I rather enjoy hard sci-fi. Ringworld scratches a crazy itch, and it’s been revised a few times by scholars to be more accurate in terms of setting. I would guess that most people were introduced to the concept of a Dyson sphere through TNG’s episode with Scotty. The concept is amazing, but the practicality of completely enveloping a star at a planetary radius is just mind-boggling in scope. It’d be millions of Earths in size. You’d need multiple solar system’s worth of material to build just one.
Dyson Sphere Program is a game in Early Access that attempts to tell that story. Think Factorio but in a 3d world that’s representative of a cluster of stars. Factory builders are fascinating less for their results but for their elegant complexity. Building an automated supply chain that has dozens of steps, each sustainable and clean, is an amazing feeling. Right up there with an optimized SimCity in feeling (but not approach).
Early Access is a tough bag. There are thousands of games in that mode and few ever get off the ground, or give you something of value. For every Hades or Valheim, there are bins full of bad ideas and money grabs. DSP is a reflection of the former type, with an extremely well fleshed out structure present, with a clear start and middle. The ending, that is building an actual Dyson Sphere, is present but not as fleshed out as the rest.
First, How to Build a Toaster from Scratch.
RTS games – let’s go back to Dune 2 – started the tend of collecting things, putting them in something to make something else. That concept of collecting, refinement, output is the foundation. Just imagine that, but dozens of steps, and each step itself using a different tool to collect or refine. Most idle games on are variants on this model, where progress is logarithmic, then you “reset” for more improvements to get further the next attempt.
Factory games do this without resets, and it’s almost entirely a numbers game. It’s a pretty spreadsheet. You don’t have a village resident with a weird demand for a baseball diamond that comes out of nowhere. You simply have a need to make more of something to start making something else. Production is not linear, as the factories themselves need a lot of components and themselves can only produce so much in a given time. You end up with factory lines to maximize the collection and production of items, then ship those items to the next chain.
The progress is incremental but noticeable. The best ones have clear phases that generally line up to manual, automation, and then optimization. The transition between phases is often followed with a dramatic drop in productivity, often with complete rebuilds to accommodate. The worst ones are slogs that provide painfully slow automation (sped up with MTX no doubt!), linear construction paths (item are used for only 1 purpose), or a set of obtuse mechanics.
The pace of growth and optimization feels good for the first good chunk of the game. Your first planet has most of the material you need to get going and the tutorials are sufficient enough to get the basics going. There are some systems that could use more explanation (terraforming for one given the soil material), and the technology tree could be revamped a tad, but on the whole this part feels just like any other factory game. Collect base materials, process them, make something, that makes something else, that makes more stuff, and so on.
If you enter DSP with an understanding of factory lines, this will be a somewhat smooth experience. If you don’t, then you may find it feels a bit like spaghetti, not so much because you lack space to build (there’s plenty of that) but you’re lacking the materials to move stuff around.
The research portion is well done, with the need for ever more complex materials to move forward with more complex research. Some things seem useless until you realize they are core to other super important materials. The early access issue here does have a few bits of things that have only 1 use, which I expect to change over time.
The logistics portion is an interesting dance. While you can unlock the ability to ship things across the planet pretty quickly, the power and transport vehicle requirements make it painful to get started. The snowball effect, once you ship your first titanium package between planets, is substantial. This is when you enter the mid-game.
The largest pain point I have with any factory game is the minutiae of setting up belts and loaders. Early on it’s simple enough, you’re only building 1 or 2 things. When you need to build an oil refinement line, which has 50 refineries, it’s extremely annoying not to have the ability to blueprint layouts. Thankfully the game supports mods – and these are almost required in the mid-game. It’s somewhat ironic you can automate the creation of ships, but not of factories. The July 23rd patch is supposed to bring this in, I am super stoked!
The travel time between planets never really improves. I encountered an issue with power generation on one planet and it feels like wasted time having to go back and forth to sort everything out. The logistic vehicles are also speed/rate limited, so for ultra high-demand items, you’re going to need more stations rather than noticeable improve existing ones.
The mech improvements page has some major milestone improvements that are hidden in the text. Learning that you can fly to another planet was accidental. That I could warp, or stack sorters vertically even more so. All factory building games have an obtuse section of learning, where once you get it, then it changes your perspective on the game. DSP has a fair chunk of those – and the wiki doesn’t really help. YouTube videos for the win!
Inventory management is painful, as are stack sizes that are inconsistent. Why does one thing stack to 10 and another to 200? Sure, you’re going to have storage chests lying around but with SO MANY items needed at any given time, it’s really hard to find out where they are. I’ve automated the creation of Oil Refineries, but I need to fly around the damn planet to find out where they are stored. Because Logistic Towers are limited to 5 slots and there are 2 dozen useful buildings, I’ll need to build a big complex to just store stuff.
Power generation has 5 phases. Wind, Coal, Solar, Hydrogen, Deuterium. The first 3 phases are all super quick and useful. Hydrogen feels almost accidental, especially once you collect from gas planets. It takes a long time to get to a place where that’s going to happen. Deuterium takes even longer as it’s a pain to collect. The early game has minor power issues, but the mid-game is when power generation is always an issue. And the method to address is (Accumulators + chargers) is it’s own logistical nightmare. When you’re low on power, things take longer to make, so it’s a giant snowball effect. And the game takes its sweet time to allow you to effectively store excess energy. That whole subsystem could be improved.
The actual Dyson Sphere portion feels like a different game, with it’s own interface. It has a very complex set of materials, a math-based construction period, and it’s own power generation system. You’re exposed to it quite early, but that version decays over time and it is not explained when you start. It’s friggin’ cool as all hell to see the sphere from the planet you’re on, but the system that underlies it all needs some more structure. Given this is the end game (and the name of the game), the devs are working on this point.
5 devs, that’s it. How games like this and Valheim (FYI – the Valheim devs ALSO built Satisfactory) get built with tiny teams is beyond me, and frankly should make any studio over 50 in size start questioning a lot about their business models.
Patches seem to be almost weekly, and the devs are extremely forthright in their notes. It’s clear from their notes that they are responsive to player needs – optimizing belts was the most recent item that was a huge quality of life improvement.
Buy or Wait
There’s more here than in nearly any other factory game out there (save Factorio and Satisfactory). If the concept of building a vast production empire that covers multiple star systems intrigues you, then pick this up now. Be warned, you’re going to spend dozens of hours here… I’ve lost track of play sessions numerous times. Even if the game launched today, full release as-is, I’d highly recommend it.
I’ll have a few more posts in the future on this game…
“FYI – the Valheim devs ALSO built Satisfactory”
Not so! Coffee Stain has both a publishing arm and a dev studio. Valheim was published by Coffee Stain, but developed by a group called Iron Gate.
That aside, I’m with you in being pretty stoked for the blueprint update to DSP. 🙂 I played this thing quite a bit when it came out but have since put it aside while it gets some more time in the oven.
I stand corrected and that makes a whole lot more sense!
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Woops, I wanted to add to your point of waiting for a larger release… While there are a few balancing issues that need to be sorted out (like Refineries + Chemical Plants that have no upgrades), the biggest hurdle by far is the lack of effective blueprints for mass construction. The end-game portion requires massive factory lines that are 30-100 big. Manually connecting all of that is super painful.
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And there we go — the Blueprint patch is out! Just installed it now. 😀