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Monday, May 22, 2017

Game Design Case Study: Factorio

Factorio is a game in which you build and maintain factories.

In the spirit of most early city-building/simulation games, it's a top-down view over a player that runs around the surface of an alien planet, mines for resources, assembles parts, and automates industrial manufacturing.

The end goal (currently) is to build and launch rockets and satellites. The developers plan on extending that beyond just the scope of just a single planet surface, such as colonists coming there, or having you go underground, or having you go with the rocket to another planet or moon.

At one point, there was even a mod that had the player collecting and sending food and resources back to a home world via a portal, which gave the game a sense of purpose and connection to things other than just the player.

The game does have multiplayer, which is an incredible feat on its own since the game is designed to be hundreds if not thousands of small animations - the primary benefit of the art style. The sense of purpose is bolstered by other players joining in on the design process, however, there is no progress tracking system in place. When new players join a game that has already advanced through the first stages of the research tree, there's no easy way to see what has been done and what needs doing. Players spawn around the same area. There is no trade system between individual player inventories or owned property. There is the idea of property, in the sense of the game tracks who built what, but no rules as to who has access to what. There are no team nor competitive mechanics, and no trade systems between teams.

The thesis of the game is an exercise in exponential industrial consumerism. Aliens are hostile, as they should be, since you're senselessly polluting their environment. All resources are mined - nothing is sustainable other than solar power. The player is expected to gather resources at an increasing rate, process them into usable parts and materials, and consume that to create research.

Research is to improve the technology the player uses to mine and process resources. Far enough in, the automation becomes efficient enough to allow drones to do most of the material transport and construction for the player. Trains, a major component of the long-term game, allow for an interesting mini-game to help the player move resources to the central factory area from long distances. Research, however, is largely arbitrary and a massive time-sink. The ingredient requirements and ratios of manufacturing alone is enough to make the game interesting and time-consuming. Technology research should be a game mechanic, but not so demanding as to be the game's primary immediate goal.

Specifically, the grid system is misused. Single cells are capable of storing thousands of resources, including full-sized vehicles and structures. There is no spatial relationship at all. I would much prefer if at least the storage mechanics used something closer to 1:1 ratios; right now they average around 1:64. I even made a modification to the game that reduces the storage to around 1:4, as well as utilize another mod that adds storage and warehouses that are 9:32 and 36:64 (altered to be much lower, of course). The game has no grid (also known as entity) representation of items, so mods cannot yet be made to achieve 1:1 storage of resources.

Power production is messy. Electrical lines are short, on tall wooden or metal poles, and distribute power in a square around them. A better method would be to have electrical power assumed for all electricity-using entities within a certain distance of each other, and then only need to use poles to transport electricity over long distances.

Conveyors and water pumps don't use electricity, while just about everything else does. There's no wind turbine, no geothermal plants (no lava on an alien planet? ...come on), and no flowing water, which means no dams or water-wheels.

There is no production waste, and so no recycling methods are included either. Recycling even older technology would be beneficial to the game design.

Why would I use trains when conveyors are drastically cheaper to produce, and provide a constant flow instead of a large, periodic flux?

Impassable or non-flat terrain could add challenge to the game in the place of making research less arbitrarily time and resource-consuming. Also, more environmental events, such as dust-storms, rain storms, and fog could make the game more interesting and challenging.

In conclusion, the only reason that I took the time to study and analyze Factorio's design is because I enjoy the concept and the game greatly. All of the items I mentioned are possible, and most are, dare I say, easy to implement. The framework is present, with exception of item storage, to build Factorio up to a game that easily beats out the competition in an otherwise flooded market of computer games. If the game can be modded and made better, to the point where most players play with a collection of specific mods, the developers (which includes me, for my own games) need to seriously consider and implement mods as realized game mechanics.

I want to urge future game developers to strongly consider the thesis, or the message, of their games in the scope of how people perceive them. I perceive Factorio as a manifestation of the industrialization of our civilization. I strongly desire Factorio to become a game that is aware of its own message, and to give players the option to play in sustainable ways. In the future, I hope, such destructive resource exploitation is looked down on and laughed at as wildly naive and wasteful. We can utilize minerals and materials fully, we just have to learn how. Factorio can help!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Net Neutrality

The internet is really, really great.

The internet, in it's simplest form, allows for people who have very little to feel as though they have everything. That's because they have access to almost anything, via the internet.

The internet could be many things: what it is to me, is a source of information, entertainment, and communication that is better, faster, and more efficient than anything humans have ever had before.

Many people have grown up with that benefit - with that tool. Many people depend on access to the internet to be productive, stable members of society, including myself.

...I don't know how to fully articulate how important equal and untainted access to the internet is.

That's always been one of my weaknesses - effective communication, in person. Taking time to go and start a conversation where there needs to be one, or simply making my point without seeming defensive or overbearing. I know I don't have much influence over the vast majority of the world. That's not at all the issue - my weakness doesn't show up here.

The issue is the writing on the wall. Those who do have the resources and influence can't seem to see it when it matters. The writing says, "internet access is a basic human right." Almost all human beings have some access to electronic technology, and the software that allows us to connect to the internet is a circumstance of the proliferation of that technology. Therefore, by sheer saturation, we all have the right to access the internet, and that access need not favor some over others.

In most of rural America, there is no reliable internet access. Sure, we have satellite technology which helps alleviate that situation, but reliable is the keyword here. Already there is a glaring inequality between those who live in urban and rural areas. Then, to make matters worse, even those in urban areas don't have many choices when it comes to who provides access to the internet.

Net neutrality isn't just about throttling speeds, and choosing favorite outlets over outliers, it's about provisions, access, and market saturation. Investment in internet infrastructure should come at a short-term loss, while the long-term benefits will provide ample reasons to get started now.

If I were an internet provider, I would be putting massive amounts of capital into rural fiber infrastructure, simply because the long-term returns (even at sub-marginal subscriber rates) massively outweigh the loss of profit that is happening due to inactivity, apathy, and general mismanagement.

Let's run a quick case study.

Assuming it costs $13,000 per mile to run a fiber cable (which is already a high estimate), and we want to go from the Pottsboro, TX hub to Highport Marina along highway 289, which is 7 miles, it costs $91,000 to lay the line. Let's round that up to $100k for argument's sake.

Let's also assume there are roughly an average of 10 subscribing customers per mile of line, each paying $100 per month for their internet service. That's $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year for fiber service to a rural community.

The investment pays for itself after 8 years and 4 months. After that, the subscription pays for maintenance, upgrades, and expansion for that area.

Here's where I think many business leaders get caught up: Where's the profit margin?

The profit margin comes when/if Pottsboro grows into a major urban area, much like what happened in Richardson, Plano, Frisco, McKinney, and even Sherman. The spine of the infrastructure has already been paid for and placed, and now with a solid subscriber base and an expanding potential market, it's much easier to acquire additional capital to pay for more fiber. That's where the profit margin enters into the picture. It's obvious urban areas are more profitable than rural areas, but with the internet, you can't discriminate.

So instead of getting caught up in the mindset of constant profit/growth, I'd like to see leaders make decisions based on merit and long-term provisions.

Which circles us back around to net neutrality. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in making as much money as possible in the short-term, we will erode our source of profit entirely. Future generations will be left with nothing. Why make all of this technological progress if we're just going to throw it all away?

The result of this fight for neutrality should be that even more people have access to the internet, and that all of us should be free to use it fairly and equally as a constitutional right.