Indie developer Zach Barth (no relation to either Zach Braff from Scrubs or Barth from You Can't Do That on Television
) was studying computer science and computer engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
(RPI) when he joined the game development club.
It wasn't until late his first year in college that he realized making video games was even a career option.
"After designing games - albeit terrible ones - all of my life, everything clicked into place as games became my primary method of creative expression," Barth said.
The games he began making were primarily engineering-style games where you construct a circuit or a mechanical process to solve a puzzle. Some of his early games include a block assembly game called Manufactoid
, hardware hacking, reverse circuit building game Ruckingenur
(and sequels) and The Codex of Alchemical Engineering
Barth also created a block-based digging and building game called Infiniminer
which came across a bit of bad luck. That's not to say that the game wasn't good but, when Barth made Infiminer available to download April 2009, he didn't obfuscate the code. That essentially meant he unintentionally released the game's code open and free to the world. Barth's hard lesson from the experience: "I learned to obfuscate my code!"
To its credit, Infiminer became Marcus "Notch" Persson's inspiration for Minecraft
(from Persson's blog concerning the origins of Minecraft
: "But then I found Infiniminer. My god, I realized that that was the game I wanted to do.").
Barth was a bit hesitant to comment on the relationship between Infiminer and Minecraft. "There isn’t really much to say," Barth said. "I made Infiniminer, which featured a procedural block-world that allowed for exploration, digging, and building. Minecraft, inspired by Infiniminer, also featured a procedural block-world that allowed for exploration, digging, and building. They are similar in this regard, but different in many others."
Barth's most recently released game is SpaceChem, a puzzle game where, as a Reactor Engineer, you create elaborate factories to transform raw materials into various valuable and useful chemical products. To do this you design a routine with various paths and actions that move elements into the proper configurations to form specific molecular formations. It's loosely based on chemical engineering and each puzzle has seemingly limitless solutions.
SpaceChem is what happens when an engineer decides to make video games.
In SpaceChem (screen shot above), you work inside the reactor, orchestrating the movement of atoms to create bonds and form molecules in a synchronized chain reaction.
"After I finished The Codex of Alchemical Engineering I envisioned a pseudo-sequel that would use actual molecules and multiple bond strengths, although I put it aside early on because I didn’t want to make something so derivative so soon after," explained Barth. "A year later, after visiting Gas Works Park in Seattle
, it occurred to me that I could take the chemistry-codex idea and combine it with the idea of building chemical pipelines. With this, the idea for SpaceChem was born."
SpaceChem was created with fellow Zachtronics Industries personnel (Collin Arnold did the programming, Keith Holman "anti programming," visuals by Ryan Sumo, music by Evan Le Ny, sound by Ken Bowen and narrative by Hillary Field) and has received a few nods including being named a semi-finalist in indiePub's 2011 Independent Propeller Awards
and, more recently, received the Genre Buster Award in the Extra Credits Innovation Awards (Escapist Magazine
"I think that a fair number of people like engineering games for the same reason that a large number of people like engineering: To a degree, we’re wired for it," Barth said. "The reason we have so many fantastically engineered things today is because of the human predisposition for problem solving and building stuff."
Solving problems and building chemical reactions is popular enough for SpaceChem to have warranted a Japanese translation.
"Although we had planned for localization from the beginning, and had support for it in the product, we did have to hack in support for Japanese characters," Barth explained. "The one language that I had originally said was completely out of scope for the project ended up being the first language we translated the game into."
As with most indie games, SpaceChem has evolved since it's original inception (see the sketch above) and continues to be a work in progress while available to purchase.
"You never have all the answers when you start working on a game, simply because you haven’t encountered all of the problems yet. Features that weren’t developed until we were well under way with the game include the 'magic lines' that are drawn as you place instructions inside of reactors - I originally imagined we would only draw symbols - and the ability to record a video and upload it to YouTube - I originally imagined that we would only export images."
Barth includes a level editor in SpaceChem, as he does with nearly all of his games (due to "customer demand, primarily, although I guess it’s also just a sensible thing to do"), but players' level are sometimes put back into the SpaceChem.
"I’m also a fan of exercising editorial control over which player-created levels are pushed back to players, although that may or may not be because of deeply seeded control issues."
Since graduating from RPI in 2008, Barth has been working as a developer (SDE) at Microsoft, a job that will end in a few weeks.
"For the most part it's just like any other job, in that it took up a lot of my time, about 8 hours a day, during which I wasn't making indie games," Barth explained, "It's not very exciting."
Even so, Barth was a bit secretive concerning his future indie game projects ("I can assure you that I have top men working on these projects") but, rest assured, there are more plans for SpaceChem.
"We’re currently working on some initiatives related to the long-tail of SpaceChem, such as more issues for The Journal of Reaction Engineering and spinning up on some new ideas," Barth said. "In the future, you can expect fresher, more innovative gaming experiences that only Zachtronics Industries can deliver... I’m still working with the original SpaceChem team in what is still and will always be a team effort."
Zach Barth's Advice for Indie Developers
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to make a hard decision, imagine yourself thirty years in the future and think about how you’d feel had you made each choice.
Also, make more games!
A Few More SpaceChem Screen Shots
In SpaceChem, you are trying to get all the reactors to work together to transform a set of chemical substances into something else.
This is the Periodic Table of Elements for Zachtronic Industries' SpaceChem (above). And if you think that the game misrepresents chemistry, "I think that anyone who makes that claim is completely correct!" says Barth. "I have not, however, encountered anyone who felt that SpaceChem’s misrepresentation of chemistry damaged the game, which makes me think that it’s okay."
As the game progresses, the molecular chains become more complex, requiring more actions to combine, rotate and move molecules. Each puzzle has multiple solutions.
SEE: SpaceChem @ indiePub
SITE: Zachtronics Industries