Why Osu! has Kept Me Engaged for Over 4 Years

Osu! is a popular online rhythm game involving clicking circles. It’s been out since 2007, and it’s changed a lot over the years, but the core mechanic has stayed the same: click the circles (and sliders/spinners) that are synchronized with the music.

"Big Black" - one of the most difficult maps a few years ago.
“Big Black” – one of the most difficult maps a few years ago.

When I first started playing, I thought that it was a super hard game. In most of the “maps” (levels), I would die within the first 3 seconds of starting. That by itself is frustrating, but I kept playing because I enjoyed the music. Later on, one of my friends told me that he could clear this “super hard” map, and my first thought was “there’s no way you could clear something like that.” I watched him clear it in person, and I was suddenly motivated to clear it too.

"True Truly Love" - The first "hard" map that I was motivated to clear.
“True Truly Love” – The first “hard” map that I was motivated to clear.

As a game designer, I think that this type of motivation is very powerful: when the players’ goals are locked behind a skill wall, those players will spend tons of time obtaining the skill to reach their goal. For me, I attempted the particular map I mentioned over 600 times before finally beating it, and beating it was such a good feeling. At the same time, it’s hard to make people feel this type of motivation. Most players would probably give up at some point, and I probably would have done that too if it weren’t for the fact that I enjoyed the music for that level. But with Osu!, the sheer number of levels is so great that pretty much anyone can find a map that they enjoy.

This brings me to my next point. I only spent a couple weeks on that one level, but why did I keep playing for years and years? Well, it’s similar to what I just mentioned: there are just so many levels in Osu!. Shortly after I cleared that map, my skill level jumped up, and I could clear a tons maps that I used to fail at. But there were still tons of maps that were still hard for me. At this point, I had already felt that feeling of accomplishment from clearing the previous map, and in order to experience that feeling again, I kept looking for harder maps. The next most memorable map I cleared is this map, which took me over 400 tries. Even after 4 years of playing, there are still maps that are too hard for me, and I won’t be running out any time soon.

"Manima Ni" - A harder map that I was motivated to clear.
“Manima Ni” – An even harder map that I was motivated to clear.

But how does a game get so many levels? It’s impossible for game designers to have so much time on their hands – just planning out all the beats with the music takes a ton of time already, and then there’s all the playtesting and iterations that have to be done too. Osu! gets around this problem by letting the players create levels; almost every single map in the game was created by players.

To me, letting players create levels is a good idea. Players can play the game, but if they have a favorite song that isn’t in the game, they can just make their own map using that song and share it with others. But just having a level creator has a bit of issues. If anyone can create a level and submit it, there is no quality control happening. And any kind of quality control would be difficult to manage for the developers because of the sheer volume of levels being made. But what Osu! does is really interesting. In addition to letting the players create levels, it also gives players the role of quality control.

But here, “quality control” doesn’t mean that you have to pass the test to share your map with others. Instead, there are two categories of maps: “ranked” and “unranked.” Anyone can create and submit a map, and it will automatically be placed in the unranked category. However, if the map passes the player-driven quality control process, it will get moved into the “ranked” category. The difference between ranked and unranked maps is that ranked maps have a global high score table and unranked maps don’t. When players play ranked maps, their scores get recorded, and based on how well they do, they get performance points which are used to rank players.

The osu! players with the highest ranks.
The osu! players with the highest ranks. At the time of this post, my rank is around 48,000.

Having player created content in game has multiple benefits. I’ve already mentioned an obvious one: there is tons of content in the game. No matter who you are, there is at least one map that you’ll like, and there is always new content coming out every week. As a player, I’ll never run out of content to play. In addition, it’s super exciting when a map comes out and it references something cool, like the recent Undertale map that came out. As developers, you get a never-ending stream of content updates without having to do a thing, and even better, you don’t have to pay anyone for it!

"uNDeRWoRLD MoNaRCHy" - A really cool Undertale inspired map that came out recently.
“uNDeRWoRLD MoNaRCHy” – A really cool Undertale inspired map that came out recently.

Another benefit is that creating this player-driven system also generates a ton of innovation that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Over the course of 4 years, there has definitely been a shift in the style and increase in variety maps. At some point, a player “figured out” a good way of mapping dubstep songs using really crazy sliders, and all of a sudden, a ton of dubstep maps popped up, all with a similar style:

And then there are some other innovative maps that only the creator would have thought of making. For example, the following map removed the hit-circles and used the blue bar in the background video to tell you when to click the circles instead:

And sometimes, a map is so entertaining to watch that it doesn’t even matter if it’s playable or not (the intro in the following video ends at 0:50; see if you notice the Pong and Tetris references):

Despite how good of an idea player-created content sounds, why don’t many games make use of it? Recently, Super Mario Maker has taken this approach, and it seems pretty successful – but that’s pretty much the only other game that uses player-created content that I’ve heard of. Other than some legal complications that may come up, is there a reason for not using player-created content? It might not fit for certain types of games, like story-based RPGs, but as game designers, if we’re making a game with lots of levels, couldn’t we turn the level-creation process into some type of social game as well? That just seems like a blue ocean waiting to be explored.

2 thoughts on “Why Osu! has Kept Me Engaged for Over 4 Years

  1. I’m very interested in why osu! is such a popular game, and I think you touch on an interesting point with the player-driven community that backs the game. osu! benefits greatly from being simple enough to create different maps and having interesting and varied gameplay across them. This community reminds me a lot of the Dance Dance Revolution community, which, when at the peak of DDR, created wildly difficult step patterns that explored the edges and capabilities of the game. I think this sort of community is hard to build, and is only limited to games with toolboxes that encourage creativity, but it can be a huge force to be backed by.

  2. Oh snap. I remember one of my friends would play games like this(rhythm game) and my mouth would be wide open because I was awestruck about his fingers that were moving like lightenings. I had no idea how many hundreds of hours he had spent on that game, but it indeed got the attention of a lot of people.
    I think the popularity of the game really motivates games like this, because knowing that there is a big network of players who are trying out a same thing as I makes you competitive. But if the game is something that nobody knows about, it seems so much less attractive/worth of the players’ time.
    I also thought it was cool to let players build their own maps and especially the concept of having ranked and unranked maps seemd like a really smart design choice. This prevents a game to ever go old and more players can participate and compete with each others.

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