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Video: Make Games Like a Horse: The Design of Bugsnax

Young Horses studio head and gameplay designer John Murphy on the pitching and prototyping that lead to Bugsnax.

Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-Chief

July 25, 2023

In this GDC 2023 talk, John Murphy of Young Horses goes through the specific (and very colorful) internal pitching and prototyping methodology that lead the studio from its first game (Octodad) to 2020's hit Bugsnax. In it, he runs from the studio's history and surprise hit that started as a student project, to their long, involved design process so they could avoid the "sophomore slump" after Octodad: Dadliest Catch released.

"We ended up just returning to the same method that we learned from mentors in school about how to decide what to make," says Murphy, brandishing a whiteboard with plenty of reference art.

"…How we did it was everyone reflected on what they were preoccupied with or inspired by. And everyone on the team would pitch here just like a few random inspirations that people had: things like Space Jam, or Pharrell's big hat.” Screenshots of both feature prominently on the moodboard slide.

"So the way that it worked was we went through multiple rounds of fewer more detailed pitches, starting with just elevator pitches, or just titles of games like here we got things like Burrowing Dirt bros, or Alternate Reality Steve Irwin."

Three prototype projects on the road to Bugsnax

Eventually, the team settled on three main concepts they wanted to dive into further, and they began working on simple prototypes. Murphy walks through each concept with accompanying reference art and videos of the functional prototypes.

"So the first thing we prototyped was something that we were calling Summer Camp. The elevator pitch was: 'you are a misfit kid trapped in a mysterious summer camp. If you want to escape, you need to take pictures, make friends and hunt down urban legends. So these are a few of the inspirations for that. And here is what we came up with,'" he said, running gameplay video that showcases a cartoony campground and spooky woods, with some kind of apparition appearing when the player tries to take its picture.

The resulting prototype had some good features, but wasn’t the best fit:

"We successfully made something and we liked the sort of vibe of this, but it really just kind of felt like, essentially some fetch quests [and there] was a little bit too much just walking around. [It] didn't quite feel right."

The next prototype was Hellsports High (a game that, if I may editorialize a bit, I genuinely hope they return to and make one day!)

"The elevator pitch for this one was: 'a demon portal to Hell has opened in your school soccer field! Navigate high school relationships in order to build a team, harness sick magics and play sports to save the school from annihilation.'"

The small prototypes highlight characters running around a soccer field using magic "soccer spells" and a penalty kick minigame where the player can manipulate the ball in the air, as a many-tentacled demon guards the net.

Murphy notes that this one didn't eventually go forward because the team's core programmers were working on porting Octodad at the time, and were keenly necessary for getting the intricacies of a sports game "right." So they continued on with the pitch that would eventually become Bugsnax.

Bugsnax donut style bug

"So the third thing we prototyped was initially called Bug Snacks Monster Crossing, says Murphy. "The elevator pitch with this: 'You are a cute monster that hunts, catches, and prepares bug snacks to be sold to other monsters in your town. Eating different [bugs] transforms the townsfolk and influences how they behave towards you and each other.' So, this one had sort of three phases of hunting bug snacks, preparing them to be fed, which we refer to as 'peeling' and then feeding them to what eventually became called grumpuses. Those are sort of cute puppet people.”

Murphy shows a number of simple initial prototypes for the game (including a truly horrifying prototype for the thankfully-scrapped "peeling" mechanic), and later iterations as the game got closer and closer to the Bugsnax we know and love.

Watch the video above for the full experience and the entire journey to Snaktooth Island.

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About the Author(s)

Danielle Riendeau

Editor-in-Chief, GameDeveloper.com

Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.

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