Indie Not *Quite* Early Access Land: Factorio

A few hours in

Alright, welcome back! After I stopped feeling like a toddler, I returned to wonder at Factorio’s first ‘real’ base design. It really is a thing of beauty… coal automatically feeding into boilers, mines producing resources that are automatically turned into other resources, into other resources, into other resources… and while I’d read that conveyor belts have two sides for use, I hadn’t actually ever considered the implications of it.

Because this new level introduces the idea of laboratories and research, I quickly found myself compelled to add to this base’s high-functioning beauty. I added to it in the same way bolting a tent to your bungalow roof is technically ‘adding an attic’, but hey, it worked.

Listen: I’m telling you to not insult my labs.

Unlike the previous three demo levels, Factorio’s first ‘full-version’ level is both large, open, and content to scaffold you very little. No longer is the objective ‘build a mining drill here’, or ‘build three radars there’. My starting objective this time around was simply ‘research automobilism’. How? And where? And why? Have fun figuring that out! And, and could you be a dear and actually build a car after that? I know you don’t know how to do that, but you’ll figure it out.

I mean, I managed, sure. Factorio’s faith in me was well-placed.

Now, to drive it into every tre- what do you MEAN Factorio tracks collision damage and destroys your car if you hit too much junk?

But previous levels took me five, ten, fifteen minutes. This new level? Almost two hours.

And don’t even get me started on the level after that. I… I haven’t actually finished that, yet. I think I spent something in the vein of three hours here on the first objective? ‘Research trains’, it was. I think I’m close to getting that done, but you never really know in this game.

I did manage to pull off some other cool things, though.

On a break from trying to progress right now, I find myself with the unenviable task of trying to write about what I think about Factorio. ‘Unenviable’, because… I don’t really know what to think about it?

Factorio is definitely an interesting game, that’s for sure. It’s basically a game about designing logistic systems. It initially appears to have Minecraft-esque roots, starting off on manually gathering resources and creating tools, but very quickly reveals that part of itself to be only a tiny aspect, almost insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

Factorio is a game about designing logistic systems. Factorio is a game about observing that you have resource A, and realizing that you want resource B, and then setting up a (largely of fully) automated infrastructure to turn A into B. Possibly also involving resource C as a sub-step somewhere, and maybe you need resource D to turn C into B… but D needs to be created out of resources E and F, and wouldn’t you know it, resource F is also a derivative of resource A!

And before you know it, hey! This is your life now.

And as can be expected, Factorio’s mechanics support this kind of gameplay well. Placing and rotating items is easy, overlays on items show critical connections and the direction resources go in our out, and you can pick up and replace any item, at any time, forever. No ‘shit, I wanted to build this item three pixels to the left‘ nonsense here: you make that mistake, you simply pick the item up and place it three pixels to the left.

Factorio is a game about designing logistic systems, and the fun in Factorio is derived from designing those systems well. Factorio’s campaign levels have objectives, sure: build this, research that, defend your base, set up an outpost here. But those objectives are… ancillary, almost. They provide long-distance guideposts, ways of getting from your current map to a new one if you get bored of this one.

Factorio’s free-play mode even has only one objective: ‘research and build the final technology’. Which is as much the ‘goal’ of Factorio’s free-to-play mode as ‘beat the Ender Dragon’ is Minecraft’s goal. It’s there, sure, and it provides a cool finish line to aim for for the people who like aiming for finish lines. But most of the people drawn to games like this aren’t here to finish the race: they’re here because running is fun, yay, and because the route takes you cool places.

As an example: in level 2-02, the ‘railway’ level, I was nearly done with the technologies I needed to research to get trains. I had enough resources in my pile to create all the Science Goop I needed, too. I could have sat back, behind my turrets, and waited for inevitable success…

…except I was running out of iron. Didn’t matter that I had more iron than I knew what to do with: I was running out of iron. So I got in my car, drove south for a minute, and found a massive iron deposit guarded by three Biter nests.

Luckily, it turns out you can circle-strafe and shoot from your car.

I destroyed the nests…

…slowly…

…and then set up an automated iron-mining colony in the distance. Including boilers and steam engines to provide power for the automated mines, and a coal-collecting infrastructure to keep the boilers fed. And give or take three kilometers of conveyor belt, which would feed my new iron ore into my existing architecture for turning that iron into plates. And those plates into gears, into belt, into science flasks…

I might set up a similar architecture here, actually. I could create a steel mill easily!

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that the research in question was happily proceeding without me: I’d already put structures in place for automatically creating red science, and semi-automatically creating green science, and feeding all that into five labs. But hey, listen: I was running out of iron ore.

I derived my entertainment not just from reaching the goals the game set before me, but also from finding new and inventive ways of keeping my intricate machinery ticking throughout.

And the level of complexity on display this early in Factorio pales in comparison to glimpses of what I’ve spotted is possible later in the tech trees. Robotic automation, smart filtering, lasers, rockers, energy weapons, trains, planes, automobiles…

Chests that request specific resources, somehow.

Imagine that. Imagine designing and building a system that can take these four or five different raw material inputs through all dozen-or-so possible permutations. Imagine creating a massive ticking-whirring-spinning complex of belts and gears and robot hands that gets everything where it needs to go, when it needs to go, without so much as a therapeutic kick required from you.

Does that sound fun to you?

I dunno, it sounds pretty entertaining to me.

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the scenario objectives, of course: having an ulterior goal to work towards is great motivation for figuring out all kinds of micro-improvements to your process. Learning by doing, through necessity. In the free-play mode, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by possibility: with so many possible options, and no guidance, I couldn’t figure out which path to follow first. Do I mine… Or maybe I could…
But for that I’d need…

I don’t even know *where* to start.

Factorio provides a very particular kind of experience, that’s definitely not for everyone. Some people would rather shoot monsters than figure out robot hand timings! But for people who are interested in this sort of thing — and I know you guys are out there — Factorio provides an interesting pseudo-simulation experience that not all that many games even offer.

Which is not to say Factorio is entirely without flaws, of course.

I would consider Factorio’s biggest ‘failing’ to be its information provision issue. Which is to say that, hey, this game tells you very little. The first three campaign levels serve as a decent tutorial to the basic concepts of gameplay, and I do appreciate the start-of-level tips introducing a few more advanced concepts. But for the most part, Factorio is content to let you… let’s call it ‘find your own way’, around everything.

No, but I do mean everything. The basic controls explained are only a small subset of the game’s actual control set. The more advanced controls, and many of the functions behind them, are never really made explicit. Did you know? I was going to ding Factorio for not giving the player the option to plan ahead, for forcing players to build everything they want to see in order to see if it works and fits the way they’re thinking of. I thought it a weird oversight for an otherwise well-put-together design game like this.

Except that sort of planning function is totally in the game. I was just never told it existed.

Shift+Left Click places ‘ghosts’ of your construction.

The notion of automated producers is only ever shown, never introduced. You research trains in the campaign, and are then told ‘okay, now get more resources’, without explaining how trains are supposed to help. The ALT key actually allows you to see what items are inside certain buildings, which is a really bloody useful overview tool.

“Is it this chest? Or this chest? Or this chest? Or this chest? Or…” — me, before finding out that ALT toggles this state.

And did you know it’s possible to fire your gun at your own stuff? I don’t recall how, anymore. I think it was the Q button?

Also, why would I even *do* this?

Factorio has so, so much information going on in and around it. And it tells you so little. I know that’s the way of the world for these kinds of games, now, but I’ve never stopped considering that weird. I thought it weird when Minecraft normalized wiki-based game design, I thought it weird when Don’t Starve had me blindly fumble at recipes and game mechanics, and I thought it weird when Dark Souls was content not to tell me what a lot of my stats in that game do. And in Factorio, where the game does make an earnest effort to get you going, I think it weird that it just… stops.

Too much hand-holding wouldn’t be a good answer either, obviously. You want players to figure out their own solutions, instead of just aping previous game design over and over. But still… Factorio has reached a certain equilibrium between handholding clarity and unrestricted obtuseness, but I don’t think the current equilibrium is the optimal answer.

A particularly egregious example of information issues is when the alien units attack your base. Because maps are large, sound effects are dim, and aliens move fast, they can basically be on your constructions before you have any idea anything is even going on. And if they do — if they breach your defenses or attack from an unexpected angle — Factorio’s only warning that your hard work is being annihilated is a small, obtuse, blinking popup on the bottom of your screen. Near your hotbar, and looking for all the world like your hotbar, so your unexpecting brain will happily not notice it until your base is mush.

“You were busy! I didn’t want to disturb.”

I also don’t fully understand Factorio’s insistence on the player being an actual entity in the game world, on making you run around and be close by chests to open and items to place. It’s an interesting deviation from other system design-type games, and I concede it might very well be a part of what makes Factorio work the way it does. The magic of a fully autonomous base only really registers when you’re out driving your car in the wilderness, after all. But once inside that base, I’m surprised there’s no option to just ‘bypass all this walking nonsense’.

Human-based controls in Factorio are a little finicky, occasionally. Accessing chests and buildings and menus is easy once you get the hang of it, but you do need to get the hang of it. Did you know that the E button backs you out of almost any menu? Great option, glad I found it out. Myself. And picking up items off the ground can be an exercise in Chthonian madness, occasionally. Particularly when the rarely occurring input lag struck, the image of me continually oversteering my character past a small patch of coal would have been funny if it hadn’t been so aggravating.

Ultimately, though, these complaints don’t so much lessen the overall experience as that they increase the divide between the fans and the detractors. If the basic idea of Factorio’s systems-design gameplay appeals to you, you will likely be able to overlook minor performance issues and adapt to the wiki-based gameplay style. If the concept doesn’t appeal, however, Factorio’s odd dichotomy between information scarcity on the one hand and total information overload on the other is probably not going to change your mind.

Have fun parsing this ancillary nonsense information!

Final thoughts

The most neutral thing I can say about Factorio is it’s more or less one-of-a-kind. Its core of logistic systems design set in the backdrop of a futuristic alien world provides an aesthetic and an experience that… I wouldn’t off-hand know of any other game that replicates it? It works well, mechanically, for what it provides, and its simple systems underlie a depth of complexity that can go as far as a creative, driven player is willing to take it. It looks and sounds relatively neat, too.

Factorio is not a game that will give you this experience, though. It’s more new-player-friendly than other games in this wider genre I could name, but it’s by no means friendly. The information and guidance it provides stand in absolutely no relation to the information and guidance it withholds, and players that fly only on what Factorio explicitly tells them will probably have, if you’ll forgive the paraphrasing, a bad time.

Player who are willing to go the distance, though… I can’t tell you too much about you’ll find, there: my own experiences with Factorio have been relatively limited. But I don’t doubt that the current trend of increasing complexity, smart solutions, and unexpected alien attacks is only going to continue upward.

If that’s something that sounds like you could get behind it, Factorio can be bought here, for about ten euro / thirteen dollars. There’s also a demo here, which covers the first three levels I played on the previous page. Which… at the very least gives you a decent micro-impression of what Factorio is all about? But the jump from last-demo to first-real is significant. Still, a first look is better than no look, and you know what they say about looking and leaping.

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3 comments

  1. Nice review. This looks like an interesting game; I like the idea of building up industry, but the interface issues are a problem. I’m not a fan of putting all the information in a wiki instead of in-game, either. I might buy it once it’s officially released.

  2. Hey, you did it! Seems like a fair evaluation to me – definitely not for everyone, but certainly unique. I think that demo is significant enough to help someone figure out if they’ll like Factorio, though.

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