Playing the Factorio Demo May Have Been a Mistake

I’ve heard about Factorio for years, it seems. There was always something intriguing about the screenshots, but they were never quite enough to draw me in. This past Friday I was browsing games on my wish list and noticed Factorio has a free demo! In 2020, that’s a notable thing by itself. The game’s developer has a hard stance against ever putting their product on sale, so the demo exists to offset that.

Considering that my intent to see what the game is all about ballooned into three hours of play time in one afternoon, I’d say the demo is going to pay off.

So what’s the game all about? You’re a pilot, or something, stuck on an alien world and you want to go home. Surrounded by the wreckage of the ship you crashed in, you must salvage what you can to build a new ship and leave the planet you’ve been marooned on. But it’s not quite that simple. At least not in the world of Factorio. Scrap isn’t good enough, you must harvest resources to build a shiny new spaceship!

Your first order of business is to manually harvest stone and iron to build mines and furnaces to refine the raw materials from the ground. This allows you to build mining platforms to harvest the ore for you. Next you need to recover scrap from your crashed ship and build processors that combine multiple raw elements into new components. Those components are used to feed research to develop other new products. And on top of it all, you must manage power sources and – of course – build a dizzying array of conveyor belts to connect it all!

If it sounds simple, it is – except that it’s not. Machinery needs power to keep running. If you notice your conveyor of copper plates is empty, the odds are that a refinery or grabber arm ran out of coal. Sure, you could collect coal yourself and walk your character over to refill it. Or you could build a hideously complex conveyor system to deliver coal to the copper mine and automate the process.

It doesn’t take long before you’re constantly zooming in and out, tracing the supply of iron cogs to see if they’re supposed to go to the science lab or the other manufacturing plant. And then you notice a grabber arm has ran out of fuel, so you reroute the coal supply. By then you notice there’s a backup of iron ore for some reason… and so on.

It’s likely that some people will find this all to be a lot of tedious upkeep. For me, it strikes just the right balance between maintaining what you have and needing to expand and change. The tech tree allows you to research new abilities and machinery that will help optimize your layouts. There’s seldom a moment when you’re just sitting and waiting for something to happen.

The demo, which is the game’s tutorial scenario, does a nice job of offering specific objectives and letting the player figure out how to meet them. Hand-holding is minimal, allowing for maximum creative freedom. It also allows for mistakes. I find the game’s trust of the player to be a refreshing experience when compared to so many of today’s tightly choreographed campaigns.

But it’s not just peace and optimization. The planet you’re on has fauna that wants to destroy your factories and kill you. They’re super mean. This is what happened to my first base in the tutorial:

Compare this to the GIF above…

The next logical escalation in this war is adding guns to the research tree, which Factorio does. Now my base is protected by automated turrets. TAKE THAT, EVIL SPACE BUGS!!!

Factorio has proven to be pleasantly surprising. I’m sure I’m going to keep playing until the demo ends and, at this point, I’m planning to drop $30 on the full game when it happens. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to adjust the conveyors to optimize my coal distribution.