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Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Friday Interview: SpaceChem's Lead Designer

Person A: “Hey have you played that new game yet?”
Person B: “Which one?”
Person A: “SpaceChem”
Person B: “Nah, what is it though? Sounds Awesome!”
Person A: “It’s a Chemistry based puzzle game”
Person B: “Ummmm…”

This is probably a fair representation of a few conversations that have taken place in recent months. Admittedly it doesn’t sound too thrilling unless you like puzzle games and chemistry (which I happen to). But I think this game has something to offer to everyone. It basically involves a visual representation of a flowchart in which actions like bonding or synching particles are put together to create a manufacturing process for a compound or molecule. It’s quite difficult to explain but timing and thinking outside the box is crucial.

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One of the simpler levels!

Amazingly for a game like this, the storyline is superb. It’s well-written, engaging and humorous. The tutorial is fantastic too guiding you through the game mechanics without ever feeling like you’re in a tutorial. It’s a rare game In that when you finish or solve a level you get the same feeling as when you complete a difficult room in Portal. It has a great soundtrack that fits the style of the game superbly. The graphics are perfect as well, very slick and effective whilst also original. I spoke to the lead designer on SpaceChem -  Zach Barth.

Bob: When did you start developing games?

Zach: I’ve made “games” for almost as long as I can remember, although it really picked up in college when I learned enough about programming and game design to make games that weren’t absolutely terrible.

Bob: How did you get the idea for a Chemistry-based puzzle game?

Zach: The Codex of Alchemical Engineering was a relatively successful game for me, so when it ran its course I thought about making a successor game. One of the challenges when developing the Codex was inventing the alchemical rules and compounds, so making a game based on chemistry seemed like it would solve this problem. I’m not a huge fan of making derivative works, though, so I shelved the idea and made a game about integrated circuits instead.

After visiting Gas Works Park in Seattle it struck me that I could combine the atomic construction mechanics of the Codex with some sort of chemical pipeline construction metaphor resembling the structures found at Gas Works Park and the idea for SpaceChem was born.

Bob: Have you got much of a background yourself with chemistry?

Zach: Barely! I’ve taken a few courses between high school and college, but chemistry was never a strong subject for me. In many ways the chemistry of SpaceChem is what I always wished chemistry was like –logical, with fairly simple rules!

Bob: How well do you think it works as an education tool?

Zach: I’ve talked to a few teachers who used or were planning to use SpaceChem in their classrooms, although it was more often for teaching programming than teaching chemistry. Although it may not match up perfectly with any existing curriculum, I think that SpaceChem is a great metaphor for many programming and chemistry concepts and provides excellent practice for true problem solving that problem sets cannot.

I have a quote from a teacher who was using the Codex in an afterschool club that I think really sums up the value of games like SpaceChem and the Codex in an educational setting:

“However, it did do one thing immediately that I really appreciated. It got them to start trying to solve puzzles. Even students that in my physics classes have completely balked at venturing an answer to anything that they haven't been directly taught were saying "this is fun" as they were trying things that didn't necessarily work.”

Bob: Did you get many responses from people saying "A chemistry game won't sell"?

Zach: Only after we started selling it! I made the mistake of testing the game with people who all thought that chemistry was a completely legitimate theme for a game. It wasn’t until we shipped the game that we realized people mistook it for educational and refused to have anything to do with it.

Bob: How many people worked on the game?

Zach: Seven people!

Design & Production:     Zach Barth
Programming: Collin Arnold
Anti-programming : Keith Holman
Visuals: Ryan Sumo
Music: Evan Le Ny
Sound: Ken Bowen
Narrative: Hillary Field

Bob: Are you pleased with the reaction after joining the last Humble Bundle?

Zach: Yes – it’s gone quite well! There are now a ridiculous number of people playing SpaceChem, which I think is the best measure of success for a game.

Bob: Have you got any plans to release more DLC?

Zach: At this time, no.

If you want to check out SpaceChem, you can purchase the game here (A demo is also available) or visit the website here.


  1. Great Article! Love this game to bits!

  2. Would love to play this game but i know i would fail i can't do anything linked to chemistry! but all in all another good read!

  3. Great article and a great game, managed to get it in the humble bundle :D

  4. Cool Interview!

  5. I could save at least 8 symbols on that layout.... and I may have played this game too much.

  6. To the person above and others who think they would fail at this game because it's chemistry's chemistry THEMED :). You don't need to know anything about chemistry to both enjoy and be successful at this game. It's "just" a puzzle game (and a rather brilliant one in my opinion). Just like you don't need to know anything about flowers to enjoy putting together a jigsaw puzzle with a bunch of flowers on it, you don't need to know anything about chemistry to enjoy putting together the puzzles in this game.

  7. I totally agree with the anonymous person above me(nothing at all to do with chemistry,only with pure logic), and also very warmly recommend this game, I already got 2 or 3 friends hooked on it, at the time of the steam sale, they were really happy (at times, very angry) about it, so, possibly you will be too :).

  8. Anonymous (#2) - that's either a bad attempt at humor or you didn't read the article.

  9. As an actual programmer, I found the intersection of the chemistry language, the game's language, and the problem sets kind of annoying.

    Sort of like:

    Create an implementation of this algorithm using only 2 global variables and for loops!

    But I have this reaction to nearly all "programming games".

    I did think this one had far too much private terminology that got in the way. Symbols, greek letters? I think a lot of the terms could have been eliminated entirely and replace with normal accessible english, and as a programmer I think the "language" could have been more accessibly expressed in a few paragraphs of text.

  10. @ Anon above:
    As a student programmer, I found the language and terminology-set didn't get in the way of the problem-solving at all. It felt to be to help the cognitive process along, actually.

  11. As a software engineer and a gamer I loved the game, nice simple representation of the programming process matched up with the wide lexicon of chemical symbols.

    I think people get too worked up about what the games theme is sometimes and forget that the core of the game is just a nice deceptively simple logical puzzle game.