Measuring the World in Science Packs Per Minute: Factorio

Factorio - Linux Cover

Aside from the occasional outlier like Frostpunk, I’m not a fan of city construction and management games. I suppose my main issue is that I don’t much care for abstracted gameplay; there’s been many times in my life when I picked up a game that had a cool setting, only to discover that most of the game actually consisted of watching a bar of numbers tick ever upward or of staring at line graphs for hours on end. It is to the credit of the Prague-based developer Wube Software that they have managed to create a base-building game that appeals to both hardcore engineers and mercurial arts majors like myself.

Factorio is a game that has been in the oven for a very long time. Work started on the game back in 2012, and after a wildly successful Indiegogo campaign the game saw the light of day in 2016. Since then the game has spent almost four years in “public beta”, with the final official release expected for September of 2020. While public betas have gained a dubious reputation in recent years as developers kick half-finished games out the door to make a quick profit, Factorio is the sort of game that is ideally suited to the model. Factorio, like the sprawling factory complexes its players construct, is a game perpetually being refined and optimized to achieve the maximum possible performance under the most stressful conditions.

The conceit behind Factorio is simple: you have crash-landed on a habitable alien world with little more than a pickaxe in your hand, and you need to build a rocket to get you back into space. Fortunately, you have the ability to craft a wide array of materials and products from resources in your inventory. Unfortunately, you cannot craft everything, and the amount of resources required to build both the rocket and the things you need to build the rocket are so immense that there is no way one person could do it on their own.

Enter the Factory.

The core principle of Factorio can best be summed up as “anything you can craft, you can automate”. You start each game near patches of the basic resources of the game: iron, copper, coal, and stone. While you have to spend the first few minutes digging the raw ores out of the ground by hand, you will quickly gain enough materials that you can start building machines to do the work for you. From this you are introduced to the basic production chain of the game. Drills pull raw ores out of the ground, feed them into furnaces that smelt the ores into base materials, conveyor belts transport the materials from place to place while robotic “inserter” arms directly put materials into and out of machines, and finally automated assemblers convert base materials into simple products and simple products into more complex ones. It’s a very simple system that is repeated over and over and layered upon to become ever more complex as the needs of your factory grow. As you progress, you will find you need electricity to power your assemblers, laboratories, and more advanced drills, so you’ll have to find a body of water and set up a pump, pipeline, boilers with steam generators and a coal line to keep things running, along with power poles to distribute the electricity where it needs to go. You will also need to climb the game’s technology tree by creating “science packs” out of certain products, then feed them into automated laboratories to unlock new technologies. All of this, of course, has to be done while you expand and improve the productive capacity of your factory.

Before you know it, your initial factory won’t be able to supply your needs, so you’ll need to build radar dishes to uncover the map along with a car to actually take you to new uncharted places. You’ll find distant ore patches which you’ll convert into outposts that are serviced by automated freight trains that shuttle materials to and from your home factory. You’ll discover oil patches that require a new fluid-based production chain to exploit with pumpjacks, refineries, pipelines, and chemical plants. Further research will eventually allow you to build modules that improve the performance of your buildings, as well as automated drones that can transport resources and automatically construct and repair facilities without your input. All this requires even more electricity, which will have you pumping out solar panels or dealing with the intricacies of uranium refinement to power nuclear plants. As if all that weren’t enough, the pollution your factory produces irritates the planet’s native population, a group of massive insectoids known as “biters” who will swarm and attack your structures, and only grow larger and more aggressive the longer they have to breathe the air your industry has befouled. While you can take measures to reduce the pollution your factory generates, you will not be able to eliminate all of it, so you will have to build walls, gun turrets, and arm yourself to fend off the invaders. (Fortunately for new players, the game’s map generator supports a deep level of customization, and it’s easy to set the biters to only fight in self-defense or remove them entirely.)

While there is a lot to do and build before you build your rocket, Factorio imposes few limitations on the player. You can build your factory any way you want, with your only limits being your resources and your patience. Most new players will probably start out with “spaghetti” factories, with buildings crammed in every available space and conveyor belts going every which way. Through experimentation and consultation with other players, you can figure out how to build smelting arrays that can process massive quantities of ore at a time, as well as main buses of conveyor belts down which your base materials flow, split off to feed assembler plants to the side, which will then ship their products back to the bus to be used in more advanced production. While I haven’t experimented with them much (like I said, arts major), there are ways to use logic circuits and conditional statements to fine-tune your production to an incredible degree, up to the point where you can essentially build a computer inside your computer.

Now, this is all very well and good, but what is it about Factorio that appeals to me? Well, for starters the sprite-based graphics and art style bring up warm memories of all the time I spent in my teens playing late ‘90s/early 2000s real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, and I appreciate that this style of graphics was chosen by Wube to allow players to build gargantuan factories without taxing their computers (not that some of them don’t try). I like how visual the game is; if I’m having a production shortfall, I don’t need to look at a chart. I can just look at my factory and see that there are only a few items trickling down the conveyer belt, which sends me looking back up the chain for the problem (A misdirected conveyor? A flipped inserter? Base materials being drained by another production site?) There’s a certain joy in accomplishment in Factorio, whether you’ve just put in a new production site, have surpassed a production goal, or have lighted out for the frontier and brought a new ore patch into the fold, dragging a locomotive behind you. Factorio also manages to capture a few of the less commendable effects of industrialization, showing you how the trees wither as they choke on the pollution your furnaces and steam engines and assemblers belch. The game even makes you directly complicit in some of these actions, having you torch old-growth forests with flamethrowers, dynamite cliffs, dump rocks into ponds to make more land, rain artillery fire on biter colonies, and pave over everything with concrete. Factorio is far from being a pro-environmentalist game, but it knows that the activities it portrays have a cost, and invites you to consider them as you stand in the middle of your mindless industrial machine sprawling hundreds of square kilometres, a blotch on the face of the planet solely dedicated to building you a rocket to get home. (Assuming, of course, that you don’t just stay and expand your enterprise even further until you have consumed the planet.)

If I do have one word of criticism for Factorio, it would be that the game is a horrendous time vampire. A normal playthrough will take you upwards of 50-70 hours, and that what may start as a simple goal for a day’s play session may expand into a series of endeavours that keeps you building until the crack of dawn. A speed slider would be invaluable for this game, but sadly the feature is unavailable outside of developer mode. Still, the game supports a massive modding community, so there are any number of ways you can tweak your experience to your liking. I also have issues with spending the later portions of the game just waiting out the clock while technologies are researched and crucial products are built, but that may be more a matter of learning how to optimize and upscale production more efficiently.

To close this review out, I would like to include two things. The first is a Youtube video by Michael Lundgren showing his 32-locomotive 128-artillery wagon train launching a wave of devastation against the biter-infested countryside in a display of military-industrial excess. The second is something of my own creation, a “Science Megaplex” that I built during my first playthrough of Factorio. It was convoluted as hell and I was constantly running out of purple science, but I made it and I loved it.



Factorio - The Science Megaplex is Complete

The Science Megaplex. I built this sprawling facility during my first playthrough to give myself a single outpost dedicated to scientific research. All these countless drills, conveyor belts, assemblers, solar panels. steam generators, trains, pipes, and drones are all feeding those twelve laboratory domes in the upper center of the picture. It is crude, it is inefficient, and it is beastly hard to untangle or upgrade, but it is mine and I love it like a son.

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