Coding and coexisting in the corral: How Octodad's team manages living and working together

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Andrew Hayward
October 1, 2012 1:30 PM
Coding and coexisting in the corral: How Octodad's team manages living and working together
It's the not-so-common ideal these days to graduate from college and immediately jump into a fulfilling role that uses one's myriad of learned skills. Of course, there's nothing terribly common about the Chicago-based indie developer Young Horses or the much-ballyhooed sequel they're working on, Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

Octodad is a colorful series about an octopus posing as a suburban father and husband; successfully funded via Kickstarter in the summer of 2011. As for developer Young Horses themselves? Five of them live under one roof, previously in a single apartment and now with two across a mutual hallway, while three others commute into the workspace from elsewhere throughout the city and surrounding suburbs.

Between the team's bevy of independent day jobs and contract work, they're putting their spare hours into Octodad's return. But the group also identifies the odd situation of having colleagues as roommates within a communal work studio they lovingly call the "corral," mere steps from where they sleep. It's a unique arrangement, which has come with its share of difficulties, but it's one that members say is the only way they can imagine tackling the project.
Bred as an extracurricular project for game design undergrads at Chicago's DePaul University in late 2010, as detailed in a feature from early last year, Octodad was created and developed by 18 students over the course of five months. Eventually the game went on to become a Student Showcase Finalist at the 2011 Independent Games Festival. Octodad was freely released and widely praised for its oddball premise, but soon after graduation arrived along with the dreaded real world.

But some of the original Octodad developers weren't ready to give up on the domesticated cephalopod, so six of them set up shop in a shared five-bedroom apartment in June 2011, with another three external members included as part of the new team. A month later, the Kickstarter campaign went live with the aim of raising $20,000 for development of an Octodad sequel. Had the campaign failed, the apartment might simply have been a pit stop on the road to wildly different fates for all.

"We may have looked for funding elsewhere, but it's more likely that we would not have continued as a team," admits Philip Tibitoski, community manager, president, and CEO of Young Horses. "We figured that if we couldn't raise the money, then there clearly wasn't enough interest in a commercial version for it to be a viable project for us to spend so much of our time on." Luckily, the campaign overshot its goal by more than 20%, bringing in a total of $24,320 before fees and Kickstarter's cut, prompting the team to dive into development. Young Horses was officially founded last October, with members of the original student team that didn't stick around signing over their rights to Octodad in exchange for a share in the company, as well as royalties on Dadliest Catch for helping craft the original concept.

Coding and coexisting in the corral How Octodad's team manages living and working together
Making it Work
Enter six young, recent college grads living in a two-story, five bedroom spot, trying to create a game with a relatively limited budget while still supporting themselves through other jobs. With the Kickstarter funds going towards things like software, convention booths, and legal fees, and only a small percentage used for utilities for the apartment's office area, the developers are paying their own way for housing.

With no families to support, the team thought it best to combine its living and project needs into a shared space for both. And it's worked. "It just proved how much more efficient we can be when we actually live together and are able to contact each other, and to also have a community spot to actually organize in," explains Kevin Geisler, the group's programmer, producer, and COO.

"When we were originally designing the game, the designers were able to talk out different ideas and stories with a whiteboard, and it was much easier than trying to design a game through email," adds Devon Scott-Tunkin, programmer and CFO. "Having a space where you live and work together, you can retreat [to your room] and think about ideas and come back and talk about it more. At the same time, it's also really motivational, because there's always someone working on the game."

And with eventual back pay and royalties (when the game is released) based on hours logged, each member will get back the exact share of what they put into the game. Tibitoski concedes that "it's a bit of a meritocracy," but it's how they've gotten around the varying schedules of members thanks to day jobs and contract work. It's even something of a meta-game for them: "We're a competitive bunch," he claims.

But despite many positive results, the original setup proved perhaps too cramped for the steeds. Sunday meetings – in which all core members communed to show progress, play through the game, and discuss ideas – were uncomfortable within the small office space. "We literally ended up climbing over one another if someone had to go to the bathroom or wanted to change seats," notes Tibitoski. "It was fun at first, but quickly got a little old."

One of the original Young Horses departed the project early on, but continued to live in the apartment; other random guests crashed there for days or weeks at a time. And frustrations began to mount between the roommates who did and did not drink alcohol. "The upstairs was dry, and the downstairs was flooded," deadpans Kevin Zuhn, the game's creative director, designer, and writer, who fell into the former camp. "Sometimes it felt like we were cranky neighbors."

Essentially, the team had to learn how to not only be great collaborators, but also good roommates. "We definitely had all sorts of rules to get through in that first year, as to how we lived together," explains Zuhn. Tibitoski adds that he'd often go out to a movie by himself, just to get away from it all. "[Phil and I] are in a competition to be the youngest old man," jokes Scott-Tunkin at that comment.

A Fresh Start
Much as the original shared living arrangement fostered creativity amongst the inhabitants and offered a communal gathering point for the external members, the space was too tight and ultimately created some issues. So the team set out to find a better option, and the result has proven remarkably effective.

Now the five Young Horses that remained from the previous apartment share two such places, located directly across the hall from one another. The three-bedroom – which houses Geisler, Zuhn, and lead artist Chris Stallman – also features a large workspace, while Tibitoski and Scott-Tunkin live in the opposing apartment. With much more space and a surprisingly lengthy hallway between the residences, it's easy for members to duck away when a party's raging or when they need space, and the larger work area allows for more fruitful collaboration.

Coding and coexisting in the corral How Octodad's team manages living and working together
It's also led to better relations between team members, though surviving the first apartment likely had a lot to do with that, as well. Where you might expect the members to seek an escape whenever possible, Young Horses actually took a group trip to the Smoky Mountains this summer – a nice respite from the usual grind of developing the game. "I don't know if it's so much that we get sick of each other, as we do of working on the game with each other," cedes Tibitoski.

Blurring the line between work and home life has its own set of expectations, however, which occasionally weighs on the members. "I do always feel like I'm not doing Octodad when I'm doing anything else," says Zuhn. "The sense of responsibility is always hanging there as long as I'm in this space. But I don't consider that a bad thing, because I really want to work on Octodad all the time. And so I do."

'We figured that if we couldn't raise the money, then there clearly wasn't enough interest in a commercial version for it to be a viable project for us to spend so much of our time on.'- Philip Tibitoski, CEO of Young Horses

Designer John Murphy, one of the team's external members, claims that's one of the reasons he opted not to live in one of the new apartments, for fear that between a day job and the game, other parts of his life would lose prominence. "I don't know if I would do very well not being able to totally escape," he admits.

For Seth Parker, who handles audio composition and design and lives the furthest distance from the studio, the time with the crew is essential. "I really need to be there to get inspiration back, because everyone is always talking about the game when they're together," he says. Contrary to earlier needs of roommates needing a breather from the group, "It's the opposite for me. I need some time with them instead of time away." Luckily, all three external members say they feel comfortable coming by the corral to work, and that communication between inside and outside players has improved the longer they've maintained the arrangement.

Young Horses' members hope that the expected late 2013 release of Octodad: Dadliest Catch – which is currently mounting a Steam Greenlight campaign – will be successful enough to afford the team a more dedicated base separate from their living quarters. "I don't know if this is a sustainable arrangement for a company for more than a few years," admits Scott-Tunkin.

But with a whimsical tone not unlike that of the game they're making, designer and writer Majdi Badri chimes in, saying, "For a launching company that's brand new, out of the gate, and full of vigor with a sparkle in its eye, living with a bunch of guys is the thing to do!" It's that kind of upbeat approach and sense of humor that's kept the team happily chugging along at the game despite the curious living situation, and hopefully the same sort of spirit that'll make the promising sequel ultimately as special as it seems.

Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. He is a regular contributor to Official Xbox Magazine, GamesRadar, and many other publications, and edits the iOS apps and games coverage for Mac|Life. Follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
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