Dev Q&A: Zachtronics team on building personality into puzzles
Last month, Zachtronics, creator of Shenzen I/O, TIS-100, and other puzzle games, put out Opus Magnum, an alchemy-themed puzzle game where players experiment with machine inputs to create desired chemical outcomes. Thanks to some clever puzzle design and a built-in gif-maker, it's been a modest hit on Steam and a viral sensation on Twitter.
Barth and his cohorts have had interesting things to say about making puzzle games before, like this and this. So we decided to invite them on the Gamasutra Twitch channel to talk about their design philosophy and process. Zachtronics' namesake Zach Barth, along with Opus Magnum writer/music composer Matthew Burns, were able to share some keen insight into the game's development,embedding narratives into puzzles, and the current furor over lootboxes and F2P.
We've transcribed some of the more interesting passages of the conversation below.
Bryant Francis, editor at Gamasutra
Zach Barth, co-founder of and developer at Zachtronics
Matthew Burns, developer at Zachtronics
Alex Wawro, editor at Gamasutra
The value placed on story in Zachtronics' puzzle games
Burns: The way we started working at Zachtronics, pretty much since Shenzhen I/O, is that Zach has this design space that he's working with, with puzzles. So in the case of Opus Magnum there's this design space, here's this thing that we can do with alchemy, and here's this world that this alchemy takes place in. And then there needs to be some reason to make all these different things that you're making.
"All of the puzzles in the first chapter are telling you about the kind of people that you work for."
And so, what we do is, together we brainstorm all these different ideas of things you could be making in this world. So like, some of the products that show up in the first chapter, they have you making some silly products for them, like hair gel and hangover cures, and things like that. All of those are brainstormed from a story direction as well as from a mechanical direction. Because, if I say there should be some sort of hangover cure, Zach can figure out what that means in the gameplay, what a molecule of that looks like.
But what those puzzles are are created with the story in mind as well. All of the puzzles in the first chapter are telling you about the kind of people that you work for. So it's this process where that's generated. I'll try to come up with a whole bunch of puzzle ideas and pitches, like, what if they needed to make tar for their ships, so they don't sink? What if they needed to make fuel for their airship, because they have an airship because this is the kind of fictional world where airships exist. Trying to filter the broad concept of the world down to what would the specific things be, then translate those into the actual mechanics of the game, and how would that be expressed in the mechanics.
Barth: Sometimes I get really pedantic about that. Matthew will suggest something and I'll say "That's not a thing!" He'll suggest a special kind of ale, and just like, that's a combination of molecules! That's not a single molecule Matthew, Jesus Christ. (laughs)
Hitting upon the idea for a GIF export tool
Francis: You have a cool feature that I used a few minutes ago, a GIF exporting tool. I found about about this game because everyone was putting those GIFs on Twitter. So I'm curious, when did you think of that feature, and how important do you think it is for certain game designers to create export tools to allow people to clip their work and share it easily?
Barth: We started doing this in SpaceChem. We did a thing in SpaceChem where when you solved a puzzle it would record a video and then upload it to YouTube. When we were getting close to finishing Infinifactory we were implementing the same thing. But I thinking, "No one even uses YouTube anymore!" A YouTube video of an Infinifactory solution isn't very good, so we actually shelved the feature. We didn't ship it.
"We've branded the GIFs so they have the game's title at the top, and your score and the puzzle information at the bottom."
Then about a month after the game came out, one of our powerfans had made a looping GIF of one of their solutions from a single perspective. It just looped seamlessly, because it's a GIF, and most of the time solutions for our games loop infinitely. As soon as I saw that GIF it just flashed in my mind, "Holy shit! I can take the video recording that we didn't ship and change it to record looping GIFs." I deep-dove into that for like two days and bam, we had a GIF creator, and we shipped it, and it was amazing.
A bunch of people made GIFs, and it was awesome. I put them everywhere. It's probably one of the coolest things I've ever made.
Immediately after that, we made TIS-100, and then Shenzhen I/O, and neither one of them made sense for looping GIFs. But when we came up with the idea to do this game, obviously GIFs were part of our strategy from the beginning. We've really refined it in here. The fact that it's 2D means you don't have to angle for the perfect perspective. We've branded the GIFs so they have the game's title at the top, and your score and the puzzle information at the bottom.
Story and mechanics
"I think the way to avoid ludo-narrative dissonance is to make it so that your story is your gameplay."
Barth: If you've got games about interfaces, I think it's super important that the story is about the interfaces. People talk all the time about ludo-narrative dissonance. I don't know what the opposite of that is? But that's the demon that's always at our back. I want to make these games that are kind of abstract, about engineering systems, and they don't really parallel with stories or feelings.
The thing I'm always afraid of is I'll make a game that's too, I've done it lots of times, I think that's one of my weaknesses as a game designer, creating things that have a lot of ludo-narrative dissonance. That's why we brought Matthew in full-time as a core part of our creative team, to do stories and music. I think he gets Zachtronics games, and he keeps us from making these things where there's this story over here, and there's gameplay over here, and never will they meet.
I think the way to avoid ludo-narrative dissonance is to make it so that your story is your gameplay. Making a game about interface means you have to have a story about interface, which is a really unfair thing to hoist on a talented writer. (laughs) I guess that's why it's a job.
A passionate rant about the ethics of UX
Wawro: There's a lot of questions in games about progression systems. How do you track and reward player progression? You have do it very loose-ended, the positive feeling there is just getting it, letting me make the GIF and look at the leaderboard. Those are maybe the most physical rewards. Other games, especially mobile games, are very quick to build UXes that have all these pinging noises, that are pleasant sounds and animations, they use leveling-up systems, they use loot boxes. You seem very averse to those solutions. Have you thought about that? How do you reward players in your puzzle games
Barth: I think about this a lot. May I soapbox for a minute?
Francis: By all means.
"People are making games for kids, and trying to get them hooked on stuff that doesn't exist,. That way they can take their money. It's crazy!"
Barth: So I've done a lot of soul-searching about this over the years. I think the important thing to put in here is that a lot of times, as a game designer, I feel like a failure because our games are not that popular. There's a lot of people who are less popular than us, but I'm very aware of how not-popular our games are in the scheme of games.
You'd never be able to tell from the games that we've actually shipped, I've spent a lot of time looking at the games that are out there, looking at what's popular, trying to think, what could we do to make a popular game? And we noticed that a lot of the stuff that's going on, a lot of the mechanics that go into these games, they have like systems where you mine for resources! And systems where you artificially progress! We've even explored the idea of faking some of those. And it's like, I literally just couldn't give fewer shits about this stuff. It's so fake!
Most of the games that are on PC aren't that bad, but once you start getting into mobile, some of them are downright... it's dark! People are making games for kids, and trying to get them hooked on stuff that doesn't exist. That way they can take their money. It's crazy! And people are employing a lot of stuff that is, like, addictive design.
When people started doing micro-transactions stuff, I was dumb and young. I was against it and I thought it was stupid. People said, "If players are having fun, what's wrong with them having fun the way they want?" And I guess I stopped being really against it.
"For me, there's something really compelling about making these games where you're honestly doing something. You're really having to learn a system and how to use it."
But I the past two years I've suddenly gone way back to where I used to be, which is like: "Holy shit, these people have no morals. They're making stuff that's not culturally relevant. I want nothing to do with that!" Fortunately, I have no desire to make stuff like that, but I still feel guilty that I'm not making stuff that's stealing people's money. (laughs) I'm a game designer! Hypothetically that's a commodity, and I could be making games that are way better games, that make more money, by giving people a false sense of progression, but I'm not interested in that.
For me, there's something really compelling about making these games where you're honestly doing something. I know you're not doing something because it's fake and it's alchemy. But you're really having to learn a system and how to use it. We have something in the office where we play fighting games, and I have an arcade setup so I can learn them, and I want to learn and get better but I'm really bad at it. I've always been really bad. But I really respect the fact that these games are just about skill. And you really do have to learn and get better. And it's a real thing! It's as close as games get to being real, maybe.
I don't know what they say, I could keep going on into really dark stuff like people, and human behavior, and how everything is designed to manipulate us now. I don't really have anything good to say there, I don't know.
Francis: Not every developer has the luxury to try to make rewarding games without the use of either microtransactions or something like that. What do you think developers who are working on those kinds of games could learn from the success of Zachtronics games? Because they are, as you said they're not dropping millions in peoples' laps. But they do have a fanbase, and they do sell on Steam. What is the one thing that you think that your games do well that the game designers who use micro-transactions or those kinds of UX things in their work could borrow from? Like what do you think they need to moderate on essentially to not rip off money from kids?
"If I were to tell other developers one thing, that's what I would say. You have control over what you're making. You have control over what you put into the world. You actually have more control over that than you think."
Barth: I don't know, I think it's hard to talk about this without getting into a weird thing where it's okay to rip off kids? Like our society embraces it? I'm much more confident now than I used to be, and I'm confident about our games being what they are. I don't think they have to be something else, but by the same token, I don't think other people's games have to be something else. They're doing something that's okay, as far as society is concerned. They're putting food on people's tables. I don't think they have to learn anything, I don't think they have to moderate themselves. But at least I have the knowledge now that I don't have to do that.
Burns: If I were to tell other developers one thing, that's what I would say. You have control over what you're making. You have control over what you put into the world. You actually have more control over that than you think. I think when you start out in games, it's thrilling just to be making games at all, and you don't always think about the consequences of what you make, or what you make is telling others. But when you do come to that stage, I think you should think about it.
It's okay to start thinking about that, and really considering why you're doing what you're doing, and having a little bit of an artistic crisis, where you ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? What is the point of my life? Why am I designing these things for people? What benefit am I bring to humankind?" Those are the kind of questions I would like more developers to ask themselves. And that's an incredibly philosophical and maybe assholish thing to say in answer to your question. But that's kind of where I think we want to go with that. Instead of saying, "Hey! Take this little design bit from these games."
Barth: Add histograms!
Burns: (laughs) Right, add histograms to your mobile! It's not really like that, right? It's like, choose what game you want to make. Think about it more carefully than you have in the past. That's really our answer.
Barth: That sounds way smarter coming out of your mouth than mine. What Matthew said!
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