How Octodad turned a group of strangers into best friends
January 29, 2014
"It's very difficult to know how to feel about the game coming out. We're all worried, and excited, and every time someone plays it and they have a positive reaction, we're like, 'Awesome, great.' But I still don't know if that means everyone else will like it."
It's been three and a half years since a group of 18 DePaul University students all sat down together to create something that little bit different to enter into the Independent Games Festival.
The DePaul Game Experience, or DGE for short, is an annual extra-curricular program that aims to put both the university and its students on the video game industry map. Students apply to be part of the program, and the professors then choose around 15-20 of those applicants to be part of the team -- those students who they believe have the potential to think outside the box and create something that will wow at the IGF.
The first DGE in 2009 resulted in the IGF-nominated Devil's Tuning Fork, so the bar was set for the following year. In 2010, around 50 students were interviewed, and these were whittled down to 18. These 18 course buddies - all strangers to each other, acquaintances at best - were then thrown into a room together, and told to come up with something good.
"I was only friends with one or two of the people there, and it wasn't like best friends or anything like that," Phil Tibitoski (@PTibz) tells me. Tibitoski was one of the original 18, and is now the CEO and community manager of Young Horses, the studio that has since sprung forth from that initial clatter.
Of course, that coming together of young minds resulted in the control-mangling, cephalopod-stalking wonder that was freeware release Octodad. Fast forward more than three years, and Young Horses is now on the cusp of the full commercial Octodad release.
"A lot of us just didn't know each other, so it was very surprising that it came out as well as it did, and that we got along as well as we did," adds Tibitoski. "We pretty much all had the same sort of weird sense of humor. That resulted in what Octodad was."
Hidden in plain sight
Unsurprisingly, it takes a good few weeks for 18 bright minds to unload all of their best video game concepts. One-page ideas were pitched over and over again, with some pushing the boundaries of weird more than others. Eventually, after weeks of getting it all of their chests, the 18 had pulled every ridiculous, barrel-scraping, messed-up folly from their systems. It was time to get down to real business.
"We had to dig a little bit further to find something more interesting," remembers Tibitoski. "Eventually we came up with the idea of an octopus inside of an android's head, driving him sort of like in Men in Black, and using levers to make him walk and micromanage its movements."
This initial concept was heavily inspired by Being John Malkovich, but as the base idea evolved, it began to take on a form much more inspired by accidentally hilarious 1998 DreamWorks game Jurassic Park: Trespasser. As recently cited by Surgeon Simulator 2013 dev Bossa Studios, Trespasser's "revolutionary" micromanaging controls were a bit of a disaster, yet they still ended up inspiring some very silly control schemes.
"In that game it was meant to be this serious cool feature, but it ended up being this glitchy, disastrous, but hilarious, mess," notes Tibitoski. It was really funny, and I think that's why we realized it could be a comedy game, not only because of the concept of the octopus being in a suit and stuff, but because of how funny it is to watch that stuff go wrong."
And so the perfect combination of stupid controls and stupid storyline converged to create the perfect, "stupid" game: An octopus, in a suit, with a wife and kids who somehow don't know he's an octopus, despite his flailing tentacles. The stage was set.
It began with prototyping how exactly this concept would come to fruition. "Was he going to just walk around, or can he pick things up, or is he going to walk on walls with his suction cups?" Tibitoski tells me. "What was this game really about mechanically, since we've come up with the idea before the mechanics?"
Since the team was split on which mechanics worked the best with the concept, the group decided to go for broke and prototype everything at the same time. The first demo saw a string of purple spheres linked together on a rope, and you were able to "walk" around and grab things with your tentacles.
"You could try to wrap around things and put them in a kitchen sink, or take them out - super simple stuff," the Young Horse recalls. "Then the walking came along, and we weren't sure if it was going to be like, he leans in a direction and you have to balance him, or if you drag along his legs or something."
After much experimenting, the team opted for sort of Marionette-like controls, much like those you can see in the current Octodad build. "When we couldn't decide whether we wanted to do just an arms things or a legs thing, we decided to put them together and make it more of a singular experience instead of having maybe separate levels where you do either one or the other," Tibitoski adds.
Five months of messing around with this ridiculous concept, and Octodad was born. Many members of the team were keen to inject more silly into the game, but the IGF deadline was looming, and submissions were due. Octodad was entered into the student portion of the competition, and the 18 had finished its first and last project together.
Galloping into view
Remember that Octodad was an optional, extra-curricular activity for this group of young hopefuls, and while also studying hard for the rest of their University courses, some of the team were also working on their own games. John Murphy and Devon Scott-Tunkin, two of the 18, just happened to catch my attention mid-Octodad development with Acid Couch, a messy wonder created in two weeks as part of an Indie City Games jam.
When Octodad was completed and entered into the IGF, most of the team was done. They each had a great addition to their resumes, and if Octodad was nominated for the IGF, that'd be even better for their future prospects.
But for others, something about the Octodad project refused to cease bouncing around in their heads. There was more that needed to be done with this concept, but they needed proof that anyone else felt the same way. Having already had a game featured on IndieGames.com, Murphy decided to take another shot in my direction.
The office where the Young Horses team originally worked out of
"I'm writing because I figured you might want to check out the game that I and a group of students at DePaul University just submitted to the student IGF," said Murphy's email. "It's called Octodad and is about an octopus struggling to keep his human family from realizing what he is while doing everything that a dad does. It's not nearly as insane as Acid Couch, but I think it's pretty out there and excellent."
It didn't take me long to realize I had something rather special in my inbox that day. I'd played the game and posted it up on the IndieGames blog within a couple of hours, and I immediately fired it over to Rock Paper Shotgun's Quintin Smith, who responded back just an hour later, "Posted. Posted so, so fast."
That initial hit of press from IndieGames and RPS was just the beginning as, in the hours that followed, the game was featured on Destructoid, Joystiq, Kotaku and more. The team was blown away, and those who thought it should be taken further were now adamant that the story of Octodad needed to be expanded.
Then the IGF nomination happened, and Let's Play videos became regular, fascinating viewing for Tibitoski, Murphy et al -- and cemented the decision to take Octodad further. "There was this Let's Play video - I can't remember her name - but she was just laughing the entire time she was playing," muses Tibitoski. "That's the kind of reaction we want. That's the sort of thing I make games for."
After seeing reactions from the press and other developers at the IGF Pavilion at GDC 2011, eight of the original 18 students retreated to the basement of a hostel, and put it simply, "We need to make a real version of this."
"We wanted to make a real game and form a company, and sell it so we could keep making weird games," Tibitoski says. "Before then, a lot of us wanted to work for bigger studios like a lot of kids do when they grow up playing games. I always wanted to work at Bungie. But through making this, and realizing there's this entire world of independent games and developers, we all changed our minds - or at least, the eight of us who wanted to do Young Horses."
For the remaining 10 original creators, there were various reasons why they didn't want to continue to participate. Some still wanted to go triple-A and work for larger game studios like they'd always dreamed, while others were wary of taking up such a risky dream.
"At the time the game had a good amount of attention, but it still wasn't as big as it is now, and we didn't have the PS4 version or anything like that," Tibitoski notes. "We didn't even have our Steam deal, and we hadn't Kickstartered it yet. So it was hard to know whether anyone would actually pay for something like this. We still kind of worry about that!"
"So we had no real ovalidation for that, and I think a lot of people were afraid of the fact that they would then have to give up their lives... It was a big investment, and I think a lot of people were afraid of not knowing if it would turn out well or not."
And so Young Horses was born, coincidentally made up of eight people -- Philip Tibitoski, Kevin Zuhn, Majdi Badri, Kevin Geisler, John Murphy, Seth Parker, Devon Scott-Tunkin and Chris Stallman -- each ready to hold on tight to one of Octodad's arms and take the plunge.
Into the deep
As you'd expect, no-one on the Young Horses team had the cash to go full-time on the project, and so Octodad was a labor of love that occurred for 4-5 hours each evening, after eight hours of full-time jobs had occurred during the day. This went on for around two years, with day after day of job, home, Octodad, sleep, including weekends.
The Octodad Kickstarter at the end of 2011 helped a little. The funding drive brought in $24,320 which, at the time, was a lot of money for a video game Kickstarter.
"A lot of people didn't know about it, and we had to explain to a lot of people what Kickstarter was, before even asking them to donate," recalls Tibitoski. "We were successful, and it helped us start the business and take care of basic costs, and helped us get to things like PAX."
"But obviously it wasn't enough money to fund eight or nine people to work for two and a half years," he adds. "So it was difficult sometimes, and there were many times when a lot of us were drained just from working all the time. Also it's hard to go work a day job for hours at a time, when all you wanna do is be somewhere else working on something you actually love. It was just depressing, I guess."
What pushed the team on was the constant validation from its Kickstarter backers, and when Young Horses was finally ready to show off what it had been working on, more validation was to follow.
"Once we released the first teaser for the game, everyone was really excited for it," notes Tibitoski. "Even up until now we've been seeing 3-5 Let's Play videos that are new every week for the first Octodad, and it's been years. Which is kind of wild to us, that people are still playing that game, even though to us it seems like such a rough student thing compared to the new one."
Of course, it's tempting to wonder whether the Octodad story would be less tumultuous and tiring, had the Young Horses team waited until 2012 before heading to Kickstarter. March 2012 saw Double Fine sound the Kickstarter video game klaxon, raking in $3.3 million, and making Octodad's $24k look fairly measly.
Says Tibitoski, "It was weird to us at the time that people were even giving us money for an idea in the first place - something that didn't exist. Even in that first pitch video for the Kickstarter, we didn't show any footage from the new game. It's all from the first game with basic prototypes, and maybe some sketchy art, and some 2D animation. So it was amazing that anyone was even willing to give us money for that. At the time it was unheard of."
After Double Fine Adventure, the Octodad team did consider running a second Kickstarter - those hundreds and thousands of dollars were tempting, as you'd expect - but inevitably, the thought of running yet another crowdfunding round while also holding down full-time jobs and staring at an octopus every evening was a bit too much for the team to take.
"It was an idea, but something that was shot down pretty quickly," admits Tibitoski. "We've all kind of kept it 'in the family', so to speak, and it'll be nice that we only owe ourselves money and not really anyone else. I'm pretty happy to say that we've done pretty much all of this on our own."
One year becomes two becomes three becomes PS4
Originally, the plan was to launch Octodad: The Dadliest Catch in the summer of 2012 - but it quickly became apparent that the general scope of the game, coupled with how much time the eight had to spend on it, meant that even 2013 was going to be a push, let alone 2012.
Two of the Young Horses were now full-time on Octodad, funded by the day-time payrolls of the other six, but this still wasn't enough to speed up the development process.
"Up until August/Sept 2013, we weren't even sure we were going to ship in January 2014," Tibitoski laughs. "We thought maybe we'd have to push it back until June 2014. We were eight people for the longest time, and we only had one dedicated artist, Chris Stallman. He was doing characters and architecture and rigging and animations and stuff like that, and we needed to do cutscenes."
The original plan was to have full 3D in-game cutscenes with full VO, and this was looking increasingly unlikely under the current scenario. Enter Nick Esparza, lead artist on the original Octodad. Notes Tibitoski, "We brought him back to do animation. It's him that allowed us to release on time, and when we wanted to."
Octodad at PAX East
Of course, a large part of the Octodad story was the surprise grand-scale part that indie games played in the PlayStation 4 E3 press conference in 2013. The team had been talking to Sony as early as GDC 2011, but they never in a million years thought they'd see Octodad up on stage for the big PlayStation 4 E3 push.
"They talked to us about PS3 back at GDC 2011," says Tibitoski, "but the terms and that kind of stuff just didn't seem right for us at the time, especially with how we're often... well, the first game to me just seems atrocious now, looking back, as anyone who makes anything looks back. It just seems so much better now."
"So we just didn't think we were ready to do that sort of thing, or had the experience to actually make it happen," continues the dev. "We had to turn them down, and Nick Suttner, who is our account manager at Sony, kept in touch with us over the years and checked in every once in a while to see how we were doing."
At PAX East 2013, Sony once again approached the Octodad devs, and came right out with it: "We're doing this indie initiative for PS4, the system is much easier to develop for now for smaller teams, and all the business relations stuff is now worked out so that it's more manageable. We're really looking to push the envelope with weird, different games we can have on the platform, and we want Octodad."
In the weeks that followed, Sony sent dev kits to Young Horses for free, with no strings attached - the idea was that the team could play around with the kits, decide whether they wanted to be on PlayStation 4, and send them back to Sony if they decided it wasn't for them.
"We ended up getting it running on the hardware within about a month, which was apparently quick, they told us," Tibitoski recalls. "They asked us if we wanted to be at E3, offered a booth and kiosk space on the showfloor -- which was crazy by itself, that we were going to be in the Sony booth at E3."
Shortly afterwards, the really exciting conversation happened: "Oh by the way, we're doing this thing for the press conference with indies, do you guys wanna be a part of that?"
"And we said, 'Uhh yes, of course we want to be part of one of the biggest gaming events of the year and have our game up on stage with stuff like Destiny - yeah, please!'" laughs Tibitoski.
"So they invited us to that, and then we just spent a lot of time testing, and making sure the build worked, and being horrified that it would explode on stage or something," the Young Horses CEO says. "But everything went pretty smoothly. They flew us out. Kevin [Geisler] was up on stage playing it."
"I remember sitting there and feeling really awkward. Not awkward... numbing, almost. Like I didn't even realize what had happened, it's almost as if I stopped being able to hear anything when it was up there. And then a moment later realized what had happened. My phone started blowing up with text messages, and it drained my battery. I was there in the audience with everyone else watching. I was sitting next to Rami [Ismail of Vlambeer]. It was just crazy to see Kevin up there showing the game off to so much people, and knowing it was being broadcast to a bunch of places. It's been crazy ever since too."
Here comes the console audience
Then something rather strange happened. You'd expect Octodad's Twitter searches and Google Alerts to go wild following the PS4 reveal, but what Tibitoski and co. noticed was that the clamor around the reveal didn't ever completely die down. As it turned out, having a game on PlayStation 4 is apparently much more interesting than having yet another PC game to show off.
"The PC audience is huge, and arguably larger, but it's a very different audience for people who are solely console gamers," he tells me. "And it's interesting to reach a new set of people that we might not have otherwise ever reached."
Octodad isn't the only game to feel this console heat. Most recently, Klei Entertainment's Don't Starve received a large-scale boost of publicity when it launched on PlayStation 4, a whole year after releasing for PC. The mainstream media at large, and in turn core gamers, appear to be oblivious to many massive indie games until they are legitimized with a console launch.
"It's been weird to deal with from the PR side of things," notes Tibitoski. "When we announced that we were coming to PC first, and we announced the dates and stuff, people said 'Why are you coming to PC first? Why aren't you coming at the same time as PS4?' And it was like, well, we've been working on this for two-and-a-half years now, and a lot of that had nothing to do with PS4! That's been more of a recent development that we're super happy with, but we also have these Kickstarter backers to answer to. We wouldn't want to be like, 'Sorry guys, you can't have the game even though it's ready, because we're not ready for PS4 yet.'"
Tibitoski even found this mentality running through his own family. While his parents understood how important it all was to him, his extended family didn't seem to believe that the upcoming PC release was a big deal. Yet when he said to many of them that Octodad was now coming to PlayStation 4, their reaction was "Oh man, that's crazy, that's insane!"
"It's like this cultural signifier of merit or something," muses Tibitoski.
The team is now hoping to take this console buzz around the game, and apply it to the PC release this week on January 30. The Young Horses have been following numerous other indie game launches over the last few years, and now believe they have a pretty good idea of how their game will sell in comparison.
"We spent a lot of time evaluating, 'How well do we think we can do, what should our goals be as far as how well this sells, who it reaches' and things like that," says the dev. "And it really just comes down to: We need to make enough money so that we can make another game, and then hopefully exist in a somewhat comfortable way."
"I think we'll do well," he adds, "but I'm not sure how well. It's hard to say. But some of us will be up at 2 a.m. worrying that we're going to completely bomb."
Of course, it's been over three years since that original Octodad freeware release burst forth. Is Tibitoski worried that people will simply be over the concept by now?
"We definitely worried about people losing interest over time, and that's why we spent a lot of time thinking about when and what we would release in terms of teasers and trailers," he answers. "That's all kind of fallen into place at the right time, I feel."
And what's the plan for post-Octodad? Says Tibitoski, the Young Horses have thought a lot about the next few years while Octodad was still ongoing.
"We've set plans," he says. "For a long time we've thought about what we will do a year from now, five years from now. You can only plan so far with any sort of realistic expectations, but we definitely have pretty good ideas of what we wanna do next, at least as far as right after this. Though what we'll do is up in the air, and depends a lot on how the game sells, and if people are happy with what we've made."
Certain game ideas have been bounced around the Octodad camp a lot over the years, that only this team could truly consider. One involves a dating sim/rhythm game set in a Japanese high school filled with monsters, in a similar style to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
"Things like that that are just ridiculous, but might morph into something completely different later, or be completely thrown out and replaced with something else," laughs Tibitoski. "There hasn't really been anything yet where we're like, 'This is what we need to do next.'"
As our discussion comes to an end, Tibitoski returns back to the scene of the crime -- that room filled with 18 student hopefuls, eager to show their worth at the IGF. He muses on how a team of 18 who barely knew each other have now provided him with a group of best friends.
"Over the whole project, we've learned to how to respect and have empathy for one another, I guess," he says. "At the beginning it was difficult to be able to... it's hard when you have eight or nine people and none of us are the definite..."
He stumbles with his words. "It's so hard to describe. There's the idea of authorship in games where maybe one person has all the ideas, and they are the one who is in control of the creative vision of it. Whereas with us, it's a lot more of a collaboration. Kevin Zuhn is our creative director, and he keeps us on track as far as saying 'This does or does not belong in Octodad.'"
"And we have leads for everything that do that for their respective specializations," he continues. "But at the same time, we are all very involved in a lot of the decisions, and everyone hears everyone else's opinions equally. There have been times where an audio person makes a design decision, and that works out better. Just because, over the past three years or so of working together, we've found how to trust one another with certain things, rather than it being an argument every single time something needs to be decided."
"'This person, it's their idea and their game' - it's never like that with us. Which I think is something a bit different."
Where this group of nine were once mere acquaintances, thrown together through a mixture of luck, skill and timing, they now hang out with each other all the time, both during Octodad development and outside of work.
"It's definitely become a little family unit," Tibitoski adds -- and he believes that the way they came together resulted in a much stronger team than if they'd been friends prior. "When you know someone well and their weaknesses, what gets under their skin or whatever, it's a lot easier to argue about stuff than it is to just sit and hear them out, even if you disagree."
"Other developers are always very confused with how many people are on our team," he laughs. "They're like, 'Oh god, we have trouble with two people trying to create something and not tear each other apart.' Whereas we have nine people now who - we don't really get into super crazy arguments where we're yelling at each other or something. People are passionate about things, but it always comes down to a decision, and it's never something where there's resentment."
Young Horses on vacation together
The Octodad-effect is still being felt elsewhere too. According to recent DePaul Game Experience graduates, every DGE team since 2010 has had to live up to Octodad, and compare its own success to that of the Young Horses - for better or for worse.
But for now, the Horses have all grown up, and are about to finally unleash this suited cephalopod on the world -- and Tibitoski's well aware of the fact that only his team could have gotten this far.
"I've always kind of jokingly told myself that no-one's dumb enough to make an octopus fatherhood simulation," he says. "We're the only ones ridiculous enough to pull it off and think it's a good idea."