SpaceChem: Interview With Zach Barth

Zach Barth, from Zachtronics Industries,  took time out of his busy day to talk about his indie smash hit, SpaceChem.  Zach also speaks on Vavle, DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of SpaceChem.


I’ve been making games for about five years now, although SpaceChem is without a doubt the only one good enough to go commercial with. On SpaceChem I was responsible for design, production, and “business stuff”.

How did you get started in developing PC games?


I started programming computers when I was in elementary school, and in the process have frequently worked on “game-like” projects. It wasn’t until college, though, that I decided to focus on developing video games as a serious life choice. Joining the game development club and being able to interact with a large group of like-minded colleagues really helped.

Where did the idea for SpaceChem come from?


After I finished developing one of my older games, The Codex of Alchemical Engineering, I started thinking about how I could take the idea of building machines that manipulate “atoms” to the next level. It wasn’t until over a year later when I visited Gas Work Parks that I realized I could take the idea and apply it to the process of building chemical pipelines. One of my friends expressed interest in working with me to create a new game, so we started work on a game that you know as SpaceChem.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing SpaceChem?


My biggest takeaway from working on SpaceChem was a practical lesson in what accessibility means for a broad audience. My previous games reached only a small niche audience that appreciated difficult games with obscure topics.  When I tried to make SpaceChem more appropriate for a “mainstream” audience, I ended up making a game that was still too difficult and had a topic that (much to my surprise) tended to scare away too many players.

The biggest success in my mind is that we’ve been successful at all. I went into this project thinking that I might not even make back my small initial investment for art and music, but now we’re on two stores (Steam and GamersGate) and doing much better than my pessimistic figures. To be able to be a “no one” and self-publish a game through sheer force of will is pretty cool.

How did you develop the art style and musical score for SpaceChem?


I’m really awful when it comes to art and music, so I turned to the internet and found two extremely talented contractors to fill that gap. Part of our deal was that they would retain a high degree of creative control, so the art and musical style can be directly attributed to them!

Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for SpaceChem and if you faced a similar challenge.


SpaceChem is, without a doubt, a difficult game. I don’t think this is because we got to be really good at it, though, but instead is because we didn’t have a good understanding of exactly how hard a game like this should be.

SpaceChem is somewhat unique in that it requires you to imagine solutions to puzzles that have both spatial and logical constraints. There is a certain organic complexity to each puzzle that you must unravel and build a solution around. This feature isn’t found in many other games, so I think that players without related skills, such as programming, find the whole process a bit incomprehensible.

How did you quality test SpaceChem through the various development cycles?  Who was involved and how was the testing set up?


Most of our testing was ad-hoc through playing the game, a task that usually fell on me during the content development and testing process. Toward the end of development we started deploying copies to private beta testers, which is where we discovered most of the hardware and configuration bugs. We also did a “group playtest” where we brought eight people who had never played the game before into a room where they were given the game and told to figure it out by talking only to eachother. This gave us insight into how a group of players with different skill levels would play the game as a whole.

Is SpaceChem in its current form what you initially envisioned when you began development?


Yes and no. The original design was slightly different, with defense missions more closely resembling a tower-defense game and a notion of economic efficiency that ended up being too confusing and was cut entirely. Aside from those, though, I think it landed pretty close to what I originally envisioned.


Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring SpaceChem would run on various PC system configurations?


Yes! SpaceChem works on Windows, Mac, and Linux, so, although we were able to use a common binary for all three thanks to .NET, we ended up writing a fair share of code that was different on each platform. There were some issues with rendering too, such as framebuffers not being available on low-end video cards, which we had to work around as well.

Tell us about your relationship with Valve and how making SpaceChem available via Steam came about.


Although we approached Valve about getting SpaceChem on Steam before we released the game, that didn’t go anywhere until a few weeks after we launched and started getting press coverage on sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun. We currently don’t have Steam achievements, but hopefully will in a future release!

How much pull do you have when setting regular and sale pricing for SpaceChem via digital distribution?


As the publisher we set the price, but don’t necessarily get to specify when the game goes on sale on platforms we don’t control (such as Steam).

The inital price of $14.99 for SpaceChem on Steam was viewed by some PC gamers to be very high for an indie game.  Can you tell us why you felt that was a good price point?


We actually launched at $20, so I think that, comparatively, $15 is quite a deal!

If someone isn’t complaining about your price being too high it means you’ve priced it too low. With SpaceChem we have new gameplay that many people have never seen before and an absurd amount of content, so I feel the price matches the value.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?


It’s the greatest thing ever! The fact that I can develop and self-publish a game with literally no background in the industry and be able to get it in front of millions of potential customers is amazing.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the thoughest aspect of being an indie developer?


Support can be challenging because of the mind boggling number of possible PC configurations that we’ll never be able to test on before launch. Channeling customers to purchase your game can be challenging too, although I think that’s largely mitigated by the fact that you only need to sell a fraction of the copies that big games need to sell in order to break even.

You released a demo for SpaceChem in an age where PC demos are becoming scarce.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to do so?


Some games, like Call of Duty, don’t exactly require a demo – anyone who has played a recent Call of Duty title understands the basic premise and knows what they’ll get when they buy the game. With something like SpaceChem, though, you really can’t even understand what the game is about until after you’ve played it for a while.

The hardest part of making a demo is deciding when to cut it off. With SpaceChem we wanted to make sure the demo conveyed to players what kind of game it was and why they should purchase it. It ended up too long, but I’d rather that than having it be too short and leave people confused about what the game is like when you get out of the tutorials.

How do you use online message boards and other social networking sites to market and receive fan feedback for SpaceChem?


I find it a little overwhelming how many channels we use to communicate with fans, with a list including Facebook, Twitter, mailing lists, the ZI blog, the SpaceChem site, our community on Reddit, Steam forums, the in-game news channel, interviews, and direct email. Our general strategy is to be responsive to issues that customers are having and make sure that everyone knows about updates and new features. Personally, I make a point of trying to respond to every email I receive.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review SpaceChem professionally?


Their opinions are important in that those are the opinions that the majority of people who learn about SpaceChem will read. When it comes to soliciting opinions to make changes to the game, though, I think it’s important to listen to what everyone is saying about the game, including both vocal and non-vocal groups of players and colleagues in the video game development industry.

How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”?  Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?


I’m not a huge fan of “pay what you want” pricing because I think it’s fundamentally confusing for customers. Determining your willingness to pay for a good with a fixed price is already, but taking the extra step to remind them that the good they’re buying has a marginal cost of zero (as otherwise you’d be setting a minimum price) only makes it worse.

That said, I think the Humble Indie Bundle is a pretty spectacular way to sell your game as you enter the long tail, and the fact that they can use it to raise money for charities only makes it better. I’d love to contribute in the future.

What are your thoughts on how the PC industry is dealing with the problem of DRM and piracy?


As a gamer I don’t particularly care about DRM so long as I can play the game without it interfering and/or swiping my credit card number. As a game developer, I guess I don’t particularly care about DRM either; software pirates have proven that DRM is merely a challenge to overcome as part of delivering their “product”.

My stance on piracy is that pirates aren’t customers; if they were, they’d be buying the game. Just like non-pirate non-customers, you do your best to convince them that they should buy the game, either by putting it on sale, adding features that are not piratable (such online play in a persistent world), or appealing to their emotions. -End

We would like to thank Zach for taking time out of his day to give some great answers.  You can pick up SpaceChem via Steam.

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