Yes. This is what we’re doing. I’m going to do a “retrospective” on Factorio. Rather than complaining about games that frustrate me, I want to talk about a game I love. Also, I want to somehow justify the two-week binge I just went through and this seems like the path of least resistance.
Is this a bad idea? Probably.
Factorio is part of a small list of games that remain evergreen for me. Like Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program, I can come back to Factorio again and again and find something new and interesting each time. Sometimes the novelty comes from mods, and other times it comes from self-imposed challenges or goals. You can learn the basics in a few minutes, and then you can spend years puzzling over all the layers of complexity that the game has to offer.
My reviews tend to be very narrative-focused, so let’s go over that stuff first.
Your spaceship crashes on an unknown planet. You build some machines. Eventually you build a rocket. You launch the rocket. You stay on the planet. I don’t know why you don’t use the rocket to leave.
Okay, that’s out of the way. Now let’s talk about…
You play as a nameless, faceless, genderless, voiceless engineer in a space suit. There are no other people around.
That’s it for the characters.
Other than the curious detail that your character doesn’t ever choose to leave the planet, there are no plot holes. There are no cutscenes where the player character is incompetent. There are no frustrating conversations where you’re prevented from asking reasonable questions, and you’re never forced to say anything stupid. Or anything at all.
The secondary villain is the endless swarm of insect-like monsters. Their motivations (eat your face) are clear and they never act like they’ve read the script. The primary villain is your own goddamn train, which JUST HAPPENS to come screaming by while you’re crossing the tracks, killing you instantly. You can never truly defeat the train, and it will never stop being humiliating when it runs you over, but you will eventually learn to laugh about it. Or cry. Or (like me) curse at the game and pretend it’s not your fault.
The tone is perfectly consistent. There are no bad vocal performances, no janky animations, and no uncanny faces. No immersion-breaking audio logs. No clumsy fetch quests. You never have to do stuff for an NPC you hate just to progress the plot, because there isn’t one.
And best of all, Kai Leng never shows up.
10/10 GOTY ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 👍Two Thumbs Up 🍅Certified Fresh 🥇Editor’s Choice 🚗 Car of the Year
The trailer does a pretty good job of demonstrating the premise, but if you want the long version:
You begin mining things by hand. You mine some stone to build a furnace. You mine some coal for fuel. You mine a little iron ore and shove it into the furnace to create iron plates. Then you use the metal plates to make conveyor belts and little robotic grabber arms. This allows you to automate the above process. A machine digs up the iron and coal, conveyors carry that stuff to the furnace, and grabber arms shove the stuff in.
Among fans, this phase of the game is called the “burner phase”, because you’re using machines that burn coal and haven’t yet built a power grid for improved machines that run on electricity. Depending on the map layout and how far apart the resources are, this part of the game can be anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour long. This stuff is really important for newcomers to teach them the basic mechanics, but veteran players often use mods to boost them past the burner phase and reach the main part of the game, because running around hand-feeding machines gets old really quickly.
This is a game where your goal is to automate things until there’s nothing for you to do. When you’re learning the game, you’ll find yourself getting pulled in several directions at once. Your furnaces are stalled because they’re burning fuel faster than your automated miners are delivering it. So then you adjust the conveyors to send more fuel to the furnaces, without realizing that this will slowly starve the power plant. Ten minutes later the generators finish all the fuel that had been backed up on the conveyors. Once that fuel is gone, the power goes out. In response you add more machines to harvest more coal to keep everything supplied. The problem is that the early-game conveyor belts can only deliver stuff so fast, and eventually they’ll be saturated. Do you research faster conveyors, or build more lanes?
You can either examine all the inputs and outputs of the machines and do the math, or you can do what I did and chase outages until you develop an intuitive sense of where to build things and how many to build.
The Three Goals
While the overall goal of the game is “launch the rocket”, your production is generally going into three different areas: Rocket, Research, and Resupply.
The rocket represents a massive investment of resources. It’s not that complicated to build, it’s just that it’s made of hundreds of parts with long production times. You can cut down on this time if you’re willing to scale up and build a bigger factory, which is where the game begins nudging you towards “optimization” instead of merely “getting it done”.
Anecdotally, I gather that this doesn’t work for a lot of people. Rather than scaling up their production, they just walk away and leave the game running for a couple hours until the rocket is done.
I don’t think this is a flaw in the game. The idea of building a larger, more optimized system with greater throughput isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea. For me it’s the whole point of the game, but for other people it’s like doing all the sidequests and beating the secret bosses in an RPG. Some people are happy to just get to the end credits and don’t feel the need to have the perfect game.
You can’t start building the rocket right away. Instead, you have to research new technologies, which unlock new machines and recipes, which allows you to research more stuff, which grants access to new resources, which you get the idea.
You do research by creating “science bottles”. These are little glass bottles filled with colored liquid. As the game goes on, you unlock new science bottles made of more complex products that allow you to research higher-level things.
This system doesn’t make a lot of sense. The lowest tier bottle is the red one. To make it, you combine a segment of conveyor belt with a robotic grabber arm. Neither of these things contains glass or liquid, so how these hunks of metal become a bottle of juice is left to the imagination. If you want to know more about this and enjoy massively over-thinking things, I wrote a post a few years ago talking about how funny these bottles are and how much they ought to weigh, given their recipes.
This sort of gets overlooked when people talk about base design, but it’s a really important part of your setup. As you play, you’ll be placing robot arms, assembly machines, conveyor belts, power poles, and other items. You could craft these things by hand, but that would get old really fast. It takes a few seconds to assemble some items, and the really good late-game items can’t be assembled by hand.
So what you need to do is set aside a section of your base for constructing these supplies. Then when you run out of (say) conveyor belts and power poles, you can swing by your resupply area and pick up a few stacks of these things. Once you reach the mid-game, you can set it up to have robots automatically deliver supplies to you when you get low.
So that’s the overall flow of the game: Crash on a planet, slog through the burner phase, build a large base that will harvest resources, build infrastructure for Rocket, Research, and Resupply, work your way up the tech tree, and launch the rocket to win the game.
Maybe that’s enough for you. Or maybe you’re like me and you want to keep playing to push the systems as far as you can. How small can you make your base? How fast can you progress from the start of the game to the rocket launch? How quickly can you launch additional rockets after that point? How high can your production go?
Factorio takes place on a massive procgen world, so there’s no hard limit to how far you can push things. We’ll talk about these optimizations next week.
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