Believe it or not, our primary motives were a) truth and b) respect.
- Truth: to the game concept and the scientific principles that underlie it. We could have easily made an easier game. In fact, I am 100% certain Osmos would have received better reviews and a better Metacritic rating if we had done so. For the most part, reviewers and gamers alike really appreciated the concept, execution and ambiance of the game, but a common complaint was the difficulty in the late stages. We could have simply removed those late stages, but there are some beautiful mathematical and physical principles that only emerge in them: subtleties of momentum transfer, efficiency, and in particular orbital mechanics. Players can “brute force” their way through most of the easier levels, but not these. In these, the player is forced to really understand the systems at work, and how to be efficient in them. These are some of my favorite levels in the game, and I feel we would have done a disservice to the concepts and to players by leaving them out.
- Respect: for players and their time. Levels in Osmos are procedurally generated, so it would have been trivial for us to add more. We could have stretched the game out with a much smoother difficulty curve; It would have forced players to spend more time building their skills, but the game would have also felt more repetitive. We wanted each level to feel distinct, in concept or at least in difficulty. As an “adult gamer”, I don’t have the time nor inclination for grinding anymore. One of the things I really appreciated about Braid is its lack of filler — it had been reduced to the essential experience. I wanted Osmos to do the same.
And when I see reviews like this, it all feels worth it.
Somewhere between completely loathing the difficulty of the last level and finishing the game, I finally “got” Osmos. You see, Osmos was able to do what no other zen (or ambient) game has actually made me do—chill out. Osmos has made me contemplate the very essence of human existence, evolution, consumption, and so much more. The difficulty of Osmos’ later levels was very frustrating at first, and often caused me to quit the game rather angrily; I was approaching Osmos like I would any other game, swiftly trying to complete all given goals in the pursuit of completion. Once I started approaching Osmos as not a game, but as an experience, I was able to fully appreciate the genius behind it. – Dan Carew, Blast Magazine
We even got this praise from Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid.
The result, by the time you’ve finished, is not merely a satisfying game. It rings with that faint and distant sound of truth: because the game is based around laws of physics, it immerses you in these and you learn something about them. Perhaps not anything you didn’t already know in an abstract intellectual way, if you took physics classes in school; but here, you get a feel for them, so they become more real, more tangible. This game can change your perspective.
All that said, people may still criticize our presentation of Osmos as an “ambient” game. My honest opinion is: it’s mostly ambient, but not entirely. Our focus throughout was on gameplay. Yes, we put a lot of love, time and importance into the mood, visuals and sound; but when we discovered level types that really worked well with the fundamental mechanics of Osmos, we included them, even if it meant breaking the ambient rule somewhat. In the end, Osmos is a tricky game to summarily describe, and since it’s mostly relaxed, we kept the tag. For thoroughness, here’s a detailed breakdown by level type:
- One third of the levels are in the game’s “Ambient” branch, and I believe these easily qualify.
- The “Sentient” levels, however, are not. They’re fun, and they’re many people’s favorite level type; but given the time pressure imposed by the AI opponents, they aren’t really relaxed — the player needs to click too quickly and too often. (Though slowing down time makes things much less frenetic.)
- The “Force” branch is a mixed bag. I find that once one understands how to navigate in these systems, the “Zen Attractor” and “Epicycle” levels truly are zen; patience and judicious clicking is the way to play and win these levels. “Warped Chaos” levels on the other hand are not relaxed; players need to move quickly at the start to gather as much mass as possible. However, once these levels stabilize, it becomes more like a slow, warped billiards game than anything else, which is quite ambient.
Finally, we included a number of features in Osmos that give the player a great deal of control over the difficulty and progression.
- Time Warping: This allows the player to control the speed of the game, giving them enough time to think and click wisely. It’s a form of user-controlled DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment). It also allows players to speed up time to avoid long waits, or to increase the difficulty for the hardcore.
- Randomization: Instead of including more levels and potentially creating too shallow a difficulty curve, we included this feature. Players who are looking for more in-between levels need look no further. If you’re frustrated on a level you can’t beat, go back one level and play some random variants. You’ll enjoy it a lot more while still building your skills. Try to do those variants as efficiently as possible; before long, you’ll be able to return to that “impossible” level, and probably beat it.
Hopefully this helps people understand the rationale behind the difficulty of Osmos’s later levels; and perhaps you’ve found this view on our design decisions interesting. We stand by them, though we’re always open to constructive criticism. Actually, no… wait… screw “constructive” and hold on to that rage! We need videos!! Tortured, infuriated, death-metal videos! We’re bad, bad people. Throw rocks at us. We deserve it. 😉