Simplicity, Complexity, and Design Goals in Osmos

…now go!

Osmos is a rather brilliant example of a game built with an economy in mind. From a simple core mechanic – you move by squirting out part of yourself – the game creates hours of thoughtful, challenging fun.

In pondering how’d they do that, it seems like they grabbed onto this tension between wanting to be bigger and needing to move about the stage, and then built their game around that simple give-and-take mechanic. It’s got more challenge and concentration in it than many other games out there. It’s fundamentally the same goal as Katamari Damacy, but by making movement sacrifice your size, Hemisphere Games developed a tense state of equilibrium with increasingly  small margins of error on either side, which creates a nice challenge ramp.

In fact, there’s some meaty territory to delve into there…

Comparing the two gives some interesting notes. Katamari revels in its chaos, keeping you moving ever-forward to the rapid tempo of its tunes, challenging you to barrel ahead as fast as you can. Osmos is quieter, more contemplative, challenging you to think economically about how you move – don’t over-correct, don’t careen in the wrong direction, don’t over-boost. For that, I think Osmos ultimately gains higher moments of tension – in Katmari, if I’m at risk of losing, the time limit comes up and BAM I’ve lost and now try again and keep moving. In Osmos, the slower pace means that each move is analyzed, its ramifications cataloged, and, as I fail, I learn to manage my little blue ball a little better each time.

It’s also interesting to look at how Osmos uses randomness to enhance its playability – while the ultimate quantities of other dots remain the same in each level, you can re-start a level and randomize its distribution over the level. This can vary the challenge considerably in some instances, and occasionally even seems necessary, but you understand that challenge is only part of the reason you play Osmos. It’s pleasant physics, its satisfying slurps, its soothing music, its sometimes opaque references to Zen and Ambient – Osmos wants to be an experience that is contemplative, not one that is frenetic. While random re-starts never really eliminate the challenge, they make the game more approachable and more able to be experienced. If someone has an easier time on one level, so what? Those seeking a greater challenge can use the exact same tool to get it. The randomness doesn’t mean careless design, but rather design for a purpose other than pure challenge – Hemisphere is cool with you not having to be a prescient wizard to figure out their levels.

(*cough* Braid *cough*)

Lessons Learned

  • Progress with a Trade-OffOsmos gets a lot of its oomph from a simple mechanical system that is inherently conflicted – pay a price to get what you want. In thinking about interesting and dynamic systems, this trade-off is key. A good question to ask Last Post Jacob would be “what are the players giving up to accomplish their goals?” It should be something – that introduces something  you can measure and use and lose if you spend too much of or in the wrong way. What’s the economy of a social skill check?
  • Strategic or Action-Packed – Pick One: Chess is not a frantic game, but it has none of the action or energy of a game of tag. These two design goals are in tension with each other – the faster you act, the less strategic that action can be. I can’t have both – is my game going to be something I want people studying and analyzing, or something I want them to be bang-zoom-pow interacting with. Medium plays a role, but it’s not a determinant: I can have more variables and calculations and more animations and pretty colors on a computer; I can keep a tabletop game more personal and visceral and attentive.
  • Keep the Goal in Sight: Doing something hard is rewarding, but “do this hard thing” isn’t a necessary design goal. In fact, it can work against other goals, such as abnegation or expression, if the thing is hard. Difficulty is only an end in and of itself when the goal is conquest. It’s important to calibrate difficulty for the experience you want to achieve.
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