulu. I doubt physical copies will ever go away completely, but for the vast majority they will become irrelevant. I think the infrastructure for making it happen fully is at least 2 console generations away.

[Next: Do review scores really matter?]