If you knew a little something about which people make which video games, the trailer for a game called Hybrid released earlier this month seemed strange.
Hyrbid appears to be a shooter game, set maybe in the near future? Looks gritty and is coming to that game console full of shooters, the Xbox 360.
But the game's creators are a team called 5th Cell.
They're the people who brought us Scribblenauts and Drawn To Life and Lock's Quest — games that don't look gritty, games that have cartoony graphics, run on the Nintendo DS and are about kid-friendly things like drawing your own world-saving hero or conjuring any noun you can think of into a virtual object that helps you solve a puzzle.
Hybrid does not look like a 5th Cell game.
"I think people like to put things in their boxes," the studio's creative director Jeremiah Slaczka said in an e-mail interview with Kotaku. "[They believe]5th Cell's box is quirky, 2D handheld games. But that's not all there is to us. We like trying new things, expanding and pushing ourselves continually to try different ideas."
Many game designers preach the value of innovation. Some, including 5th Cell, have been able to deliver. When Slaczka says, as he did to me, that "all of our games are unique," he's right. (Well, Super Scribblenauts isn't that different from Scribblenauts, but you get the idea).
With Hybrid, a game targeted for Xbox Live Arcade in 2011, however, Slaczka's studio finds itself at a new junction, one where gamer expectations intersect with gamer anxieties. What Slaczka considers to be 5th Cell's "new thing" appears to some people as a very old, tired thing. That Hybrid trailer shows a shooter, a popular but arguably over-played genre of games. In some quarters, that's the kind of game that gets as much praise as it gets backlash. Wait, these guys who made these other innovative games are doing a cover-based shooter too?
"Have any of our games been just another clone of something else?" Slaczka replied.
"Sure, at its core it's a shooter, but it's a shooter no one has ever tried before. I've always wanted to try my hand at the competitive shooter genre. I grew up on them, and many people in our company did as well. XBLA is a perfect market to give it a try; the budgets are lower risk, but the audience is still there."
We still don't know how Hybrid will play. 5th Cell is holding that back a little longer. So we're in the trusting phase now, the phase where we have to weigh past performance with future potential. 5th Cell is in pretty good shape there. As successful as Scribblenauts, a million-seller and critical darling was, Slaczka says the studio's Drawn To Life sold even more copies. Publishers are more receptive to 5th Cell now, developers ask 5th Cell to share their Scribblenauts programming secrets with them. So, yes, they've earned confidence just as much as they've earned, with Hybrid, some quizzical stares.
Slaczka knows his team threw gamers for a loop with that Hybrid trailer. "People's reactions are wonderful. They're intrigued, curious, even a bit confused, asking things like why isn't 5th Cell in its box where I left it? Why is everything I know about them upside down? Given our background, most fans believe we'll offer an original take on the genre. Of course we will. If you want to be an innovator, that's how you do it. You constantly change things up."
What's Hybrid? It's a 5th Cell game. Now or in the future, if the studio can keep their streak alive, that will be all you ever needed to know.