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Originally published September 3, 2009 at 12:15 AM | Page modified October 20, 2009 at 1:46 PM

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Game studio 5th Cell creates imaginative fun

It's hard to say what's more fun — the new "Scribblenauts" game for the Nintendo DS, or the Cinderella story of 5th Cell, the Bellevue studio that created the game.

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

PAX attack

A THREE-DAY extravaganza billed

as North America's largest game festival

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Washington State Convention & Trade Center

Attendance: More than 60,000 expected; sold out

On the agenda: Attendees will see and play the latest tabletop, console and computer games displayed by manufacturers, publishers and game studios.

That's big: A convention-center official said PAX may now be the largest event hosted by the facility, eclipsing the Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Origin: PAX was started here in 2004 by Jerry "Tycho" Holkins and Mike "Gabe" Krahulik, creators of the Penny Arcade comic book.

In the future: A Boston PAX edition is set for March, as well as the 2010 PAX in Seattle. More details are at www.paxsite.com.

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It's hard to say what's more fun — the new "Scribblenauts" game for the Nintendo DS, or the Cinderella story of 5th Cell, the Bellevue studio that created the game.

The studio — started on a shoestring by a pair of teenage gamers — swept the industry's Oscars in June, establishing 5th Cell as a serious player in the industry and the Seattle area's game-development community.

"Scribblenauts" is a wild game in which players work through a series of puzzles by making up the game as they go along. To help the character acquire objects, players write whatever object they think of on the screen, and the objects appear and become part of the game.

To get an object high on a tree, for instance, you could write "elephant" and "trampoline" and bounce up to grab the item, or "chain saw" to cut it down.

The game draws on a library of tens of thousands of objects, but what makes it stand out is that it requires players to use their imagination, instead of playing through someone else's imaginary world.

"The concept is just so crazy — no game has ever done that before, where you can write literally anything," said 5th Cell Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka, who started the company with a guy he met online, after dropping out of high school.

Expect to hear more from 5th Cell in coming weeks.

Slaczka is speaking today at a Washington Interactive Network luncheon in Bellevue, where the trade group will release an economic study that found hiring grew 14 percent per year from 2006 to 2008 at established game companies in the state.

A 2007 study by the group found the state had 150 game companies with 15,000 employees and $4.2 billion in annual sales.

"Scribblenauts," which goes on sale Sept. 15, will be highlighted by publisher Warner Bros. at the sold-out PAX game show this weekend at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in Seattle.

It already has a wall full of awards after being showcased at June's E3 conference, including the E3 Game Critics' "best original game" and "best handheld game," and "best of show" awards from industry publications IGN, GameSpy and GameSpot.

"Despite having the outward appearance of your typical puzzle-platformer, 'Scribblenauts' is actually innovation in a box," IGN's Jeremy Dunham wrote in the critics' award citation.

He continued: "Need to kill a horde of zombies? Type in the word shotgun, bat, plunger, machine-gun, or any number of other items, and it will appear in game — ready for you to use just the way you intended. The best part of 'Scribblenauts,' though, is that it's interesting, amazing and original, and also a heck of a lot of fun."

Not bad for a tiny studio that's never had to take outside investment.

The studio began a decade ago, when two high-schoolers, in Chicago and Delaware, met on the Gamedev.net bulletin board.

Slaczka, 28, and Joseph Tringali, 27, dreamed of making games but had no experience or money and hadn't even met each other in person.

But they stayed in touch, even after Slaczka moved with his family to Bellevue and tried writing screenplays. (The name 5th Cell is from one of his stories.)

Tringali went on to college, then game companies in North Carolina and Hong Kong, but kept his eyes out for opportunities to start a company with Slaczka.

It got serious in the summer of 2003, when Slaczka received an e-mail from Tringali.

"He e-mailed me this guy's résumé one day and said, 'What do you think?' " Slazcka said. "I was like, 'What do I think about what?' "

They managed to start hiring, offering equity and future royalties to employees.

Their original goal was to produce ambitious online console games, but nobody would fund them. So they started smaller, building relatively simple games for mobile phones, working with co-founders they met online in Germany and Australia, Marius Fahlbusch and Brett Caird.

The next year they went to the E3 show, the first time all four had met in person, and pitched their first three games to publishers. THQ signed for all three, and Bellevue-based Jamdat hired them to build a game tied to the "Lemony Snicket" movie.

"We were like, 'Oh, crap, we've got to set up a company now,' " Slaczka recalled.

Tringali moved to Seattle and they rented an office in Factoria and started building the business. It went fine until the market for mobile-phone games dried up, and they had to lay off everyone in late 2005 but an intern.

"We were like, 'What are we doing? This isn't what we signed up to do,' " Tringali said.

Drawing on their original goal of making console games, the founders decided to try moving from phones to the DS handheld. Slaczka came up with a "Mario"-like game in which players draw characters who come to life in the game.

Technical director Fahlbusch — who was still in college in Germany — basically hacked the DS to build a demo version. But Nintendo rejected their request to become licensed developers.

Instead of giving up, they kept working on the game and produced a video with the game set to music and e-mailed it to Nintendo nine months later.

Nintendo relented, and 5th Cell used its remaining mobile royalties to hire interns from Redmond's DigiPen game-development school to finish "Drawn to Life."

THQ agreed to publish the title, which sold a million copies and funded what's now a 34-person studio putting the finishing touches on "Scribblenauts" and aiming to release games for the Wii and Xbox Live in the next year or two.

The key has been to create, not imitate, Slaczka said. (Not to mention persistence and a few lucky breaks.)

"We want to make our own way," he said. "We don't want to follow."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

This story, published Sept. 3, 2009, and corrected Oct. 20, 2009, incorrectly named Gamedev.net. We regret the error.

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