Osmos Interview

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posted 9/4/2009 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
One Page Platforms: PC
One of the great things about work on a site like this is you get to talk to new companies with new ideas on gaming.  Here is our interview with Hemisphere games and their new game Osmos which is one of the games being showcased in PAX 10 independent developer showcase at PAX this weekend.

Can you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the game?*

I'm Andrew Nealen, a Computer Science professor from Rutgers University. I have been involved in the development of Osmos in one way or the other for the past three years. Recently I have been more of a "spiritual adviser" and evangelist on the project, but I have also dabbled in the code, fiddled with the renderer and mote visualizations, discussed the game mechanics, etc.


What's the history of Hemisphere games?  Could you talk about the formation of the company and the core principles of the company?
Hemisphere Games, although not yet named, was shaped long before Osmos started, by my very close friend, collaborator, snowboarding guru and Osmos lead, Eddy Boxerman. The key idea for our game design, and to some extent our core philosophy, is to engage the player with experiences that are not seen in more traditional video games. Ideally, the novelty comes from a small, yet significant change to an established game design. Since we are a small team, we therefore tend to focus on a few specific mechanics, and build the game from there. In the case of Osmos, we built the game around the minimalistic principle of connecting the player's life/size directly to the propulsion.

Could you explain the concept of Osmos for those who aren't familiar with the game or haven't seen any video/pictures of the game?
The basic idea is simple: you are a circular being, which we call a "mote", with the desire to grow and become the biggest mote in the (2D) game universe. The only way to grow is by colliding with smaller motes, thereby absorbing them. Collide with a larger mote and you will be absorbed, which leads to "game over". While this might sound like other games, such as flOw, Orbient, or the cell stage of SPORE, there is a significant difference: to propel your mote, you must eject bits of your own matter. Of course, this causes the mote to shrink, but it leads to an interesting trade-off between size and motion. The player must always try to balance size vs. getting to the next smaller mote to absorb. Once this basic game idea was prototyped, we extended the game with centers of gravity, sentient motes with various AI characteristics, antimatter motes, and puzzle-like levels. Add to this the ambient soundtrack and dreamlike visuals of the game, and you have our current vision of an "ambient game".

Are you a self aware galaxy trying to absorb other systems? Are you an amoeba trying to achieve a transcendence into another stage of life? What is it the player controls exactly?
Ah, philosophy. In fact, we intentionally left this ambiguous, and all of the above is potentially true. We all have our take on the various flows in the universe, the trade-offs, karma, etc. It's up to the player to interpret and decide for themselves what Osmos "means". On a very basic level, I like to think of Osmos as "what goes around, comes around".

Is this a case where the music makes the game or just accentuates it? Did you draw inspiration for games like Audiosuf,Rez,and fl0w?
The music is an essential part of Osmos, both from an ambient, as well as from a game mechanics view. The lush soundtrack, ideally, will help the players relax, especially in the ambient stages. But then there are the sound cue's, which are carefully balanced to coincide with key events in the game. For example, many first time players are surprised to see that "absorption" in Osmos is not "binary", and that one can also partially absorb other motes (or be partially absorbed). The sound effect for the absorption was designed with this in mind.

Needless to say, we do not live in a vacuum, and are all avid gamers, so of course games like Rez, flOw and (to a lesser extent) Audiosurf were inspirational. Rez is clearly the high watermark for audio in games, and we can only hope to come close to this masterpiece.

It's easy to create a game that raises the pulse rate, what about creating a mellow like Osmos that's a bit more on the relaxing side?
A very good question. It's surprisingly hard to make a game "relaxing", while at the same time steering clear of "boring". This is most relevant to the "ambient" branch of the game. We like to think that the relaxing and soothing audiovisual atmosphere of Osmos melds well with the meditative, deliberate pace of these levels. Still, we integrated time speed-up for players who can foresee their next steps, and simply want to "fast-forward" to the next critical event. That said, I do not often use this mechanic, and instead simply relax when I have a minute to breathe. One can always switch to the later sentient levels when in need of a faster paced challenge. :)
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