Factorio (Alpha) Preview

Factorio is an indie game under development by a small team in the Czech republic. I heard about it through some word-of-mouth advertising from some friends, and it sounded like something I'd been looking for for a long time. I got in contact with the Factorio team and snagged a review copy of the alpha. In this article, I'll lay the basics out and show you why I think it's worth your time.

The Search for Sims

Back in college, a friend lent me a copy of Railroad Tycoon 2. I'd never played this game or the previous game in the series before. I spent a few hours on it, and I could feel its hook digging its way deep into my brain. Any true gamer knows that feeling - the one where time is passing, but it doesn't really matter. There's just this one more thing you need to do, and then you can stop. But, after that there's another thing, and another, and it's all just so fun and engaging that time just continues to fly by.

I've sought after similar games since. There have been some, like Transport Tycoon (or the free OpenTTD version), the Anno series, Evil Genius, Railroads!, and even SimCity, Dwarf Fortress, Terraria, Gnomoria, and Minecraft have aspects of this type of game. I don't know precisely what to call this genre - it's often part "god game" and part "business simulation" - while almost standing on its own as a subset of the simulation genre.

The experience I'm looking for is generally one of process management, automation and optimization. After figuring out what needs to be done, I want to make the game do that thing for me, while carefully tuning and upgrading the process to perfection. Prior to finding Factorio, the Anno series was probably the closest to this - you build structures on islands to harvest natural resources, and from those resources you construct elaborate production chains that keep your citizens happy.

Enter Factorio!

It only took me seconds on the Factorio website to realize that Factorio was the game I'd been looking for this whole time. The game is all about harvesting resources, production, manufacturing, and building useful things out of myriad smaller parts.

In Factorio, you control a lone space traveler who has crash landed on a hostile planet. The game plays from a top-down 2D perspective, with you moving around the environment, using tools, and interacting with everything a la Minecraft.

There are resources available to harvest, which can then be used to produce increasingly complex but useful bits of machinery. At first you've got to do everything by hand, but quickly you unlock the ability to let the machines do the work for you.

The Tutorial

Praise be to the deity of your choice! Factorio has a tutorial, and it's good! It is immensely frustrating to start one of these super complex games with a substantial learning curve and just get dumped at a spawn point with a bunch of stuff you don't know how to use. It's doubly frustrating when there's a time limit before something bad will happen unless you're aware of the correct course of action.

Thankfully, Factorio has a very well executed tutorial. The game doesn't throw you into the deep end without any help, and in fact it locks most of the complexity away for the first few levels.

The tutorial tells a relatively simple story about your crash landing, and then uses objectives to set clear goals about what you should do next.

Your early tasks involve you mining some stone to build a furnace. With the furnace, you can smelt iron into plates, which allows you to build simple mining machines. You can pick up the iron and coal they mine and put it into the furnace to make more iron. But then they give you the "inserter" - a robotic arm that can move materials from one place to another. Coupled with conveyor belts, they can make your furnace self-feeding.

Once you have enough metals smelted, you can hand-craft all sorts of things. But quickly the quantity of stuff you need is overwhelming. Luckily, assemblers can be fed various intermediate materials and create all manner of outputs. And then you're done!

Strategic Depth

...with the first couple of tutorial levels. Now you've got power to manage. Steam engines take boiling hot water and convert it to electricity. From here you can build more efficient electric mining rigs.

Then you can build labs and start on research, and from here a wealth of things unlocks. Faster inserter arms, ones with longer reach, faster conveyor belts, cars, trains, and so on. Before long you've got a massive industrial complex at your disposal, all constructed from the ground up. And you've just scratched the surface - there's still more to come.

Many games of this ilk are content with providing some limited set of tools but never get deep enough to see them all used and managed simultaneously in interesting ways. Transport Tycoon, for instance, lets you take wood to a factory to make goods, and then take those goods to a large enough city to make a tidy profit. However, that's about as deep as it ever goes. Railroads! was especially disappointing in this regard. There were tons of interesting systems, but the game always felt half-finished to me.

Factorio, on the other hand, lets you combine all sorts of products into complex production chains that can generate all sorts of interesting outputs. For instance, in order to do research you need various colored beakers. Each type of beaker requires different complex inputs. Managing your production chains so that the proper amount of each good reaches the appropriate assembler is a complicated but interesting problem to solve.

As I moved through the game, I kept thinking "it would be nice if I could..." and then, usually by the next level, I'd unlock the ability to do just that. It was a refreshing feeling to have the game teach me how to do something, and then show me how that thing could be streamlined or automated.