Interview: Zach Barth, Head of Zachtronics

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Few games studios have established an in-house style as immediately identifiable as Zachtronics's. Systemic, dry, and often fiendishly complex, Zachtronics puzzle games such as SpaceChem and SHENZHEN I/O became cult hits for not just allowing players to find solutions but to build them. I was able to talk briefly to Zach Barth, the man behind the games, about the mindset that goes into developing them.


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Gamer_152: You tend to make games about technical and formal systems: circuits, robots, chemistry contraptions. What is it that keeps you coming back to these systems?

Zach Barth: I’ve always been interested in technology and technical systems, but I don’t have a good reason for it. Why does anyone like anything?

G_152: A few months ago, you put out your book Zach-Like which includes concept material and design docs for your games. Even among indie studios, such design material is often kept under wraps. Why aren't creators more open with their documentation? Or is there something I'm missing?

ZB: I don’t think it’s uncommon for designers to share their sketches, but I do think it’s uncommon for designers to generate as much paperwork as I do. I’ve got all of my notebooks since high school (about 15 years ago) and design all of my puzzles on paper “puzzle design worksheets.” When you put all that together it’s surprisingly easy to fill a 400 page book.

G_152: You called C# the best language ever invented. Why not a similar language like Java or Python? And are you using C# in your games today?

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ZB: C# is basically a clone of Java, and IMO has done a better job with it over the years, at least when it comes to game development. Python is nothing like C# or Java, although that’s not to say it has no merit. And yes, we absolutely still use it for all of our games.

G_152: Ironclad Tactics, your strategy-based card game, didn't do as well as you wanted it to. Why do you think the game didn't get as large an audience as the Zachtronics games around it?

ZB: Because more people wanted to play the other games? Again, why does anyone like anything? It’s surprisingly difficult to apply rationality to these types of questions. You learn what you can and keep going.

G_152: You said on one occasion that you're not sure you believe in marketing. What did you mean by that?

ZB: I think the best way to sell a game is to make a game that people want to play, and that most of the other activities in this space that are not directly “making a game” are largely bullshit. I haven’t seen very good evidence for or against marketing-like activities, though, so this is basically just an unsubstantiated opinion…

G_152: During your Google Talk, you mentioned that you've never beaten the final level of SpaceChem. It's possible to design a puzzle but not know how to beat it?

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ZB: Apparently, although I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I think it speaks to the way in which our games are different from traditional “puzzle” games, and maybe not “puzzles” at all. It’s irrelevant, though; if people like it, who cares what it’s called.

G_152: Where your games have previously been highly mechanical, Zachtronics's new game, Eliza, is a visual novel about a proxy for an AI therapist. What prompted this release of such a different kind of experience?

ZB: I’ll let Matthew, our writer, explain that one:

“A few years later, as we were finishing up Opus Magnum, I mentioned to Zach I was writing a narrative game about a “virtual therapist.” Zach was interested in the idea and decided it was time to try something new. He offered to produce the game as a Zachtronics title, combining my original concept, writing, and music with art from the studio’s art team and the resources to record performances from some of the industry’s best voice talents.”


Thanks to Zach Barth and thanks to you for reading.


1. Header image cropped from _GEN2099_1 by GDC. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.