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Infinifactory and the next generation of the 'Minecraft genre'

Gamasutra speaks with Zach Barth about Infinifactory, and how he's attempting to build the next-generation for the block-building genre.

Mike Rose, Blogger

October 23, 2014

15 Min Read

Zach Barth and his team at Zachtronics don't exactly do the whole game marketing malarkey by the book. Pop over to the website for the studio's latest game Infinifactory and you'll find a single screenshot with minimal information. The game is due out in the next couple of months, yet trying to get assets to spruce up this article proved fruitless. "You can get your trailers and screenshots after we launch," Barth laughs. It's perhaps not entirely surprising. With Infinifactory, Barth is essentially looking to build the next generation of Minecraft -- a game that, as is widely known, was originally built as a clone of Barth's own game Infiniminer. And Infinifactory is meant as a quasi-sequel to Infiniminer, comprising of what Barth describes as a "next-generation block engine." Wanting to guard your secrets, after watching another game take one of your previous concepts for a $2.5 billion run, doesn't sound all that crazy on the face of it. I spoke with Barth about Infinifactory, and how he plans to go one better on the block-building genre. What is Infinifactory about? You've kept details very thin on the ground about the game. Barth: Yeah, it turns out that it's a pain in the ass to put out information about this stuff. You have to take screenshots, you have to make sure they look good - it's really hard to take attractive screenshots in games. I've never had a good time doing that. I guess with SpaceChem, all the screenshots kinda looked the same. Barth: Even then, I was like, "I have to get the perfect visual balance and representation of what's going on, and try to hint the right things about the gameplay. It was just impossible. When people are just playing it, they take screenshots of whatever they think is interesting, but when you've made the game, it's really hard because all you see is the content. I hate putting together trailers too. We're not even planning to do a trailer anytime around Early Access, because it's just such a pain in the ass.

"Fuck it, we can do whatever we want! I can make this game if I want to! I have the moral high ground! No-one can say that we're cloning Minecraft."

You have YouTubers now who will do that for you! Barth: Yeah! And they're going to do a better job than us, right? I don't know what's cool about this game. I've seen everything for months. They'll pick out exactly what they want to show. In a lot of ways, it's a lot more earnest, it's easier for me [laughs] and it's going to be better! Video is not our speciality - we make games. You've still not told me what this game is about! From the single screenshot you've put out, it looks like a 3D representation of what was happening in SpaceChem. Barth: Are you familiar with my older games, like Manufactoid? It's not very good, don't play it. It's very old, I made it years ago. This is basically a 3D version of that, made to not suck. You built these factories out of conveyor belts, pushing arms, welders, stuff that sticks blocks together, and you build a factory that creates a product. It's different from SpaceChem in that... I mean, I've been trying to quantify the difference between the two. On the one hand we don't want to say, "It's just like SpaceChem," because it's not. On the other hand, we want people who like SpaceChem to think, "Well I'm going to like this." Trying to find that medium has been tricky, because a lot of people like SpaceChem, and the audience for this game is going to be similar to that audience. The people who like SpaceChem the most, are still going to like SpaceChem more. If we just wanted to make a game for the SpaceChem audience, we'd just make SpaceChem 2. This is something different. One of the big things when it comes to the mechanics, is that blocks can push other blocks. In SpaceChem, if you tried to stick two atoms together you'd lose, right? So one of the fundamental things in this game is that you can use blocks to push other blocks. It's one of the major mechanics that everything else kinda unfolds out of. The screenshot also reminds me a little of a 3D Factorio - have you seen that? Barth: Yeah, I guess that's more of a resource-harvesting game? A lot of people have said, "I love Factorio, I'm going to love this!" This game is nothing like Factorio [laughs] It's not about resources, in the same way that SpaceChem really wasn't. It's a puzzle game about building. What made you go back to the "Infini" name? You had Infiniminer, of course, which was famously the inspiration for Minecraft, so is this new game meant to be in the same world? Barth: It does take place in the same world. After Infiniminer, probably about six months after I stopped working on it, I was out walking and thought, "You know what would be awesome? Infiniminer meets Manufactoid!" We'd already built this idea of how to build things out of blocks in a 3D world, so I realized, this could be a really cool game. But then I just didn't make it [laughs] After we did Ironclad Tactics, we were looking back at our ideas of what we wanted to do. We'd been thinking about making another game that was about building, and we'd been thinking about making another puzzle game, because after making Ironclad, a lot of people were asking for that. We're kinda the only people out there making puzzle games like this, so we decided on this. So the Minecraft stuff happened, and you've already talked about that before. Now you've announced this game, and I immediately see some press outlets referring to is as a mash-up of SpaceChem and Minecraft. When you see that, how do you feel about it?

"I'm running a company and people are depending on me to make decisions that make us successful, and so it's like, I can suck it up. Sure, it's like Minecraft meets SpaceChem, whatever."

Barth: When we talked about this idea internally, about making a factory building game in the Infiniminer block engine, my initial thought was, "Oh no, we can never do that. That's already been done. That ship has sailed." And then I was like, "Wait a second, fuck it! We can do whatever we want!" [laughs] I can make this game if I want to! I have the moral high ground! No-one can say that we're cloning Minecraft. And it's not like it stopped a million other people. It's sort of just a well-established mechanic now, which sort of made me realize that it's not the primary draw of our game, right? It's not like "Look, you can build stuff out of blocks!" But if you wanna build a different game, it's actually a valid mechanic to use. And if anyone has the moral right to use it, it's us [laughs] I almost feel like there's a Minecraft genre now, which is like the crafting, resource gathering, procedurally block world. That's the Minecraft genre. There's also the Infiniminer mechanic, where you're able to build stuff by looking at adjacent faces, and it makes it a really simple, easy-to-use building tool. I think that a lot of people will look and this and say, "Oh, it's like Minecraft," but in a way that is something that I am willing to accept, just because no-one knows what Infiniminer is. And Minecraft is kind of loved by everyone universally, so having people compare it to that is like, my ego might be a little bruised, but I think it'll pay off in the end. At the end of the day I'm running a company and people are depending on me to make decisions that make us successful, and so it's like, I can suck it up. Sure, it's like Minecraft meets SpaceChem, whatever [laughs] You're never going to hear me say that... outside of this interview. Both developers and players seem to need that so much more recently, a way to describe games using existing games for reference. Barth: Yeah, you always need that - and it's not just games, right? I read this screenwriting book called Save the Cat, and it's sort of like the quintessential modern screenplay writing book. It says that there's this plot structure that works really well, and a lot of successful movies use that. Save the Cat talks about how to make successful movies using this plot, and one of the things it talks about is the "logline". If you're going to have a movie, it needs to have a single sentence that can be used to describe it, and piques people's interests. The reason why isn't just so you can pitch to an executive, but so that when someone is flipping through movies that are out, all they're going to see is the loglines. From that, they're going to pick which movie they want to see, and that's happening at such a massive scale. So you need something that, in a single sentence, is descriptive and compelling. It needs to get stuck in your head. I think that's a large part of why Ironclad Tactics was less successful than it maybe could have been - when someone described the logline for the game to you, it really wasn't sticky enough. We say "It's a civil war with robots," and that's got a little bit of stickiness. But if you say, "It's like SpaceChem meets Minecraft," that's got way more stickiness. So that's sort of why these little viral descriptions of your game are essential. When we first did SpaceChem, I think a lot of our success came from the fact that there were much fewer indie games than there are now. There's so many indie games out now that you really do have to compete for other people's attention. Having a good logline really does help cut through that noise.

"I've actually never been a fan of Early Access. I think it's a bunch of developers prematurely releasing stuff that should not be released."

Why Early Access? This is the first time you're doing an Early Access release, so I'm just wondering why you're going down this route now. Barth: So I've actually never been a fan of Early Access. I think it's a bunch of developers prematurely releasing stuff that should not be released. A lot of the stuff I released a long time ago was not very good in the scheme of things, but I still only released them after I thought they were ready to go. You do a little bit of prep and testing, and you put a lot of work into it, and then you release it so that people can enjoy it. I was always really - I believe very strongly that was the best way to do it. Then we started looking around and decided maybe that people don't value that as much as we thought they did. If something is compelling enough, releasing something before it's "finished" is actually quite acceptable, and can actually give you a lot of bonuses. One of them is that you can better respond to what players want, and better make a game that's less about your stupid artistic vision, and more about making something that's an interaction with your fans, so people are actually playing your game. It also gives you way more press, and it shields you from crappy reviews. We got a lot of reviews for Ironclad Tactics at launch, and one of the major things that people complained about was the randomness. We actually added some factors in to mitigate the randomness, to fix those problems, but by the time we did, all the reviewers were done with it, and none of them wanted to go back. No-one gave a shit - they'd judged it, and they were done. I feel like launching into Early Access is a little bit more honest with how we really work - we were very serious about releasing things that are of a professional quality, but at the same time, we want people to understand that we do a lot of work after release to make the product better. Manufactoid So what our plan is, our Early Access is going to be what we would have released if we weren't doing Early Access. Then we're going to take a much longer, more deliberate and visible period of responding to player feedback, improving the game, adding more content, and then when everything's totally locked down, releasing. That's the plan. So it sounds like you're aiming to put out a beta build, rather than an alpha, as is usually the case with Early Access. Barth: Not even. We're doing private beta right now. It's really going to be a 1.0 release. I feel like a lot of people might say, "Eugh, Early Access." There's so many shitty Early Access games out there that are really not ready to go. But I feel like this is the best of both worlds... I feel like being able to label our game Early Access helps communicate that stuff, because even if we're not doing it quite like everybody else, at least they'll be on the right page in thinking about how we're releasing it. Great, I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out - cheers for the chat. Barth: Do you not want to hear about our "next generation block engine"? Next generation block engine? OK, tell me about your next generation block engine. Barth: So you know the classic Infiniminer ripoff game where, when you have free-standing blocks, they just sort of hover? Not in this game! They fall! The whole thing is that all the products you're building are out of blocks that are welded together. You have these inputs that are supplying you, and those inputs are blocks, and those blocks are no different from the rest of the blocks that the world is made out of, and your factory is made out of. Because your products need to be able to slide around and fall, that means that if you could cleave off part of the environment, you could actually just run it through your conveyor belts. It also means that you can take parts of your factory and make them mobile relative to other parts. One of the tools we have in the game is a drill that can destroy blocks, and you can actually put it on the front of a pusher that can be triggered by other things, so you can have a drill that can extend. You could toss a drill on a conveyor belt and have it so that it goes around a path and drills out a specific shape, for example. One of the first things that I want to add to the game are parts of your factory that are fully autonomous, and can wander off and cut up some mountains and bring them back, and put it on the conveyor belt... designing robots that can clear forests and feed them into the process of your factory.

"Do you not want to hear about our 'next generation block engine?'"

So you'll no doubt get people making super weird stuff. Yeah exactly. One of the things we added recently was a sandbox. The game is kinda like SpaceChem in that it's all about designing something that runs on its own, so when your solution is running, you really can't interact with it at all. But in the sandbox there isn't that restriction, because you're not trying to go for a score. We add a lot of controls that allow you to manipulate things directly, and we're hoping that people build crazy contraptions. Sounds like perfect YouTube fodder. Yeah. Where we're starting with the metagame for this is where we left off at the metagame for SpaceChem. Way after SpaceChem released, we added custom puzzles and a sandbox. We're picking up from where we left off - when this game launches to Early Access, it's going to have Steam Workshop integration for custom puzzles. One of the worst parts about SpaceChem's design was that when we tried to add new mechanics, there was nothing to do. We had such a hard time - we had explored most of the design space, and we were able to add quantum tunnels, but we really couldn't find anything else to add. But with this system, there's so much we can do because it's so physical. Things can push other things, and you can do a lot more with expanding it. We have 10 times as many ideas for new mechanics that we can add. I can imagine many people will try to build all sorts of real-life machines in the game. We watched 3 or 4 seasons of How It's Made for research purposes, and it very much informed all of the stuff we have in the game, that we're planning to do. You can imagine a level where, instead of building a product, you have to build a mold, and then put it up against something that shoots molten metal and fills the mold. You can then drill the outer casting off, and recreate actual industry machines in it. It sounds like you're making a virtual factory more than a game. It's important that it's always a game. Even when you're doing all these crazy factory processes, there's still this framework in place that is enabling you to compete with your friends, and to optimize your creations. It gives you the feedback that you need to have more fun with it, which is important. Infinifactory is due to launch on Steam Early Access before the end of the year.

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