Why Seattle’s 5th Cell returned to mobile development after console success

It’s possible independent Seattle-based studio 5th Cell knows mobile development better than many mobile developers today, even though the company is most known for its handheld-hit Scribblenauts and its upcoming Xbox Live game, Hybrid.

Originally formed in 2003 to create games for feature phones, the company found success after moving off mobile. But it’s now recently returned with its successful Scribblenauts port Scribblenauts Remix and its all new game Run Roo Run. Inspired by a Chris Jeff’s flash game Space is Key, Run Roo Run started life as an iOS side project developed by 5th Cell’s co-founder and creative director Jeremiah Slaczka but quickly grew into to a full-blown release. The game has been a success for the company, so far peaking at No. 5 on the top paid apps chart and No. 22 on the top grossing apps charts according to our traffic tracking service AppData.

In our interview with Slaczka, he outlines the differences between mobile and console development, and why the time was right for 5th Cell to return to its roots on mobile devices.

Inside Mobile Apps: 5th Cell started making mobile games for feature phones almost a decade ago. How do you think mobile gaming has changed since 2003?

Jeremiah Slaczka, co-founder and creative director, 5th Cell (pictured right): There are few industries that have changed more than mobile gaming has in such a small window of time, in my opinion. 5th Cell has built its reputation on original IP. It’s our most important core value and it’s very close to our hearts.

But when we first started making titles for mobile devices, it was almost impossible to make money on original IP. It wasn’t that customers didn’t want it, it was just impossible to communicate the concept.

When someone wanted to buy a game, basically all the information they would get is a name, and maybe a few words of a description – no screen shots, no videos, no user ratings. Because of this, people tended to download things they recognized, like “Poker” or “Transformers Mobile Game.” Not to mention you had to create controls on a number pad.

Now we’ve got entire marketplaces dedicated to showcasing games and bringing detailed information to the consumer for them to make informed decisions. Is it any surprise that the top 10 titles in the App Store are original IP? I don’t think so.

IMA: You’ve found a lot of success with the Nintendo DS and you’re working on console titles — why the move back into mobile games?

Slaczka: Honestly, we started this as a side project – an experiment, of sorts. We thought that we would be able to easily spin out a game in a week or two with a couple of people working part-time on it.

We learned quickly that we were wrong. We ended up putting quite a few people on the team for this game, working full-time. The game as it is now is the result of months of iteration and a lot of hard work. It’s been a great learning experience.

IMA: As a developer that has had the opportunity to work on both console and mobile development, what are the key differences that you see between the two branches of the industry?

Slaczka: We’ve noticed that mobile development is much more flexible. When you’re working on a mobile title, it’s incredibly easy to change direction in the middle of the project. In the case of a console title, making any change to the original design often takes months of work from many people. For instance, in most (not all) iOS titles, the characters are generally 2D sprites. Changing a sprite takes very little time and effort compared to the alteration of a 3D model.

IMA: Do the different ways a game will monetize on a given platform affect how 5th Cell develops games for DS, mobile or Xbox Live?

Slaczka: Only recently with in-app purchases or freemium games. For the most part a freemium game needs to be built around that concept in order to generate some form of revenue. At the same time, it’s not impossible to turn a traditional game into a freemium game. Look at titles like League of Legends and Heroes of the New Earth. They’ve done a fantastic job of just that

IMA: Which is more lucrative for an independent studio? A hit portable game like Scribblenauts or a hit mobile game? 

Slaczka: In today’s market the trend is to go to mobile because it’s easier to develop and move around in that space with small teams. Mobile gaming was not quite up to spec when we began developing Scribblenauts. Devices at that time wouldn’t have been able to handle the size and spec of the game. If we were just starting the game now, maybe we would have considered mobile as the primary platform – who knows?