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What Works and Why: Opus Magnum (www.rockpapershotgun.com)
254 points by jsnell 5 days ago | hide | past | web | 47 comments | favorite

One thing I would like for the Zachtronics games is if the optimization mattered somehow other than just personal satisfaction. Such as you get achievements, special equipment, or get to unlock special stages for meeting certain optimization goals. Or since you are basically designing factories (or PCBs in the case of Shenzhen and TIS), maybe your creations earn profit based on their cost and efficiency? And maybe you have to earn enough profit to win the game, in which case would have to revisit less efficient designs to improve them.

One of the standard approaches to this these days seems to be the 3 star system.

So you can complete a level and progress, but also have motivation to back and do it better.

Then these stars can be blockers to accessing later stages, so you may have to have an average of 2 stars from 15 levels to get to the next stage (which may be visible and locked, or may show up a 'surprise' reward later on in the game).

One particular game using this method Nintendo's NES Remix also adds "rainbow" level if you do particularly well and I spent a while getting them all and enjoyed having that structure. I would guess this all takes a reasonable amount of effort to set up on the dev's side though.

Well, part of the appeal for Tom is that you can just blunder your way through the campaign: "And that’s reason 6: you don’t have to optimise. If I had to do this to progress, I probably would have quit in frustration."

I'm reminded here of Wario Land on the Gameboy: you could finish the game by speeding through levels, but the time you spent collecting treasure directly influenced the prize you got at the end. Maybe that would be a good compromise for gamers driven by external milestones rather than personal ones.

> "I probably would have quit in frustration."

In actuality, I actually quit in frustration about 3/4ths through the game because I realized I could just blunder my way through the rest of the game.

Eventually I got tired of the game after I stopped caring about optimizing, and then wondered why I should bother completing the game other than for the sake of completing it. Yes there was a storyline to the game which should be completed, but the storyline was disconnected from the essense of the game (which to me was optimization). I would have felt more purpose in finishing the game if the optimization mattered somehow, like for instance if it affected the storyline or progress of your character somehow.

I don't think it is a matter to me of "external milestones" vs "personal milestones", but more about engagement and immersion in the story and world of the game, which I suppose is something I am after in addition to simple mental exercise.

For comparison, another Zachtronics game "SpaceChem" does a great job in linking the optimization into the game and storyline though the following simple mechanism: in order to defeat bosses, your factory had to meet certain timing requirements. To me, that requirement made all the difference in terms of immersion.

I had the opposite experience: Infinifactory was great because even my kludgiest creations got to the point of giving a warm fuzzy "I made dis!" emotional payout... which is what drove my interest in optimizing against friends.

In contrast, some of the less-friendly (and less-intuitive) limits in the "boss battles" of SpaceChem simply turned into big painful dead-ends, leading to me abandoning the game on the final level. (And swearing I'd get back to it... someday.)

I think the distinction speaks a little bit to the spectrum between "problem solving" and "puzzle solving". Both games are solidly in the former camp, but Infinifactory feels far more like a creative unique exercise.

Plus, I kind of need more of the life-lesson: Getting something "ugly" that works and then iterating is better than holding yourself to an emotionally-safe but difficult standard that keeps you from getting work done :P

Fun fact revealed in a GDC talk: Even Zach Barth himself did not feel motivated to complete the final SpaceChem level. He just designed it to the point where it "looked solvable" and then turned his playtesters loose on it.

( https://archive.org/details/GDC2013Barth at 19:20)

Great points. I do admit I did feel a great sense of satisfaction from many of the "ugly" designs that merely worked, and there is good in that, as I'm sure many tools we rely on fall into that category!

One of the problems with rewarding optimization is that at the time of game design, the designers don't know how well the problems can be solved. They'd have difficulty balancing it, and there would end up being arbitrary cutoffs for "optimized enough."

Interesting that you brought this up...shenzhen I/O actually had to release some updates after they found some puzzles were too difficult to complete, not even optimized!

I suppose one of the downsides of modern day indie game-dev is not having playtesters. But surely with early access these difficulties could be figured out.

Still I'm not necessarily suggesting that failure to optimize should block the player's progress. Rather that the optimization affects the game somehow.

If you play Zachtronics games on Steam your best scores show up ranked against any Steam friends that have played the level. I've found trying to out optimize my friends pretty rewarding at times.

For me, it functions as an instant obliteration of self-pride at having completed a level.

Yeah, me too. I kinda wish that you could turn off the "graphs" at the end of the levels.

I believe "hermit mode" does this.

The Steam integration is nice if you have a couple of other people who also play these games because you get to compare your best with their best.

Personally I managed to keep up with the global optimums early on in the shenzhen campaign but as it went on my solutions were progressively worse than the population. (Or least the portion of it left still completing those puzzles.)

The personal satisfaction is still the main driver of course, I think having the base binary "solved or not" solution is a good way to gate progression as you can choose to optimize as you go through or do a success pass and then revisit for optimisations which suits different play styles. (Personally I like to optimize as I go).

You could try to improve on the best known metrics for each level: https://www.reddit.com/r/opus_magnum/wiki/index

Right, and I am aware of this and think it is great that people are trying to find the best solutions and compete in the real world. But I was instead suggesting to have the optimization matter in the game's world.

Haven't seen any mention of Factorio in this thread. It's not as much of a puzzle game (except when going for extreme optimisation) but a resource management game.

Time, in particular. When you’re new, you think all those »more addictive than crack« comments are jokes. They are not.

Factorio has a lot in common with writing a fun new language that you don’t know how to abstract things in, figuring out as you go. Spaghetti bases will bite you just the same way as spaghetti code. And once you get the hang of it, it’s all about scaling, becoming crazier and crazier, until you have entire bases built with a swarm of flying robots in a single click. Can’t recommend it enough – but unlike Opus Magnum, Factorio is, as mentioned, definitely not a casual game.

I went over to a friends one night, we decided to check out Factorio. I didn't leave his house for 4 days, we both called out of work sick, I racked up 80 hours play time on Steam. I have since decided to never open that game again.

Someone said "I used to have a family - now I have a factory". And after playing it, you realize that it's not a joke.

Someone created a bf interpreter using this game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ll0qHlx_qLg

Also of interest may be similar attempts to create computers in other games and applications:

OpenTTD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyEzm1ghAsU

Minecraft: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPaI5BJxs5M

PowerPoint: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNjxe8ShM-8

Great review of the game, and doesn't even mention the built-in solitaire game, Sigmar's Garden, which is a fun game in and of itself, set in the same hex grid you play on in the main game.

Another excellent game I would put in the same genre is Manufactoria, a free flash game. In fact, here's a glowing recommendation for it from the creator of Opus Magnum (the game featured in the OP): http://thesiteformerlyknownas.zachtronicsindustries.com/manu...

Edit: It looks like this is the URL for the latest version of Manufactoria: http://pleasingfungus.com/Manufactoria/

I feel like there is a big shortage of games like this, but the absolute top to me is human resource machine, where you program a human:


I prefer games like Manufactoria or SpaceChem. Human resource machine and TIS-100 look too much like regular programming to me.

Manufactoria is indeed excellent, it got me back into hobby programming which I had forgotten how much I enjoyed. I recently discovered that its creator has released a programming game called "Silicon Zeroes" on Steam. Haven't had a chance to play it yet but I'm sure it's good, I've sunk quite a few hours into Manufactoria so I was happy to finally send some money the creators way. :)

I enjoyed this one a lot more than his previous games. There’s not a lot of challenge to just getting through a level, so it’s more of a meditative experience. It has depth if you want to optimize but there’s less banging your head against the wall for hours completely stuck, as can happen in his previous games.

I also found that a lot more enjoyable. You can always just bruteforce your way to the solution, if you're really stuck, and then come back and optimize later.

I'm not a gamer yet that write up was riveting. Cool.

Abstract optimization games like this remind of Verigames, a DARPA project researching gamification of scientific problems (such as protein folding or formal verification of software) so crowds of untrained human players could attempt the solve the problems.



As you might expect, these types of games appeal to quite a few people that frequent HN, and have come up often the past.[1]

1: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=zachtronixs&sort=byPopularity&...

I found this game to be terrible, in contrast to Shenzen I/O which I found somewhat fun.

The issue was the lack of any meaningful constraint, which means that there is no difficulty and solving the puzzle is just a matter of tediously entering a sequence that produces the desired result.

In theory you could try to get the most optimal solution, but that doesn't seem very fun either, since the lack of programmability and variety makes everything very bland.

Perhaps it would be a tinge more fun, if the chemistry was somewhat realistic. Though I haven't played Opus, the totally bogus chemistry of SpaceChem was detracting from the experience, and I wonder why most reviewers haven't really commented on that aspect.

I might be misinterpreting you, but Opus Magnum is "alchemy"- it makes no attempt to reflect real chemistry, the components are simply abstractions. I can't tell if that would be a pro or a con in your book, but it's a pretty good game.

From the article this sounds exactly like my experience playing code golf - coming up with a cool solution, finding out your friend did it in half as many characters, completely reinventing your approach, repeat.

I am not sure i should buy 'opus magnus' or the new 'into the breach'

Opus looks like more about programming solving problem? And into the breach more like chess or tactical rpg?

I am curious if someone tried both could me make a choice!

I know this is unlikely to help you make a decision, but: you're right, on both counts. Personally I find Into the Breach to be more "game-like" (whereas OM and other Zachtronics titles feel like work, to me), but I think it comes down to personal preference.

That's a good broad description of both.

I loved their previous game TRS-100, but Opus Magnum didn't really do it for me for whatever reason. I'm completely hooked on Into the Breach.

Nitpick: Zachtronic's previous game was Shenzhen IO http://www.zachtronics.com/shenzhen-io/, and is definitely worth checking out if you liked TIS-100.

I've played both and loved both!

SpaceChem was my favourite iPad game. It was great when travelling when you had some time to burn and it could be really challenging. It’s a shame that Zachtronics decided to drop support for iOS.

Can those who've played these games recommend which one to start with for someone who is interested but hasn't played any of them?

I'd start with the free ones: http://www.zachtronics.com/the-codex-of-alchemical-engineeri... http://pleasingfungus.com/Manufactoria/

Then depending on which one (or which parts) you like the most, select a similar one

This one or Infinifactory. Both masterpieces.

What I love about Zachtronics is the vast design space.

It's what makes them problem-solving games rather than puzzle-solving games. Your solution is a subtly-unique creation that you can emotionally own.

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