SpaceChem != Autocad

People have been making video games for like 50 years and they’re pretty fun and intuitive. We’ve also been making apps like word processors, spreadsheets, and Autocad for 50 years. And they are not fun or intuitive. Why is that? Can we learn anything about game design from this question? Enter Zach Barth’s SpaceChem.

I’m pretty giddy that I have a place I get to talk about games I love now. Expect some posts featuring my favorite games from the last few years. SpaceChem is one of my favorite games ever. It is wonderfully hard-fun. It’s all about learning, finding tricks, and letting your brain slowly sink into the game until you absorb its very essence. Lo’ you have become a master where once you were but a wobbly newborn colt. SpaceChem is a very good game. Unfortunately today I come not to praise Ceaser, but to bury him.

Since this game is so good everyone must be playing it right? It’s crazy that you’ve never played it eh? Obviously a good rigorous playthrough is in order. Here is the free demo (there is also a mac version). Alright. Tried it? Got through the demo? Ready for more? No? You didn’t get anywhere and the game seems confusing and overcomplicated? Well that’s because it is. I’ve tried to get everyone I know to play it and I think I’ve managed to make Zach about two sales. No one else I know has beaten it despite my attempts to portray this as a sort of sword-in-the-stone accomplishment. I seriously considered adding a monitary bounty to the feat. People won’t play SpaceChem even if you pay them. This is despite the fact that it is an astoundingly good game.

I have a theory about why SpaceChem is so very hard to play. It is because Zach aproached interface design from the point of view of an Autocad designer instead of a game designer.

There is one major difference in the two. The Autocad designer can not change the nature of buildings and the plastic hee-haws that Autocad is made to model. A game designer has complete control over the domain of their problem. It is foolish of us to not abuse this ability! Autocad will never be as fun as Fantastic Contraptin because Autocad has to model the real-world which is messy and complicated. Contraption’s world, on the other hand, is specifically tailored to fit hand in glove with the tools used to interact with it. The real world has depth but depth is akward to manipulate on a 2D screen; depth is thrown out the window. We’ll use a “sticks collide, water rods don’t” metaphor to get us 90% of the way towards depth. In the real world when three things are connected at the same point and one of them has an engine attached you have to specify where that engine is. You can’t just say “one of them is a wheel and the wheel spins” wheels spin about other things. Which of the two other things does it spin about? Nope, that question goes out the window, we tailor the world so that it doesn’t matter rather than tailor the interface to perfectly model the world.

This is why SpaceChem feels overcomplicated. The game-world makes no concessions to the interface, to the tools used to interact with it. Since you played the demo I can discuss one example and how I would do things differently. You know how the game is about grabbing a couple of circles from the left hand side of the screen, doing some stuff to them, and then passing them off on the right hand side of the screen. You can see that quite clearly in this screenshot. See, over on the left you can see where you pick them up, and then see, over on the right you can see where you drop them off. Excpet no, you can’t. The drop-off and pick up spots are only nebulously marked. They are the large squares marked with a greek letter. You can drop stuff off anywhere inside that square and stuff gets dropped in… well there’s a tiny little diagram on the left that tells you where it’s dropped in and you just have to do the mapping yourself.

This is not how most games would solve the “place to pick it up and place to drop it off” problem. Most games would have a little outline on the ground of where stuff will come in on the left and another little outline on the ground of where stuff must be dropped off on the right. This would make the goal of the game crystal clear to players. It would make the perceived level of complexity go down. SpaceChem, though, is not most games. Its dreams encompass not just the rolling hills but also the jagged snowy peaks, and as such, this solution would not work.

See in SpaceChem you build these little machines. But in some levels you also build several machines at once, linking them all up to eachother with pipes. Like in this screen shot over here on the right. Now you see why printing outlines on the ground doesn’t work. Since the player decides what gets spit out of these machines and where they go you can’t have the strictly-enforced outlines. The game simply doesn’t know what’s comming in and going out. Whats worse is that advanced players will pass more than one thing into the same pipe in different and odd proportions.

So the game as it is designed can not have these nice outlines that tell new players how to play SpaceChem. To solve this interface problem we need to change the game design. Instead of letting the players build little machines that take in anything and spit out anything lets give them a selection of machines with pre-set inputs and outputs. We can include all the machines necessary for the intended solution, a couple of common alternates, and mabey a few red herrings/challenges for advanced players.

Now the interface is clearer, the perceived complexity is lower, and more people will play (and buy) SpaceChem. The pipes-levels definitely lose some of their magic but the pre-set machines offer another kind of challenge that might turn out to be almost as strong.

There are other ways which the domain of SpaceChem could be changed to better suit the interface and I don’t know if rounding all the edges off it would have made me love it less. It is certainly possible. But damn if I don’t just want everyone in the world to be able to enjoy my games. And damn it if it isn’t incredibly frustrating to try to get my friends to play SpaceChem.

But you’re made of sterner stuff. Go buy SpaceChem and remember, if you don’t find it fun it’s only because Zach overestimated your intelligence.


12 thoughts on “SpaceChem != Autocad

    1. I’m feeling pretty confident that the thing I’m working on now will make it out the door.

      Pretty confident.

  1. Having worked with Zach to create the art for this game I can wholeheartedly agree that Zach overestimates everyone’s intelligence. He just about told me the same thing when I confessed I was having trouble working through the game.

    You make some excellent points, especially about the reactor view in the game not making it absolutely clear where one should drop off the molecules.

    However, though I cannot speak for Zach, I’m almost positive this was intentional, and for whatever reason being able to figure out these little nuances of the game makes complete addicts out of anyone who has the stomach to progress beyond the first few levels.

    1. I’ve basically been training to play spacechem my whole life by playing games with a simmilar mindset. I’m sure Zach has been playing all the same games. It would be awesome if there was a sequel or de-quel or something that eased people into this style of game more gently.

      1. Interestingly, he basically addresses this issue in an interview here:

        “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.”

        1. How much playtesting did you guys do?

          I’m in the middle of writing a game that is really hard and am extremely preocupied with accesability. I’m hoping that focusing on the new-user experience right from the start will help a lot.

          I’m quite keen to bend the game design around the new-user experience rather than rely on being able to find some magic tutorial after-the-fact.

        2. It strikes me as odd that he was surprised that the topic of the game scares away a number of players. The puzzle part is chemistry based, and something like 90% (or more) of chemistry exposure society gets is from the most boring people on the planet (I’ve known about 15 chemistry teachers, 2 of whom had some form of humanity). The plot segments are largely comparable to Lovecraftian horror, which is the only horror topic I know of that hasn’t been rendered cute, sexy or cool in some form or another.

          So we have “boring” puzzles and horror storyline – sounds like reason enough to stay away…unless you like horror storylines and/or are willing to look past the chemistry stigma and see that the game offers an unusual and challenging series of puzzles. In my opinion, the only problem with the game is the wonky difficulty curve. (It’s fine until you hit the end of the 3rd last sector, then it jumps up between two levels about as much as it had progressed over the entire game up to that point.)

    2. I’ve basically been training to play spacechem my whole life by playing games with a simmilar mindset. I’m sure Zach has been playing all the same games. It would be awesome if there was a sequel or de-quel or something that eased people into SpaceChem more gently.

  2. I have to say, I disagree completely with your article. Variable outputs on the production/defense levels is entirely critical to the main challenge. You can come up with interesting ways to form molecules with varying degrees of efficiency in various measurements – the statistics show efficiency in terms of complexity (symbols used), time (cycles), and infrastructure (reactors used), which gives you the opportunity to optimize puzzles as you see fit (and a series of challenges to reward you for various types of optimization.

    And Fantastic Contraption is an absolutely terrible game – it fails on the most basic principle of designing a game physics engine: consistency. I’d rather design what the wheel spins around than have it randomly selected according to what the game thinks I meant. Spacechem at least offers a clean, intuitive user interface with well thought out and clearly labeled keyboard shortcuts. And, excepting mass-bonding commands which are usually avoidable, it is very consistent.

  3. Sounds a lot like what we did with IncrediBots vs what you did with Fantastic Contraption, Colin.

    I’m going to have to try this SpaceChem game! Seems like I have a lot in common with its designer.

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