My Chemical Romance: Zach Barth Interview

By Quintin Smith on January 20th, 2011 at 12:55 pm.

If you stare really hard at a screenshot of SpaceChem you will see Zach's boot stamping on a human face, forever.

SpaceChem isn’t simply the best indie game 2011′s seen so far, it’s one of the best puzzle games ever made. If you haven’t yet partaken of the demo or my review then you certainly should. The game is predominantly the work of one Zack Barth of Zachtronics Industries, who describes the outfit as such: “In the pursuit of clandestine R&D objectives, Zachtronics Industries accidentally releases games from time to time.” I infiltrated his hermetically sealed underground laboratory for a chat.

RPS: Hello! Could you talk a little about your background?

Zach Barth: I went to school for (and graduated with a degree in) computer science and engineering, but ended up focused on game development. I’ve always been more interested in making games then playing them, so it just clicked when I found myself with the technical skills and supportive environment to make it happen.

RPS: How would you describe yourself now?

ZB: Older, better dressed, and a little bit more experienced at making games.

RPS: Your puzzle games share a certain mechanic- “programming” out a sequence, namely. Would you call SpaceChem the culmination of what you’ve learned? Or are you more proud of something else?

ZB: I wouldn’t call SpaceChem the “culmination” of what I’ve learned, as that implies an apex which I hope I haven’t hit. That said, it’s definitely influenced by previous games I’ve made and hopefully the best so far.

RPS: Alright. And what is it about these mechanics that holds such appeal?

ZB: As humans, we’re wired for the kind of problem solving that games with these mechanics require. When done right they can be extremely satisfying, which makes it an appealing choice both to create and play.

RPS: We’re wired specifically for laying out circuits?

I was referring more to problem solving in general. The combination of clear goals and well defined tools with lots of potential for emergent behavior creates an environment where you are constantly learning and discovering new things. This is something your brain rewards you for, not unlike World of Warcraft and its variable ratio rewards.

RPS: Zachtronics Industries must have plenty of new fans with the release of SpaceChem. Which of your games would you recommend people play next?

ZB: They’re pretty bad compared to SpaceChem, but the four listed on my site (The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, Ruckingenur II, The Bureau of Steam Engineering, and Kohctpyktop) are all good choices. Ruckingenur II even has live-action video!

RPS: The realm of absurdly taxing puzzle games – of which I consider SpaceChem an example of – seems unpopulated to me. Or am I not looking in the right place?

ZB: When I think about “puzzle games” I usually divide them up into a few categories, such as:

    pattern matching games, which require you to have eyes and a brainstem (Bejeweled);

  • logic games, which present you with a situation that can be solved by deduction or other logic-based heuristics (minesweeper, sokoban, picross);
  • rule-discovery games, which present you with a system and require you to figure out the rules (Myst, “escape the room” games, the Dismantlement series); and
  • design-based games, which present you with a goal, perfect information, and a set of combinable tools to achieve it, possibly focusing on an emergent behavior that must be discovered or invented (SpaceChem, Manufactoria, Light Bot, other games I’ve made).

There is also a large category of games that employ programming mechanics but without the puzzle framework, such as Carnage Heart, at-robots, and corewar.

RPS: Carnage Heart! There’s a game I’d forgotten entirely.

ZB: You can find “difficult” games in each of these categories, but I think that design-based puzzle games can be particularly taxing because, if done correctly, they’re essentially asking you to “invent” a solution to a problem instead of merely “finding” the solution. I agree with your assessment that there aren’t many, as I’ve only seen a handful in the past few years, although it’s quite possible that I’m not looking in the right places either!

RPS: I think the need to “invent” your solution rather than discover it is an excellent summary of SpaceChem’s appeal. Could you talk a little about the process of inventing the puzzles themselves? Since I suppose you have to come up with both a solution and plenty of room for that solution to grow into something more awkward and unwieldy, I’d imagine it’s somewhat taxing. What’s your step-by-step process?

ZB: My process for inventing the puzzles in SpaceChem was to design the goals without any consideration of the solutions required. I wrote these all down on paper so that I could physically manipulate them, and then proceeded to sort them based on perceived difficulty and discard puzzles that were too similar to others (such as two puzzles with different molecules but essentially the same “complexity”).

Next, I entered them into the game and, after a combination of testing them myself and with other players, further modified and rearranged them to create a smooth and interesting difficulty curve from start to finish.

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The above is an image of some of Zach’s SpaceChem production notes, which I stuffed into my pocket when he wasn’t looking. View the full things here and here

RPS: What frustrates you about game development?

ZB: The intangibility of fun can be frustrating sometimes, but I guess if it was clear then everyone would be making games!

RPS: When I think about standout puzzle games from the last couple of years- Braid, World of Goo, Limbo, and now SpaceChem- they all share a very high standard of storytelling, audio and aesthetics. Is it the case that when you have a great set of puzzles on your hands, you want to deliver them in a suitably impressive framework? What’s your reason for giving SpaceChem a story at all?

ZB: I think that aesthetics and gameplay are equally important in games, and work together to create the best experience possible. SpaceChem has a story because I felt it needed one and I had one that I wanted to tell.

RPS: Could you talk a little about what inspired you to design Infiniminer?

ZB: Infiniminer is a combination of Infinifrag, Team Fortress 2, and Motherload. I wanted to make a competitive mining game, and this was it.

RPS: What led to the decision that you were finished with Infiniminer, and that you wanted to return to your trademark puzzle games?

ZB: I stopped working on Infiniminer when the source code was leaked. It was totally my fault, as that’s what I get for releasing an un-obfuscated .NET assembly, but it nevertheless enabled hackers to create hacked clients and players upset with my balancing decisions to fork and write their own clients and servers.

In the months after the leak, I thought a lot about how and why I made games in the past. It became obvious to me that if I wanted to make better games and reach more people, I needed to step it up. I assembled an awesome team, cranked up the polish, and made a game that happened to be SpaceChem.

RPS: I’d imagine that creating the precursor to the million-selling MineCraft would raise conflicting emotions. Do you ever lie awake at night, howling into your pillow?

ZB: The act of borrowing ideas is integral to the creative process. There are games that came before Infiniminer, and there are games that will come after MineCraft. That’s how it works.

RPS: Are you one of the many, many gamers who doesn’t see the entertainment value in simply building and landscaping this blocky world for the sake of it?

ZB: Hell no; I think it’s terrific. That’s why I made a game about it!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

All of Zach’s games discussed in this article can be found here, except Infiniminer. You’ll find that here.

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52 Comments »

  1. pakoito says:

    Two nights ago spent all fucking night dreaming about space-fucking-chem and how to solve some goddamn dreaming puzzle and it was so annoying I woke up still tired. True story, sadly.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I unintentionally informed an engineer friend of mine about SpaceChem recently. I think infecting him with Ebola would have affected his productivity less.

    • pakoito says:

      I’m trying to convince my “INF3200 Industrial Robotics” professor that finishing this game should be equivalent to pass the subject assignments with at least a B.

    • Baboonanza says:

      I’ve found the solution to a SpaceChem problem while lying sleeplessly in bed on several occassions.

      Incidentally the reason I’ve been lying sleeplessly in bed is that I’ve been up until 2 in the morning playing SpaceChem desptie having to get up for work in 6 hours and my mind is racing to fast to sleep :)

    • Chris D says:

      I spent the best part of Saturday trying to optimise one of the challenges I had already solved. (Yep, that was my Saturday night, that’s how I roll.) This is what you’ve done to me Quinns, I hope you’re satisfied.

      While it might be a little early to be handing out the Best Puzzle Game of 2011 trophy just yet had SpaceChem been released a month earlier it would easily have been the best of 2010.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Spacechem has destroyed my sleep for the last week or so. A friend of mine is supposed to writing her PHD (in chemistry) right now, I’ve warned her boyfriend to make sure she doesn’t find spacechem until after she’s finished.

      Basically it’s digital crack for me.

    • Rich says:

      Wow. The last game that had that effect on me was Lemmings 2.

      I must continue to avoid this.

    • Dozer says:

      THIS. DAMMIT. I’ve missed two days of work from getting up late and now they’re probably going to fire me. I wake up at 6:30am and, half-asleep, start inventing a SpaceChem reactor to move the bus from the depot to Keynsham instead of getting out of bed and doing it myself.

    • Lack_26 says:

      I’ve found that I might be pretty stumped by the game, I lie in bed think about it, still no avail yet I wake up the next morning with the solution, almost fully formed, in my head and only requiring minor changes.

    • Xocrates says:

      Getting utterly stuck in the game was actually a blessing in disguise as it meant I could go back to sleep at night.

      Sadly it also means I haven’t finished the game :(

    • westyfield says:

      I was laying network cable with my brother when I suddenly realised the solution to a level that had been bothering me for hours.

      “Can you just hold this while-”
      “Wait, be right back.”
      “Wha- are you there? Hello?”

    • TomSmizzle says:

      I’ve lay awake thinking about SpaceChem puzzles on many a night, and the solutions I dream up work about 50% of the time. It’s easily one of the most rewarding puzzle games I’ve ever played. I spent days trying to solve the boss puzzle with the plutonium, and when I finally got to my clumsy, bloated solution i felt like a genius.

    • GHudston says:

      I hope that I’m not the only one who has invented a solution of which I am so proud that I MUST show everyone that I know, despite the knowledge that I do not know a soul who would understand what they were being shown.

    • President Weasel says:

      That is why there is a youtube channel and a thread on the RPS Forum-o-tron.
      I suppose that’s actually the exact opposite of showing people you know but that don’t understand what you are showing them, nor why it is awesome.

  2. DrazharLn says:

    Great interview, I’d have liked to know a little more about how Zach went about assembling a team, perhaps delivered in a tool-up style montage… :-)

    That Zach stopped work on infiniminer partly as a result of his source being leaked is also interesting to me as I’ve seen the same things going on in the wc3 community if a map goes open source or is hacked open.

    Thanks, Quinns and Zach.

  3. Mr Chug says:

    I loved Codex of Alchemical Engineering, losing many hours to it and recommending anyone who would listen to do the same. My technically minded friends loved it, although my less computer-savvy friends bounced off the interface. SpaceChem seems far more intuitive (although importantly no less brainy) so combined with that lovely and hefty demo I’m hoping I’ll be able to get even more people hooked on soul-draining puzzling.

  4. matty_gibbon says:

    I have a question for the pedants that frequent RPS – when someone says “then” when they mean “than”, what is that? Is it an Americanism, an interneticism, what? See it more and more frequently and always wondered.

    Back on topic, great interview. I’m increasingly intrigued by Space Chem and hoping to have a go at the demo this weekend. Time hates me though, so we’ll see.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      It means they spelt it wrong. “then” is not equivalent to “than”

    • Chris D says:

      The fish speaks the truth.

    • matty_gibbon says:

      Well, agreed. But I see it so often I got the impression it was deliberate. Oh well.

    • Torgen says:

      It’s beacuase they’re either distracted while writing, or have picked up the wrong usage on the Internets (much like even usually well-spoken (well-written?) people online will spell turrets as “turrents”

      Or, they’re listening to the voices in their heads, which were pretty good.

    • Premium User Badge

      Nogo says:

      I cannot speak for others, but within the TRIBES community “turrent” is the only acceptable description for a stationary shootery-gun.

    • Shadram says:

      I’m guessing it’s for the same reason that people say “I could care less…” rather than “I couldn’t care less…”, use made up words like “irregardless”, and arbitrarily mix their/there/they’re and to/two/too. That reason being “they slept through English lessons in primary school and now they’re wrong.”

  5. RC-1290'Dreadnought' says:

    Great game, if this game were €10,- or on steam (where I still have some funds) I would’ve bought it already. It’ll have to wait until next month.

    The scoring system is also a lot more interesting than a simple scoreboard. When you’ve completed a challenge, it shows various statistics like, how many elements you used, how much time your design takes to complete a challenge, and shows how many people scored the same, a bit more, a lot more, a bit less, and a lot less than you.

    In stead of seeing, “oh, yay, I’m in position 2594″, you can see that you scored above or below average. And its really cool when you see only a fraction of the other players managed to score as well as you.

    • pakoito says:

      Making a 5 reactor challenge with only 3 is priceless ^^

    • GHudston says:

      Making a 5 reactor challenge with only 2 makes you feel like a God (and look like a crazy person when you try to explain it to anyone who isn’t familiar with the game).

  6. Yargh says:

    Spacechem is a real time devourer. I’m torn between thanks for finding this and rage for the way it is keeping me awake at night.

    Still, I did get to nuke a Kraken last night, so I guess the thanks win, for now.

    • pakoito says:

      *********************SPOILERS*********************
      Did you fused 5 O and 6 H to make plutonium or was there another way?
      *********************SPOILERS*********************

    • MartinNr5 says:

      I should probably read these comments more slowly or more focused as I thought you wrote “… I got to nude a kraken…” which I have no idea what it is but sounds naughty/horrific (cue “You just described my sex life!” jokes).

    • Lilliput King says:

      Pakoito: Dunno how you managed that. You needed 10 O 14 H or 9 O 22 H, or 11 O 6 H, or some other pair that summed to 94 didn’t you?

    • pakoito says:

      Sorry, right, 11O6H

  7. DrunkDog says:

    This one “had” passed me by. Oh God… [hits download] and kisses this evening goodbye.

  8. jonfitt says:

    Can you ask him if there’s any chance of an iOS version? Then I could be playing SpaceChem AT ALL TIMES!

  9. drakkheim says:

    I love SpaceChem and I’ve taken great pride in inducing severe sleep loss in several friends and family members :).

    It actually reminds me a bit of playing Settlers, the whole setting up supply chains and making a well oiled machine that converts resources to processed goods. Granted SpaceChem is waaay harder.

    We need more games like these where you invent solutions. They make me happy.

  10. Maxheadroom says:

    Good to see he’s keeping himself busy after Scrubs got cancelled eh?

    :-)

  11. nayon says:

    Do the saves from the demo transfer over to the full version? If so, I’m sold on this one.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      I believe they do. Faster, pussycat! Buy, buy!

    • Vinraith says:

      I can confirm that they absolutely do.

    • Soon says:

      Excellent. I hope it’s comparing the demo scores to the full game too, because that means I have equal fewest elements on most levels. Though I suspect the later levels in the full game will see me left behind. But there’s only one way to find out.

  12. jbgh2 says:

    Has anybody made a Minecraft SpaceChem mod? I think it would cause a RPS singularity and probably kill me.

    • Shadram says:

      I can already see YouTube video of redstone circuits built within, and joining, carefully crafted block factories in my head… It’s a pretty awesome video, if I’m honest.

  13. Vinraith says:

    This is one of those games that causes me to subscribe to RPS. That is, it’s something fantastically good, that I’ve gotten many hours of play out of, that I’d never have known about if not for you guys. I think I’d be required to subscribe for at least a decade simply on the strength of your pointing out AI War to me, but stuff like this is a lovely coating of icing on the proverbial cake.

    • Initialised says:

      This game is so much more than that. It;s a primer for working on multithreaded programs and managing parallelism.

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    Colonel J says:

    Frak-sticks, is it just me, I am only in the demo, have just spent twenty minutes sweating over a simple one-colour-loop for double and triple bonding and already beads of blood are breaking out on my brow. And this is only the chuffing tutorial. Damn it felt good to design that from scratch though.

    The thought of that difficulty curve rising up into the distance is making me feel queasy.

    Curse this game for making me feel so much less intelligent than like I think I am. Playing this feels like that moment when you jump in to help someone with a MENSA-type test question to show off how much smarter you are. “I know how to do these, give it here….” Then you start sweating and feel a bit sick when you realise it is way less obvious than you expected.

    *buys*

    • Sassenach says:

      Clever games do have a tendency to make me try to downplay the effort involved in solving the puzzles. I did buy it after finishing the demo and continuing on immediately from where I had left off had that sinking feeling you described where I anticipated that ‘now’ was the moment I found out that I was actually as dumb as a bag of hammers. But most of the effort seems to be in concieving of a rough idea of what you want to do, whereas most of the time seems to be spent working out the details of the loops.

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      Colonel J says:

      Yeah I know what you mean on the time and effort. I’ve progressed a bit more and realised that experimentation is really key, you need to break a problem down into smaller less-scary modules then play about with how to make them work. It gets you past the ‘woooah way too difficult I can’t do this’ reaction when faced with a new level. Spacechem is showing me how mentally very lazy most of my gaming is in comparison, you get conditioned to expecting to see a whole solution to problem very quickly and so get frustrated and put off when you don’t.

      A lot of it as well is finding out how the commands actually work. I had a face-palm moment last night when I realised that the bond +/- command can be triggered by the Waldo anywhere and doesn’t need to be inside the bonding machine. Ah.

  15. Scandalon says:

    Yet no mention of the fact that it’s available for Penguin PC’s and Fruity PC’s…

    (Via the magic of .NET/MONO)

  16. Initialised says:

    Every programmed in LabVIEW?

    Every studied parallel programming? Race conditions, queuing theory, collisions, buffers, it’s all here. Implicitly training the next generation how to get around Amdahl’s Law.

  17. edwardoka says:

    Wow. What a game. I’ve tried Zach’s other mind-bending puzzle games and gone away scratching my head in bewilderment. I didn’t think I’d like Space Chem on the basis of those – I was wrong – oh so very very wrong. Come payday, this is bought.