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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!

PROOF: http://www.zachtronics.com/proof.txt

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!

Q:

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?

A:

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?


Q:

I'm interested in the thought process behind end bosses in your games.

Spacechem has these wild, often infuriating end bosses to each node and while I kind of hated them, they were also some of my most memorable expeiences with the game. They were stripped from the iPad release to, I had presumed, keep filesize down (?). So I was able to finish all the levels on iPad, but I'm still on Flidais on the PC. I kind of love that.

Infinifactory is one of my favourite games, all time. But it had no end bosses. I only made it through maybe nine levels of Shenzhen I/O (I'm more capable with visual programming than the kind that uses words, apparently, but I didn't see any hint of end bosses there either.) And now with Opus Magnum, I'm nearing the end of the fifth stage and I've not seen any end bosses.

Which is fine. I don't think the games suffer probably from the absence of things like that. I'm more interested in:

[QUESTION] Why have you not gone back to the end boss well? Did you not like how they worked in your games or how players reacted to them? Did they just not fit with your newer games? Do you hate them now?

Because man... Quororque, the defiler-alchemist is one of my favourite videogame encounters of all time.

A:

They were removed from the iPad release because, when we ported SpaceChem to iPad, everyone was still on first-gen hardware! We couldn't get the simulation to run anywhere near the "real-time" speed setting that is required for the boss battles to make sense. Our metrics also indicated that they were the hardest puzzles by far, so when porting to a platform known for the casualness of its audience it seemed like a sensible solution.

Did you play through the second campaign in Infinifactory? There's totally a boss battle at the end!

There are lots of little reasons why we haven't explored boss battles in our more recent games (I guess except for that one that's totally at the end of Infinifactory):

  • They were generally harder, and caused more players to quit the game.
  • They require you to design a solution that drives a real-time simulation that you don't know the parameters and timing of, which means that as you learn more about the simulation you have to constantly refactor your solution, which can really blow up the time and difficulty.
  • They're typically more content heavy, as now you have to design and implement distinct bosses.
  • It's difficult to reconcile the micro-scale of simulation time with the macro-scale of boss time.
  • They turn optimizing for cycles into the optimizing some dumb simulation that I wrote about laser beams and turning speeds and cooling systems.

We had considered making some puzzles for SHENZHEN I/O that were about taking feedback from a simulation and then feeding inputs back into it, but they had all the problems listed above without seeming like they'd really help make the game that much more enjoyable. At least the boss battles in SpaceChem had loads of personality!


Q:

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:

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.


Q:

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.

A:

Considering that we essentially just re-made the Codex I think that anything is possible!


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

I've used TIS-100 to teach some people about the considerations of distributed programming and the actor model. I dunno if it's intentional, but that game's system is somewhat surprisingly like Erlang But With Assembly.

A:

I looked up a bunch of Erlang sample programs and tutorials when we were designing the TIS-100 puzzles...


Q:

Hey, Zach!

Love your games. Really has defined a whole sector of my interests.

I got two questions for you:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

A:
  1. 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.

  2. 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".


Q:

We actually spent a few months between SHENZHEN I/O and Opus Magnum prototyping an idea that didn't pan out

Can you share more about this idea? (unless there's still a chance you might make something of it later) I'm sure a lot of being a successful developer is knowing a good idea from a bad one. Although you have said you didn't expect TIS-100 to take off as much as it did.

A:

In general I try not to talk about shelved projects, since it's quite possible we'll pick it back up again. After all, Opus Magnum was a shelved project from 2013!


Q:

As a bit of a followup question then, do you think that you are trapped in making only design-based puzzle games for the remainder of your career? I know Ironclad Tactics wasn't well-loved (though I definitely loved it), so I'd bet there's definitely some reluctance.

A:

No, I don't feel trapped. We have a kind of game that I really enjoy making that we have a built-in audience for, and then any time we want to experiment with a new type of game we're free to do that too!

That said, we do spend a lot of time thinking about how to continue making money while making the kind of games that we're interested in building. It's not the most reliable way to make money.


Q:

Obviously the name of your company implies a certain sense of ownership of what you create in an individual sense. Do you see yourself as the auteur of the games you put out?

Do your teammates mind working under a team name that is named after you?

A:

Oh man, here's the real question in this thread!

I simultaneously hate and get a kick out of the fact that our studio is called Zachtronics. The difficulty is that it's pretty well known now, and seems to be effective as far as brands go. It's been ages since I've worked on a game by myself, and I'm pretty sure I'm not even capable of it anymore, but I think it's still convenient to allow people to imagine I'm here making eccentric puzzle games like some sort of madman.

I do feel a deep sense of ownership and identity in the games we create, but I'm no auteur. So much of the look and feel of modern Zachtronics games has been shaped by people not named Zach, especially now that many of them have worked on multiple sequential Zachtronics titles.

Kyle says: "I don't care, but the hardest part is explaining to people that I work at a studio called Zachtronics."


Q:

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 !

A:

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!


Q:

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.)

And what did you find?

A:

Most importantly, puzzles that people "bounce" off (start but never finish) are the same puzzles that people who solve self-report as having been too difficult.

We also got some subjective information about what kinds of puzzles people thought were more interesting, which explains the prevalence of "food puzzles" in some of our games that thematically facilitate it.


Q:

Story question: Opus's main character is the first protagonist with a personality, instead of being a basically empty stand-in for the player.

Of course, you thought the average player of your games would find him relatable (which is definitely true for me), was there some deliberate reason for this change?

A:

Matthew, our writer, says that this is another example of us experimenting and trying something new. It was a deliberate choice, especially after doing it the other way every time, as you noticed. Overall it seems to have been a success, and we'll probably do it again!

Any resemblance between you and Anataeus is completely coincidental.


Q:

I'm an undergraduate graphic design student and I'm highly interested in how the logic and puzzle aspects that are the foundation of your games could be applied to design work. I'm curious:

  1. Where do you find a lot of your inspiration for your projects?
  2. What do you recommend to someone to start learning more about this sort of systems and logic?
A:

Where do you find a lot of your inspiration for your projects?

Real-life engineering disciplines, often. People have designed lots of strange systems for solving problems, like ladder logic and BASIC and pneumatic mail tubes.

What do you recommend to someone to start learning more about this sort of systems and logic?

Take or audit an introductory course in computer programming or digital design (logic gates, etc.) and you'll learn more than you ever wanted to know!


Q:

Of your engineering games, how would you rank them by order of preference? What about by difficulty?

A:

Oh, but they're all great!

Opus Magnum is probably the easiest, followed by Infinifactory. SpaceChem is arguably the hardest? Not sure where TIS-100 and SHENZHEN I/O fit in, as they're about more explicit programming and require you to literally read manuals...


Q:

What's your favourite episode of scrubs?

A:

The one where Tim Allen upsets his wife, but then gets advice from his neighbor.


Q:

Opus Magnum is already ruining my sleep schedule. Right now the game pushes you to pick one scoring category and optimize that one while ignoring the other two. Are you going to add an "overall" category? I find the game most fun when building a well-rounded machine.

A:

The metrics in the game right now, like lowest cycles and lowest cost, are a lot more intuitive than some kind of "overall" score because of how extreme they are. To create an "overall" score, you need to identify what the absolute "best overall solution" is. It's a lot trickier than scoring for the extremes. I have not yet been convinced of a compelling metric for this. Is there even such a thing as the "best overall solution"?


Q:

Hello!

  • Which of the game design decisions in your recent games do you regret the most?

  • Do you watch videos of people playing your games during the Early Access?

  • Can we expect a new Infinifactory-ish game soon from Zachtronics?

A:

Which of the game design decisions in your recent games do you regret the most?

I try to live my life without regrets.

Do you watch videos of people playing your games during the Early Access?

I tend to focus more on reading emails, Tweets, and forum posts, but everyone else in the office likes watching people play our games, especially our UI artist, who uses it to collect information about what parts of the UI trip people up.

Can we expect a new Infinifactory-ish game soon from Zachtronics?

What makes a game "Infinifactory-ish"?


Q:

I was wondering, are there any reference solutions you came up with during developing and testing your puzzle games which has never been beaten by the players on one or more metrics? (Let's exclude Opus Magnum from this, because it's so recent. But anything from SpaceChem, Infinifactory, TIS-100 and SHENZHEN I/O is fair game. :))

A:

I'm okay at our games, but far from the best. It's not remotely possible that I could ever set a record, unless I was using some kind of secret mechanic that no one else knew about maybe, but even then someone would manage to find it and do better than me.

I feel that I get away with it because I have a pretty good intuitive grasp of the design space of these games, even if I can't predict them fully.


Q:

TIS-100 was/is a terrific game - especially on the iPad. Why hasn't SHENZHEN I/O made it to the iPad yet? Is that still going to happen?

A:

We're not good at making mobile games that people actually want to buy. Maybe it's because they're too hard? Maybe it's because they're not free-to-play garbage? Who knows! Either way, I think it's PC-only for the foreseeable future.


Q:

I am a big fan of you! I am starting on game dev, which programs do you use? You program on C++, right? Would you someday make a quick tutorial on how to make games? I love reverse engineering, any plans on making a Ruckingenur 3? Thanks! :)

A:

If you're actually interested in making games you're probably best off learning Unity. It's a great tool that solves a lot of the hard, boring problems that you don't want to get in the way of shipping a game.


Q:

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?


Q:

Hello! I've finished Opus Magnum, along with Spacechem, and The Codex of Alchemical Engineering. I have a bit of an interest in game development. How do the simulations in your games work?

On one hand, there is the cycle count, which means there is a sort of metronome that tells all the devices to tick over and execute one instruction. However, there are also animations and transitions between each instruction, such as the rotations and translations of the waldos in Spacechem or the manipulating arms of The Codex and Opus Magnum, which means that they don't simply teleport into the right position/orientation.

I love playing your games, and hope you continue to develop them.

A:

The short answer is that we have a discrete simulation that calculates things one cycle at a time, but then sets some information about how it should animate as the cycle "plays out" in real-time. We did something similar in Infinifactory, and probably in SpaceChem too. It's surprisingly difficult! The simulations in TIS-100 and SHENZHEN I/O were much simpler, although they have their own difficulties, like chip-to-chip synchronization while pretending that everything happens simultaneously within the same cycle.


Q:

How has your approach to difficulty/balance changed over time? Is your personal preference in conflict with what makes business sense?

I would say that SpaceChem is significantly less forgiving than Opus Magnum. Personally, I think that the brutal difficulty of SpaceChem makes it extra special, but clearly you also need to make money.

A:

We try to be savvier about collecting data and using it to tune the difficulty of the puzzles, but overall my philosophy hasn't changed much. These are difficult puzzle games. Regardless of what my goals are as a designer, when you look at the finished product it really gives the impression that I don't care if people finish our games or not...


Q:

I think the conceits you use for your games are a big part of what makes them so appealing to me. At what point in the development process do you land on a conceit?

A:

It all starts with the conceit.


Q:

Do you have any sage advice for someone wanting to make a Zachlike?

Keep up the great work :)

A:
  1. Play all of our games and pay attention to what they have in common and what is different between them and other puzzle or building games. I guess you could skip Ironclad Tactics, but that has some novel game design ideas too.

  2. One mistake I see a lot of people make in custom puzzles for our games is to artificially restrict the tool set to push players to solve a puzzle in a particular way. This is the enemy of open-ended design.


Q:

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?

A:

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:

https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/78wv2h/im_zach_barth_the_creative_director_of_the_game/doxfz9o/


Q:

What's the craziest thing you've seen a player build in any of your games?

A:

Someone implemented TIS-100 in Infinifactory:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMnOEgbm2fE

I think this is my all-time favorite, though:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NowIORUgdgE


Q:

Complicating the 3D question, how about VR? Inifinifactory would be neat on a smaller scale, perhaps scale in for the more intricate pieces as you build in a fairly static environment. Any other VR plans?

A:

When I was spending more time doing Vive development I tried getting Infinifactory to run in VR, as a sort of "magic toys" setup. It turns out that the Infinifactory simulation engine is a real beast and is most definitely not optimized to hit 90 FPS with two cameras...


Q:

I love your puzzle games and I was thrilled to discover that Opus Magnum expands on the philosophy of The Codex of Alchemical Engineering.

On that note, could there be a chance of a re-imagining of The Bureau of Steam Engineering as well? I enjoyed that game quite a lot, back when it was first released.

A:

Amusingly, this is what Ironclad Tactics was supposed to be! Looking back we probably could have stuck closer to the original idea and gotten away with it, but I'm not a huge fan of the BSE design-space. Pressure is hard to see, and designing "pressure puzzles" often turns into a lame challenge of stuff like "get this valve to X PSI, and then this other valve to Y PSI". A far cry from the sort of complexity you're used to in Zachtronics games!


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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!

A:

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.


Q:

I love your design based puzzle games, but even among my engineering friends I find them to be tough sells. What kind of person do you believe is your target player? Or how can I best pitch your games to my friends?

A:

I don't know if I believe in "target players". I'm sure that many of our players are programmers, but some of them have never programmed before, and some of those people were huge fans of TIS-100!

The best way to convince your friends to play is probably to buy them copies. Maybe we should sell a four-pack...


Q:

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?

A:

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df9pz_EmKhA


Q:

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!

A:

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!


Q:

Recommended game development/design-related reading?

A:

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...


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

Have you played factorio? If so what is your opinion about the game?

A:

I have. I think it's a fun game!


Q:

Love your games! Have you played Stephen's Sausage Roll?

A:

No, not yet. I actually don't play a lot of puzzle games.


Q:

Hey, big fan here. How do you guys celebrate the release of a new game?

A:

We're not big party people, but I got to celebrate the release by answering about 300 emails over the span of a few days...


Q:

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?

A:

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.