This week we’re looking at two games that share some design similarities but are quite different in their overall intent. One is more about the financial and ethical side of medication production, while the other lets you build a mind-bendingly beautiful conveyor belt mazes and includes a world-exploring element.
Ever wonder what it’s like to run a pharmaceutical company? No. Well, we’ll see you next week then.
But if you’ve ever stopped to consider what it’s like to make the big corporate decisions – to decide whether or not it’s really all that important that your new drug makes people nauseous, for instance, then this is the game for you.
If you start at the tutorial phase, which you really need to with this one, you begin with an empty factory and you’ll go through the task of learning how to initiate, then tweak, production. It begins simply enough. Learn important stuff like how when you install an Evaporator unit it will increase your drug concentration by 1 and that you need a Pill Printer to add the finishing touch to your product. You’ll also learn how to orient your machines and set up conveyor belts. Inputs / Outputs. Which soon becomes Inputs / Modifiers / Insanity / Outputs. Expect to feel like a combination of Curious George and Lucille Ball in a Chocolate Factory. Except it’s pharmaceuticals, not chocolates, and when you mess up a lot of people probably end up in the hospital. At best.
Like all good games of this type, complexity scales up slowly while you learn the lexicon and understand the fairly straight-forward controls. Soon you are finding clever ways to optimize your workflow, quickly understanding how to shave a few dollars off of production. These games, when done well, succeed at being part learning puzzle and part race.
Like a lot of middle-aged gamers we spent our formative learning years playing The Oregon Trail at school, and our teenage years pouring endless hours into games like the original SimCity or Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon. Games that make simulating business and bureaucracy oddly fun. And they’re supposedly educational, which means everyone would get off your back for being on the computer for endless hours. The thing I’ve always found most interesting in simulation games is the balance between realism and gameplay. And depending on my mood, depending on how badly I was doing in the current game, my thoughts changed – and still do – about this balance. Now that I’m in front of a mic and not a screen I’ll tell you that I like highly granular control. I want these kinds of games to be a rich simulation of whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing.
But then you can put me in front of a game and I’ll immediately want to start modifying that granularity. Now I want the demands and restrictions in the game to be a little more forgiving. I want the decisions and the outcomes to feel more fun. I want the balance between successful strategy and economic failure to be just so.
When Big Pharma came out I was impressed. Visually, it’s appealing. The orthogonal view and cartoony graphics are easy on the eye and make planning out your production lines on the checkered floor fairly intuitive. Machines have in-out directions so you know which way to turn things. And if you want to know detailed info about an ingredient in the production process you click on it and you’ll get a bunch of specifics. How strong it is, what kind of side-effects you’re causing to those migraine sufferers, procurement costs. Once you get your head around the basic strategies and learn to increase/decrease concentration you then strive to manage your active ingredients and their side-effects.
For the first hour or so of tutorial I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Although the tutorials are great, the controls are intuitive, and the menus are well laid out, I still found myself slightly overwhelmed. Now was that reduce by 3? Should I use three of those things or one of those? Do I have enough factory floor space?
But then you start doing additional fun stuff – Assigning and paying for explorers to find you new active ingredients. Hiring researchers to come up with brilliant new equipment types. Your production floor is whirring and humming and people are checking boxes on clipboards and costing you a fortune. Before you know it, though, you’ve got those basics. You can identify where production is going wrong. You know where to put that Shaker and can explain why it’s essential.
Because the drug production process is probably a bit mysterious to most of us, there’s a little more conceptual learning curve. But they’ve done an admirable job trying to keep this to a minimum.
Once I learned these basics, however, I found the hook that initially grabbed me slowly let go. The game is part visual puzzle and part sim and once I was faced with the challenges of producing this drug or that and the path of what I had to do became faintly recognizable I slowly disengaged with the game. My son found the same thing – we played it intensely for a short period and then put it down. Just figuring the game out was entrancing but continuing was another matter. Game play didn’t keep us glued to it.
I’ve spent the past week trying to figure out what exactly happened and I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it was the sterility of the game environment. You’re in an objective managerial role making big decisions. You’re in a lab. You can’t leave it and go walk around. You can add extra floor space to your facility, as needed, but there’s no outside landscape to tickle your eye. There’s no real element of exploration. Sure, you send explorers out to find new ingredients, but you don’t really feel like you have a stake in this process. And in terms of overall game flow, there’s a few tabs that bring up different game charts which show us our current capabilities and progress in research, for instance. But then you’re back to tweaking production lines. This whole process grew stale for us. Once the charm of the sim wore off we were left with puzzle and it wasn’t that engaging.
The developer just released a Marketing and Malpractice expansion and while we were excited for some of the changes it would bring we also asked ourselves if it would really drive us to play the game further or if it would just sit there in the Steam wall of shame, an unplayed victim of enthusiasm over fun.
Now that isn’t to say we don’t like this game or that you and your kids might not like it. Go watch a gameplay video. The game succeeds wonderfully at what it sets out to do. And perhaps a greater reason we found this game less engaging recently was that we had another one begging us for constant attention.
While the game has been in development for years with a small team, it was released on Steam Early Access at the end of February (2016) and they anticipate full release later this year.
What is Factorio? Here’s the developer’s brief description:
Factorio is a game in which you build and maintain factories.
You will be mining resources, researching technologies, building infrastructure, automating production and fighting enemies. Use your imagination to design your factory, combine simple elements into ingenious structures, apply management skills to keep it working and finally protect it from the creatures who don’t really like you.
Sounds boring, right? Like Minecraft boring, which I’ve read was an inspiration of sorts. Which means it’s incredibly engaging and you will lose countless hours trying to optimize your mining operations.
I thought I had a Factorio addiction until I saw what this game did to my kid. He entered some trance state for several weeks and I’m still not sure we’ll get him back unless he finally unlocks some advanced technologies and complete the game.
This is another game you should immediately watch the trailer for. Be warned, though, it looks equal parts amazing and terrifying.
But don’t be scared, even though you start out as a little, lonely player in a big wilderness. As you walk around, moving your character from a third-person perspective, you run into different resources. Wood, coal, copper, iron ore. You begin with a pickaxe in hand and you immediately start to collect these resources. The mining process is simple and the visual display indicates how much you currently have on hand. Once you have a few resources you start building.
I like the crafting menu on this one. You don’t have to drag and drop ingredients into a puzzle menu, instead clicking on an item that is within your current abilities to create. Each item has a list of ingredients needed to create it. Maybe you need gears, perhaps you require electronics. If you don’t have enough raw elements to create the ingredients you go mining.
This is where the game rapidly sets off from being a Minecraft / Terraria / Starbound clone. Sure, you can spend your time wielding that pickaxe but your real job is to set up machines to do the work for you. Coal powered mining drills, for instance. Maybe you want to build an oven right next to that drill to process the raw materials. Fantastic. Fill the drill and oven up with fuel and walk away. Come back a few minutes later and you’ve processed 50 units. Maybe set up a mechanical inserter and a chest and watch as hundreds of items appear like magic while a robot arm does the heavy lifting.
Within minutes (alright, it might have been hours – I really have no idea as time and space collapse when we play this game) you are gaining new capabilities, setting up a source of hydroelectric power, building electric drills and devising complex assembly lines to move materials from one location to your row of research labs you’ve set up. Because you goal isn’t to mine and build beautiful creations as you might in Minecraft your reason for doing all of this is different. In Factorio you are trying to scramble your way up a tech tree. Your economy is research. Each new technology requires that you process a certain number of research units in your lab. Maybe you need x50 red research units. Or x100 red and x100 green. As the research gets more complex – such as advanced automation, vehicles, plastics, advanced electronics – the inputs required become more and more involved.
Did I mention there are creatures on the planet that are not entirely pleased about all of the pollution and noise you’re creating? Unless you turn off alien aggression in the menu these giant bugs will come and destroy your machinery and attack you.
This is a beautiful aspect of Factorio. If you want to spend your time mastering the technical aspects of the tech tree then you can turn off the ability for creatures to attack you unprovoked. You can ignore defenses and weapons and focus on the visual beauty of your horrifyingly complex conveyor belt systems.
But if you are unsatisfied with what is already an amazing game and want there to be an outside element of pressure you can turn the baddies on. Then get prepared to build defensive walls and set up conveyors to keep them from running at your creations like some goofball walking backwards on an escalator. You may also set up a weapons system that automatically detects and fires at the creatures while you keep busy working.
The end game is to acquire enough resources, and research enough technologies, to allow you to unlock space flight. The theory is that you will launch your shuttle and gloriously escape the industrialized mayhem and hungry critters below you. While we have poured dozens of hours into this game, watched a bunch of tutorials, read stuff in wikis we still are quite a ways off. There’s always things to optimize. Always ways to innovate how you devise automation to process the ingredients to create materials which act as ingredients to create precursors to other materials that will become one of the four parts needed to make the thing which you’ll dump into research. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of times.
While both of these games have some interesting educational elements, the initial learning curve of Big Pharma and the overall gameplay might not appeal as much to younger players. I like the philosophy of teaching kids about the pharmaceutical industry and the decisions it makes when manufacturing and selling drugs but this might not be the easiest way to do it. If you like visual puzzles that force you to optimize a process then this is a great game. The graphics are perfect for the tone of the game and it’s so much fun to watch stuff whirring around your conveyor belt nightmare.
If you want some interesting lessons in the manufacturing of raw goods into finished products and want to slowly master factory logistics while also not dying, then Factorio is the game for you. With Factorio there is learning and problem solving without that process being in the forefront of your mind- you’re too being engaged by the entire system and watching out for alien attacks. While they both offer unique learning experiences I suspect Factorio is going to be a sim game that my kids look back on fondly in twenty years time.
If you have any thoughts about this episode leave a comment below, or you can find me on twitter @epicgumdrop.