The Making of the Huggable, Interactive Blue Octopus Octobo

Sabrina Yam

The launch of the interactive plushie and iPad combination Octobo marks a brand new product in the realm of mixed media; digital and physical play combined to encourage education in young minds. Octobo’s creator, Yuting Su, took the project from a USC Games thesis concept to a successful Kickstarter in a journey to design a mixed media plushie that will teach as much as it will encourage play.

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in following the project, please look towards their official pages on Facebook and Kickstarter at https://www.facebook.com/OCTOBO/ and https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1913046480/octobo-interactive-plush-companion-for-creative-le

Octobo is a huggable blue octopus with one remarkable feature: you can slot in a tablet (Apple, Amazon, or Android compatible) to give it an eye and a mouth, bringing it to life. The combination of traditional physical play with the plushie animal, and the potential of the digital device puts Octobo into the new category of mixed media play. The Kickstarter summary video shows this feature off in shots a plenty. Kids dance and sing with the music that Octobo plays, and clap their hands as Octobo teaches them their ABCs.

One shot in the Kickstarter video stands out: a panning shot of all of Octobo’s previous incarnations lined up to show the evolution of the toy. From a brown cloth-wrapped egg with an eye and a mouth sewn in the middle to a fuzzy bunny plush with an eye and a mouth taped over it, and finally to the distinctive shape and digital eye and mouth that Octobo sports today. Octobo’s journey reaches back to years ago, when Su first pitched the idea to her thesis class and then built a team around her project to make it a reality.

I interviewed Yuting to get a better understanding of her journey in creating this toy. Through her three years in USC’s Interactive Media and Games M.F.A. program, Yuting’s determination to see this toy to market had her solidifying Octobo as a prototype, working on it through her pregnancy with her son Owen, bringing it to toy fairs and exhibiting at the Games Developer Conference (GDC), and finally to launching her successful Kickstarter campaign. In her own words, here are some of the challenges and highlights of successfully taking a product to market while still in school.

Concept, Pitch, and Initial Design

Yuting knew early on that she wanted to make something for kids. After experimenting with building blocks that responded to augmented reality within an app, she decided that she wanted to create something more distinctive and tangible. She shaped her vision through brainstorming with her peers and constantly revisiting goals that she’s set for herself regarding the product and how she wanted it to interact with children.

Sabrina Yam: “What inspired you to make Octobo?

Yuting Su: “In the USC program, there were opportunities for me to make kids games. I really loved that. Working with kids…they’re a very special audience. They’re emotions are very direct. I think my own style is more on the cuter side, so I think it started my passion of working with kids.”

Sabrina: “How did you initially pitch Octobo?”

Yuting: “I know I wanted to do a hybrid game: physical and digital. There’s a lot of physical digital combination games [out there on the market], but most of them put more focus on either side. Either it’s very physical or very digital. Octobo is a new way to see this combination and balance out the two sides.”

Sabrina: “How did the other Masters students help your work on Octobo?”

Yuting: “I think the graduating program is very supportive and helpful. Not only [because of] my classmates, but all the professors in the program. By brainstorming about different ideas and different topics with my classmates, I was able to narrow down the direction I wanted to go. Working with a class of people that you’ve been staying together with for 3 years: everyone knows your style, your past projects. It’s good to have a group of people who know you to give you feedback.”

The Difference Being a Mother Makes

Not only did Yuting take on the challenge of bringing a product to market, she did so while she was pregnant with her son, Owen. Although it was challenging, not only did being a mother give her unique perspective and inspiration in pushing forward with her product, it also helped her develop an incredible personal insight into the market she was trying to break into, which ultimately helped her with launching Octobo on Kickstarter.

Sabrina: “What were the difficulties of taking Octobo through graduate school while pregnant?”

Yuting: “Being pregnant means there are a lot of obligations besides just focusing on your project. [It] takes away a lot of time. Morning sickness is terrible! And your energy is not…it really feels like your body is not working, and a lot of things is unexpected. So that’s really a big learning process, not only [in regards to] creating a project, but also learning about myself. At the same time, I feel like I worked more efficiently, because I know I might not have a lot of time for me to procrastinate, because if I don’t finish my work ahead of time, I might not have time in the future to do it.”

Sabrina: “How has motherhood changed you and your view on this project?”

Yuting: “It cemented my passion for creating a kids project. Being a mom changes your perspective entirely. Following Owen’s development gave me a lot of input in my game, too. Now I’m not just creating stuff for the audience, I am personally part of the audience. I can see what kind of toys in the market I want to buy for Owen. Owen grew up with Octobo. He played with Octobo at different ages. Octobo is designed for kids up to 7 years old…having Octobo with Owen from when he’s a baby, and now that he’s learning ABCs with Octobo…it’s just a great journey.”

Reaching the Community and the Right Audience

Like with any good game or product, Octobo was meticulously playtested and tweaked before Yuting felt it was ready to be manufactured. Yuting submitted Octobo to various toy fairs and conferences to showcase her development of the interactive plush, and got some great feedback from exhibiting at the events. The pride from having the community interact with her work, along with some of the real-time playtest data that she collected from the audience, gave her the final push to polish and bring Octobo to fruition.

Sabrina: “What are some of your proudest accomplishments with this product?”

Yuting: “Getting Octobo into GDC’s Alt + Ctrl section was a big milestone for me. People like my stuff. When you create it, it feels like your friends and family love it, but you’re sometimes unsure if other people liked it. During Alt + Ctrl at GDC, we got to show Octobo for a couple of days. You see people coming into your booth…seeing them interact with Octobo and getting news coverage of it…people seemed like they like it, and all their feedback let me further improve the project. I got a lot of energy by all the conventions that I went to. It feels like you’re improving and people are seeing all your hard work. After GDC, we showed Octobo at E3 and IndieCade, and Octobo was nominated as the most innovative game.”

Sabrina: “And what is some advice you would give to students who want to do as you did, and take their idea to market?”

Yuting: “You have to know that this is the path you want to pursue. For me, all I wanted to do is make a product and put it into the market, but some people might just want to make art. You have to know the industry. I spent a long time understanding toys. And finally, you have to know where your audience is, and know how to reach them. Just know what you want and what you expect, and list it down, and then revisit your goals through production to make sure you’re hitting them.”

Octobo is currently fully funded on Kickstarter with three days left in their campaign.