Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scribblenauts: Accomplishment and potential

Although Scribblenauts is a terrifically fun and shockingly innovative game, its concept is even more compelling than its gameplay. Scribblenauts is a new game for the Nintendo DS in which you solve puzzles by summoning and using items. If your goal is encased in a block of ice, you could break the ice with a hammer, melt it with a flamethrower, or detonate it with a grenade. The game's hook is that you can summon almost any item imaginable.

Hidden machinery

Of course, the game is phenomenal, but the technology behind it is even more impressive. 5th Cell, the developers of Scribblenauts, managed to cram tens of thousands of interactive, animated characters and items on a tiny DS cartridge. On top of the actual pictures, they programmed in complex interactions between the items. For example, a toaster will turn bread into toast; monsters scare and attack people; cops shoot criminals and chase donuts; and beavers gnaw down trees. This game's backend is completely unprecedented.

Unlimited Possibilities

Imagine if the contents of the Scribblenauts asset database were accessible to all game developers. Designing a traditional game would be a breeze: lay out a level, populate it with items and characters, and show the player an objective. However, giving developers (and players) instantaneous access to a massive library of items would create entirely new gaming possibilities. An RPG could allow players to equip their teams with typical household items with different strengths and weaknesses. A point-and-click adventure could use the sprites and interactions to let the player pick up literally any item in a room and use it in the game. A platformer could use the vast selection of items and characters to make each level a unique experience. A universal resource database could fundamentally change process of creating and playing games.

Making the concept a reality

Thinking about the possibilities if the Scribblenauts database was open is entertaining but unproductive. In order to give developers and users the power of instant item creation, steps must be taken.

  1. A lightweight format for interactively animated sprites must be established. Whether it's a particular arrangement of sprites on a sheet or an XML dialect for defining how a character's parts fit together and interact, there must be a standard for people to follow.
  2. A central database must be created to systematically store and retrieve the standardized sprites. It must be easy for people to contribute, but impossible for someone to damage or corrupt. The sprites and their interactions must be version-controlled.
  3. Developers must have access to the database from their games. Web-based technologies could access the database directly, but pc-based games should be able to use a copy of the database. It could be optimized and compressed, or developers could simply "check out" the portion of the database they intend to use. Perhaps, when a game using the entire database is started, it could check to see if any new items have been added to the database.


The game Scribblenauts is an enormous accomplishment, but it could be so much more. The technology behind Scribblenauts could revolutionize the resource management of game development, tearing down barriers for both designers and developers to create experiences. Nevertheless, in order for that to happen, 5th Cell must release the Scribblenauts' resource database for non-commercial use, or the independent developer community must unite to create their own asset database.

If you'd like to support the developers of Scribblenauts (and me), you can buy Scribblenauts for yourself.