The alchemical puzzler Opus Magnum has a few of us at House RPS scratching our heads and shouting "a-ha!" before giddily sharing our twisted contraptions in GIF form. It's real good, friends. The studio behind it, Zachtronics, is headed by Zach Barth. I spoke to him about the game's machines, his short stint at Valve, and the reasons he sold his own company.
[You can also listen to the full interview in this special podcast episode]
RPS: Opus Magnum is based on an earlier game you made called Codex of Alchemical Engineering. Why did you decide to return to that?
Zach Barth: I liked the idea, and we had been working on another project for a couple of months and it wasn’t working. And it was just like: ‘oh fuck, we need to make a game’… SpaceChem did pretty good [back when it came out] and Ironclad Tactics we just assumed would do way better, right? And when it came out it didn’t do way better. And so I think that was sort of the thing that led us to believe: ‘hey, maybe we could just do another game like SpaceChem and it’d be okay, like maybe it’s okay to make these weird programming games’. And so in that mindset we thought, okay... we could make another game about alchemy. Because it was fun, the alchemy stuff in Codex was fun and it has the same mechanics as SpaceChem but without the boring chemistry aesthetic. So this was back in 2013, but we actually ended up not making that project and we made Infinifactory instead. So... it’s just been sitting in our idea bank since 2013. And when our little research project we were doing didn’t pan out, we needed to make something, and that’s when your idea bank comes in handy.
RPS: What was the thing you were working on, or don’t you want to say?
Barth: If I describe it people will be like: ‘oh that sounds like the best idea!’ But no, it was lousy and it sucked [laughs]. So there’s a reason we didn’t pursue it further. It’s not a mystery, it just wasn’t a good idea.
RPS: Fair enough. You must be inundated with GIFs of people’s machines. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen made by a player so far?
Barth: The funny thing is that a lot of the GIFs are people playing the game in a very conventional way. And this is the thing that I think is so funny, is that there’s a lot of people – like the subreddit is almost entirely just GIFs – and there’s lots of people posting GIFs and, like, their solutions aren’t that special but they’re unique and they’re theirs, right? And so I think that speaks to the power of these open-ended puzzles. Even people who aren’t, like, fucking breaking the rules or pushing the limits are actually still immensely proud because they really have made something that is their solution to the puzzle. And they’re showing it off. I think in the past people only tended to show off when they did crazy things, but we’ve made it so easy and so accessible that it becomes this thing that everybody can show what they’re working on. So, from my perspective, most of what they’re doing is actually kinda boring but they’re just playing the game as intended, you know? But I think that’s great … and I love that people feel attached to their solutions, even when they’re just kind of playing the game normally…
RPS: It’s that weird thing where people land on a planet in No Man’s Sky and they share it thinking ‘this is amazing, it’s definitely cool’ but really it’s not that different from anybody else’s, it’s just that you’re there.
Barth: Pictures of your kids.
[Note: Barth would later email me with a link to this machine, a functional 'brainfuck interpreter' - basically, a computer made from salt and gold. "This counts as genuinely surprising," he would say.]
RPS: In a few of your games there’s often a story embedded in it to drive what the people are doing or what you’re doing. And sometimes your character finds themselves doing something unsavoury. In Shenzhen I/O it’s sometimes implied that you’re making stuff with military applications… and in Opus Magnum you end up making weapons as well. Why is that a recurring theme in your games?
Barth: There’s two answers. The dumb answer is that I think thematically that stuff, if you do it too hard it’s not very subtle and it kinda weakens your… it kind of cheapens the game. But if you do it a little bit, they’re fun. Like, there’s certain kinds of puzzles that are just fun. People love, like, food processing puzzles [laughs] in Infinifactory. There’s these two food processing puzzles where you round up these little critters and, like, freeze pack ‘em. And there’s one where you get a giant whale and you have to chop it up into whale meat and then package that. And like, people love those puzzles – not mechanically but thematically. They’re just really fun. And I think military stuff and conflict is very prominent in videogames and so making puzzles that talk about military stuff… it captures people’s attention. It’s a good thing to have as part of a huge repertoire of things that you’re building in a game like this.
The funny thing about that is that, in Shenzhen I/O, it’s not really sinister. I think a lot of people misinterpret that. They think: ‘oh, China, military, sinister!’ But it’s actually just like, it’s for military contractors or whatever, that’s just a part of life. You know, people make guns and people make toasters. When you’re making stuff it’s less about who you’re making it for and more about what you’re making. And that was sort of what that got at in Shenzhen I/O.
RPS: But is that an intentional message? That you’re getting absorbed in your work to the point where you’re not really thinking about what it is that you’re making?
Barth: Whether or not there are negative consequences for making that product in Shenzhen I/O are a matter… it’s an open question. And that was what the characters explore in it. Carl is maybe some kind of pacifist or something. He’s uncomfortable with the idea of making military stuff but some of the other characters aren’t uncomfortable with it, and they see it as a natural part of life, you know. And I think that it’s less about us having a message and more about giving that idea room to breathe and explore itself through these characters. And that’s why I think it’s important to have a lot of characters, to let them explore ideas on their own instead of us just trying to channel a message through.
RPS: You once made some educational games for Microsoft. But do you prefer doing things this way – making games that people will play for fun?
Barth: Oh yeah, absolutely… the thing that was really terrible about it is that no one really got to play them. And trying to make a game that’s educational I think you end up making a game that’s no more educational than if you weren’t trying at all…
RPS: So give me an example. What were these educational games doing?
Barth: There were three games. The first game we made was called Metabosim. It’s like pinball except you’re directly manipulating the ball and there’s like 50 balls. And so you’re flicking them through this machine that’s a model of the human digestive system.
Barth: I think it’s really clever! But that’s what happens when you make your own games… but yeah the lungs are like a region and you’ll push a mechanical button and the lungs mechanically breathe out then breathe back in and they have all these little air particles. And you flick the oxygen out of the lungs and into the bloodstream, and you push a mechanical button to pump the heart and it cycles through the blood system... and when you flick one glucose molecule into one oxygen molecule, it pops and creates energy and waste. And if you don’t exhale the carbon dioxide it’ll fill up your body and you won’t be able to -
Barth: It’s really fucking cool! But no one played it and when the students played it they didn’t really appreciate it, because it turns out that’s a cool way to reinforce these ideas but it will not teach them to you.
RPS: No, it’ll just teach you that marbles are bouncing around inside a body.
Barth: Exactly. And if you sit middle schoolers down, Christ, you can scarcely get them to concentrate on something. Middle schoolers are like squirrels, they’re doing their own thing and they’re high energy. They’re not really there to learn anything. They’re there to just exist. And trying to get them to sit down and play this game that we designed thoughtfully to be a complex metaphor for these real-life systems… it’s kinda lost on them. They kinda tested it by drilling them after and giving them a paper test. But if you’re giving somebody a paper test after letting them play this experience, you’re just undermining the experience. If you just want them to recite facts, just teach them the facts and get them to recite them.
RPS: Did that experience help you when it came to making games for people who (hopefully) are not squirrels?
Barth: The only thing it helped me to learn is to never do anything like that again... By the time we were working on the third game, I was actually getting really depressed because I was getting hit with these existential questions like: ‘Does it matter that we’re even teaching this stuff? What does learning even mean!?’ … I started thinking, I guess, about all these questions that made it really obvious that these games were pointless…
RPS: You eventually sold Zachtronics to Alliance Digital Media. Why did you make that decision?
Barth: I was doing Zachtronics for a while. We did SpaceChem, and I broke off and went full time after SpaceChem. Then we made Ironclad Tactics and we made Infinifactory and we made TIS-100. And for whatever reason after all of that I felt like I was stuck and I just wanted to put Zachtronics to the side. So we sort of phased out… and then I went to work at Valve. I worked there for ten months on VR stuff… It seemed like there was stuff there, like the ability to work on big projects, the ability to work on stuff that mattered more. And I think what I found – being at the best games studio you could work at – is that, God, I really like making my dumb little games that don’t matter. And there’s something really freeing about working on a project with a small budget, where in the scheme of things nobody gets mad at you if it sucks… I really discovered how much I missed that…
One of the big reasons we shut down Zachtronics was that running an indie studio is really stressful, especially when you make weird games that are dubiously profitable… Every game was basically like: okay, this is all of our money. We’re going to take all of our money and bet everything on this next game so it better do well. It turns out that’s really stressful and it’s creatively limiting. It’s hard to be fearless and make what you think you need to make when you have that spectre hanging over you of, like, ‘oh, if this game doesn’t do well, we’re done!’ Kinda makes you want to cash out and not make another game [laughs]...
But we managed to come into contact with Alliance… and we sold the company and we work for them now, and we made Shenzhen I/O and they’re ultra – I can’t imagine working for a better company. They let us do our thing.
RPS: But I mean… if the business stuff is stressful and you don’t want to do it, would it not be possible to hire someone to do the business stuff for you as an employee?
Barth: You can’t hire someone to own a business for you. You can hire someone to run a business but then you have to make sure they’re not doing a shitty job and then you have to pay them so they’re making it even harder to be profitable. Because you’ve got somebody who thinks they’re a fancy executive and they’re taking all your money. It’s very hard to offload the stress of owning a business, rather than running it.
RPS: But isn’t Alliance just fulfilling the same role, being the fancy executive in this relationship?
Barth: No, because they own it, right? They bear the risk in a way that we personally used to have to bear. We just make games and are creative and… obviously if we do a terrible job and make tons of really expensive unprofitable games, the relationship... might not survive that, whatever. But we no longer have to worry about if one of the games fails we’re just out of business because that was all of our money. They are bigger than us and it mitigates a lot of the risk of making indie games… If you have someone who supports you creatively, it doesn’t matter if you own the business or not. It’s better I think if you don’t. The more hats you have to wear the more those hats start to fight with each other, and they don’t all fit on your head, you know?
RPS: Thanks for you time.