Once upon a time I was suckered into believing games based on a purely comical premise could never succeed. I had an inkling this wasn’t true and it started to octupi my thoughts. Then I received word a sequel to Octodad (a game of hilarity and chaos) was successfully funded on Kickstarter. Though a year late, I got kraken on an interview with Philip Tibitoski of Young Horses. We would’ve done a (cephalo-)podcast but his time was pretty constricted, so we settled on a short text-based interview. Well-armed with questions, here’s how the interview went:
Rory: For the readers out there who haven’t heard of Young Horses, could you give us a brief introduction to yourself and “Octodad: Dadliest Catch”?
Philip: Young Horses was formed in October 2011 after having run our Kickstarter campaign for Octodad: Dadliest Catch back in July/August of the same year. The original Octodad game which is currently still available for free through our website came out back in November 2010. Dadliest Catch is not exactly a direct sequel to the original game, but it takes place in the same world and is almost as if you’re experiencing another day in Octodad’s life. The original game works in a similar way because of it taking place within the time span of a single day.
Rory: For the readers out there who haven’t heard of Young Horses, could you give us a brief introduction to yourself and “Octodad: Dadliest Catch”?
Philip: Octodad was a student project and came from a team of 18 people over about 4 months of work with 1 month or so of prototyping. Originally the idea of Octodad came from our sound designer Seth Parker, lead artist on the first game Nick Esparza, and producer on the first game John Murphy. As an aside both John and Seth are now Young Horses working on the new game. John switched over to design and is whipping up some pretty daddly experiences for ya’ll.
Octodad came from the idea of being in someone else’s head and controlling them from within it in a sort of Being John Malkovich way. It was also highly influenced by an old game Jurassic Park: Trespasser, which was a first person shooter in which you could pretty directly control your characters right arm. In Trespasser the controls were a bit lackluster to say the least, but they led to a hilariously bad experience due to how frustrating they were.
From there we riffed on those ideas and came up with the idea that maybe an octopus is inside the head of man controlling him by using some levers like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles does. After a while we basically decided to just get rid of the proxy and said, “Well why don’t we just put the octopus in the suit itself?” From there we had another 2-3 hour discussion of just ideas of who he could be and why. That’s where his family and his general story came from.
Rory: On Kickstarter you’ve stated “we want to do Octodad justice”. Do you feel the original was somewhat lacklustre? That you didn’t deliver the experience you wanted?
Philip: The first Octodad was supposed to originally be something where we had like 5-6 levels and even before that we thought maybe we wanted to explore an entire week in Octodad’s life. This was before we had to scope down in order to finish the game. Our goal was to enter Octodad into the Independent Games Festival student competition and that deadline was November, 1st. So from late June 2010 until the deadline we went into our university 5 days a week or more to work on the game to get it ready for the IGF. Even with all of that we still simply ran out of time to get everything in the game that we had wanted to.
There’s a large amount of story left in Octodad that we didn’t have the chance to tell. We also had a lot of technical issues with the first game due to how quickly we had to make it. The first game didn’t control quite as well as we’d have liked it to and so we’re also working to improve that. Now, having said that you shouldn’t think that we’re actually making the game easy. The first game reacted in a lot of ways that weren’t actually the players fault and so we’ve been ironing out all of those bugs and making things as intuitive as possible. The original tutorial for example wasn’t very good in actually teaching the player everything they needed to know.
Rory: On that note, how do you hope to improve upon the original?
Philip: I like to think we’re taking the Super Meat Boy philosophy to heart in that we want the game to be difficult to certain degree, but we want that difficulty to come from the player’s ability to become proficient at the game and we want it to be enjoyable. We never want the player to feel like they were cheated by the game or that the game reacted to them in a way that doesn’t make sense or wasn’t their own fault.
We’ve been investigating ways in which we can sort of lead or alter players movements to help them in certain situations like going up stairs or maybe pushing a lawn mower. These sometimes come from changes in camera that give players a better view of what they’re doing, and other times come from directly helping their movements.
Another one of the big things we’re looking to do is to just overall set a higher bar for the quality of all of our work. With the little time we did have to make the first game we didn’t have a ton of time to worry about every little bit of polish. Now we’re making sure everything has its place and taking our time to make sure we create a game that’s as close as we can get it to the vision we have in our heads of Octodad’s universe.
Rory: Looking at the videos I can see numerous locations/environments. With that in mind, will we see our cephalopod friend leave the safety of his home?
Philip: You will indeed see Octodad leave his home. One of our goals for Dadliest Catch is that we want to re-introduce players who are familiar with Octodad to the settings they know and love while also giving brand new players a space in which they can at least initially feel somewhat safe while they’re learning what the game is all about.
After this initial period we’ll begin exploring some of the weirder ideas we’ve had when it comes to where we could take Octodad and what situations we could put him in that would be super interesting for everyone involved. We spent a ton of time during the concept phase of both games just riffing out places Octodad could go that would be funny or just nuts.
The teaser trailer does a pretty good job of previewing some of these places and also some of the changes in gameplay, but it definitely doesn’t show off everything we have in store for players.
Rory: If you don’t mind my asking, how is development so far? Can you give us an estimate on how long it will take to complete the game?
Philip: We’re moving along at a pretty steady pace now. The first year or so of development was spent on a lot of groundwork and miscellaneous things that you wouldn’t think needed to be done. We were becoming a company, running a Kickstarter campaign, cleaning out our codebase, finding our new art direction, finding a place to live/work, figuring out all the legal work that needed to be done, and deciding what it was we wanted to improve or really do with Dadliest Catch.
Now that we’ve got all of that kind of figured out we have reached a good place in development where the biggest part left is just creating the actual content for the game. i.e. Levels, Art, Audio. We’re still looking at a 2013 release, but I can’t really go into much more detail than that as the exact timing fluctuates. Game development is a tricky thing when it comes to estimating how much time you have left on a project. Things are really only done when you decide they’re done and your measurement of that is ever-changing, to a degree.
Rory: What inspirations do you draw from when it comes to the art and backstory of Octodad?
Philip: A lot of the inspiration for the story and setting came from 90’s cartoons like Animaniacs, Ren & Stimpy, and Rocko’s Modern Life. We also drew a lot from sitcoms that involved dads like Family Matters, Step by Step, and things like that. There were actually talks of even having a laugh-track at one point. We’ve all got a pretty wide range of media exposure and seem to just think the same sorts of things are funny. This all came together as a recipe for craziness mixed in with our own personal quirks. We really lucked out with our team chemistry in that we all very much “get” one another to a degree where by the end of the project we’d essentially formulated our own vocabulary that might seem slightly insane to an outsider.
Rory: With plans to release on Steam, is there any chance we’ll see release on other PC platforms such as GamersGate or Impulse?
Philip: We’ve yet to really figure out what platforms the game will be available on at launch, but I can tell you that we’d like to see it on everything that will have our little love-letter to fatherhood.
Rory: I was reading your KickStarter, specifically the part about Kinect, and I thought to myself “How in God’s name are they going to implement this?” What I mean is, how are you going to retain the chaos of moving Octodad when a motion sensor would easily remove that core mechanic?
Philip: The Kinect controls for the game are something we have actually already prototyped and we showed off at GDC back in 2011. They haven’t really been our main focus during the initial development of Dadliest Catch, but we will be looking into them further in the future. We want to make sure the “normal” controls for mouse and keyboard are as well implemented as possible before even considering starting work on another scheme. We want the game to be playable to as many people as it can be.
Rory: Being an indie developer grants a lot of freedom in developing your game, would you say this freedom allowed you to stick to or move away from traditional elements found in today’s games?
Philip: With the original game being a student project and having the goal of entering the IGF I don’t think there was ever any thought towards an attempt in creating a game like any other that had come before. From the beginning we wanted to do something that had yet to be seen and I think the idea of being independent developers definitely fostered the sort of environment that was necessary to funnel that passion directly into the vortex that has become Octodad.
Now that we’ve had our taste of this sort of freedom I don’t think any of us are dying to be in a situation in which it’s taken away from us. We’ll be continuing our adventures into the unknown and unsought for as long as we can afford to do so. We love what we do and we love the community that surrounds independent development.
Rory: Would you say the success of other games on KickStarter created a better atmosphere for your project? What do you think your success says about the current state of the industry?
Philip: I think any successful or even unsuccessful project on Kickstarter continues to create a larger and more receptive community for future projects. When planning our Kickstarter we looked to both projects which went well and ones that didn’t in order to figure out how our own campaign should be run. All projects tend to bring in at least a few new users that have never used Kickstarter before. From my own observations many of these people seem to come as second tier adopters who don’t necessarily seek these kinds of services out, but will jump on board once they hear about it through a friend or popular news site.
Things like the Double Fine Adventure campaign have definitely carried more weight than hours and sometimes I wonder if we would have had an even more successful project if we had run ours after theirs. In the end though I’m glad we ran ours when we did and I think it’s pretty amazing that over 600 people decided to trust us enough that they paid us to create a game that did not even exist yet. All of the footage in our pitch video was from Octodad 1 and some of our very early prototypes for Dadliest Catch. I think it’s very telling that the degree of success Kickstarter has had in various forms comes from many projects in which people are willing to believe in new and unique ideas they would not see funded by any other means.
Rory: Looking at your Kickstarter I can see some pretty nifty pledge rewards, do you feel they made people feel more involved in your project’s development?
Philip: The important thing about Kickstarter rewards is that you strike a balance between things that are unique to only the campaign, and whatever your main service or product is. So things like the plushies, which at least in that form, will probably never be made again are an item that you could get only through the Kickstarter. I know that any campaign I’ve ever donated to was a lot more desirable when it had rewards that I couldn’t get anywhere else.
Whether a reward is novel or not there is the belief that any purchase made through Kickstarter is directly affecting the success of the persons project. Believe it or not people love helping one another or at least feeling like they’ve done so. If you look at things like documentaries people also love to see where a project started and where it’s going. Backers feel a sense of accomplishment akin to the creator and when you’re all doing this for the sake of the project you feel connected because of it.
Rory: Before we finish up, got any advice or encouragement for the aspiring developers out there?
Philip: If you find yourself working in a team environment, even if it’s only say 2-3 people make sure that you all trust in each other’s skill sets. Make sure that you know what you are and are not good at. It’s incredibly frustrating when everyone thinks that they’re the lead and therefore it’s an absolute constant struggle to make any sort of decisions regarding anything on the project. Avoid design by committee if at all possible because it’s a huge waste of time. Your vision for the game or the team’s vision generally ends up diluted or all over the place because of situations like this. Know when to fight back against things, but usually if you’re working with the right people it’s better to just give in and trust their vision when it comes to their particular field of experience. I like to think that despite having 18 people on the original Octodad project and having 8 members of Young Horses with Dadliest Catch we do a pretty good job of knowing who gets to make what final decisions.
Knowing how to analyze and take feedback in a constructive way is also incredibly important for creating any game. All games start off relatively rough on the edges if not kind of horrible. Being able to take someones feedback on these early builds or ideas and take from it the things that are important is a difficult but important thing to do. You have to kind of filter out all the fodder like, “Oh well this looks really ugly…” etc. while looking for the things that they actually enjoy or have good ideas about. A lot of the intuition you gain concerning how to filter this feedback is something you gain through experience and as you get better at it you will find that you get more out of what people have to say about many things in general. It’s a great skill to have, and so you should always seek feedback on your work. Look and search for feedback. DO NOT hide from it or become ignorant towards others opinions of your work, but be aware that players can also be very wrong about what they want because they often don’t know how to communicate it well enough. It’s almost entirely an act of translation and in a way is similar to learning another language.
Rory: My final question, what can Young Horses promise gamers and what can you do for gaming as a whole?
Philip: As Young Horses we strive to push the boundaries of game development in order to create experiences that players have not seen before. Our goal as a studio is to create innovative, intelligent, and charming entertainment that can be enjoyed by both children and adults. We really just want to bring happiness and meaning to others in the quirky way we know how.
If you’ve ever pondered fatherhood with eight arms, you can download the first Octodad for free here. Want more? You can find more information on Octodad: Dadliest Catch here. Much thanks to Philip for taking the time to answer my questions. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is a planned 2013 release.