A look back at The Osbournes - Specialmoves

A look back at
The Osbournes


2002. Time for a certain inimitable Black Sabbath front man and his family to rocket into the public eye on a television show that resembled the Simpsons in a knife-fight with the Addams family. 

2011. Time for a project retrospective from Darrell (Specialmoves co-founder and creative director) of the game that made our name: 

“There were only 4 or 5 of us.  I think I was living in the office at the time; we were small, hungry, talented, very close to the work.  We were only a couple of years in and this amazing brief came through.” 

The brief, it turns out, was from MTV. 

“They said: “We want to do something for [the UK airing of] the Osbournes and we’re thinking Habbo Hotel meets the Sims … can you make that?”’ 

Naturally the answer was yes, though quite what that would be, was still very much up in the air: “(The clients) weren’t heavily involved during a lot of the process – only dipping in and out because they could see we were just getting on, creating something brilliant.”

What Specialmoves were making for MTV was an isometric, cartoon recreation of the Osbournes’ house, in which fans could take control of Ozzy and co. and interact with the other family members. 

“When we started we knew that there would be a few rooms in the house with some characters in there: and we wanted to control them, make them walk around, make them interact with each other. But it was never an intention to make it into a game: even though sometimes it’s referred to as ‘the Osbournes game’.”

Looking at the finished product, it’s easy to see why that might be. The sprite-based cartoon aesthetic, the character avatars, and the control scheme suggest a cross between Little Big Adventure and Command and Conquer. But there’s no real end point, ‘apart from maybe getting the swear-o-meter as high as it can possibly go.’ 

Despite that, though, it’s difficult to describe interacting with the Osbournes in this way as anything but playing. Drop down menus give actions for each character to perform, whether that’s to introduce themselves, or throw a ham, or speak to another family member via speech bubbles riddled with profanity and abuse. The experience is exploratory, amusing, and importantly, it’s fun.

“We had to write our own scripting language, called “Ozzy script”, to manage the characters’ interactions. If I’m Ozzy talking to Sharon about the candles, and then I get Jack to do something in another room, and then come back to Sharon and Ozzy, they’re still having that conversation. Things had to happen in parallel, and in order.”

This, Darrell explains, was extremely difficult to do, to the point where some 4,000 lines of code had to be written in this custom language to make sure it was perfect.

Character animations were also time-consuming: ‘All the character animations were done by Oscar Wright, brother of Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim and Spaced fame). The way they were done is that they were all hand drawn on cel, scanned in, traced and coloured on a computer. He would go away for a week and come back with a pile of paper like this [holds out his hands as if to show off the biggest imaginary burger you’ve ever seen] which obviously took forever; a lot of scanning.”

The first phase of the project had a very tight turnaround of about a month. Given the technical complexity involved, were the team slouched over spilt coffee in the small hours, night after night, staring at iMac G4s through bloodshot eyes?“

When we started the project we were working into the small hours. But after I started bullying James and Pascal (co-founders) into going home - first 11pm, then 10pm - we saw our productivity increase. We realised that you can do late nights once or twice, but you can’t do it any more than that. After that you may as well not be there, because you don’t get nearly as much done. You’re better off going home earlier and being fresher the next day.”

The final version of the Osbournes ended up fitting entirely on a single floppy disc, at 1.4 MB. What about the project makes Darrell the most proud?“

The swearing. Only one swear word in existence didn’t make it. We put in the swear feature because we thought it would be funny. That it didn’t get sanitised is a big thing.”

Anything else?

“I just love the little touches, things like the Harry Potter pictures (the moving paintings in the house’s hallway); no-one had ever seen anything like that before, and it was so right for the time. And then there’s this…”

Darrell navigates to a room in the house containing a dog, clicks on it and selects the ‘Poo’ option. The mutt dutifully curls out a digital turd. He then moves on to another part of the room and repeats the act, three or four times, chuckling.

‘We got screenshots sent in of someone who pooed on every single square of the whole house. ”And the mirror in the hallway even shows the characters’ reflections as they walk past: that is, except Ozzy’s. "As prince of Darkness, he has no reflection.”

“The chance to put in little things like that was brilliant,” says Darrell. It’s the discoverability of things that’s great about this – the mirror thing is not an overt feature, it’s just something that, when you get it, you think ‘that’s cool’.”

Finally, Darrell clicks on Ozzy and selects ‘Paranoid’.  Ozzy then glides through the house into a previously unexplored room which is decked out as a stage. Wailing pentatonics kick in as a tiny speech bubble appears by Ozzy’s head-banging sprite, presenting the words: ‘Finished with my woman 'cause she couldn't help me with my mind.’

“When we did this, we had actually created most of it before even getting permission because we thought it was so awesome. When we called them and asked, they said: ‘No. There’s absolutely no way you’re putting music online. You must be joking.” 

‘But when we finally showed them they said: “This is great! You can do it … so long as you keep it under 20 seconds.”’

“It was an awesome, brilliant experience: so much fun to work on. You don’t get better briefs. It was the Osbournes at the height of when the Osbournes were really cool, and nothing like that had ever been seen on TV.

The Osbournes won multiple awards (including a BAFTA nomination) that garnered critical acclaim from Specialmoves’ contemporaries, huge popularity amongst fans of the show, and many a kind word from the client. It’s one of those special projects that people still remember. As Darrell says, it made Specialmoves’ name.