The Lighthouse Customer: Factorio

By Christopher Livingston on July 28th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

The factory is a mess, but at least no one works here.

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, building efficient machines to make other efficient machines in strategy game Factorio.

I’ve got coal-powered drills digging up resources, mechanical arms collecting the raw materials, and conveyor belts transporting it across the landscape where more arms collect it and deposit it into fabrication machines, after which the resulting product is plucked out by still more arms, dropped on more belts, moved on to more factories. Clouds of pollution fill the air, production lines twist and turn haphazardly, electrical poles and storage units appear to have been placed by a confused and drunken city planner. It’s a mess. A big mess. But it’s a beautiful mess, because it all works.

Factorio has been in development since 2012, funded initially by Indiegogo and currently by alpha sales. It’s a isometric management game that has a familiar-sounding premise: you’ve crashed on an alien planet and must harvest resources, research technology, and build machines. It immediately feels different, though, because so much of the game is focused on creating automation systems. You build machines, production lines, and factories to do your work for you. Unlike Minecraft, where the early game requires you to manually chip away at resources for ages before you’re able to build anything of real use, in Factorio the automation begins almost immediately. There’s still plenty of work to do, but most of the work involves building machines to do your work, and then building machines to build those machines.

Digging up rocks with a stick? Gross. But you'll only do it once.

Take my poor little marooned spaceman. He’s been on the planet for just a short while. Yes, he dug up a few rocks by hand, and of course he’s manually chopped down a few trees because Video Game Law now requires every game make you do that. But! He’s already got a coal-powered drill digging up coal (though some of it is needed to feed the drill itself) and other drills digging up iron and copper. He’s got a few stone ovens smelting the ore into plates, and mechanical arms both feeding the machines the raw materials and removing the resulting products.

A few minutes later he can sink a pump into a lake, suck the water into a series of coal-fired boilers, heat it into steam, and feed the steam into an engine to produce electricity, which is then run across the landscape by a series of poles to anything that needs power.

Same spaceman, a few minutes later.

One the juice is loose, some real automation begins. Tired of collecting coal and carrying it to the boilers? Conveyor belts can move it to where you need it most, and a arm at each end means there’s no need for you to ever pick up, put down, or even think about coal ever again. Of course, building those conveyor belts and mechanical arms is a bit of a chore, isn’t it? Bring on the assemblers, little factories that can be fed components and produce finished goods, and even combine different finished goods into something else. Soon you’ll have conveyor belt units running along conveyor belts and mechanical arms plucking freshly-built mechanical arms out of your mechanical arm factories. Raw resources are coming out of the ground and being fabricated into complicated machinery without you having to touch them once.

A conveyor belt carrying conveyor belts. This is gonna go all Fantasia, innit.

One issue with having a ton of machines and factories running night and day is that there’s a bit of a pollution problem. As in SimCity games, too much pollution upsets the locals and causes them to leave their homes, though in SimCity they don’t rush over in huge swarms and bite you to death. The native alien bugs, appropriately called Biters, are fast and angry and try to kill you and destroy your machines when your carbon footprint starts stinking up their burrows. They’re not super easy to kill, even if you’ve crafted a submachine gun.

Pollution, bullets... nothing I give to these alien jerks make them happy.

But wait! Why would you kill aliens yourself when you can slaughter them with yet another helpful machine? You can build turrets that will fire autonomously: just craft some magazines and stick them in, or better yet, craft some machines to craft some magazines and have a mechanical arm stick them in. Build some stone walls to protect your factories and turrets (or have an assembly line build your walls, preferably) and soon you won’t even see the aliens, you’ll just hear a distant, comforting roar as your robotic guns chew them into pulp somewhere offscreen. Nagging thought: I don’t think you’re the good guy in this game.

Yep. It went Fantasia.

While it’s been a bit hectic just keeping up with my machines, things slow way down when I get into research. In order to unlock new technology, or improvements to current tech, you need to build research labs. The labs run on something I’m sure has a proper name but which I call “science potions,” little jugs of colored technology water that labs need a big supply of to conduct research. The lowest level of red science juice is made from base items, but is still very slow to craft in my inventory, and once a bottle is dumped into the lab, the research progress is pretty slow as well. I decide to occupy my time by having the potions assembled, delivered, and dumped without my interference.

Let's just get drunk off science wine!

This is a fun little challenge, made harder by the fact that I had no idea I’d need to do this and so my belts and arms and assemblers are all terribly placed for the task. Soon, though, I’ve got a wonky, awkward, winding assembly line of potions running right to my lab’s front door. It immediately becomes backed up because the research itself is so irritatingly slow, but still! Look at my line of science wine! It’s lovely, and I need never craft it by hand again.

There are a few new technologies to unlock. Just a few.

New tech leads to better tech, and better tech requires Level 2 science water or “Science Dew” as I call it (it’s green), which I’m also determined to produce automatically. The green potion requires several ingredients to make, and some of those ingredients require several ingredients of their own. This requires a whole lot more conveyor belts and assemblers, loaders and unloaders, and it’s not long before my collection of factories is a complete mess, with belts crossing each other (you can build them underground) and electrical lines strewn everywhere. Still, despite the inefficiency, I manage to get machine-fabricated Science Dew onto the same production belt feeding the lab. Sure, there are a million red potions sitting there and a green only comes along every once in a while. It’s ugly, but like I said, it works. I’ll probably tear down and rearrange a lot of it later, and the game, thankfully, makes removing and relocating machines very easy.

My first bottle of Science Dew hits the line.

Factorio has a gritty, lo-fi look to it, and while there’s no charming, spiffy animations when you build and upgrade your machinery, there is something wonderfully pleasing about sitting back and watching your mechanical arms swing about, lifting and transporting your materials onto belts that whisk them to other arms and other factories and other belts. There’s way more to build in this game, too: rail transport systems, oil drilling rigs, circuit networks, actual freakin’ robots… I’ve barely scratched the surface. Here’s an image from the official website, because my own factory is horrible and embarrassing to look at.

I did not build this. I could never build this.

There are a few ways to play. The campaign is a good place to start, and it’ll introduce you to the basics, though the first tutorial is a little outdated and I still had to do a lot of side-reading to figure out how things work. There’s also a freeplay mode, where you can create your own goals, and a sandbox mode, where you play as a god (no little spaceman needed) and build what you want. There’s also an editor if you want to design your own map, and creating a new world lets you tweak a ton of variables for different challenges, including making resources more scarce or abundant, and giving you the choice to turn off angry aliens if you want to build in peace (I sort of recommend this).

For this article I played version .9.8 of the alpha, and if it’s somehow not obvious, I enjoyed the hell out of it. There are games that require a considerable effort to stop playing long enough to write about them, and this is one of those games. If could have built a machine to produce this column so I could keep playing, I totally would have.

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53 Comments »

  1. Luringen says:

    Randomly spotted this game in a comment thread here on RPS (can’t remember where, thanks to whoever posted it!), was immediately sold on the concept and bought the game. I have played it for around 20-30 hours since. Fantastic game, looking forward to seeing it again when it’s completed.

    • SAM-site says:

      This! I must have seen the same comment and am around 100 hours in now. Despite having the ability to craft anything I please by the 10-12 hour mark in a game that’s the point at which I start over as the initial period of taming the alien wasteland is by far the most satisfying.

      Not had so much fun since discovering Tekkit.

    • tasteful says:

      yeah, i saw the same comment too and am obsessed. and can also not remember what it was a comment about.

  2. dE says:

    I couldn’t sing higher praises for this game. I tried the demo and was ready to dismiss it, when it had me mine ore by hand. I groaned and reached for the close button, when I suddenly read about automation. Wait, what’s this magic… you’re telling me I can automate everything and have it move on it’s own… I can do that? Yes. It’s the actual main focus of the game.

    To me it felt like a sandbox version of Spacechem. One that is quite a bit more easy because all you will lose in the end is a bit of time when you’re not efficient enough. But also one that gets increasinly complex with each new tech layer. It starts off easy enough but as it goes on, assembling base materials to turn into components that turn into another bigger component which is a component of something else… gosh it does get complex at times but it never stops being that tinker away game. It’s never hard, just… inefficient. And that may just be enough reason to level the entire plant and start with a smarter layout. Only to realize you forgot about the iron. Oops. And a few hours in, your copper suddenly runs dry… time to consider long distance solutions. And get run over by your very own monorail train. Yeah that happened.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      I found quite often my to-do lists would exceed my attention span. I’d set up a stove to make iron panels and a factory to make gears from the panels and belt to bring the gears to another factory to combine the gears with copper plates coming from somewhere else and then halfway through I’d be like… wait. Why was I setting this up? What was my final goal? Where was this all supposed to be leading? WHAT AM I DOING AGAIN?

      And then I’d have to mentally retrace my steps to figure out what my endgame was.

    • The First Door says:

      I was the same with the demo, thinking that I just wasn’t going to be interested. Then I looked up, about 2 hours had vanished, and I’d build a crappy, rubbish little factory… but it was MY crappy, rubbish little factory. That’s whenI realised the game was just plain dangerous if I wanted to ever get anything done again!

  3. Awesomeclaw says:

    I picked this up a while ago and yes, it’s awesome. Discovering that your current factory flow is totally unsuited to manufacturing the next level of science potions and having to totally rebuild is actually a joy as meticulously planning out factories is much more fun than the rather tedious combat (‘turret creep’ being the main strategy and more or less exactly what it sounds like).

    My main criticism as of last time I played is that there just needs to be more – more factory types, more intermediate objects, more things to research. The devs seem to be focusing more on combat and multiplayer which I can understand but which aren’t really what I want out of the game.

    Incidentally research can be accelerated by building multiple labs – not sure if you picked up on this since you seem to have only one lab in all your screenshots.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      Yessssss! I have a bunch of labs going round the clock now: http://imgur.com/JXKyzuo

      Also I have a car! http://imgur.com/tY2V0dG

      • Awesomeclaw says:

        I just noticed ‘Oil Processing’ in one of your screenshots which I don’t think was there last time I played. However, I think I might stay away just for now so that my life doesn’t disappear in a blur of conveyor belts, mechanical arms and machine gun turrets.

      • Chris Livingston says:

        I also have a little hovering robot that follows me around and shoots monsters. I am pretty much living the dream.

        • SAM-site says:

          You’re going to want to segregate your red flasks from green or you’ll end up with a log jam in research-ville. One thing to try – have an inserter at the end of the research conveyor grab any flasks unclaimed by your labs. That way your stockpile will exceed the length of said conveyor allowing for some rapid research further down the line.

          Oh, and you’ll probably scrap your entire layout when it comes to adding blue flasks into the mix, but you’ll figure that out for yourself.

          Finally, real men don’t use bots.

          • DantronLesotho says:

            I found success by having a conveyor belt surrounding my research labs in a circle, and having the arms put the red flasks on one side and green on the other so no matter what, the arm putting the science into the lab would be able to find what it needed and there wouldn’t be a logjam. I never got to the blue science though, so this strategy may change.

          • Chris Livingston says:

            I have made more adjustments to my lab-feeders, but yeah, the whole thing is going to require a tear-down soon. Debating if I want to start fresh somewhere else on the planet, or just start a whole new game and build from scratch.

          • benkc says:

            What I eventually ended up with, after a few false starts, is a pair of conveyor belts feeding a row (or two rows) of labs. Top conveyor belt has science pack 1 & 2 as its two rows, bottom belt has science pack 3 & 4 as its two rows, every lab has both a regular inserter and a long-arm-inserter so it can grab from both rows. (And since IIRC labs are three wide, that means each pair of labs could be powered by a single small electric pole placed in between the 4 inserters? Or maybe the poles couldn’t reach eachother with that setup, I forget.)

            Of course, figuring out how to feed all those is real challenge and joy.

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    This game (along with SPACECHEM) fulfills all my “build intricate things and watch them twirl” needs.

    I went a step further than Chris, above, to build an automated assembly line that built ammunition and conveyed it to my automated Turret Line of Death. I also built myself a series of conveyer belts as airport-style “travelators” so I didn’t have to walk more than a few steps around my base.

    Then I appointed my cat interim production supervisor and had a nap and came back to find I’d exhausted all the coal under my harvesters and my defenses had ground to a halt and my buildings were being eaten by things. That’s the last time I put him in charge!

  5. Cvnk says:

    This is one of those games I can’t stop thinking about during the week following a weekend of playing it. Little machine running in my head while I try to imagine optimizations to try later. I actually haven’t played it in a while (since first purchasing it) simply because I know I’ll want to dedicate at least a couple of days to it.

  6. rexx.sabotage says:

    It’s like someone made a Fallout 2 version of IndustrialCraft and GregTech!

    Delicious!

  7. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    Wow, this sounds (and looks) terrific. Just shot to the top of my list.

  8. BackwardsDan says:

    I spent the weekend playing the Tekkit modpack for minecraft, and it has a very similar feel to this (once you understand how anything hooks into anything else). There’s something magical about automation

  9. balinor says:

    I backed this on indiegogo way back when and have to say that it is coming along nicely. It is massively more advanced than the first set of alphas they released. I just wish they would have chosen to finish the content before focusing on multiplayer as the biggest drawback is running out of fun stuff.

  10. DantronLesotho says:

    I could have sworn that this game was written about before. Maybe I am confusing it with the indiegames.com article. Anyway, I played the demo, loved it, immediately bought the alpha, accidentally played through the demo again (I hadn’t installed the alpha, just downloaded it), then played the alpha, and loved every minute of that as well.

    I think it’s a wonderfully made game and I look forward to the finished product. I hope the audio can get fixed in it though; it’s a little low-compression and sounds tinny even on my crappy computer speakers.

    I keep meaning to try out spacechem since it is often compared with this. Maybe that will be my new goal for the weekend.

    • tormos says:

      well there was this article from a little while back: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2014/05/02/factorio-trailer-demo/
      but I don’t think Chris is necessarily averse to going a little more in depth with things that have already received some coverage on the site. Given the nature of Early Access, it kind of makes sense to consider stopping in every once in a while and seeing what’s different.

      • DantronLesotho says:

        True, the nature of early access does mean changes as it goes. Thanks for the link!

      • benkc says:

        Yep, I discovered the game via that post, which led to me playing the demo, buying the game, and soon having every spare moment filled with thoughts of how to improve my factory. Glad to see it getting a bit more coverage. :)

    • Cvnk says:

      I wouldn’t compare Spacechem to this. Spacechem feels like more of a puzzle game. I suppose there are similarities but I think they are very different types of games.

    • kovarex says:

      The audio is getting big overhaul, the custom Factorio-themed soundtrack work is in progress already.

  11. trjp says:

    I’m with the other people who played the demo – saw ‘mining by hand’ and almost binned it.

    Then you give you automation and you’re like WOW

    Mind you – the crappy shooty-bits are also a bit shaky – but the core of the game is pure-fried-genius IMO

  12. AyeBraine says:

    It would be cool if you built a perimeter of “smart” turrets, and in time these turrets managed to build a machine that builds humans, another machine that builds rifles for humans, and a third machine that breaks their mind and induces an irresistible, desperate killing frenzy. Then the turrets can sit back, relax and watch humans die, wave after wave, taking out enemies far outside their active range. And play checkers, presumably.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      That sounds more like the real world…

      • AyeBraine says:

        Yeah but in the real world you have to install public relations, SMM, copywrite and survey upgrades, build an additional budget-splitting mill, and then hire sophomores to post indignant statuses. I’m talking about machine serendipity, man!

  13. Hydraulic Meerkat says:

    This is one of those game ideas that makes you wonder why no one thought of it sooner. Great concept.

  14. Questionable says:

    Apologies for this post in advance, I must be in a picky mood this morning.

    “It’s a isometric management…”. Firstly, it would be “an isometric management…”. Secondly, it isn’t an isometric view. It’s a plan view which is usually just referred to in games as “2D” or “top-down”.

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the game. It looks like fun.

  15. Blackrook says:

    +1 to this being a great little game.

    I overdosed on it for about two weeks until I was seeing conveyor belts and robot inserters in my dreams.
    Currently having a break and wait for some new content on it.

  16. Chaz says:

    It looks like a rather intriguing game and all that, but if you’re a lone spaceman on a planet, why are you building all this stuff? What’s the point of having a huge complicated production line process for supplying just one guy? Or are you supposed to be setting all this up ready for the impending arrival of more colonists?

    • It's not me it's you says:

      Amazingly, the developers managed to squeeze the same 5 second thought out and yes, that is in fact exactly why you’re there: you’re preparing the planet for the imminent arrival of a colony ship.

      • aleander says:

        …by turning it into a polluted hell-hole completely strip-mined of resources.

        • shinkshank says:

          Well, that’s just the landing zone. I imagine the colonists, when they arrive, will be well equipped to leave the hella ruined place you’ve made and make a nice, eco-friendly bubble dome a few hundred miles away.

        • trjp says:

          Hell yeah – we wanted people from Earth to feel at home…

        • ScottTFrazer says:

          To be fair, you can play it ecologically once you get the right tech. Set up a field of solar arrays, shut off the boilers on the turbines. Start churning out “effectivity modules” that reduce power consumption and pollution by up to 80% and all of a sudden you’re running an enormous factory on a few measly megawatts.

          Still have to kill a bunch of bugs for the “alien artifacts,” though.

  17. Lion Heart says:

    this game is so damn addictive

  18. SomeDuder says:

    This game. It was made for me.

  19. JustAPigeon says:

    Just tried the demo and it’s brilliant. I want more.

    Also, one of the music tracks really reminded me of something from “It Came from the Desert”, and I suddenly got Lizard Breath nostalgia.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      The music is great! Ordinarily, in games where I need to concentrate, I turn off the music eventually because I find it distracting. But I’ve left it on. As with the music in Spacebase DS9 (composed by Chris Remo of Idle Thumbs, I believe), the music in Factorio never starts grating on me, even after hours of play.

  20. brotherthree says:

    This game was equally as entertaining as this article, try it.

  21. Antistar says:

    I have been absolutely captivated lately by watching an LP or two of Factorio; hours and hours of it over the past few weeks. (By Arumba on youtube.)

    If I were to actually play it myself I can only imagine I’d never get anything productive done ever again. It seems inevitable though; I’m sure I’ll grab it at some point.

  22. SuddenSight says:

    This game is surprisingly fun (I just played through the demo). The art is nice, if a little dingy, and setting up factories was more fun that I expected.

    However, there are a couple oversights that just feel weird. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any way to split stacks into arbitrary amounts (say, splitting a stack of 50 things into a stack of 10 and a stack of 40). Being a little OCD about how I set up my sandbox universes (in Minecraft, Banished, w/e) I found that slightly annoying. Still, it is early in development, so those wrinkles will probably get ironed out at some point.

    • ScottTFrazer says:

      When picking things up you can pick-up exactly half of a stack by right clicking on it.

      For the automated stuff you can use smart inserters and red/green networks to ensure that a certain number of something is in a given spot. You can also limit any chest to only have a certain number of stacks it accepts.

      The hard core have managed to create little switches and logic gates with just those tools, though the computational machines they produce are very slow.

  23. Laurentius says:

    I thought I would love it giving my love for Spacechem but tbh i didn’t after trying the demo. And yes many things are absolutly to my liking but even if automatic but to craft every little shit to start your factory going is killing this game for me. So for the games that Lord Semingleigh called ““build intricate things and watch them twirl” i vastly prefer TTD, where I only have to care about one resource – “money”. I understand that Factorio aims to build self-sustained system but the idea runs above my head somehow, I’d rather build factory that operates on money that can be get form end-products and by-products then just shoot some aliens.

  24. FrumiousBandersnatch says:

    „A conveyor belt carrying conveyor belts. This is gonna go all Fantasia, innit.“ This makes me wonder: what is Fantasia?

  25. socrate says:

    This game for me is like playing industrial craft in minecraft its extremely fun and well made i still wish they will put more engine and fuel type and contraption or thing to do because after awhile it become same old same but overall i really loved that game when i tried it.

    its well worth a look

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