GamingI'm Zach Barth, the creative director of the game studio Zachtronics. Games we've made include Infiniminer, SpaceChem, Ironclad Tactics, Infinifactory, TIS-100, SHENZHEN I/O, and the newly released Opus Magnum. AMA!
Oct 26th 2017 by krispykrem • 41 Questions • 95 Points
I'm Zach Barth, the creative director of the game studio Zachtronics. I've been making "indie games" for about 10 years now, including Infiniminer, SpaceChem, Ironclad Tactics, Infinifactory, TIS-100, SHENZHEN I/O, and the newly released Opus Magnum. Also, some dubious educational games that were 66% about pooping. We've arguably pioneered multiple genres of games, including Minecraft clones and design-based puzzles. Possibly also real-time, card-based tactics games, but we don't talk about that game much.
I guess there was also that time that I closed down Zachtronics for a year and worked at Valve on the SteamVR team, where I was one of a few people who worked on Xortex 26XX for The Lab. We can talk about that too, if you want, but try not to ask too many questions about working at Valve.
Today I'm here with most of the Zachtronics team to answer your questions! Our newest design-based puzzle game, Opus Magnum, was just released to Early Access on Steam last Thursday, which is ostensibly why we're here. It's very pretty. Despite that, I have no intention of making this a Rampart-style AMA, so please ask us about anything that interests you! We've been at this for a long time and have a lot to talk about!
EDIT: Looks like we're done for now, thanks for all the questions everyone! If there's something you still want to know you can always email me at [email protected] and I'll try to help you out!
What do you think is fun about your games? It seems like you guys make games with a very specific mindset for the most part, so is there a common element or appeal you get from playing your games?
This is a difficult and loaded question! What is fun? Is it really a consideration when designing games? You didn't ask this, but I certainly ask myself: does being fun make a game successful?
People like building machines. People like writing programs. People like making them faster, or smaller, or more efficient. Requiring players to sequence parallel tasks with emergent tools is a surprisingly deep design space. People don't really like puzzles, but I think that puzzles are the best way to exercise the kind of systems that I like to design and our players like to build with, and maybe that makes puzzles okay, and possibly even fun? Being challenged is painful, but solving a challenge is euphoric, so maybe the interplay between those two states feels like fun?
Is it possible to do something and be good at it, but not really understand what you're doing?
Hey Zach, big fan here ;)
So I'm really enjoying Opus Magnum. But I've noticed there is a key difference to other Zachtronics games - There are pretty much no limitations. A big part of why the other titles are as hard as they're are, is that the player is running out of space very quickly. Some games like Shenzhen I/O even have multiple limiting factors (physical space and loc per module for example). OM does away with all of that. What this means is, that the puzzles are a whole lot easier to complete. So far I'm almost through the campaign, and I have optimised perfectly in cost for every solution. Most other titles I got stuck way earlier.
Was this a concious decision for OM, so that the game is easier and more accessible to more players? Or are there other reasons for it? It's been a while since I've played Codex, but afaik there too are both spacial and programming limitations. You also took away the need to keep the parts in sync, as they do so on their own now. Have you taken inspirations by other Zachlikes, like the fantastic Silicon Zeroes by any chance? Will there be more "hardcore" Zachtronic games in the future again, or are you happy how OM turned out?
I'm not at all saying this is a bad thing by the way. OM looks gorgeous, and is fun to play. I just wasn't expecting to breeze through one of your games (optimizing for time will be a whole different story though, I'm sure). The only thing I dislike about the missing limitations, is that puzzles got a whole lot more alike. Pretty much all of them up to the last chapter can be solved with a single arm, and possibly a short rail.
Thank you so much for your amazing games! And for taking the time of reading my question ofc. :)
A year or two after the release of SpaceChem, Keith (our other programmer/designer) and I had dinner with some programmers at Bungie who were fans of our games. I'm paraphrasing here, but they lamented the fact that the puzzles were so hard to solve that they didn't get as many opportunities to optimize as they would have liked. This tracks with something we continued to see in our puzzle games: very few people beat them, but many people love to optimize the early, easier levels.
Opus Magnum wasn't necessarily envisioned as an "easy" game, but once we figured out it was we chose to embrace it. We've always wanted to explore the idea of making a game where the puzzles were easier to solve but still interesting to optimize, and with Opus Magnum we've gotten the chance! Some people liked the extreme constraints of SHENZHEN I/O, but lots of people also complained about it, so maybe this is a good experiment? Maybe making a more casual Zachtronics game will open it up to a larger audience? It's too soon to tell, but we'll know eventually.
(As a side note, we try to do a lot of experiments like this. Having a puzzle editor at launch? Experiment. Translating the game at launch into five additional languages? Experiment. Finally adding an option for global records on the leaderboards? Experiment!)
I think the next Zachtronics game is going to kick your ass, but maybe don't hold me to that.
Would you publish the source code to your flash games that you do not plan to re-release as a proper game? I'd love to play KONSTRUKTOR, but I'm not installing Flash.
Considering that we essentially just re-made the Codex I think that anything is possible!
Do you think that games like TIS-100 and Shenzen I/O could, with some more refined focus on pedagogy, become part of modern efforts to educate children about computer programming, math and science? If not, why not? If so, which one of your games do you think is closest to being useful as a real teaching tool for computer programming?
I don't know what this means considering the kind of games I like to make, but I strongly believe that the best way to teach someone to program is to sit them down with a programming language and let them build something that they want to build. If you have an end goal that you want, and have the means to get there (books, mentors, etc.), you'll make it happen. This is how I, and many others, learned to program. I'm not sure what the decline of the personal computer means for this, or if there really is a decline in personal computing as a cultural phenomenon.
Also, if I learned one thing making educational games it was that I am not an educator! Sure, it's a discussion that everyone can participate in, but there are literally experts in this field...
When thinking about games with programming as a mechanic, I differentiate between "programming for programming's sake" and "programming as a means to an end". Our games all fall strongly into the former category, and we make lots of design decisions to support this (like designing our in-game programming languages from scratch). Games like Minecraft or Space Engineers I'd bucket into the latter category, where you're trying to accomplish something. The key difference is that, when you're programming as a means to an end, it doesn't matter if you write the code yourself or if someone else did. If you do that in a Zachtronics game, however, you're a dirty cheater. The programming is the point.
Love your games. Really has defined a whole sector of my interests.
I got two questions for you:
By all accounts, Opus Magnum, while a very enjoyable game to play, already had its foundational work done when you started working on it, as the Codex of Alchemical Engineering already was proven to be a very enjoyable game. My question is, was Opus Magnum "easier" to make as a result? A one-year development time is really short, so I'm curious if this was just an exception due to these facts.
Do you think you'd ever foray into the territory of games like Factorio? The block engine in Infinifactory lends itself well to such as task, and I think you guys would be capable of making such a game, but it could also be a much more difficult and lengthy task than the games you've made so far. What do you think?
This definitely helped, along with the fact that I've been kicking around the ideas for Opus Magnum since 2013! We made Infinifactory instead, though. We actually spent a few months between SHENZHEN I/O and Opus Magnum prototyping an idea that didn't pan out, so being able to about-face and charge straight for a known target was convenient.
I think about this a lot, because a lot of people suggest it. It's possible I'm wrong, but I see the gap between these games as being much larger than people realize! See my comments above about "programming for programming's sake" versus "programming as a means to an end" above. Also, I suspect that I don't actually have any interest in making fake-resource Skinner box games, but I also don't think I have much room to talk because whatever we're doing with our puzzle games is clearly also addictive "highly compelling".
Hey Zach, thanks for your awesome games !
I've always wondered how do you design a Puzzle ? More specifically :
How do you balance it ? There are lot of different people with different backgrounds, but still everybody can enjoy it. Do you have some kind of "rule" (mathematical or something) to ensure that a puzzle is solvable given the mechanics of the game ? I mean there are a lot of different ways to solve a puzzle (like we can see on /r/opus_magnum/), you can't think of everyone of them beforehand right ?
Kind of a similar question for random based game like Shenzhen solitaire or Sigma's garden: It involves random, how do you create them so they are really enjoyable (euphemism for "addicting") and solvable even despite the fact there are blocking situations ?
Also, Opus Magnum's UI feels so clean, I really love it !
One of my shitty superpowers is that, generally speaking, I can look at a puzzle for a Zachtronics game and intuitively judge how solvable it is. It's not perfect, though... my wife spent about 8 hours trying to solve an Infinifactory puzzle that turned out to be obviously and fundamentally impossible in retrospect.
For the puzzles in Opus Magnum, the process looked something like this:
- Brainstorm a set of mechanics, in this case the different types of arms and glyphs.
- Work with our writer to come up with a list of "puzzle concepts" that mesh with the narrative. (This is somewhere that we've grown a lot since SpaceChem, where most of the puzzles were just random chemicals with no connection to the story. In SHENZHEN I/O we tried hard to make every puzzle its own mini-story and were very pleased with the result. We did the same thing with Opus Magnum and will presumably do this for every puzzle game we make going forward.)
- Design a "level design form" for the game that has places to put everything a puzzle requires.
- Sit down with a stack of the aforementioned level design forms and bang out a little more than a full game's worth of puzzles. (During this step I learn about the game's puzzle design space, both by thinking them through in my head and testing them in the game, which is presumably getting prototyped simultaneously.)
- Integrate the puzzle designs into the game and playtest them, smoothing out overly easy or difficult sections and removing redundant or boring puzzles.
- Expand playtesting up to and through release, using a combination of over-the-shoulder-observation and remote data collection to further refine the difficulty curve. (We had a survey in Infinifactory during Early Access that taught us a lot about how the data we collect correlates with how players self-report about difficult and enjoyment.)
For the solitaire games, my process so far has largely involved taking established games and reimagining them around some sort of theme, and then pushing them a little further in the direction of the theme to make them worse than what they're inspired by but more novel and appropriate as a companion to the primary game. Sigmar's Garden isn't going to be the next Shanghai, but I think it enhances the texture of Opus Magnum and makes me feel like I've shipped two games instead of one. I love shipping games!
The one where Tim Allen upsets his wife, but then gets advice from his neighbor.
Opus Magnum is considerably easier than your previous games mainly because of no restrictions. Are you creating Opus Magnum as a newbie-friendly Zach-like game?
Hi Zach! Longtime fan here.
I love how punishingly hard your games can be (even if that fact is frustrating). I'm curious, by the end of development are you and the team really good at the games? Like, having designed puzzles and considered how everything runs, have you been stumped on a user-created level?
Also, what are your favorite games to play?
I'm usually pretty good at our games by the time we finish them, and try to beat as many puzzles as I can. I usually don't solve the puzzles in our bonus campaigns, though. I just added a set of puzzles to the Journal of Alchemical Engineering in Opus Magnum yesterday and I don't think I played a single one of them. -_-
For your other question:
I know that pretty much all of your puzzle games have had some sort of second campaign or other log of player-submitted and dev-curated puzzles. What are the biggest problems that you face when vetting those puzzles for inclusion in the final project?
Most of them are not quite up to my... personal standards.
I tend to start with a story idea, and then try to build a puzzle around it. In Opus Magnum, for instance, I tried hard to create the feeling of a coherent system that connects all of the molecules together. There are many molecular shapes that you can technically build that don't feel like a real Opus Magnum to me.
It's not all aesthetics, though! A lot of puzzle submissions we get are also very focused on specific "clever" tricks. When I make a puzzle I don't try to make it clever, but instead try to make it present an interesting challenge to build an interesting solution to. Instead of removing tool A to force you to use tool B in some weird way, I'd rather add a tool C that you have to use in conjunction with tools A and/or B in a way that pushes you to make a novel solution compared to prior puzzles.
Serious question: Are you working on any other "zachlike" games currently that may blow my mind, or just taking time after opus magnum to then start another project? Non serious question: How do you expect me to find more time to play your excelent games? I still havent even finished infinifactory :( Took me about 6 years to finish and 100%nt spacechem, which is currently my favorite all time game. Thanks for your great games!
We try to do projects sequentially. TIS-100 was a weird exception, where there was so much production work to do for Infinifactory that I was somehow able to make TIS-100 on the side.
Back in 2012 you wrote a postmortem on SpaceChem that I found very interesting. I would love to hear more of the lessons you've learned in developing your games. Can we expect a similar retrospective on Opus Magnum?
I don't really do postmortems anymore. It turns out that most people don't really know why what happens to them happens to them, myself included.
Instead, maybe you should watch this talk I gave at Google earlier this year:
Hiya Zach. What'd ya get for lunch?
Loving Opus Magnum but what's with the difficulty jump on the lipstick puzzle? I need to make 18 atoms from two sources? None of the other puzzles approach being that resource starved!
I had a salad from Trader Joe's. We got a bag of some new snack there that is like the fluffy kind of cheese curls, except with savory peanut flavor instead of cheese. Weirdly good.
We try to aim to make the second-to-last challenge in a game the hardest, so that the final challenge can be slightly easier but more "cinematic". You're almost there!
It's a pretty bleak space, actually. I used to recommend Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design, but that's really just a textbook and is more technical than inspiring.
The only thing that comes to mind that I've read lately is Chris Crawford's Chris Crawford on Game Design from way back in 2003. So much of the reading material out there about indie game development is either people who were recently successful or recently failed, but here's a guy who has been essentially doing indie game development since the 70's and has experienced the stuff that no one talks about that I'm starting to experience 10 years into my "career". He says some crazy stuff, sure, but I connected with it strongly. That's sort of a me-specific answer, though, so YMMV.
You might like Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort's Racing the Beam if you like Zachtronics games...
The IOS version of spacechem was a godsend, until it wasn't. Can you explain the decision to drop support? Would it have made sense to hand over support to another developer?
Code-wise it's a bit of a disaster, and is written on an outdated C# platform (Xamarin), using an outdated OpenGL (GLES 1.0) interface, targeting a massively outdated version of iOS (something adorably low). Apple's store model seems to optimize for the "perpetual now" where applications that aren't actively supported break and disappear to make room for new applications that are being actively developed. This is fine and all, but definitely makes it impossible for us to continually support our games on those platforms, especially when our sales are so weak there. Contrast this with the Windows version of SpaceChem, which runs just as well today as it did when it came out in 2011!
If someone comes along with the actual time and know-how to fix it I'd be willing to talk to them. That has not yet happened.
No, not yet. I actually don't play a lot of puzzle games.
Hey Zach, love your games (even if I've managed to crash Opus Magnum twice so far). Serious question: does Zachtronics have engineering positions open?
We do not. With our team being as small as it is we don't often hire people, and even then they're usually people we've worked with in the past.