X-Factor: Why Factorio feels like play, not work

Before I started playing Factorio, seeing screenshots of the game scared the crap out of me.

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All the uninitiated see in a screenshot like this, is an indecipherable mass of pixelated machinery plowing through a muddy landscape. Is this a puzzle game? A simulation game? It’s hard to make any sense of what’s going on, and man, is it ugly.

But even as a fairly new player–one who has barely scratched the surface in terms of progression in the game–I’m slowly starting to see something more like art in these images.

In Factorio, players only have one goal: launch a rocket into space. The process, however, is far more complicated. First, players must craft a rocket silo, then load the silo with 100 rocket parts. This becomes a gargantuan task once you realize each rocket part is made from low density structures, rocket control units and rocket fuel; each rocket control unit is made from speed modules and processing units; each speed module is made from advanced circuits and electronic circuits; each electronic circuit is made from… and so on and so forth. In terms of raw ingredients, creating 100 rocket parts requires 9,500 coal, 293,519 crude oil, 77,500 copper ore, 89,100 iron ore and 240,370 water–for perspective, players start off with a single burner mining drill that produces 0.25 of whatever raw material it’s mining per second. Crafting a rocket part by hand using the game’s in-game crafting menu would take a player 1500 seconds, or 25 minutes.

Fortunately, Factorio’s main gameplay loop lies in extending and optimizing your factory to account for automating the creation of these complicated recipes–which, surprisingly, is fun.

The game makes creating a production line–no matter how efficient–feel extremely rewarding. It’s satisfying to watch raw materials be fed into complicated chains of conveyor belts and robotic arms, and your carefully hand-placed assembling machines spew out end products, that are then fed into other assembling machines, and so on. Because each product is an end product of a combination of other products, it’s easy to break down a long recipe chain into smaller, more manageable parts–mini-production lines and factories. Even if these parts are built haphazardly, the map stretches out into infinity in all directions, allowing players to lay their factories down almost anywhere–meaning you’ll be able to link your work together no matter what, even if it does end up looking like spaghetti.

Optimizing your production line provides more layers of accomplishment–the game lets you tune machines with modules that make them run faster or consume less power. Manipulating your production line on this micro-level can ensure your factory is always running at peak efficiency. Witnessing a factory tick on without any stalled conveyor belts is another satisfying moment to be had.

While I enjoy these architecture and optimization elements to some extent, the bulk of my fun from playing Factorio comes with playing it with others. Early on, your factory can get so large that traversing from resource to resource becomes a pain–and it’s usually why I give up on single-player mode fairly early on. Playing with friends, however, is a very different experience. Just like how the game’s structure allows for recipes to be split into manageable parts, having multiple people working on the factory makes the building process even more streamlined. One player could be adding more assembling machines to create more science packs, while the other works on the raw material mining setup on the other end of the production line. Players who don’t enjoy messing around with factory elements can do their teammates a favor by exploring the map and taking out colonies of pollution-attracted Biters–the game’s enemies and the only thing that really stands in your way–before they make it to base; or reinforcing the factory bounds with gun turrets on the off-chance that they do launch an attack.

Factorio might not be immediately accessible, but I think anyone can find enjoyment in it, even if just for an hour or two. Playing the game is like watching and creating your own Rube Goldberg machine–it’s captivating, and I think most people feel the same way when they witness a complicated machine in action. So even if factory-building doesn’t sound like an appealing concept–it’s something that appeals surprisingly to our baser instincts, and ends up being fun.

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