I’m interviewing John Murphy, a Chicago-based game designer. Let’s dive right in.
RL: You are one of the designers of Octodad and Octodad 2, which are kind of reaching legendary status, but for people who don't know anything about it, how would you describe Octodad?
JM: Octodad is a game about a family man whose human family is unaware of the fact that he is actually an octopus in a suit. In both Octodad and Octodad: Dadliest Catch, you play as Octodad, doing your best to control his unwieldy boneless body. You do regular dad things like mowing the lawn and playing catch with your son, but because of the unwieldy controls (and lack of bones), things are difficult for Octodad. In addition to pressure of wanting to be a good dad, Octodad feels like he is always at risk of being turned into sushi or rejected by his family should his secret be revealed. So you stumble around this world, just trying to be a good dad. It’s a heartfelt physical comedy game.
RL: I hear that you're in the last phase of implementation now for Dadliest Catch. What new stuff has the new game got that Octodad 1 ain't got?
JM: Well, first of all, it will be a lot bigger. The first game was basically a proof of concept and introduction to Octodad. Our content creation tools are way better, so we’ve been able to create a lot of varied, interesting gameplay much more efficiently. There’s also a whole new narrative that is related to but independent of that of the first game. Dadliest Catch is also way prettier and more polished than the first game. Oh, another thing that the new game has that the first one didn't is awkward, silly controls that are significantly less frustrating.
In a world where cephalopods are second-class citizens, one octopus dares to make a stand. This Summer, John Murphy IS Octodad.
RL: I'm glad to hear it, because the controls in Octodad were sort of its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. They were the greatest source of novelty, as well as frustration. I'm glad you're keeping the former and discarding the latter. The other big source of novelty is the story -- who came up with that, and how?
JM: The concept of Octodad came out of several rounds of discussion. The idea for the game mechanic came out of me showing some of the guys some videos of Jurassic Park: Trespasser, which has similar [accidentally] hilarious micromanagement of limbs. The initial idea for the narrative was to be a person inside of a person's head, driving them around a la Being John Malkovich or something. This became "octopus driving a person" and eventually just "octopus in a suit." From there, Kevin Zuhn did most of the fleshing out of the narrative of both games.
RL: People also complain that not all the tentacles of Octodad himself are accounted for, but you say they are. Could you enumerate them for us?
JM: Oh, they're there alright. Two for the arms, two down each pant leg (two toes, two heels), and two for that handsome mustache.
RL: I think it's funny that the name, 'Octodad: Dadliest Catch' is based on two references, (the Octomom and Deadliest Catch) which will already be kind of outdated when the game comes out. Have you ever doubted the naming of the game?
JM: Well, I think the name “Octodad” has legs of its own at this point. We didn’t even think of Octomom until a little while after we thought of Octodad. We actually, at that point, questioned whether or not we wanted to associate with that, but we figured we wouldn’t let the perfect name go to waste just because somebody had eight babies. We questioned whether or not we wanted to have the name of the new game have another pop culture reference (we actually were unsure if it was a saying that existed before crab fishermen), but we decided that Dadliest Catch will stay relevant because it refers to the plot and themes of the game on at least three levels.
RL: You just came off of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and I hear you had to make a lot of plush octopuses in suits. Did you enjoy that?
JM: Well, I definitely enjoyed the Kickstarter success. It’s cool to have so many people value what you’re doing enough to support something like that. The dolls...well, I spent a few months sewing dolls when I felt like I should have been working on the game, but it was fun at times, and it’s cool that thirty people have an adorable plush Octodad. I just can’t wait to start getting photos of Octodolls that the owners have dressed up in different clothes (I made it easy to change his suit).
RL: There was a very well-publicized post from War Balloon about their kickstarter-funded game Star Command. After taxes and rewards, they didn't have a lot of money left for game development. Coincidentally, they asked for the same amount of money as you guys did. Are you anticipating similar financial problems?
JM: We knew going into it that we weren’t raising enough money to fully fund development. There are approximately eight of us working on the game right now. Most of us have some sort of job. The kickstarter definitely helped with the stuff that the kickstarter indicated we would use it for (legal fees, licensing, marketing, etc.). We’ve done a pretty good job of earmarking the money that we know we’ll need for the crucial stuff, and have found other
ways to pay for the stuff the kickstarter can’t cover (like our survival).
RL: If the game does well financially, are some or all of you planning to quit your day jobs and go full indie?
JM: Some of the team definitely wants to do that. I'm not sure what I'll do, because I'm really passionate about both of my jobs, but at some point I'd like to find some way to be involved in both educational games / teaching and indie development (without working 70 hours a week). In any case, I'm excited about the possibility of Young Horses (the studio that the Octodad team has founded) becoming self-sustaining.
RL: You also work as a game designer at a charter school called ChicagoQuest. What kind of school has a game designer on staff?
JM: The kind of school that thinks that the engaging magic of games can be used to get kids to learn things! ChicagoQuest is the sister school to Quest to Learn in New York. Both schools make use of what we call “game-like learning”, which involves using the systems thinking and problem solving aspects of games in order to make learning more relevant and interesting to students.
RL: So it's just about using games as a hook to fool them into learning something?
JM: Haha, well, sometimes it can feel that way. But I actually think that the kind of thinking involved in playing hard is the same kind of thinking that it takes to be adaptable and solve hard problems. So to me its more about fooling them into learning how to learn, think, experiment, and adapt to future challenges.
RL: Do you think every school should hire game designers, or is there something special about the support structure you've created at ChicagoQuest?
JM: I definitely think that other schools could benefit from hiring game designers, but I doubt it is feasible for every school to hire game designers. I definitely think, based on how I’ve seen kids respond to (and learn from) some of the things we’ve created, that a lot of schools would benefit from incorporating the principles and methods we use. I think that the creativity and expertise of the teachers and curriculum specialists that we design with, and the intense collaborative design process that we all engage in, are a huge part of what makes it work.
I feel like, in addition to getting more game designers directly involved in curriculum development, that educators could benefit from having an understanding of what games can do for learning and, more importantly, how they do it.
RL: I should disclose that I volunteer at ChicagoQuest, which is how you and I know one another. How do you think it would benefit professional game developers to volunteer at local schools?
JM: I think that the extra constraints, like having a learning goal in addition to "make it fun and engaging" is a really awesome challenge. Other aspects of the work, such as short development cycles, rapid prototyping and iteration, and making games accessible and interesting to a wide range of skill levels at the same time make it a really stimulating environment to design in.
Game designers and teachers can also learn a lot from each other, and have complementary ways of thinking, when it comes to applied teaching techniques. It's also really satisfying to be able to prototype something, have some kids play it later that day, fix it, and watch kids enjoy and learn from the game within a week or two of the initial idea. Plus, you know, feeling like you're having a positive impact on kids is nice.
RL: You and the rest of the Octodad team were in a games program at DePaul University. Is that would you would recommend to a middle or high-school-aged kid who wants to emulate your indie fame and fortune?
JM: DePaul was great. I think I learned a lot from the extracurricular project team that made Octodad, but we wouldn't have all come together if we hadn't been there, so I simultaneously think that you just need to just make things happen on your own and that it is a valuable experience to go to school. It was a bit different for me, as a grad student who probably could have learned more on my own than I actually did, but going to college gave me a well-rounded education that I wouldn't give up if I were to redo things. But I'd say the same thing that most game designers say to young people who want to make games: start making games! The more games you make, the better you know what you can figure out on your own and what you need help with, then when you do need help you have a better idea of where to go to get it, which may or may not mean going to school.