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Dave Burke, one of the developers of small and relatively new development house Hemisphere Games, talks about the recently released eclectic indie PC title Osmos, including what exactly makes Osmos an “ambient” game.


Interview conducted by Lee Cieniawa.




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Osmos Post Mortem Q&A



Please introduce yourself, and give us your involvement in the development of Osmos and your gaming industry background. Also give us a brief history of Hemisphere Games and those primarily responsible in its creation.

I'm Dave Burke; I started working on Osmos almost exactly one year ago to the day! Osmos started off as the physics-sandbox-side-project of Eddy Boxerman. Eddy and I were housemates at grad school back in the day; I had seen early prototypes of Osmos a couple of years ago, but in September ’08 Eddy and I were chatting and he invited me to hop on board with Osmos to help polish up the game for an IGF submission. I did about six weeks of full-time work on Osmos with him that fall. Then, around January ’09, we got word back from the IGF that Osmos had been nominated for four awards! Of course, we were thrilled! Maybe we should



have a go of it, we thought – and it was then that I made Osmos and Hemisphere Games my full-time job, working at home in Toronto from my laptop with Eddy who was living in Montreal at the time.


Before Osmos, I was an Unreal Engine developer at Epic Games for a few years, and before that I did academic computer graphics. The great thing about being part


of a small shop is that you get to do a bit of everything – design, coding, art, biz, PR, support – you name it. That said, with my background being primarily in game tech and graphics, the bulk of my Osmos contribution was on the coding side of things.


What made you and the Hemisphere Games team decide to leave large development houses, with large-scale projects always in-house including some of the big-name franchises you and the rest of the Hemisphere Games team worked on, to forge into the more-risky “going-it-alone” route to start your own development team?

I left the games business in 2007, about a year before I first started working on Osmos. My reasons for leaving the biz had nothing to do with Osmos or starting a new project or studio. Rather, I left for personal reasons, during what can best be described as a sort of quarter-life crisis. I needed a break from sitting in front of a computer for 10-12 hours a day, and I needed some time and space to re-evaluate what I valued in life and what I wanted to spend my time and energy on. I figured some things out during my year away from the screen, and Osmos was a great project to come back to because it's something of a counter-cultural game. It's a game that promotes relaxation and thoughtfulness rather than aggression and violence, and I really love that.


Eddy is the other full-timer at Hemisphere right now. Osmos is his baby, and he's been working on Osmos on-and-off for nearly three years now. Most of that work has part-time hours on the side of other full-time work. In April ’09, however, Eddy left his job at an animation studio and moved from urban Montreal to the mountains of British Columbia where he now works at Hemisphere Games full-time.


osmos          osmos


You describe Osmos as ambient gaming. What exactly is ambient gaming and how does Osmos fit into that description?

It's interesting ... the initial intention wasn't specifically to create a relaxing game per se, but once the fundamental gameplay mechanics of Osmos were fleshed out, the game begged to be calm; so, we chose to embrace it strongly. Osmos is all about the chill mood, with laid-back visuals, soft sounds and an ambient electronic soundtrack. The rule of thumb for the music was that we wanted to impart a sense of motion, but not be so rhythmic or upbeat as to have the player moving their body or grooving their head.


So Osmos is about motion. Osmos is not still. It evolves. Overall, though, Osmos is a game of concepts and understanding, not speed. It’s not so much that you need to play the game passively ... to win, you do still need to be assertive. It’s just that you can’t really afford to be wasteful. The player needs to be thoughtful and intentional. There are moments in the game where it’s time for the player to act, where there's a window of opportunity to be taken. Thing is, there's not a great deal of leeway in how often the player can radically change their course; so, you need to be somewhat deliberate in your moves, working with the flow rather than swimming upstream all the time.


At first glance, Osmos seems like a completely harmless, relaxingly soothing casual title with pretty glowing colors along with easy-to-understand, seemingly easy-to-beat gameplay. However, once gamers begin playing, uncovered is a complex combination of physics-based gameplay where orb-shaped “motes” both evade and even attack gamers “motes” in what may be best described as next-generation Asteroids meets the principles of osmosis. What was the biggest challenge making Osmos appealing to the casual gaming crowd while keeping some level of complexity in its gameplay challenge that goes against some of the basic principles of “casual” gaming?

The richness and complexity of the Osmos gameplay, the subtlety of momentum conservation, the balance between spending mass to gain it, the personality in the AI ... the gameplay flavor falls naturally out of the physics in the game. The game has a soft introduction, but becomes very deep and challenging later in the game. It's true that Osmos begins gently. This was very intentional: a player's experience during the first 15 minutes of the game is critical – it's the make-or-break timeframe when the player will decide whether to stick around and explore the game further or shelf it. We spent a lot of time on the first hour of gameplay. Osmos was submitted to IGF ’08 and nobody batted an eye; we submitted to IGF ’09 and were nominated for four awards, winning one of them. The key difference between the two submissions, I think, was the amount of polish and particular attention that was paid to the early moments of the game.


It's hard to appeal to all classes of gamer, but one we've approached it is to have different 'branches' of gameplay. If you’re a more laid-back player and enjoy the chiller place, you can spend most of your time in the 'Ambient' zones, where there typically isn't any time pressure. If you prefer a more competitive pace, you can play the 'Sentient' levels in which the player is competing against an eco-system of intelligent motes that are fighting for food and hunting each other. Yet another branch of gameplay are the 'Force' zones, where the levels operate according to various physical principles (some are solar systems with planets and moons, other levels contain repulsors and attractors, etc.), and the player needs to warp their thinking and mindset to get around these levels.


Osmos also contains a player-controlled time warping mechanic, where time can be slowed down if experience is too fast-pasted. Alternatively, a player can be super minimal and efficient with their moves, then accelerate the passage of time to shorten the wait. There's also a great deal of variety in the content; because every level is procedurally generated, a player can repeatedly play randomly generated variants of their favorite levels. Furthermore, after completing the core game, a set of bonus content is unlocked containing a series of levels in each of the major gameplay styles that get progressively harder and harder.


osmos          osmos


Osmos has had a ton of praise heaped onto it: Seumus McNally Grand Prize Nominee at the 2009 GDC Independent Games Festival, a PAX 10 finalist, and winner of the D2D Vision Award. Obviously, as one of the “bosses” of your own gaming development project, you are very proud of Osmos’ award accomplishments. But without that freedom that being your own boss brings with it, would/could Osmos have received the accolades it has?

When it's your project, you get to make the call on what stays in the game and what gets cut. This was critical for Osmos – it's what allowed the atmosphere and gameplay to evolve to its unique flavor.


Where does Osmos assimilate itself from here? There are achievements implemented as gameplay rewards, and I would seem to fit right into the type of offering appearing in the Xbox Live or PlayStation Network marketplace. If not Osmos add-ons/sequels, does Hemisphere Games have any other projects in the works?

Absolutely! You can expect to see Osmos on other platforms, although no timeframes to announce yet. We've got some Osmos updates in the works – controller support, scoring, user-generated content, perhaps even the venerated multiplayer (which we stayed away from initially because 'versus' multiplayer was working precisely against the ethos of the game) and we're also working on Mac and Linux ports, which players will receive for free if the buy the PC version of the game from our website (http://hemispheregames.com/osmos/).


As for the post-Osmos future ... stay tuned!


The Armchair Empire's review of Osmos.


(September 21, 2009)


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