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!

Comments: 249 • Responses: 68  • Date: 

omonomono17 karma

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?

krispykrem16 karma

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?

th_pion3 karma

What exactly do you mean by "People don't really like puzzles"?

krispykrem9 karma

As a genre, puzzle games don't sell that well, although there are obviously exceptions. I don't know about you, but they physically make my brain hurt! That makes people want to stop playing them, which is a tough quality to have when you're selling a product that is 100% voluntary and for entertainment purposes.

Crreep16 karma

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. :)

krispykrem16 karma

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.

blargnoodles13 karma

How many people are in the Zachtronics team nowadays? Are there times during production that you wished for larger resources?

krispykrem13 karma

We have five people on the team right now: me, another programmer/designer, a musician/writer, and two artists. We do have a tendency to scale up a little during production, but it's always a challenge to strike the right balance between contracting and employment that satisfies everyone's needs and desires.

TheDaneOf568313 karma

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.

krispykrem10 karma

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!

_Ki_13 karma

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.

krispykrem12 karma

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

KirinDave11 karma

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?

krispykrem14 karma

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.

KirinDave3 karma

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.

krispykrem7 karma

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

RandomPanda011 karma

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?

krispykrem6 karma

  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".

GltyBystndr2 karma

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.

krispykrem5 karma

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!

RandomPanda02 karma

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.

krispykrem2 karma

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.

Dannah57310 karma

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?

krispykrem14 karma

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."

GltyBystndr4 karma

I think it's funny you named the company after yourself, but your online persona is named after someone else's company.

krispykrem10 karma

It's short for "thekrispykremlin", not "Krispy Kreme", damnit! It's my wanna-be "hacker handle" from when I was in middle school!

G_Wen10 karma

In this interview with Gamasutra you mention how the later puzzles in spacechem would take hours or even days to solve, (for the last boss maybe weeks): https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/172250/postmortem_zachtronics_.php?page=3 You also have a survival chart which shows each level kills off about 10 to 20% of players. Did you view having such a difficult game as a negative?

I'm asking because I would estimate the survival rate of Opus Magnum, past the first non-tutorial would be flat, maybe 95% across the board. When designing Opus Magnum did you intentionally make a game where it is almost impossible to get stuck on a level?

krispykrem8 karma

I used to view the extreme difficulty of SpaceChem as a negative, but I don't anymore. Lots of people love SpaceChem. It's just the way that game is!

The "survival rate" of Opus Magnum is much lower than 95%. If we're lucky maybe 10% of people who start the game will finish it? It's tough to tell early on, where most of our data is from people who haven't put down the game for good yet. Weirdly, we lose people the fastest in chapter 1, but I guess it makes sense because that's when it actually becomes a puzzle game instead of a tutorial game.

12345ieee8 karma

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?

krispykrem10 karma

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.

poyepolomi7 karma

Suppose that I'm unemployed and that I have no formal education. My only diplomas are the Steam achievements for beating your games. What are my chances of getting some job? What do you think the chances should be?

krispykrem13 karma

I remember reading years ago about people who put their experience leading WoW guilds on their resumes. Apparently it worked sometimes? Maybe you should include some Opus Magnum GIFs on your next resume?

Oyashirox6 karma

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 !

krispykrem7 karma

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!

konklone5 karma

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?

krispykrem5 karma

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.

swifton6 karma

  1. How did you market/PR/tell people about Opus Magnum? Which way is the most fruitful?
  2. Did it sell well? Do you care whether it sells well now that you don't run your business?
  3. Does it help to be prominent/having a fan base or do you need to start over each time in terms of marketing?
  4. Why do you use the "infini" prefix for block games?
  5. Are you planning to make more block games?
  6. Why didn't you let arms move other arms in Opus Magnum?
  7. Is The Incredible Machine a design-based puzzle game?

krispykrem7 karma

How did you market/PR/tell people about Opus Magnum? Which way is the most fruitful?

I don't really believe in PR. We do boring stuff like Tweet and email people on our mailing list, and obviously the branded GIF recorder is a deliberate attempt to help the game "go viral". Our biggest and best asset by far is the fact that I've been doing this for 10 years now, which has given us name recognition and an army of fans (❤) who understand what we're all about.

Did it sell well? Do you care whether it sells well now that you don't run your business?

We don't have a lot of data yet, but even if we did I probably wouldn't answer that here. Sorry!

Does it help to be prominent/having a fan base or do you need to start over each time in terms of marketing?

Absolutely! See answer above.

Why do you use the "infini" prefix for block games?

If Infiniminer started the block game genre, why wouldn't we keep using it? The "infini-" prefix is actually something I started using in college for all of my games that involved creating the content as you played, like Infinifrag and Infinitron. They're both very bad.

Are you planning to make more block games?

We just released Opus Magnum, geez!

Why didn't you let arms move other arms in Opus Magnum?

We wanted to avoid what we call "octopus arm solutions" where you painstakingly but inelegantly program a single arm to do everything.

Is The Incredible Machine a design-based puzzle game?

It depends on the puzzles, largely. I recall that they tended to limit your parts and give you puzzles with "gaps" to be filled in with specific parts, which makes me say no, but I also remember open-ended puzzles with much more Zachtronics-style goals.

DotaGuy126 karma

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.

krispykrem3 karma

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"?

kvasieh5 karma

I picked up Silicon Zeroes after seeing you tweet about it and quite enjoyed it; do you have any other recommendations for people who already own your suite of games and need that next hit? :)

krispykrem5 karma

I don't think so. I certainly know of other games out there like ours, but I haven't played any other than Silicon Zeroes, which I did really like. There's probably another one that I liked but have forgotten...

edderiofer5 karma

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

krispykrem3 karma

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...

michaelryandead4 karma

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?

krispykrem5 karma

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!

th_pion4 karma

What are your thoughts about (not) including global high scores in to your games? It seems that you somewhat changed your mind by just patching them into Opus Magnum but even their you can only activate them after completing the game. What is your reasoning behind this?

To give some background why I'm asking:
I love fiddleing around with the first few levels in your games, trying to optimize them. I usually don't finish your games because I don't enjoy the more complex levels as much.
I don't enjoy looking for further optimizations when I'm not sure if there is a better solution. A global high score helps me here: As long as my solution is worse than the global hich score there is definitely still room to improve.

krispykrem2 karma

They always seemed like a bad idea to me, but we added them to Opus Magnum as an experiment, and because so many people have requested them for our recent games. Only allowing them for people who have beaten the game mitigates the risk of it negatively influencing less hardcore players.

EmrysSmith4 karma

How come there aren't more achievements in your recent games? In SpaceChem and TIS 100 the achievements gave me a point to learn more about optimization. I miss it in Shenzhen I/O though I am going to grind out those solitaire games eventually.

krispykrem10 karma

I don't really like achievements. There are all kinds of arguments to make for them, like rewarding players for doing something clever and surprising (a valid argument), to rewarding players for playing your game because people can't be bothered to do something if it isn't constantly rewarding them (less valid, in my opinion).

Of all our games, I like the achievements in TIS-100 the most, but they were hard to come up with. It's possible we'll add more for Opus Magnum, but it's also possible we won't. I think that the leaderboards and histograms do some of the work in this space, and I'm much more pleased with them as a mechanic than random magic-circle-breaking achievements.

Leylite4 karma

How do you decide what color to make objects (materials/molecules, interface elements, logo colors, etc.)?

krispykrem11 karma

Our artists are struggling to answer your question. It turns out that color selection is sort of a... fundamental concept... in making art.

narvius4 karma

Approximately how much code comprises the main "simulation engine" in Opus Magnum? Is it generally "clean", or does it contain a lot of accumulated patchwork? I'm specifically not interested in the display/animation aspects, just the pure computational part of it.

'cause I'm curious if this thing that enables elegant solutions is itself another elegant solution.

krispykrem10 karma

There is nothing elegant, efficient, or optimized behind the scenes of a Zachtronics game. It's all a sham, really...

billyburrito4 karma

What games do you play when not making awesome games?

krispykrem3 karma

Lately, a lot of Heroes of the Storm and Worms Armageddon with friends! I'm not actually sure how much I enjoy playing video games in general anymore, but that's like... some deep stuff to unpack elsewhere...

HoChiWaWa4 karma

Have you guys ever considered making a kids game? I trace my love of your games back to Rocky's Boots making number kicking machines with logic gates and sensors. I saw some simple infinifactory levels in steam workshop which seemed like a nice way to get kids into it but once they got out of the custom levels I think they'd be hard pressed to progress very far. A game with a full progression but a lower difficulty could help kids develop the love of logic and problem solving like Rocky's Boots did for me oh so many years ago.

Also, just keep it up, I love your games even if I've never beaten any of them. Last night I built an elegant, perfectly symmetrical, beautiful machine... and a dick that oozes gold... it was great.

krispykrem5 karma

We made three educational games that were ostensibly for kids and I never want to do it again.

Opus Magnum is a perfectly fine kids game... it has way fewer dead bodies and porn magazines than Infinifactory!

mbue3 karma

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. :))

krispykrem4 karma

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.

nanobuilder3 karma

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

krispykrem7 karma

Someone implemented TIS-100 in Infinifactory:


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


billyburrito3 karma

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?

krispykrem1 karma

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...

IgorsGames3 karma


  • 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?

krispykrem4 karma

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"?

DotComCTO3 karma

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?

krispykrem2 karma

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.

SrBrahma3 karma

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! :)

krispykrem7 karma

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.

FungalCactus3 karma

Do you plan to add new mechanics/features to Opus Magnum, like the Quantum Tunnels in Spacechem or the expansions in Infinifactory? I recently finished the main game in Opus Magnum and would love to see it grow.

krispykrem4 karma

At a minimum, we plan to add at least a few more journal issues. Anything beyond that is pure conjecture at this point.

identitymatrices3 karma

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?

LightningStudios3 karma

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.

krispykrem2 karma

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.

colour_thief3 karma

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.

krispykrem1 karma

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...

FreelanceP3 karma

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?

krispykrem5 karma

It all starts with the conceit.

[deleted]3 karma


krispykrem7 karma

  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.

Xavdidtheshadow3 karma

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?

krispykrem3 karma

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:


MegawackyMax3 karma

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.

krispykrem3 karma

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!

PseudobrilliantGuy3 karma

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?

krispykrem8 karma

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.

MemeGnosis3 karma

Infiniminer greatly influenced minecraft. Do you ever hit yourself for not making that first and becoming a billionaire like notch is?

krispykrem8 karma

The short answer is no, but the long answer is too long to write-up here. There should be an article coming out soonish (month or two?) that goes into a lot greater depth about my feelings about Infiniminer and its relationship with Minecraft. It should be interesting!

nullsub3 karma

Do you ever consider returning to educational games? Less dubious ones?

krispykrem3 karma

Not in the slightest. I think we're making better educational games now than when we were explicitly trying to make them.

metadept3 karma

From a marketing perspective, I think the best feature of recent Zachtronics games is the simple looping GIF export. I've seen lots of people showing off really impressive creations on Twitter, etc. However, given that it's also a puzzle game, seeing other peoples' solutions (or optimization strategies) often deprives me of the chance to think of them for myself! What are your thoughts on the relationship between individual game experience and marketability/visibility/virality? How does this influence your approach to marketing?

krispykrem3 karma

Yeah, I think we might have "solved" this problem a little too well. We had a built-in GIF recorder in Infinifactory but they never seemed overly spoilery, maybe because you could only capture a little bit of a solution from a given angle? We'll have to see how it plays out in the long-term.

a_chocobo2 karma

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?

krispykrem3 karma

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:


Ernimtir2 karma

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!

krispykrem6 karma

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!

konklone2 karma

Will you ever return to 3D?

I'm a huge fan of Opus Magnum, and I can appreciate how much faster and cheaper it is to make a 2D game. But it seems like there are more interesting mechanical and logical possibilities out there that you can only get through 3D.

krispykrem1 karma

3D is hard, both from production and design standpoints. I'd never go out of my way to make a 3D game, even if you can charge slightly more for them. When we come up with a compelling game design that requires 3D, however, I'd jump back in a heartbeat.

Dannah5732 karma

What's your favourite episode of scrubs?

krispykrem8 karma

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

Kinrany2 karma

Recommended game development/design-related reading?

krispykrem3 karma

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...

davarrion2 karma

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!

krispykrem2 karma

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.

AlexTrebequois2 karma

What languages are those games built in? How many engines have you built over the years for your games?

krispykrem8 karma

We've used C# since SpaceChem. I can't imagine using anything else, honestly. Infinifactory and TIS-100 use Unity, while everything else uses some kind of lightweight SDL-backed C# engine.

SHENZHEN I/O and Opus Magnum are both using a very minimalist C# "engine" inspired by some of Casey Muratori's ideas on game engines and game programming. It uses DirectX or OpenGL for graphics, and SDL for everything else. It's basically just one giant Update() loop, and is the greatest game engine I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Despite this, I would not advise novice game programmers to do the same.

sir-pinecone3 karma

Awesome! I didn't expect to see Casey's name in this AMA. He rocks. I've learned so much from his Handmade Hero series and now I'm making my first serious game with a custom engine. It's a ton of fun.

Did you happen to code a live reloading system in your engine? I find that has vasty sped up my iteration times.

krispykrem3 karma

Yes we do, and it's the main reason why I couldn't imagine using anything else. It was a little gnarly to get working in C# but we've got a system that mostly works now.

One of the things that we've added to it, and I don't know if this is from Casey or not because I didn't come up with the idea or implement it, is the ability to wrap a hardcoded constant (including vectors) in a function call that lets you scrub the value in-game. When you finish scrubbing the new value is copied to your clipboard so that you can paste it back into the code. This makes it really easy for me to lay out our user interfaces, which are nothing but fiddly, high-precision placement done entirely in code. We store most of our game's content in code, actually, but that's an entirely different topic.

thegoo2802 karma

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?

krispykrem3 karma

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...

SrBrahma2 karma

Another one, a bit salty: What do you think about piracy? Your games being "indie", does that make them get more or less pirated?

krispykrem6 karma

We don't try very hard to prevent people from pirating our games. Maybe that says more than any philosophical argument I could make for or against it?

That said, I very much appreciate all the people who do pay for our work. We literally wouldn't be able to make games like this if no one bought them!

A_t481 karma

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?

krispykrem2 karma

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.

superburritobol1 karma

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?

krispykrem1 karma

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.

Darth_Calculus1 karma

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

krispykrem1 karma

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

wmcduff1 karma

What's the oddest subject you could imagine yourself doing a game about? For example: imagine, if you will, a Zachtronics game about professional wrestling...

krispykrem2 karma

I think the possibilities are literally endless!

djpokeboy1 karma

Hey Zach, If you were to redo Ironclad, what do you think you'd do differently? Would you make it similar to the Bureau of Steam Engineering? Keep or scrap the card system?

krispykrem2 karma

Redo as in make it again in 2017, or redo as in go back in time and do things differently? Because I don't want to do the former and don't know how to do the latter.

ActuallyScar1 karma

Now that you have some experience, are multi-optimization challenges a high-priority when making a design-based puzzle game? Or is it just a correlated by-product and it simply happens so that every game has multiple statistics that translate well to optimization challenges after you have already made the bulk of the game?

krispykrem1 karma

If you make a plausible engineering system I think you'll always have trade-offs. Pick the extremes of those trade-offs and suddenly you have an optimization frenzy!

FelixNemis1 karma

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

krispykrem3 karma

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

Obyekt1 karma

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

krispykrem3 karma

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...

faldborg1 karma

As a programmer I love your games, I am especially inspired by TIS-100, turns out I don't know how to program.

I wanted to ask if you have any plans on bringing the podcast back? I really like it.

krispykrem3 karma

The weird thing about the podcast is (was?) that I only interview people that I really like on a personal level. I guess the Zoop interview was a little different because in that case I didn't know the interviewee but did really like the game on a personal level, but then I got lucky and ended up really liking him. Either way, this makes it pretty hard to find guests, which makes it hard to make episodes.

Mezentine1 karma

Zachtronics has settled into a pretty steady genre of work, the "puzzley optimizer thing" game. I adore these games but you've also made five of them now as commercial releases; how much do you think about branching out a bit more and trying something different like Ironclad Tactics another time?

krispykrem2 karma

We hope to explore new genres, but only as the ideas present themselves. It's important to us that we make things we're genuinely passionate about and interested in.

usrnamealreadytakn1 karma

Big fan of your games! I liked the setting you created in Opus Magnum quite a bit, is there any chance you might reuse it in some future games?

krispykrem2 karma

Anything is possible! That's the value of IP, I suppose.