Interview with Dave Burke of Osmos

October 9th, 2009 by

Watching gamers play at the Osmos booth was hilarious. They’d grab the mouse with that kill-and-win attitude that works well for so many other games and immediately die. However, in a repeat try or two, everyone had learned to settle down and take a more deliberative approach to Newton’s third law. Dave Burke was on hand to explain why everyone’s experience turned out that way, along with a detailed explanation of Osmos and some thoughts on the game’s future.

Pixelsocks: Can you tell me about your game?

Dave Burke

Dave: Our game is called Osmos. It’s an ambient physics puzzler chill-out game. You play something we call a mote, a sort of jellyfish/bacterial organism. You click on the screen to eject your own matter in a jet that propels you across the level. There are a lot of other motes floating around in the glob-iverse, and when two motes encounter each other, the larger one will gradually consume the smaller one. A lot of the levels are contemplative and relatively still, and anything that happens in the system is a reaction to the player pushing things around. So, if I fire my jets into another mote, they start moving around and eating each other.

There are some levels–what we call the petri dish levels–where you’re flying around in an ecosystem of other motes that might hunt you down or try to avoid you. So you’re competing for food with other intelligent motes.

There are also the force levels, where you’re basically in a galaxy of motes that are orbiting around some set of suns or planets. In the Osmos demo, there’s a level with a few hundred motes in orbit around a central sun. The goal is to become the biggest. You can do this by moving around in orbit and consuming different motes. You can also become biggest by finding the motes that are larger than you, and firing mass at them until they slow down and kamikazee into the sun.

There are impasse levels where nothing starts moving until the player takes action. You might be surrounded by motes, and the passages are too small to get through. So you have to push motes by imparting mass with a certain velocity. Mass and velocity changes work in the orbital levels, too. If I’m in stationary orbit around the sun and I consume something, my orbit suddenly shifts because my mass has just increased. The gravitational pull increases and I get sucked into the sun. You can actually do some really cool things like destabilize the solar system by increasing the mass of the sun.

There are some levels that we call the epicycle levels where there’s multiple planets moving around the sun. You hang out in orbit around a planet, eating its moons. Once you’ve fed there, you transition to another planet, eat those moons, and so on.

All the levels are generated randomly. Each level has an algorythm for generating the distribution, speeds, sizes, gravity, and AI behaviors for the motes. We’ve hand-tweaked the randomization to generate a good experience in the main game. However, the randomization unlocks once you’ve beaten a level for the first time. That lets us control the player experience the first time through so they can learn to play the game.

Once you’ve beaten the core content for the game, there’s also a bunch of bonus content that unlocks called the forever levels. There are levels for each gameplay type, and they just keep getting harder and harder. So there’s an infinite amount of challenge for hardcore players, and there are achievements for how far you can get in these levels.

The physics really make the game, because there are different ways of going about your goal. So if you’re hunting an AI mote, you can get bigger and eat him, or you can figure out what he’s doing and corral him into an area with larger motes that will eat him.

Some of the levels take a while to play because you have to be conservative. Any time you eject mass, you become smaller. So if you’re too willy-nilly with your firing, you run out of options for things to eat. You have to be intentional, but there’s no rush. Some levels are higher paced, but the game is all about trying to lower your blood pressure. It’s the kind of game you can play before bed.

Osmos went on sale in mid-August on Steam. We have a demo available on Steam, our website, and games.com, and the full version is about $10. There’s about fifty levels. It’ll take a hardcore gamer about six or seven hours to finish the main game, and a lot of the casual players have been enjoying the game for twenty hours or more.

Pixelsocks: I’ve noticed that you don’t have to ram other motes to absorb them. Can you explain how that works?

Dave: The amount of mass transfer between two motes is directly proportional to their area of overlap. So when you graze a mote, the disc of overlap is small and so is the transfer rate. However, when you swoop in on another mote, the overlap and absorbtion are greater.

Pixelsocks: You’ve mentioned that the game is very zen. However, the game’s difficulty ranges from low to very high. How do you reconcile the zen with the challenge?

Dave: We have a mechanic in the game called time dilation. It gives players the ability to control the speed of the game at will. So if you’re in a situation that feels a little hairy, you can dial down the time. In an orbital level, where you set your trajectory and wait, you may want to ramp the time up.

There’s also lots of different gameplay types, so if this isn’t the zen level you’re looking for, you can go elsewhere and come back later on.

The trick is trying to create an experience that’s balanced for the hardcore players and for the casual players. Some of the hardcore players say that the early levels of the game are too easy, but there’s lots of infinitely hard stuff if you reach it. Some of the casual players enjoy just sticking with the first few levels of the game. The soundtrack also makes it an ambient experience.

We actually considered adding multiplayer, but it works against the philosophy of the game. Once you get competing motes in a pen, it becomes a hectic twenty second click-fest, and it’s not that fun.

Pixelsocks: Osmos seems very accessibility-oriented, but the PC platform really isn’t. Have you considered moving Osmos to other platforms?

Dave: There’s no question that Osmos will be moving to other platforms in the semi-near future. We were nominated for four awards at the IGF, we’re in the PAX 10, and we’ll be at IndieCade. With all that attention, other platforms are starting to express interest in our game.

iPhone would be an obvious fit; Osmos has that iPhone aesthetic. It’d also be a great game to chill out and play for five minutes on the bus. There are some design considerations there; the resolution on the iPhone is pretty low. Also, if you’re using the touch screen, your hand can obscure the screen. So we might have to adjust the pacing. DS would be great. You could have a control screen at the bottom and the screen at the top. PSN also works with the Osmos aesthetic.

We’ll have some news, probably in a month, about Osmos on other platforms.

Pixelsocks: Have you learned different things from PAX and the IGF?

Dave: There aren’t a lot of publishers at PAX who are looking at games from a business standpoint. People at PAX want to know if the game is fun or not. We haven’t actually learned anything new at this point, but we’ve been at this for a year, so the kinks are worked out. The kind of experience that people have on these tutorial levels is bang-on what we expect.

Pixelsocks: So it sounds like, outside porting, the project is complete. Any plans for the future?

Dave: There’s controller support. There’s also a level editor that exposes the randomness so users can create levels and swap them. I would not be surprised to see those features added to another version of Osmos on another platform, and to the PC as well. We’re only a two man shop, so we have to decide if we want to spend time working on AI for new creatures, or on porting Osmos to a new platform.

Pixelsocks: Any words of wisdom for the aspiring developer who wants to go from two man shop to widely published award winning developer?

Dave: Prototyping. We put together the first prototype for Osmos three years ago now, so it’s been through a lot of iteration. It started off as a fun orbital momentum simulator, but it evolved into a biological, deep space, chill-out experience.

Get help from your friends. We didn’t do any of the sound design. We approached musicians whose style we liked, told them we were making a game, and asked if they’d be interested in contributing a song. We did a lot of the artwork ourselves, but a lot of the artwork was done by one of Eddie’s friends. My friend Bill did our logo. A friend, Jeff, did the achievement icons. If you get your friends involved, it doesn’t have to be a big production.


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  • 1 PAX 2009 Navigation Oct 9, 2009 at 8:48 pm

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