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Eight Arms to Hold You: The unlikely family behind Octodad

The time for startup Young Horses is now, and its fate is resting on the success of a "secret octopus."

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

On the North Side of Chicago is an apartment with shades drawn tight. Inside, a group of men sits as though on the bridge of a starship. A really crummy starship.

Kevin Zuhn and Kevin Geisler sit at the back of the room, their faces lit by the uneven glow of mismatched monitors. In front of them, crowded atop a battered sofa and love seat, are five more members of the Young Horses team: Majdi Badri, Phil Tibitoski, Seth Parker, Chris Stallman and John Murphy. Moving around the edge of the room is Devon Scott-Tunkin: Uhura with a standing desk.

They appear unfazed by the half-empty beer cans on the end table, the bare speaker wire and worn Ikea furniture. They hardly notice the pair of shoes baking beside a gently warming surge suppressor.

Instead the entire team is glued to the eight-foot-wide image projected onto the wall: their octopus is failing to climb the stairs.

There is an elaborate squishing sound, followed by a series of pops and then a dull thud. Again and again. Each time it's followed by groans.

Silly as the scene is, this is serious business. This is the video game startup called Young Horses at work. Over the last 2 1/2 years, team members have studied, graduated, rallied, Kickstarted, despaired and rallied again. Their number has dwindled from 18 to eight.

They are months away from the release of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, an adventure game where players control the limbs of an octopus like a marionette. Players will move each of Octodad's tentacles by mouse, one at a time.

But, even though the team's weird creation is misbehaving, an easy banter brackets the conversation.

"Your leg is falling," Tibitoski says coolly.

"Your leg is falling," chides Geisler.

"Aaaand there he goes," mocks Badri.

"Oh NOO! NOOO!" wails Parker, just a bit louder than necessary.

They sound like old friends, or maybe close siblings. These are the eight pairs of arms that hold Octodad together.

Strength in numbers

Young Horses feels strong. Its first commercial game, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, is entering the home stretch. Team members are consistently upbeat, confident to a man. Perhaps because they were bred that way.

In the final months of the 2010 academic year, about a half dozen DePaul University faculty (led by Patrick Curry and Scott Roberts) took applications for the DePaul Game Experience, or DGE. It was a calculated effort to bring attention to the DePaul Game Dev program by entering the International Games Festival Student Showcase competition.

His wispy sideburns betray that he's recently received a pretty drastic haircut. He may have even done it himself, to save money.

From out of dozens of applications, 20 students were selected: talented young programmers, designers, artists, animators and musicians. For most applicants, the DGE was the reason they had selected DePaul in the first place. Many had already made smaller games in the course of their studies. But this was the real deal. The end product, the original Octodad, would compete on an international stage in the Student Showcase. And in March of 2011, at the International Games Festival, it would win.

Curry and Roberts took elaborate contractual steps to make sure that the students under their charge owned the rights to their own work. Days after the awards ceremony at GDC, a core team of eight formed Young Horses and pledged to make Octodad's sequel into a commercial success.

The members of Young Horses were nervous about competing with their peers at GDC, but to this day they are most afraid of letting their instructors down.

"Scott and Pat are our dads," Zuhn says during a breakfast interview in April of this year. The creative lead/lead designer has dark circles under his eyes. His wispy sideburns betray that he's recently received a pretty drastic haircut. He may have even done it himself, to save money. "I dunno, we look up to Pat a lot. We look up to Scott, but we see [Pat] more often so, like ..."

As Zuhn trails off, Stallman easily finishes his sentence: "We don't want to disappoint them."

You can't see Stallman's lips move because the lead artist has refused to shave his thick red beard until their game is published. It's around 11 a.m. and both men look like they just woke up. Twenty minutes ago they realized they were in the wrong pancake house. They're not entirely sure what day it is — it's not relevant to them. All that matters now is getting the sequel to Octodad done and not losing face with their mentors.

"We're always looking for their fatherly approval," Zuhn continues. "Because their disapproval is so stinging."

The War Room

Every member of the Young Horses team tells the same few stories. The first is the story of the creation of the loving father, the caring husband, the secret octopus that is Octodad. Soon after the creation of the DGE team in late 2010, Roberts and Curry put the 20 students into a war room and would not let them out until they had emptied themselves of ideas. Then they threw those ideas away and did it again. And again. On the third round, students were let in on the secret: Now that they had been creatively exhausted, they were mentally free to create the "New New."

"There was one where there was a guy; he had a disease called 'eye-durs' or something," Zuhn says, "that made you explode when you high-fived people."

"Or the guy getting the hair on his back shaved off with a lawnmower," Stallman says. His hair grew when he ate dirt. Obviously.

"See what I mean, though?" says Zuhn. "Once you get past Zelda but with guns, you really start to get into weird-sounding stuff, but any of it could be a game and it could be very interesting."

And it was out of that pressure cooker that Octodad popped. A white-collar worker, husband, father of two, who is in fact a cephalopod. Each "leg" is two tentacles contorted to act like a foot, and players move each independently. A full physics engine helps govern the wackiness that ensues. It is as close to slapstick as you'll find in a PC game. And it is wholly unique.

Zuhn and Stallman speak, like all the other members of the team, of that initial brainstorming process as the one that firmly cast the group. They want to do it again, to create the New New once more. And the only way to get there is to succeed as a company.

Into the abyss

The other story that nearly all of the members of Young Horses tell is the story of what happened during the middle weeks of the DGE.

Team members toiled away creating the advanced prototype for the first Octodad. It had taken them months. They sat down with their advisor, Curry, to play it.

"He gets to the end of it," Zuhn says, "and there's no trigger to end the [level] or anything, but he gets to the end and somebody ..."

"Wasn't it you?" says Stallman.

Zuhn sighs. "Yeah. I said, 'You won!' And he said, 'No. I didn't win. I just lost 40 minutes of my life.' And we felt so crushed. We basically had to burn everything to the ground."

"And rebuild it," Stallman says.

The same sinking feeling sickened the members of Young Horses more than a year later, as the eight young men evaluated the progress they were making on their sequel.

"'You won!' And he said, 'No. I didn't win. I just lost 40 minutes of my life.' We basically had to burn everything to the ground."

Murphy, a level designer, tells the tale the best. His hair is crisply parted, and he looks like an extra from Mad Men with a knit red vest over his collared shirt. He's just spent the day working with students and teachers inside the Chicago Public Schools system. He has earned every drop of the highball in his hand.

"We have meetings where we assess progress [every Sunday]," he says. "Once every three months, we have a meeting where we dig a little deeper into the overall progress. ... It was maybe a yearish ago and we were like, 'Oh shit. This is going to take longer.' We initially thought this game was going to take a year, which is ridiculous, kind of. And it might have kind of assumed that more of us were going to work more closely to full time.

"There was a minute there when we realized ... this is going to take us two years instead of [one]. We were [talking] a little bit, like, 'Do we want to commit to this?'"

They came together and rallied. A new effort-tracking system effectively gamified the amount of time they spent working on Octodad. Instead of competing against the calendar, they raced each other to finish their individual parts of the game first. They began to trim the fat.

"We got it to a point where it's pared down," Murphy explains. "But it's still pretty rich, bigger than most indie games. And we don't want it to get any smaller. We've got more of an understanding now of how long things take, and we've got a pretty good idea of when we'll actually get the game done."

A project management system called Trello lets them communicate their successes to each other, and it became the centerpiece of their Sunday meetings. The workflow is pretty solid. Badri and Murphy make the levels; Stallman and Zuhn create the art and assets; Geisler and Scott-Tunkin build the tools and make the programming trains run on time; Tibitoski manages quality assurance while Parker does foley and composes the original score. They even have the luxury of an intern now, Ricky Roberson, an undergraduate from DePaul.

Roberson is not tasked with making coffee and picking up dry cleaning. He is slaving away making assets just like everyone else.

And he's not even the only one working for free.

Beyond the ivory tower

Both Stallman and Zuhn are work full time for Young Horses. It would be incorrect to say that they are "employed," because they have no income. Their living expenses are paid for by Young Horses. They share living space and grocery money with some other members of the team.

The other six members of the team fund Stallman and Zuhn's existence with loans paid out to the company. All six have steady, full-time jobs, and a portion of their income they loan to Young Horses. And then they work on the game part time, in their off hours, and carry just as much of the responsibility for its success or failure as do Stallman and Zuhn. It is an exhausting pace.

Some of the Young Horses, like Murphy, have day jobs in education. Others are programmers and game developers. Two work making a kind of slot machine for casinos. But it's clear that all of them want to quit their day jobs in order to sit alongside Stallman and Zuhn. They want Young Horses to be a real company that they can all be proud of.

"We do fun stuff as a group. We actually went to the Smokey Mountains and rented a cabin. We're pretty much married now."

If Octodad: Dadliest Catch doesn't sell well, no one will lose significant amounts of money, thanks to their Kickstarter. If things go particularly poorly, some may not see their loans paid back in full. But, more tragically, they will have wasted their time. There is a number of units they have in mind, only whispered about even between members of the team. Anything less than that number will most assuredly break the back of their fledgling company.

In the rear of an Irish pub in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, CEO Phil Tibitoski is blunt: "I doubt we would continue as a studio. At least not in the form we are right now. Maybe we'd break off into smaller teams or something. ... We definitely would not [quit our jobs and] go full time."

Tibitoski is an unlikely CEO. Educated as a programmer, employed in advertising as a software engineer, his young eyes look heavier than they should. At times it's hard to meet them because, in person at least, he is almost shy.

"I never had any prior training," Tibitoski says. "I didn't go to business school or anything like that."

The roles and responsibilities at Young Horses are egalitarian by design. "It's never like saying, 'Well, you're this person so you have to do this work.' It's more like, 'Who would be the best at this type of work and who has the time?' It's just how we divvy things up usually. ... On the first game [at DePaul] I was just a programmer. I wasn't even lead programmer. I wasn't in charge of anything like this. I mean, I kinda just fell into it because I just found that I like doing business stuff and talking to people and networking and things like that."

The title of CEO weighs uncomfortably on Tibitoski, and he tends to turn the conversation toward all the fun the Young Horses have together, the passion they share and the family they have created.

Tibitoski is not a downer. He is not quick to talk about the potential for the dissolution of his company. These fears have to be teased out of him over several conversations over multiple weeks, and he only seems comfortable admitting to them in the presence of the monotone, task-oriented Producer/COO Geisler and lanky, quick-witted Programmer/CFO Scott-Tunkin. Most of Tibitoski's time is spent corralling their at times anemic pool of testers, managing a constant stream of content at their blog and being their voice at the industry water cooler that is Twitter.

"We do fun stuff as a group," Geisler says. "We'll take trips to the museum or the aquarium, but our biggest one was last summer. We actually went to the Smokey Mountains and rented a cabin for a few days." There was a jacuzzi and a sauna, a Jurassic Park marathon, mini-golf, hiking and board games. After the existential crisis of the Sunday meeting where they realized the game would take twice as long, after paring down the game and recommitting to finish it, the trip was just what the team needed to get back on track.

"We're pretty much married now after that," Tibitoski says.

Those who can, do

Since their time at DePaul, the team that became Young Horses has been set up for success. It was the best the school had to offer at one time, hand-selected and shown the path to success. In a few months' time, gamers the world over will test its game and deem it worthy. Or not.

Everyone on the team is excited about that day, about getting the game into people's hands; about revealing the tightly held secrets of the endearing story of an octopus and his human family. They all acknowledge that, in the days and weeks after release, things could go in a number of different directions. They are eight men caught between two potentialities, an apartment-sized Schroedinger experiment crammed with eight souls.

It's a lot to live up to, and this crucible has affected some members more than others. Composer Parker looks every bit the youngest person on the team, but his dark brown hair is streaked with gray.

"I couldn't tell my dad that I was making games for the first three years. He'd be like, 'What are you doing in school?' And I'd say, 'Computer stuff.'"

"Octodad has helped me overcome deep struggles with myself," he says. "Since high school I've had people telling me that I'm talented. ... Sometimes I believed [them] and sometimes I didn't. ... I achieved some pretty notable things musically in high school, but I just never really understood why I should care.

"During college, I discovered that I really ... wanted to work on games, but became increasingly insecure about the quality of my work. ... My level of anxiety reached its peak right before I started working on [the first Octodad]. It was to the point where I wasn't able to sleep at night because I was terrified of not being successful. ... I was worried that I'd be revealed as a fraud, that I never should have been picked for this [DGE] team in the first place and I didn't have anything meaningful to contribute."

Parker's solution was a combination of many small things, most of all just consciously trying to be happy in his work. He found a musical voice, one that he could maintain and that he could become attached to. When he makes music now he lets himself become emotional, and as he composes he will weep.

"I don't understand why," he says, "but it is honestly the best feeling I've ever had."

Badri, aside from being the level designer, is also responsible for polishing all the comedy in the script. All the Young Horses say he is the funniest person on the team, but he has a very different set of pressures. Badri is the son of an Iranian-born cab driver, and his family worked hard so that he could go to DePaul.

"I couldn't tell my dad that I was making games," says Badri. "He would have been, 'That's impossible!' My dad comes from the school of thought that there are three things to be when you grow up, and that is doctor, lawyer and engineer. And if you're not one of those three things, you won't be happy and life will be terrible for you and you will make no money.

"So, for the first three or so years, he would be like, 'What are you doing in school?' And I'd say, 'Computer stuff.' ... And then [the original] Octodad came out and it got this huge hype and cult following and people really dug it. And I would show my dad ... all the things that people were writing about us. And he'd be like, 'Well, maybe this is something good.' And now he's totally supportive of game design."

To see Badri and Parker sitting in that apartment alongside Stallman, Zuhn, Tibitoski, Geisler, Scott-Tunkin and Murphy at the Young Horses Sunday meeting, to see them laughing and working and struggling with their friends, is to see young men growing up. Through their startup, they are finding themselves and finding their place in the world.

While their creation flails about on the screen, every one of the eight men in this room is grounded by belief in what they're doing, in where they're going. Only time will tell if there's enough money in the bank to make another go at it. When Dadliest Catch is finally released into the wild, Octodad will have eight young horses galloping after him.Babykayak

Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis

Image Credits: Young Horses

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