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How Zachtronics makes personality-filled puzzlers like Opus Magnum

November 1, 2017 | By Bryant Francis

A few weeks ago, Zach Barth and the scrappy team at Zachtronics put out Opus Magnum, an alchemy-themed puzzler that puts players in shoes of ambitious student starting their career in the business of making complicated alchemy machines. Thanks to some clever puzzle design and a built-in gif-maker, it's been a huge hit on Twitter, and a modest hit on Steam. 

Since Barth and his cohorts have had interesting things to say about making puzzle games before, we decided to invite them on the Gamasutra Twitch channel as we learned the basics of Opus Magnum. Barth, along with writer/music composer Matthew Burns, were able to share some keen insight on the game's development. 

We've archived the stream for your convenience up above, but in case you're too busy building crazy alchemical contraptions, here are a few key takeaways from our conversation. 

Personality helps make puzzle games accessible

In theory, Barth and Burns muse, there's a world out there where Zachtronics puzzle games wouldn't have the stories they have. But when they look at their games as a series of standalone puzzles, they can't escape the fact that the short bits of writing that pop up between encounters help drive players forward, no matter their skill level. 

It took a lot of work to come up with the precise aesthetic and characters that would show up in Opus Magnum (Barth and Burns laugh about angrily insisting there be 'no steampunk' to the game's art director early on), but they see the results as worthwhile. The game's untraditional charcters, racially diverse setting, and unique power arrangements help it defy genre expectations and provide broader context for why players are building these odd machines. 

The value of gif-exporting tools

It's no secret that players sharing screenshots of your game can help with your marketing efforts, but the ability to share functioning gifs has been a crucial part of Opus Magnum's success. Barth explained that, while working on a previous Zachtronics game, he saw a player create their own .gif file of gameplay, and realized he could convert a video exporting tool that he'd abandoned work on to export .gif files instead.

The result is a simple button-push tool that pops up when players finish a level that's helped the Zachtronics crew introduce their game to a larger audience. 

Barth's thoughts about rewarding players

After we finally finished our first big Opus Magnum puzzle on stream, Barth commented on the fact that the game doesn't provide you with a lot of rewards for successfully navigating its puzzles---just a little more story and progression to the next level. We quizzed him about how he felt about games that use more overt UX tricks to drive player progression, and he (backed up by Burns) went on a banger of a rant. 

You'll want to watch the full thing, but Barth essentially made an argument for following his own self-confidence about game design and what he wanted to work on, defending his view that free-to-play microtransaction games are "evil," and that it's important for developers who have the ability to try and do right by their players, and not hook every last inch of their time or money away. 

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamsautra Twitch channel.

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