In The Shadow of Octodad
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
“Caring Father. Loving Husband. Secret Octopus.” The catch phrase that has helped an Octopus father and a corral of Young Horses come into their own and take on the world. From mere students to full time heartthrob game developers; Many might not realize the shadow that was cast behind when they left the student scene.
The DePaul Gaming Experience, most of us DePaul Game Development students just called it, DGE for short. This experience for DePaul’s game dev program is designed with the intent of entering student made games into the Independent Games Festival. Students from all concentrations are interviewed by professors at the University with the same goal as any studio does: They are looking for the best of the best, the most outgoing, and most passionate developers.
The process takes about 6 months and teams range between 16-20. For a 6 month project. That is a lot of people. There have been 4 DGE’s to date all ranging in success and failure. Devil’s Tuning Fork was the result of DGE 1 and got nominated as a student finalist. Octodad was the result of DGE 2 and was also a student nominee. Mack Vs Windows was the 3rd, and Groovy Tuesday was the 4th iteration. Both of which were not mentioned.
For Devil’s Tuning Fork, the bar was set for DGE 2. DGE 2 then set the bar even higher with Octodad. DGE 3 and 4 came about and with the attention, support, and cult fanbase Octodad had, we were driven mad by our professors. A madness that isn’t far off from the very generalized, “Publisher forcing you to do something instead of the creative thing” problem.
If you have never played Octodad or only just seen a video of it being played, you might think it just a physics sandbox. That isn’t totally untrue, but it isn’t true; not one bit.
Octodad is one of the most special games to come out in a game dev world full of battlefields, honor, and duty. A world full of realism and obnoxious graphics standards that have forgotten about how those graphics standards can actually bring about the beauty of color, humor, and intrigue. I am a fan, as are many DePaul Game Dev folk. What is talked about underground is how much we kinda hate it.
Imagine you are a year two at university and you are expected to make the next Octodad/create something better. I can imagine the students who made the first Octodad said something similar when they were expected to follow up DTF. But Octodad didn’t just get successful and die in the pit of all the other student made games; it thrived and is now a defining title for PS4. Those folks worked their asses off to get where they are and who can’t commend them for defying adversity and real world hardship.
But man oh man. The 8 legged shadow in a 3 piece suit is still covering DePaul game dev program after all these years. After all the iterations of DGE, the shadow of Octodad’s success still darkens up student developers days.
I was apart of DGE 4 and we made a game called Groovy Tuesday. Ever heard of it? Probably not. It’s ok. It’s for good reason: the game kinda stunk. I did a personal post mortem of the project a long while back and was very critical on it, as I still am on current projects.
As I post mortemed DGE 4, I had many thoughts: Why did I do that? Why did I even say that? Why did I let these people down? How can I better myself for my next game? What really went wrong during development? These thoughts and many others raced in my head. The one thing that kinda stuck with me and still sticks to me this day, is the push from professors to be the next Octodad.
Of course all of us knew Octodad, some of the developers, and how much press it got. I saw it on X-Play under Morgan Web’s favorite little games segment. G4 was talking about this game...
HOW THE FUDGE CRACKERS ARE WE SUPPOSED TO FOLLOW THAT UP?
DGE is always guided by professors; professors who are experienced in all aspects game dev, are much wiser, and know just what the hell they are talking about. Most are vets of the industry and have experience dealing with large teams on one project.
Why am I mentioning this?
During the first month and a half of the 6 month process, we would meet for hours at our tech campus and discuss the game we were going to make. Pitch after Pitch after Pitch after Pitch was thrown out to make room for the eventual “Innovation,” that just never came. For DGE 4, we were told to think of an innovative mechanic, something that pushed the norms of current game development. Not a bad idea when IGF is all about awarding the most creative and fun games and their developers. It’s also not a good idea to shoot down most ideas in the hopes of, Catching Fire if you will.
We had alot of pitches for projects. We had anything from Crysis with physical handicaps, to growing plants, to sumo wrestling cities. As fun as all of those sound, our professors told us to keep going. This was mainly because when you pitch any game, it’s gonna be a cross between this game and that game and if this or that game has been done alot; people won’t like the idea of another one that sounds so similar but WITH A TWIST. This is VERY true when aiming for the IGF.
Many fun ideas came out of iterative process but by the end of it, we were all super brain dead and we chose to venture into a genre of games we were straight up Unqualified to construct. I don’t represent everyone on the team, but the game we made was an Audio Heavy one. We only had two Audio Designers (one of which left mid process) (but we lucked out during the end with another very wonderful Audio Designer) and a couple very knowledgeable programmers who knew the technical side of audio.
The professors that helped guide us, squeezed all of our creative juices from us. By then, it was too late and we began production. We all had fun doing it and we all learned ALOT. I am not using the word ALOT lightly because we really did learn so much from the process. For most, it was our first really big game dev project.
How does this even related to Octodad?
During the whole experience our professors were pushing us so hard to make an innovative mechanic not just because of the “IGF” standard, but because of the “Octodad” standard, that it made us just kinda lose steam many times. Sometimes the feedback would hold us back and we would waste time developing something we werent really sure we liked.
As mentioned before, the Octodad folks have mad fame and during this process were in the sorta mid stages of Octodad 2: Dadliest Catch. (COMING TO PS4 AND PC)(PLUG PLUG)
They and many other special guest mentors actually helped us along the way in attempting to find that niche and innovative audio mechanic we were trying to build. They and the others were and still are beautiful people. But it was for naught because we didn’t have a niche indie mechanic nor did we have a secret octopus father loved by the masses.
So what the hell is my point and where the hell am I going with this?
I have come to the conclusion that the professors and students holding games like DTF and Octodad up on this pedestal is both a BAD thing and a GOOD thing.
It is, for the most part, unrealistic and realistic to have the hope that one day, a new game made by students will surpass the old ones in quality and fame. I’m sure the kids at Digipen have this problem all the time. The amount of rad games coming out of there is alot and I am sure intimidating to all new students.
But through this intimidation comes an odd challenge: Can we make something better?
The professors worked us a bit too hard for 6 months but frankly, that isn’t NOT normal in the game industry. The professors expected us make something better when they probably should have just let us flow and figure things out for ourselves. As unreasonable as the bar was I can honestly say that it is a bad thing and a good thing. The professors just need to word it differently next time around. I also think for as much as we learned, the professors also learned a great deal as well. Such is the nature of iteration.
“Here is the bar,” the professors said, “Now make something better.”
After all this time of pondering what went wrong and why; I can honestly say it was good thing to have had so much pressure. Game Development, like any other industry, is about Competition. If you do not want to make a game better than any of the millions of games of yore; you are doing something wrong. That extra hard push the professors gave me that I still glare and snarl at in my memories was probably the best thing to happen to me, as I am sure it is for many others.
I had my brain dumped of all things wonderful and made what I personally consider to be a shit game. (That is just gameplay wise) My overall Experience on the project was the best. IE why they called it the, “DePaul Gaming Experience.” I made friends I will keep for a lifetime, I had the best times with those friends, and I learned a super duper amount of game dev stuff not just during, but after as well.
I will never forget that Wet, Hot, American Summer. Mostly I will not forget the dollar PBR nights. Well...I’ll try to remember the few I do remember.
I made a shit game that I can now say, “Yah that was shit.” But I can also now say, “Whelp. I made a shit game. I know where both bars stand in terms of quality. I know what went wrong. I will try not to do those shit things again. With that; I will make a good game: A better game. A game worthy of the same success so many others have had before me.” I am super critical on myself because, well, if you can take hard critiques and advance from them, I think that is a great quality to have in the industry. There will always be projects you will hate or love afterwards. Game dev is far from perfect and we as developers make mistakes, fix them, and make less mistakes the next time around. Thus, better games are made and people are happy.
To all the current and eventual Game Development students at DePaul and other students that happen to stumble across this blog on the old ass internet; know that what you are doing is good enough and it is all about what you take away constructively. I think that even if we made a game that was PAR to Octodad, it still wouldn’t have been, AS GOOD as Octodad. Octodad is a completely separate game than ours, yours, or whoevers. Sequels are meant to be BETTER or AS GOOD. Different games are supposed to be different.
After all this rambling, just take this to heart or take this with a grain of salt:
Don’t try to be better than THIS or THAT game; Just try to make a different game. Tell your pushy professors that too! If your professor is willing to listen to you, you should be willing to listen as well. Usually the pushy and tough ones are the best professors because if you show them what you got, they will look after you like their own flesh and blood. It is a give and take kinda deal.
You can do certain things better that those games, but remember, THAT isn’t YOUR game. You do not always have to be innovative with mechanics or as innovated, because most of those innovations happen organically over time as you make more games, read, and begin to understand the world around you.
Point is: Just make games. Keep making them no matter what. Also, make them fun and shit.
I have no idea if I am wrong or right most of the time but I do know that I am ever grateful to every one of my professors and mentors who give their expensive and limited time to so many pleb developers like myself and still continue to do so. To all the Young Horses again, you all still inspire me everyday to one day birth a game franchise (Yup, you have one of those now) that has the same level of love, charm, and quality as Octodad.
If you think I am totally wrong or totally stupid; tell me about how wrong I am publicly on Twitter. Or just tell me in the comments below.