If you ran into Philip Tibitoski in a coffee shop or brushed past him in the street, you’d never know he helped create some of the silliest video games of the past decade. He’s calm and self-possessed, and he thinks before he speaks in a low tenor. He exudes big forensic accountant energy.
In actuality, Tibitoski is the co-founder and president of Young Horses, the Chicago studio responsible for Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Bugsnax. Both of these games are ridiculous in their own special ways: Octodad is a 2014 title about an octopus masquerading as a typical human father, while Bugsnax is a PlayStation 5 launch game set in a cartoonish world of food-animal hybrids.
They’re both also deeper than they seem at first glance. Octodad looks like a silly physics sandbox and Bugsnax appears to be a Saturday-morning cartoon take on Pokemon Snap, but they exist in story-driven universes with comprehensive narrative arcs. The script for Bugsnax alone comes in at more than 44,000 words, and the game has full voice acting. Among the creature-catching mechanics, it tells a heartwarming tale of community, consumption and environmentalism.
“We pulled the same trick we did last time, maybe unintentionally,” Tibitoski said. “People thought Octodad was just a physics sandbox toy, and I think a lot of people didn't know there was a story at all until maybe two weeks beforehand, when we released a story trailer. ...I enjoy subverting people's expectations like that, although I wonder if our luck will run out at some point.”
Don’t call it a bait-and-switch, but defying expectations has been part of the Young Horses DNA from the beginning, and it’s worked out well two times running. Bugsnax secured a spot as a PS5 launch title this November, and from the first second of its debut trailer, it became the must-play indie game for Sony’s new console.
“It was great seeing everybody latch on and get excited, because we were worried about the complexity of the idea and the game in general,” Tibitoski said. “It was a lot harder to pitch this game than Octodad. I don't think we ever really landed on, ‘This is our clear elevator pitch that everybody can understand,’ because there's just so much to say about it, from the mechanical side or the story or the characters or the world, and set-up for the tone.”
Young Horses pitched Bugsnax to Sony in 2016 or 2017, Tibitisoki recalled, early on in the development process. Octodad had performed well enough to sustain the studio without taking on contract work or rushing out another title, and Tibitoski’s team had spent some time honing their ideas into a semi-coherent prototype.
They began with touchstones like Pokemon Snap, Pikmin, The Muppets, Apocalypse Now, FernGully and The Island of Dr. Moreau, and initially ended up with an on-rails food-truck simulator that wasn’t much fun to play. They brainstormed more and expanded the game to include cooking half-food, half-animal creatures and feeding them to nearby residents in order to influence their communities, complete with town-upgrade trees.
“After prototyping each of those things out, we realized this is way too much for a team of our size to actually accomplish, and so we took the things that we liked the most out of those, and eventually pared it down to what Bugsnax is now,” Tibitoski said.
Bugsnax’s story evolved over time and numerous table reads, with creative director Kevin Zuhn and story editor Sage Coffey at the helm. The final version of Bugsnax has a cast of charming characters called Grumpuses, a touching narrative, and 100 adorable animal-food creatures to catch. When Young Horses initially pitched the game to Sony, executives asked if there was a gas leak in their office or something, considering the ridiculousness of the idea. They liked it, but it was still years away from going gold.
Young Horses continued building out Bugsnax, and eventually, it became clear that the game would be ready to ship near the end of 2020, when the new PlayStation and Xbox consoles were rumored to land. Tibitoski started poking his people at Sony again, asking if Bugsnax could be involved in the launch of the PS5. One day, they poked back.
“It was April, and so that was an interesting experience of being, I don't know, trusted enough to be part of that whole marketing set of beats from the announcement in June to release, and to be sitting alongside Miles Morales,” Tibitoski said.
There are 10 people on the Young Horses team, and a handful of contract employees worked on Bugsnax as well. All but one of the original Octodad crew is still at the studio. Plenty of indie developers that found success in the early 2010s have disappeared, but Young Horses is still kicking, sustained by sensible business decisions and a sense of self-awareness. The team isn’t afraid to throw out ideas that they can’t feasibly complete, and throughout the development of Bugsnax, they worked 30 to 35 hours a week, with a few 50-hour weeks in the final few months.
“While I enjoy making weirdo games, it's also just very important that I'm making responsible decisions to take care of the people I work with, stuff like that,” Tibitoski said. “That's become much more of a thing than it used to be, or at least I've moved further into a business-y, boss role, I guess. Weird, but feels right.”
Which is a fitting description for Young Horses overall.