Unlike sex, drinking or eating, games aren’t objectively fun. There’s nothing external forcing your body to produce dopamine (the fun juice in your brain). Instead games tap into whatever talents and traits are inside us and if they get it right and tickle your personal favorite attributes you enjoy your time simply expressing yourself.
Production Line runs a high speed conveyor belt of pure efficiency optimization right into my pleasure centers. It does it so well, and I like finding efficiencies so much, that even now that I’m done playing and extracting all the newness out of it I still have a nearly uncontrollable itch to fire up my car factory and eek out another few percent of production speed.
You setup and run a car factory assembly line with sublime complexity made manageable by precise control and excellent feedback. Despite reaching an impressive, spaghetti like mess, you know where the choke point is and how to fix it in theory. Fighting your solutions is the limited floor space and the challenging external market where your product gets sold.
The vast majority of your time is spent putting down assembly machines and attaching them with conveyor belts so that a couple of axles shimmy down a long chain and slowly turn into a car. Machines are staffed and draw power at all times. Every second they spend idle is time and profit wasted. Each station needs a different chunk of time to perform its task and so the game becomes a giant Rube Goldberg machine with you hovering over each cog trying to match timing so everything flows smoothly instead of bunching up and slowing down.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the game is how complex it gets while remaining manageable. There’s a palpable pleasure in looking at a snarling mess of lines, cars and icons that are perfectly clear and legible to you but would look like utter chaos to anyone else. The wide open floor and endless possible paths you can take in producing a car means the factory becomes personal very quickly. It’s your creation, different from every other factory made by every other player. Only Opus Magnum has given me the same feeling of individuality and it’s peculiar that I feel it so strongly from puzzle games and not RPGs.
What keeps the game engaging and gives you constant emergent goals is how research is linked to production. Initially producing each of the car’s major sections (chassis, body, accessories, electronics, etc.) is a one station endevor with long assembly times. The body requires over 30 minutes while the chassis only 12. So you do some light math to try and optimize. One chassis station working full time can feed between two to three engine stations. Building three would maximize production but waste money as one station stays dormant some of the time. Building two would mean they’re always working but eventually the line would back up and the chassis station would pause until the body stations finished their task.
But then you research a new production technique and that body station can now be configured as seven separate stations with smaller time intervals. Instead of 30 minutes for the whole task it now takes 7 minutes to put in a drive train and another 11 minutes to add the steering assembly. Smaller intervals give finer control and so you get closer and closer to perfectly matching your chassis station’s output. And on it goes, with stations breaking down into smaller and smaller sub-stations while you dutifully retool your assembly line for greater efficiencies.
You’re not alone
What keeps the game from devolving into a pleasant, hypnotic trance is your competition. Half the research projects lead to more efficient production. The rest are improvements to the car that require specific stations and upgrades. Initially these are a source of additional margin. If you’re the only car manufacturer producing sunroofs you can charge a higher premium. There’s a smart little mechanic that awards innovation.
As your competitors research their own improvements customers come to expect certain features. So if everyone else is putting power steering in their cars, customers are less likely to buy your shittily steering creation even if it does have a sweet sunroof.
It all works together beautifully to create a three way tug of war of priorities. Produce as fast as you can to increase profits, research and add components unique to your cars to increase margins and you play catch up on features your competition includes to keep your cars sellable. And it’s all balanced nicely. Doing a bad job quickly turns profit into loss but not instant loss. Loans and warnings give you plenty of time to right the ship and climb back into the black.
UI & Feedback
A lot of these efficiency games stop being fun when they become a chore. When you know the right solution but no longer feel like implementing it because it would take too many menu choices and clicks. The tasks cross over from game to work. Production Line doesn’t fight you. It might be hard to wring out further efficiency because you used all your floor space and are trying to Tetris four stations into a tiny space with conveyors going every which way. But Tetris is fun. You spend almost all your time pondering and observing instead of trying to make the interface do what you want it to.
Spotting problems in your chain hits the right balance between obvious and vague. As you improve sections of the line the problem travels to the next slowest link. You get a feel at a glance but figuring out exactly how to unclog it requires close inspection and following your cars as they get built. You feel like you’re really solving something, not just plopping down an obvious widget where the game tells you it’s needed (like putting down a fire station in Simcity for example).
At first I was producing a car every 20 minutes. Late in the game I was closing in on my ultimate, self imposed goal. I had set up my factory to theoretically produce a car a minute. The machines were all multiplied perfectly so seven paint stations fed into a dozen dryers and everything divided into as close to one minute chunks as I could manage it. Then my showroom filled up so I researched marketing to help sales move the higher volume of cars.
But I couldn’t climb above 45 cars an hour. After careful study I found the bottleneck. Some stations were doing their task so quickly that they sat idle waiting for parts to be conveyed in. Stations require individual components so your wheel assembly needs tires and servos brought in externally. And I had all available importer slots going at full speed already. So I researched faster part conveyors which helped but not enough. I had to reduce the strain on my importing stations. This set off a long process of researching and creating my own parts manufacturing. I needed to make the bits within the factory itself. This had the added benefit of increasing margins as well.
Then I realized that I had crammed so many quality of life improvements (AC, heating, interior lights) into the dashboard that what was previously a forgotten, single station taking 30 seconds to install a dashboard had ballooned into a 3.5 minute procedure. Until I could find room for three more dashboard installers I scaled back installing lovely wood finish trim so only my premium sedans got them. Those are good quality game choices and unsarcastic joy.
The game and tutorial are clear in getting you up to speed and enjoying the game. But the relationship between what you research and how it plays out is fuzzy. You might excitedly research an improvement only to realize that you need to research other things to actually install it. You’ll spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out how to make anything other than a sedan before you realize you also need Design Studios, an unmentioned bit from a different, unrelated research tree.
It’s not a crippling confusion. It only creeps in at the mid-game when you already feel competent enough to roll with the setbacks. It’s just an odd omission for an otherwise clear game. A car designer is also non-existent. You choose a type and accessories but never get into the guts of the car and choose a V6 versus a V8 engine. Nor is there any variety of body styles. I imagine these will be late additions closer to release.
Should you buy it?
If making things more efficient sounds like a good time, then unequivocally yes. The game is still in early access but perfectly stable and full of tens of hours of content. You’ll never be doing more than laying out stations and conveyor belts but it does all it can to keep that basic task engaging and increasingly complex. It’s all super satisfying and hard enough that you don’t go into autopilot mode and coast. I’d love more variety and character in the cars I produce but what’s already here is fantastic, if singular.