Octodad — a PC game about “destruction, deception, and fatherhood” created by DePaul students working in an independent project group — was named one of eight Student Showcase Winners at the 2011 Independent Games Festival (IGF). The game also received an honorable mention from Indiegames.com (“Best Of 2010: Top 10 Indie Games”) and was named “Funniest Video Game of 2010” by SplitSider.com. Last year, a DePaul student game, Devil’s Tuning Fork, was also an IGF Student Showcase winner.
For an extracurricular initiative just two years old, that’s mighty impressive.
Scott Roberts, associate professor, College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM), started the group (along with Patrick Curry of Wideload Games) to showcase “just how good our students are.” To create Octodad, 19 students worked intensely from June through November, outside the classroom, starting with a “design boot camp” during which everyone contributed to the game idea.
“We picked the students for the team — from about 40 applicants — based on several criteria,” says Roberts.
“First, the quality of their work— that probably goes without saying. We needed strong talent in every game development discipline: production, programming and coding, art and animation, game design, sound effects and music. But skill wasn’t the whole picture. Was a student willing to work hard? This project was time-consuming and intense; it required patience and creative collaboration. ‘Personality fit’ was really important.”
Doing Everything Right
Two other factors contributed to the group’s success — an unusual development process and an original idea. Roberts explains:
“Because the ‘design boot camp’ was an iterative creative process, ‘ownership’ of the game was shared: that was important for teamwork, commitment, and enthusiasm. Also, spending a lot of time up front made for a better game idea. Without a good idea, all the other work that followed would have come to naught. In choosing the Student Showcase Winners, IGF looks for innovation, for games that push the genre. Octodad is one-of-a-kind. In most games, the interface is easy, but in Octodad, the interface is difficult: it’s hard to make the octopus do ‘human’ things, like household chores. The difficulty of play becomes the fun of the game."
Chris Stallman (BS animation, ’11) confirms the importance of the process:
“During ‘boot camp’ we broke into small teams; each came up with ideas. When Octodad was pitched, everyone got excited about it; I started sketching right away. It was surprising to work on a project where everyone shared the same vision and goals; that cohesion started day one. We worked hard to come up with something new and different.”
Philip Tibitoski (BS computer game development, ’12) was also surprised by the intensity of the effort: “This project was more work — and more fun — than I had expected. But we wanted to win, and that attitude helped us put in the time and energy to make Octodad turn out as well as it did. One of the best — and most difficult — parts of the project was collaborating with 18 other people; the project taught us the importance of communication; without it, a process breaks down pretty fast.”
For one team member— Seth Parker (BS music, ’11) — the challenges were even more dramatic:
“I joined the team thinking I’d do sound effects and music — difficult, but I could handle it. Once we decided on the Octodad idea, I realized I’d be composing ‘50s caricature jazz. HA! I’d never written that kind of music! On top of that, I had to put the sounds in the game, so I had to learn how to use a level editor. I can honestly say, I was in over my head at first, but I’m not complaining. As it turns out, making the octopus sound was so fun: I bought Play Dough and sponges and sat in my bathroom with a microphone recording squishing sounds. Now, I’m interested in game audio as a career; that would be the coolest job ever.”
Real-world Lessons Learned
Roberts explains the practical and pedagogical values of the project.
“Most teaching is assignment-based: ‘I’ll tell you what do to, you’ll do it the way I’ve taught you.’ In creating Octodad, the students had to deal with the unexpected: the ‘assignments’ were problems and opportunities that evolved out of the creative process. Also, the team members had to learn about — and appreciate — each other’s disciplines. In the real world, the artist needs to work with the programmer, the game designer with the animator, the producer with everyone. The game industry is one of the most varied in types of people working together. And it’s tough to break into — unforgiving, really, to those who lack experience making games. You can’t beat making an award-winning game as a career strategy.”
John Murphy (MS game development, ’11) agrees: “This project was the most worthwhile experience I’ve had during my time at DePaul. Collaborating with others — taking a game from concept to release — that’s as close to real-world as a student can get. And I found out I was good at something — producing —I would never have considered. Working on one project, with a lot of people, for a long time — and then having all that work pay off — the satisfaction I got from that encouraged my desire to get into independent game development after graduation.”
What’s next for the students? They’ve created a start-up business to turn out a commercial version of Octodad due for release in 2012.