Road to the IGF: Zachtronics' Opus Magnum
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Opus Magnum has players creating machines for developing potions and poisons, tinkering with parts and mechanisms to refine perfect alchemical devices.
This machine-building process earned Opus Magnum nominations for Excellence in Design and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize in the 2019 IGF. Gamasutra sat down with Zach Barth and Matthew Burns, developers of this puzzling game of mechanical perfection, to talk about giving players room to find creative solutions, the joy of fiddling with processes, and the beauty of mechanisms in motion.
Designers of Alchemical Machines
So, we are Zach Barth and Matthew Burns. Barth was the lead designer and creative director, and Burns wrote the story and composed the music. We're speaking jointly on behalf of Zachtronics.
Barth started making games in college, putting them on the internet for free. SpaceChem (2011) was his first commercial game. Burns has worked in games for a while and joined Zachtronics full-time in 2016.
Refining a decades-old concept
Opus Magnum is a refinement of ideas first explored in one of Zach's early Flash games from over ten years ago, The Bureau of Alchemical Engineering. Both the world and the mechanics are developed from the original ideas in that game.
The tools to create magical machines
The engine itself is built with C#, SDL, and DirectX or OpenGL (depending on the platform). The art was painted in Photoshop and Flash(!) and the music was created in Logic Pro.
Creating a certain beauty of motion in Opus Magnum
Most Zachtronics games are about making machines do things. In each case, there's a certain limited toolset provided to transform inputs into outputs. This one happens to have a greater focus on physical movement of components using arms, so there's a lot of circular motion that results in designs reminiscent of clockwork. It was a natural outcome of the design space we were in.
A lot of Zachtronics games are about creating a system that manufactures something. It's satisfying to watch factories work, and especially so when it's one of your own design. And the game's animated GIF export feature helps players share their unique solutions easily.
On developing the components to create varied machines
In general, the idea is to try to create a certain minimum set of tools that create emergent properties when used together and balance them with cost so that players can optimize for that if they like.
Building for creative solutions
We don't design with specific optimal strategies already in mind -- in our experience, as long as the toolset is expressive and the problem is open-ended, we will see creative solutions from players, including optimizations we hadn't really dreamed of before. There are different metrics to optimize for, such as cost, area, or cycles, and some solutions can be particularly nice-looking, like symmetrical ones.
On how to encourage players to tinker with their machines
One way is through the leaderboards. You finish a puzzle and see your friend completed it in fewer cycles, so you see if maybe you could shave off a few cycles yourself. But some players aren't interested in the leaderboards, and are more interested in simply challenging themselves on their own terms. We deliberately don't offer any kind of in-game rewards for optimization, so the players who do are often more intrinsically motivated.
The appeal of alchemy and fantastical science
Our games are usually built around fake interpretations of systems like chemistry or electrical engineering. In this sense, alchemy is no different; it's another system of knowledge that happens to be a little more undefined than the others. Aside from the alchemy, there aren't actually a lot of fantastical elements in Opus Magnum! The story is pretty grounded, in fact— it's about the choices you have to make when you work in the service of greater powers.