[In this postmortem, first published in Game Developer's 2011 Career Guide issue, the team of DePaul University students and graduates reflect on the development of the bizarre, yet undeniably creative Octodad.]
In the summer of 2010, a group of DePaul faculty began a project known as DGE 2 (The DePaul Game Experience). The purpose: to create for students the experience of working at a game studio. The goal: to develop a game that could become an IGF Student Showcase winner. Approximately fifty students applied and interviewed for the team. The faculty advisers, game designer Patrick Curry, animator Scott Roberts, and sound man Robert Steel selected twenty students they considered the most qualified to take part in DGE 2.
In June, those of us who were selected gathered in the meeting rooms and the game labs of DePaul's College of Computing and Digital Media. We began a month of pitching, refining, and prototyping new game ideas. The previous year's team, the DGE 1, had taken a spot in the previous year's IGF Student Showcase with its game Devil's Tuning Fork. We were under pressure to find an idea that could match Devil's Tuning Fork's success, while also being completely and utterly unlike it. Finding the right game was essentially a quest for our identity as a team. We ran the gamut of platformers with twists and physics puzzles, and many of them were great ideas, but lacked that certain spark. Then came one silly suggestion about an octopus.
Octodad is a slapstick comedy adventure game about a father who is trying to keep his family from realizing that he is an octopus. It was practically a joke at first, but we grew to love the idea. By the time the first prototype was finished, we could see that certain spark in Octodad, and we knew that it would be the game that would not only define us, but would get us to the IGF Student Showcase. Production on Octodad began in July; it was submitted to the IGF at the end of October.
It was a whirlwind of development, filled with glorious triumphs and tragic missteps. The lessons we learned on the path to making Octodad were invaluable, and we'll keep them close to heart as we head into our future endeavors.
What Went Right
1. Uncanny Team Chemistry
The team composition and dynamic is what made Octodad work. We all began this project as strangers, unsure of what we'd be working on or how we would work together. However, as we began to present our ideas, the atmosphere became more and more lighthearted and bizarre. We came to realize that we were all kindred spirits, united by our collective insanity.
We fed off of each other's strangest, silliest notions, reaching a creative height that none of us could have achieved alone. We kept the bond strong throughout the project by going out to lunch every day, playing our favorite music in the background, holding after-hours Halo matches, and sharing joke after joke after joke. We came to find that near the end of the project, our team had a shared language that outsiders could barely understand, and we briefly wondered whether we'd ever be able to talk normally again. Still, our unchained atmosphere of odd friendship fed directly into Octodad as we were making it, until it became as strange and funny as we were.
2. Generating Concepts
Despite our wacky personalities, our approach for coming up with new game ideas was grounded in a systematic exercise set up by our advisers. We would come up with a series of one-page game ideas, present them, come up with more one-pagers, present those, then team up with somebody to make a more detailed eight-page idea, and finally pick three of those concepts to prototype. We found that first ideas tend not to be the most creative or interesting ones, but that each rejected idea may spark something more. Octodad itself came out of the third round of pitches. We took that approach and ran with it throughout development. Everything from the way Octodad walks, to the kitchen challenges, to Octodad's manly tentacle-moustache was the product of an exhaustive list of possibilities, and seldom did we go with our first idea. Our dedication to exploring every avenue served us well.
3. Playtesting Like Mad
From our earliest prototypes to our final levels, we were always playtesting. We advertised weekly tests through Facebook and word-of-mouth. We had an open door policy, and allowed anybody to sit down and play the game at any time. We were voracious in finding fresh players and new demographics; if there were high-school kids, visiting Japanese students, professional game developers, or notable animators in the building, we would seek them out and invite them to play. Octodad is about riding the line between frustrating and fun, and we found out very early on that our definition of "easy" did not match up with most players. We constantly needed to balance the control scheme, seek out the most fun challenges, and find out whether our jokes were funny. With our rapid-fire testing, we were able to gather and respond to this information on a weekly basis. That's not to say we always did what a particular tester wanted, but regardless, they helped us shape Octodad into a game that others would actually enjoy.