January 16, 2009 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[Leading up to the 2009 Independent Games Festival in March, we're talking with the finalists for for this year's IGF competition, starting by interviewing Hemisphere Games' Eddy Boxerman about the triple-nominated Osmos, a serene and elegant "orbital osmosis simulator".]
In Osmos, players navigate through an indigo sea of wandering motes, absorbing smaller bits while avoiding collisions with larger motes.
Its drifting orbs, calm visuals, and minimalist soundtrack provoke comparisons with ThatGameCompany's fl0w or Nintendo and Skip's Orbital/Orbient games, but Osmos offers several significant differences in mechanics.
For example, it includes matter-ejection propulsion that shrinks the player's mote, time-warping for speeding or slowing down time depending on the player's needs, and intelligent motes that can avoid or destroy players.
We spoke with designer and programmer Eddy Boxerman about Osmos -- which was nominated for multiple awards at this year's Independent Games Festival (part of Think Services, as is this website), including Technical Excellence, Excellence in Design, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.
Subjects discussed include exactly what makes the osmosis sim unique, and why players might need to brush up on orbital maneuvers to take on the game's later stages:
What kind of background do you have making games?
Eddy Boxerman: I liked modding as a kid -- coming up with alternate rule-sets and tweaks for Monopoly, Stratego, etc. and then play-testing them. A good friend introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12 years old, and that was it.
I've been making games as a hobbyist ever since. More recently, I worked for a few years at Ubisoft Montreal as a physics and animation programmer.
And it doesn't hurt that the friends who have contributed to Osmos are all super talented: Dave Burke worked at Epic as an engine programmer, Kun Chang served as cinematics art director on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Andy Nealen has been teaching courses in game design.
Obviously, many will draw comparisons between Osmos and Orbient/Orbital, or even fl0w, due to similar design elements and the minimalist look and sound.
Could you describe how you developed the idea of Osmos, and what other sources that your team might have been inspired by while planning the game?
EB: As you can imagine, I've thought a lot about it, and there's so many takes on the subject - here's a few different personal points of view:
Mr. Denial - Orbient? flOw? Never heard of them! [phew, at least they didn't mention Spore's cell stage]
Mr. Storyteller - One conceptual germ dates back to a course I took (many years ago) on Spacecraft Dynamics during my Mech. Eng. undergrad (Thanks Professor Misra!). More recently, I had been toying with a game concept in which the player controls some blobby, deformable creature -- Gish-like, but different.
Then one evening in early 2008, several ideas that had been floating around in my psyche spontaneously came together, and the basic Osmos mechanics were born, all wriggly and eager to burrow themselves into a prototype, which I put together over the course of a few days.
Within a few weeks, I had a version with "spectacular" programmer art, sound, and music which I sent to a few friends. I've also been listening to a lot of ambient electronica in recent years, and really loving a few artists. Their music was a definite inspiration.
Mr. Alibi - I hadn't seen flOw until the initial Osmos prototype was completed. The same goes for the Spore trailers. And Orbient? It just came out. I'm innocent I tell you -- innocent!
Mr. Gloom - [sighs] It's true. Osmos shares an ambient aesthetic with those games. And the concept of eating/absorbing. And a 2D perspective. And Orbient even contains gravity! Why in the world do I continue with this dead end project?!
The Geek Lawyer - But in the final analysis, their fundamental gameplay mechanics are different. Navigation in Osmos is based on action/reaction, utilizing a matter-ejection propulsion mechanism that is unique.
That -- coupled with the smooth absorption of foreign motes -- presents the player with a non-linear optimization problem that is extremely deep and complex, leading to a rich and balanced game space. Osmos is about the exploration of that unique space. Plus it's sexy.
Me - I believe that what Osmos shares with games such as Orbient and flOw is genre, aesthetically and -- to some degree -- gameplay-wise. (For an even more long winded answer, I've posted about this here.)
If you liked those games, you'll probably enjoy Osmos. And if you didn't like those games, you may still enjoy Osmos! Try the demo, it's free.
As you mention, one way Osmos' gameplay really differs from Orbient is its intelligent motes, like the Scaredy -- can you describe some of the motes players encounter?
EB: The Scaredy is one of four AI personalities that exist in the development version at the moment. He's wily, but non-threatening -- good for tutorials. Wait until you meet some of his more aggressive cousins.
What new obstacles or elements do you introduce in Osmos' later levels to provide more difficulty?
EB: Currently there are three game branches: Ambient, Force and Smart. As I just mentioned, Smart levels get harder by introducing new and tougher opponents -- sometimes many on a level.
Ambient levels are what I consider "classic" Osmos. As the levels progress, the player begins at a smaller and smaller size, and the levels get bigger and bigger. By the time you're a few levels into the third zone (A3), you begin so small -- and are surrounded by such huge motes -- that it seems impossible to complete the level.
But if you look around, you'll start noticing some smaller motes -- far, far away; and with skill, planning and patience (it takes roughly 10-15 minutes to complete one of these levels), it's beatable.
This is also where the time-warping mechanic becomes really useful: the player can speed time up for those long, "deep-space" voyages, and slow it down to nail a tiny, high-speed collision. I sometimes feel that these difficult ambient levels are my favorites. They're tough, but still very relaxing.
The Force levels are where the player encounters Repulsors and Attractors. As multiple, powerful Repulsors get added to a level, things really start moving around, and the player has to move quickly and skillfully.
In the "solar system" style levels, the central Attractor gets progressively more powerful. By the third zone, I recommend for players to read a bit about orbital maneuvers, to understand how to navigate in these systems; unlike the easy versions of these levels, players can't just "brute force" their way through them.
That said, the difficulty curve is intended to give players the opportunity to build an intuition about it. There's also a branch which leads to "multi-Attractor" levels, which contain many, moving Attractors. Lots of warped trajectories in these levels -- fun for the whole family.
There's more, but, well, we have to keep a few secrets.
What reference materials did you use to develop Osmos' elements and look?
EB: Kun really helped out with this, and there are improvements yet to come. Our main references were from electron microscopy and deep space photography. And, though we wanted to distinguish ourselves and avoid flOw's look, we succumbed and gazed at a few deep sea creatures -- they're just so unbelievably incredible.
What sort of development tools did your team use?
It's a home-rolled engine built upon openGL (yay for NeHe), openAL, Freetype, and libVorbis. Big thanks to the open source communities! We also use Beanstalk and TortoiseSVN for source control, MSVC 2005 Express, Photoshop, Fraps, OggDrop, etc.
The game's dark blue hue, mellow soundtrack, and minimalist HUD all provide for a very relaxing game. Were there any other elements you consciously focused on to provide for that relaxing feel?
EB: A great deal of time was spent tweaking the controls and gameplay to give an intuitive, zen feel. I hope we succeeded. Oh, and I took a few liberties with the physics equations for the same reasons; they're loyal to the spirit of the laws, just not to the letter. I'm sure they reflect the properties of some universe out there.
Why did your team believe that sense of relaxation/zen was important?
EB: The initial intention wasn't to create a relaxing game per se. The fundamental gameplay mechanics simply suggested it, and we chose to embrace it -- rather strongly. I should say that some of the more difficult "Smart" levels, as well as the multi-Attractor levels are a little... less relaxing. But for those that want relaxation and challenge, "deep" ambient does the trick.
The game seems like it could also work well on a platform with touchscreen capabilities, such as the iPhone. Have you explored bringing Osmos to any other non-PC platform?
EB: Nothing concrete yet, but developing an iPhone (as well as a Mac) version is definitely on our wish list.
Can you see the game being played without mouse or touchscreen controls, say with just a traditional gamepad?
EB: Absolutely -- though I suspect the thumbstick controls will be a little tricky to tweak. I hope to try it sometime soon.
You've had an Alpha demo available for three weeks now. What sort of feedback have you heard from players, in terms of changes or additions they'd like to see?
Mainly requests for additional platforms (Mac and iPhone); alternate zooming controls for those without mouse wheels; and the full version!
If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?
EB: Personally, I learned a fair bit building an engine from scratch; but when I think about the hundreds of hours invested on that front -- by myself and my collaborators -- compared to the great, inexpensive engines that are available these days, I get a little... tired.
That said, [Metanet co-founder and N co-creator] Raigan Burns gave a MIGS talk last year entitled "Unique Knobs for Indie Games," in which he made the case that "creating your own unique technologies from scratch allows freedom of expression impossible with middleware and canned solutions." Perhaps he's right, and that's one of the things that gives Osmos a certain je ne sais quoi.
Were there any elements that you experimented with that just flat out didn't work with your vision?
EB: Once upon a time, there were lives in Osmos. Not any more. Time-warping was also a limited resource. Gonzo. We have yet to find a compelling use for the "Explosive" mote. And I experimented with alternate force fields besides attraction and repulsion, such as "curl." No dice.
On the aesthetic side, at one point, I was trying to make the whole thing look like a moving piece of modern art. Ugh. It looks a lot better now.
And while they'd make amusing Easter eggs, copyright laws would never allow me to release the Bob-the-Builder and Winx versions of Osmos that I created for my nephew and niece.
What do you think of the state of independent game development, and are there any other independent games out that you currently admire?
EB: Indie is so alive and well that it's daunting. Which makes it all the more incredible to be nominated for any IGF awards! The IGF in general has been an incredible medium, wellspring, and channel for the spread of all manner of indie goodness over the years. Big thanks to its organizers and judges.
As for specific indie games and developers, I admire too many, so I'll spare you the long laundry list. Suffice it to say that the majority of the IGF finalists (as well as some who didn't get nominated) are on it.
Well, okay, two exceptions:
1. Does anyone not love 2D Boy? Seriously, you guys're the man! A real inspiration to us all: from the experimental gameplay project, to World of Goo, and beyond...
2. A team you may not have heard of yet -- Infinite Ammo.