On July 5, Zachtronics will be releasing Last Call BBS, a collection of stylish little puzzle games wrapped up in a retro PC gaming vibe. After 11 years in business (and even longer outside of commercial releases), a time which has seen the studio develop a cult following almost unrivalled in indie gaming, it will be the last new game Zachtronics will ever release.
Named for founder Zach Barth, Zachtronics has spent most of those 11 years specialising in puzzle games (or variations on the theme). And pretty much every single one of them has been great (or at least interesting). Comb through our own archives looking for Zachtronics games and you’ll find:
- Me writing in 2011 that SpaceChem was “one of the more polished and addictive puzzle games in recent memory”, and that it has “certainly got the most rousing soundtrack.”
- Gita’s review of Eliza
- Fahey playing Opus Magnum and finding it a “a delightfully esoteric PC game”.
- And me once more, begging everyone to play the “incredible” Mobius Front 83, which is “an exceptional exercise in the optimisation of movement, planning strikes and riding your luck”.
Despite this repeated excellence, and a deeply loyal fanbase, Zachtronics never became what we’d call even in this enthusiast space a household name. Which is fine, and even by design. Barth, Matthew Burns and their small team (usually around just five people in total, depending on the scale of the project), have simply been very good at doing what they loved, regardless of how popular it was, and so have just kept on doing it.
The result has been a succession of games that may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but for those with whom it resonated, it was their shit. It’s not hard seeing why: most of Zachtronics’ games involved challenging puzzles, but also a deeply cool and interesting presentation surrounding them, whether it was the grimy hacker aesthetic of Exapunks or the Advance Wars-like Mobius Front 83. Given those initial and superficial differences it can sometimes be hard pinpointing exactly what makes a game so clearly a Zachtronics joint, but like love and art, when you see it you just know it.
So it’s sad, but also awesome in its own way, that 2022 will see the end of Zachtronics. Not because their publisher shuttered them, or because their venture capital funding ran out, or because Activision made them work on Call of Duty, or any other number of reasons (bankruptcy! scandal!) game developers usually close their doors.
No, Zachtronics is closing because…they want to.
“We’re wrapping things up!”, Barth tells me, way more enthusiastically than you would normally expect under these circumstances. “Zachtronics will release Last Call BBS next month. We’re also working on a long-awaited solitaire collection that we’re hoping to have out by the end of the year. After that, the team will disband. We all have different ideas, interests, tolerances for risk, and so on, so we’re still figuring out what we want to do next.”
I ask him how it feels to be in such a privileged position, where they get to make this decision on their own terms, and Barth says “It feels pretty good, to be honest!”. Emphasising that knowing when to quit is its own kind of skill, something the team have a little experience with already, he tells me “We actually shut down Zachtronics once before, back in 2015, when I went to work at Valve for what ended up being 10 months. It gave us an opportunity to cash out some of our equity, re-engage with the rest of the games industry, and rebuild from scratch.”
“I’m not saying the same thing is going to happen here, because we really are shutting down Zachtronics, but when you make these decisions for yourself deliberately, instead of letting circumstances dictate them, it’s easier to get the results you want in the long run.”
But why? Why now, why like this? “We felt it was time for a change. This might sound weird, but while we got very good at making ‘Zachtronics games’ over the last twelve years, it was hard for us to make anything else. We were fortunate enough to carve out a special niche, and I’m thankful that we’ve been able to occupy it and survive in it, but it also kept us locked into doing something we didn’t feel like doing forever.”
The studio’s final game, the appropriately-titled Last Call BBS, was recently announced, but if you had been scanning the reaction to its debut trailer online, you’d have seen that alongside the usual excitement there was also a great deal of sadness, something that the team have been in the rare position of being able to acknowledge ahead of their closure.
“Since we announced that Last Call BBS is going to be our last game I’ve gotten countless emails from fans thanking us for the games we’ve made”, Barth says. “Many of them point to the games as one of the reasons they’ve become professional programmers or engineers. It’s hard to say anything back other than ‘thank you,’ but that’s really all I want to say. A game without someone to play it is hardly a game, and it’s only because of our players that our games have meaning and a life of their own. All of us really appreciate that!”
With the decision made and announced, then, what comes next? For Barth, he’s hoping to work on something else, while other members of the team are likewise looking to try their hands at new challenges. “My original plan was to wrap things up at Zachtronics and then find a new job teaching high school computer science, but the timing was off”, he says. “I just finished my first year of teaching and Last Call BBS hasn’t even been released yet! I was hoping that I’d really like teaching and stay with that for a few years, but I learned that’s definitely not the case and I’m having a hard time imagining anything other than games in my future, in some shape or form.”
“What we do next as individuals or collaborators is a question we are very actively discussing right now. I’m particularly interested in freelancing and weird side projects, while other members of the team are drawn to the idea of a stable job with more growth potential than a small indie studio that makes what’s essentially the same game every year.”
Last Call BBS will be out on July 5 on Steam, and will be the studio’s last new game. You can check out its very cool trailer below. Their official final release, however, will be a bundle collecting their various Solitaire games into a single pack, and as mentioned above that’ll be out later this year.