In mid-2012, three years removed from designing the adorable and massively successful strategy game Plants vs. Zombies, George Fan wondered what was next. After years at developer PopCap, he was now an indie developer. He no longer had the predictable paycheck or company-selected office chair, but he had time. So he decided to enter a game-making competition called Ludum Dare. The goal: to make an entire video game in just 48 hours — alone. The art, the code, the music, the design, Fan would handle everything.
The competition’s theme was evolution. “For some reason,” says Fan, “I thought of an octopus.”
Forty-eight hours later, Fan completed the first draft of Octogeddon, a tiny game about a giant octopus with special tentacles that assume the behaviors of different species like chickens and honeybees. Octogeddon claimed second place in the “Fun” category of Ludum Dare 24. Shortly after, Fan founded a small studio called All Yes Good to turn the project into a full commercial release. In a way, he got the band back together: working alongside Fan on Octogeddon are PvZ lead artist Rich Werner, and Kurt Pfeifer, who programmed PvZ for the Xbox 360.
Scheduled to launch on Steam sometime in 2017, Octogeddon is described in video game-speak as an “arcade-style, action strategy game.” Which is to say it’s very different from Plants vs. Zombies. The goal isn’t to defend, but to destroy; the titular octopus is a creature bent on ravaging the world. By infusing its tentacles with properties of different animals, it’s able to turn into a constantly evolving killing machine, becoming deadlier and deadlier the further you progress.
But despite these differences, Fan says Octogeddon and PvZ share many sensibilities. “There’s a segment of game design that I focus on, which is keeping things as simple as possible without sacrificing any depth,” he says. This sort of game should be easy to pick up, but complex for those who invest time. “I think these are things that show up in all of the games that I make, and that’s just a result of who is making the game.”
The two games also share Werner’s colorful, wild art. His clever character designs were a large part of PvZ’s appeal, including everything from pea shooters that shot literal peas, to a corncob catapult that hurled slabs of butter at incoming zombies. In Octogeddon, the main character is often a mish-mash of different animals, but with some clever design flourishes thrown in. A seashell becomes a helmet. A snake becomes a venom-spewing weapon.
For Fan, who left Popcap around the same time Plants vs. Zombies 2 was announced, working with such a small team has been ideal. “I prefer the smaller teams because you get to have more influence over the game,” Fan says. “It lets me do what I do best, which is design. I can just communicate directly with a few people, rather than try to corral a big team together. We had a really similar team composition for Plants vs. Zombies, and it just worked really well there. So I wanted to put together something that was really similar for this game.”
However, Fan’s trying not to hold his present work to his past success. PvZ spawned a big franchise, which includes not only a sequel, but also two 3D console shooters, a board game, and soon a collectible digital card game. “I think it’s really a pitfall to compare yourself to something that you did earlier that was really successful,” he says. “If I go into this thinking that I have to make something that’s as big as Plants vs. Zombies, it’s a way of looking at it that I don’t think is very fruitful.
“I’m tackling Octogeddon as if I’ve made no other games before it.”