On June 11, Young Horses co-founder and president Philip Tibitoski tweeted about his studio’s new game, Bugsnax, which had been revealed alongside a number of high-profile PlayStation 5 titles. That’s totally normal. But taking it at face value overlooks a curious fact: Tibitoski actually tweeted about Bugsnax, only the second game from Young Horses after the beloved Octodad, nearly six years ago. He just, as the saying goes, “tweeted it out.”
Not only did Tibitoski tweet the name Bugsnax six year ago, he riffed the game’s premise, which would later change in ways big and small: “hunting and eating bugs as a little monster to change traits about yourself through eating them to become friends + date others.”
Video game announcements are, unlike most other industries, a closely guarded secret. Movies, books, and television shows are often announced years in advance, well before they’re in active production. Games, by contrast, will often be secretly in the works for years, even if the entire world knows the game is coming. It’s why events like E3 are so beloved, by developers and fans alike; it’s an opportunity for secrets, even obvious ones, to be revealed.
“Honestly, I had completely forgotten that I'd ever tweeted about it so early,” said Tibitoski in an email to me recently, “and when I think about how long we've been working on the game there are times when I can't remember what year we started building it the same way that I forget how old I am sometimes.”
Tibitoski tweeted about Bugsnax six years ago because that actually is when development on the project started, but as is the case with making most games, it’s not a simple story.
Octodad came out in early 2014, and while Young Horses has spent the years porting the game to everything under the sun—it hit Switch in November 2017—the studio hasn’t been sitting idle. In the latter half of 2014, the developer was trying to settle on its next project, and was considering something that was, at the time, still novel: being open about its process.
Young Horses was inspired by Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight events, where the studio would hold an internal game jam and release the experiments to the wider world. Maybe Young Horses could come up with a bunch of ideas and see which one people were into.
“About two days into that we realized that no one on the team wanted to actually spend that amount of effort and time organizing pitches to be displayed or voted on by the public since that's a ton of extra work,” said Tibitoski. “We're only a nine-person team at our core and we don't have an external film crew documenting our every move, so it quickly became obvious how out of scope that would be to try and do well.”
The idea was scrapped but the various experiments weren’t, and so Tibitoski shared some ideas on Twitter. Young Horses had spent four years turning Octodad from a student project into a full game, and were excited to be working on something new. That’s where he crossed paths with his good friend Ubisoft senior community developer Eric Pope, then at Harmonix.
(Full disclosure: I’ve been friendly and in many social situations with Pope over the years.)
After Octodad, the studio internally pitched roughly 60 ideas to one another, which turned into a handful of working prototypes. Young Horses agonized on which one to settle on.
“We've been hyper aware of the possibility of a sophomore slump, this being our second full release ever,” said Tibitoski. “Living up to the hype of Octodad is something that I think has been in the back of our minds since we even started pitching ideas. Are we good enough? Can we do this again without going back to the Octodad well?”
The reason Young Horses could take its time was because Octodad kept selling well, and the goal at the studio was to “create unique games” so long as that remained financially feasible. This also created, as Tibitoski put it, a small rift within the company; some people were granted a chance to work on completely new stuff, while others were stuck porting an old project. The goal is to avoid a similar misstep whenever it moves past Bugsnax.
“Not only are we making this wild new game, but I'm at the same time still learning how to lead and run a studio,” he said.
Once the studio landed on Bugsnax as its next thing, the next six years is a familiar story: the game’s scope got wildly out of control and, slowly, it cut and cut until it started to take shape. What it’s become is still a secret; the game’s trailer revealed little about how it plays.
The conclusion of that six years of work is what brings us full circle to Twitter again.
When Tibitoski tweeted “ Bugsnax” back in 2014, social media was a different space.
“While Octodad did well for us and got a lot of attention for a game of its size it also didn't seem like people were paying that much attention to our social presence after it had released in 2014,” he said. “Especially with my own personal account not being all that game development focused, I didn't think anyone would care much about the tweets I was making at the time.”
At the time, that was true. But when you’re revealing a game alongside Horizon: Forbidden West and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, as millions are watching, you’re suddenly on notice.
But Tibitoski knew something was up a few days prior, when a friend “liked” one of the old Bugsnax tweets. That’s when history came flooding back, and he realized he had, to some degree, spoiled his own announcement already. The action prompted a wave of anxiety, but wanting to avoid the Streisand Effect, he just ignored it and pretended it didn’t happen.
In the end, it all worked out and became a really funny joke. It also revealed something awfully unique about Young Horses: the goofy codenames it assigns to its projects end up sticking around. More often than not, a game’s final title shifts a lot during development.
“Both Bugsnax and Octodad were named within those first naming meetings/pitches when the concepts were super new even to the team,” he said. “In both cases we said, ‘Yeah, we'll come up with a better name for this later. This is a temp name.’ However, anytime we ended up going back to see if we could come up with something better we found ourselves realizing that the first name pitched was the best we could come up with and we didn't want to call them anything other than Octodad and Bugsnax.”
In the meantime, while we wait to learn more of Bugsnax’s secrets, maybe we already know where to look if we’re hoping to learn that information ASAP: Tibitoski’s own Twitter account.
“I guess I can’t haphazardly tweet out our internal game pitches 6 years ahead of time anymore,” he said recently.