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  • The Design Behind the Ambient Physics Game…Osmos

    Posted on July 22nd, 2009 IndieGamePod No comments

    The design behind the Ambient Physics Game…

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    Or listen to it here…

    Show Notes:
    Interviewer: I’m here at the IGF Main Competition. With me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?

    Eddy: I’m Eddy Boxerman, the lead on Osmos.

    Interviewer: What’s Osmos about?

    Eddy: It’s about viewers. Some people have tried it and have described it as an orbital osmosis simulator. It is sort of an ambient physics game. General rules of the universe are your objective is to grow, but in order to navigate by yourself you need to spin mass. You are essentially injecting mass to propel yourself. There is this trade-off between – you try not to spend too much because you’re going to shrink to actually getting to places where you can absorb those that are smaller than you. So, you are sort of working your way up the size food chain in a sense on levels.

    Interviewer: What inspired the game?

    Eddy: Basically, it started off with the mechanic itself, the game play mechanic. I think I was doing dishes, stuff like that. I mean, it probably goes back over years of course work at the university, various different ideas. It all sort of came together in one shot as like this balanced game play mechanic, economy of motion, spin mass to go get more, sustainable.

    If you can sustain that, you can imagine a spaceship exploring the universe. It’s going to collect fuel in order to continue its journey, so it has to go out of its way to go get the fuel, to get more. It then allows it to get the next. You sort of imagine this continuous journey where you can imagine like a micro-organism being similar and the energy to get food. It’s like to keep the chain going.

    So, the basic inspiration was from that mechanic. The mechanic itself has a central balance. It felt very restrained in a sense because you’re not just firing. You don’t want to expel a lot of mass. You want to be thoughtful in whatever you do because there’s this physics simulation as well.

    It’s almost like a slow motion billiards game at times. So, you want to be thoughtful in how you spin your mass and so you end up not clicking that often, watching what’s happening and strategizing more. It has a very relaxed feel to it, and so I wanted to develop that. So, the visuals and the music all have strongly been chosen and built around keeping that feeling to give you that ambient style game.

    Interviewer: Sure. When you developed the game, did you have a sense of…Did you start prototyping it first, or what was the process? Did you tell your friend about it, or did that go?

    Eddy: Definitely. I started prototyping, make that at prototyping when the basic idea sort of came out of my mind. The first prototype, I guess, was in my brain when I was just going through the mechanics and trying to imagine it. Like, yeah, I think this is interesting. This is worth trying out.

    Then, I spent a couple of weeks prototyping it. It’s funny, even in those first two weeks I probably spent half my time on music.

    Interviewer: Oh, really.

    EddY; I actually wrote – it’s not going to get released or anything – I actually wrote a song that I thought would work well with the mechanic, inspired music that I like a lot. And so, basically, I spent two weeks prototyping it and sent that out to, maybe, half a dozen friends.

    I got responses from them, including from one friend, Andy, who is now on the team – actually, two friends; Dave is also on the team. They both joined in along the way. I got some good feedback from them – oh, that’s awesome, cool and comments like that – and then I just kept iterating on that. The visuals, gearing up the game play, the AI, better music.

    Interviewer: As you were improving it, did you send it out to more friends?

    Eddy: Yeah, definitely. I would say the first half dozen stayed in the loop for quite a while along with my girlfriend. I know that if she likes it – OK, she’s obviously biased – but she doesn’t like shooting. She doesn’t like aggressive games for the most part, and so she’s a very good barometer for me to know, if like I’m achieving a really nice aesthetic. She’s much my chief aesthetic officer.

    Interviewer: Nice.

    Eddy: Over time I started sending it out to more people. It really ramped up when I submitted it to the IGF last year. I didn’t get any nominations, but about a month before that submission it was a big crunch to try to get a good version out, and that’s when I started sending it to a lot more friends, like just to test it out and let me know bugs, feedback, whatever.

    That’s when I got more like my community of friends involved and from then submitted it to the second IGF a year later and then we got the three nominations which was awesome.

    From then, it was build a website and put a demo up so that we could start getting feedback from people we don’t know because that’s really important. You don’t get the same kind of feedback from friends as you do from strangers.

    Interviewer: Sure. What would you say is the difference between the submission that you did on the first try and then the submission you did on the second try that got three nominations?

    Eddy: That’s a great question. I don’t think it was an incredibly huge difference. I think there was mostly just a lot of tweaking, smoothing out the game play experience, the levels, the presentation, the first 15 minutes. It’s really important to make that first 15 minutes compelling and intuitive. I think that went a long way. The music, just everything smoothed out a little bit. The visualization, I think, helped a lot. We added particle systems. Observing the game play not just for flash, you know, really to get more of a sense of contact between objects and things like that.

    I think all of that make it feel just a little more organic, a little smoother and it probably just brought it up that extra notch that allowed it to get the nominations. An interesting thing is the selection for this year. I thought there’s a lot of ambient games in this year’s selection. I don’t know if it’s the current mood or the set of judges, but they seemed to appreciate that, and so I think that also helped.

    Interviewer: Nice. Can you talk about the nominations you were nominated for?

    Eddy: Sure. It was nominated for Technical Excellence, Excellence in Design and the Grand Prize. We did not have any expectations regarding technical excellence. We looked at the other games out there and going like, whoa. We weren’t even nervous when they were calling that one out.

    Interviewer: You talked about ambient physics. What is that exactly, and did you have to use a different engine to do that?

    Eddy: It’s all home grown. I’m a physics programmer sort by trade, and so I guess that was another reason why I looked for technical excellence. That stuff is easy. That’s my bread and butter, so I guess in a sense we weren’t valuing that as much as other people who hadn’t played the game before because it has a very nice feel to it. It’s almost more about the tweaking of the physics and the feeling than it is more about the complexity of the physics itself.

    Interviewer: Could you have done the physics in an open source engine or some of these other currently available engines?

    Eddy: Possibly, but the physics really doesn’t require most of the services that your typical physics engine gives. Collision detection is essentially circles and walls. It’s fairly simple. We didn’t need complex collision detection. The collision response is not your typical response. You don’t get rigid bodies bouncing off each other or having interesting contact or any of that.

    You end up with a cross interface of objects touching each other. You end up with a mass transfer, one’s growing and one’s shrinking. So, it’s very different from what your center physics engine does. Beyond that, there is gravity which… For me, all of that stuff was trivial almost to code up.

    And, again, I am taking liberties with the laws of physics, and it’s more those liberties and the tweaking that really is what gives the physics part of this game its value, and I would have had to do that with a physics engine anyways. So, there wasn’t any compelling reason to go for it. I just started working on it and iterated from there.

    Interviewer: Nice. The design nomination, why do you think you guys got that?

    Eddy: I think that the fundamental mechanic is very elegant. There’s a lot of possibilities that come out of it. We ended up building a lot of levels essentially around that fundamental mechanic that balanced economy of motion. I think that’s the primary reason.

    I also think the tutorial, the smoothness of the learning, the presentation helped a lot as well as the variety of levels that we then… It was sort of like riffing on a theme, and we just added variations on building on top of the basic concept but always keeping the basic concept a part. I think all of that together is what contributed to the design.

    Interviewer: You know, I guess, were there any other interesting things you had to do in terms of making sure the design was fun or tweaked? How much play testing did you do, and was there anything else that you had to do from the first design for the first submission versus the second set? I know you talked about some of the nuances, but what I’m really trying to get out of this is you said now the learning curve to actually learn the game is a lot smoother. Was it always this smooth?

    Eddy: Definitely not. The first prototype, it was like no instructions. The instructions were in the email that I sent out to friends, and it was the basic, just use the mouse, click, blah, blah, blah.

    The version that got submitted for the first IGF obviously had instructions in game but much more long winded, less well timed in terms of when you need this information. Sometimes visuals conflicting with instructions and sometimes something is just being unintuitive. I think it’s a surprisingly subtle process to find that rightt way of presenting the material to the user in a way that just intuitively goes in and allows them to use it as they need it. We really spent a lot of time working on and ironing out these subtleties and trying to make it as good as possible.

    Interviewer: You said that you worked on this part time over the course of a few years. What were some of the challenges of working with other people, working part time?

    Eddy: Definitely, I mean, sometimes I’m working two full time jobs essentially, and that’s extremely draining. It’s not a sustainable way of developing, but at the same time you are working on some game part time on the side. It’s a basic idea. You don’t necessarily want to quit your day job and just say, OK I’m going to put all my eggs in this basket. It’s completely uncertain.

    Until the IGF nominations I really had no idea if this would have any real attraction for people, if it would take off. The part time aspect, there were times when it was a very hard time, but there were times when it was very heavy, like two full time jobs. As far as the friends who hopped on along the way, they also tried IGF submissions, crunched and that helped out a lot. Then, during other times it was almost like very little to do except sort of on a chatting basis like, hey what do you think of this? It’s been great to have them on board to sort of bat ideas back and forth with and just having them involved.

    Interviewer: It wasn’t necessarily weekly meetings then. It was more like a give and take.

    Eddy: It was very informal. Basically, during crunches we’d do a lot of emails back and forth; sometimes, emailing the whole team, sometimes just back and forth to Gene, me and one guy.

    My friend who did the art work, he came over for a few evenings and we would just sit down and work out some ideas together, and then he would do his magic Photoshop and I’d be like, whoa. Let’s export that. Let’s just throw it right in the game.

    Sometimes, we’d sit side by side but these two friends who were programmers with me on it; one of them lives in New York, the other lives in Toronto. So, we never actually sat down together working on it. It was always just by correspondence.

    Interviewer: Did you have internal deadlines, or was it mainly the competition submissions that set the crunch times?

    Eddy: The IGF deadlines went a lot way towards setting some goals.

    Interviewer: When you guys were nominated, when you found out you were nominated, what was the response and how did that feel and what changed in terms of exposure?

    Eddy: Well, we were through the roof when we heard about it. I got off the plane, and I was just getting back from a vacation, a long awaited vacation. I got home, checked my email and I was like, what? What? What? Double, triple checking because it was three nominations on top of it, right?

    Of course, I called my girlfriend first and then told my friends who had worked on the project with me. We were all just like, this is awesome. Since then, there is no question that my day-to-day has changed significantly. Before that, the business side was almost zero. We were developing a game. Suddenly, it started generating interest. So, suddenly, you need a website. You need a demo. You need a forum. You want to foster this community who are interested in your game.

    You want to start talking to distributors about getting your game out there. You want to try to make sure you don’t make any dumb business mistakes at first because this is a fairly new process, for me anyways. And so, my development time was very low. I was spending very little time developing because suddenly all of these other things started taking up a lot of my time.

    I’m hoping after post IGF here and post GDC, we want to get the game out in about four months to really concentrate on making the game everything it can be and then get it out.

    Interviewer: You said there’s a demo. Is that in flash or is it downloadable?

    Eddy: It’s downloadable, PC executable. It’s got seven levels in it. You can probably go through it, depending on… Like for me, I can probably go through it in less than 10 minutes, but I guess the average player, maybe, 15, 20, 30 depends.

    Interviewer: You guys won some Direct2Drive award. What’s that about?

    Eddy: That’s right. Yeah, so we were nominated for the three IGF awards. The Direct2Drive award, the announcement for the finalists was only a week before this conference. It was sort of a late arriving horse in the race, but it ended up being just the one that we won and we were super excited about that.

    First of all, it’s actually the first year they gave this award as well. Everyone was like, they weren’t sure. Apparently, they went through a fairly rigorous internal judging process, a lot of people playing it and a lot of people really liked it. So, I got feedback from them on that as well. It’s actually been a really great experience. Also, there’s the $10,000 prize which goes a long way.

    Interviewer: What’s next in store then for the project and for your games?

    Eddy: Get this out on PC. Do a Mac for it. That’s the straight line that we’re sort of shooting for. You never know what’s going to happen but that’s what we are going for. I’m pretty strongly attached to that course because I think it’s a good one. I think for indies getting a game out on PC it’s a very low entry. There’s a much lower barrier to get a game out on PC than there is on console. Of course, consoles are interesting, right? If that would happen, that would be really cool. But for now, that’s what we are concentrating on, and there’s other game ideas but one at a time.

    Interviewer: Where can people find out more information or download the demo?

    Eddy: You can get more info. I’ve got a blog and a site, hemispheregames.com. On there you can download the demo, and you can also download the demo from Direct2Drive and Steam as well. It popped up on both of those portals about a week before the IGF. Basically, for now everyone’s just got the demo.

    Interviewer: Do you have any YouTube videos of this or other stuff like that?

    Eddy: I’ve got some stuff on video or the equivalent linking from the website as well. In fact, I’ve even got some… I’m starting to try to get some info out there, just like a bit of a development process as well.

    Interviewer: That’s what I was going to ask. Did you blog this development while you were doing it? I know that’s something that other indies are doing for good exposure.

    Eddy: It’s something I’d really like to do. It’s the kind of thing that it’s: oh, I hope to get to do that soon, but there’s only a little bit of that. One of the things that I just did recently was I put up about 10 experiments, sort of videos of rendering style experiments and what not, so people could sort of see what I’m doing, but I’d like to start doing more and more of that.

    Eventually, I hope to release early prototypes of it just to get people to see what that process was. At first thing, they may find it amusing and entertaining; is that how the game looked a year or two years ago? It’s really interesting, so I do hope to do more of that.

    Interviewer: Thank you very much for your time.


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