Side Quest: Factorio Eco-run

Factorio is a game all about pollution, making it and its consequences. In it I found a distorted reflection of humanity’s relationship with the environment.

Given how I love complex strategy games, Factorio should have been right up my street. Somehow I never got round to playing it until recently. Initially it sure enough hooked me, but as I progressed deeper in, I found myself feeling like something about the game was off. Specifically the game’s relationship with the environment.

For those unfamiliar with Factorio, it’s an automation game in which you, the player, have crash landed on an alien planet. You need to build a new spaceship to escape and win. The high-tech rockets and components for your spaceship can only be acquired by making them from less-sophisticated components and materials. Which in turn require ever more basic inputs, and so on. To put this all together by hand would take impossibly long. Instead, you build automated robot-powered mines, factories, smelters and refineries, all connected by a complex web of conveyor belts and pipelines. You start off with just a few basic mines and factories, and over time, research ever more complex machines and production lines to make increasingly advanced products and components.

The catch is that all this industrial activity creates pollution. This pollution, as it spreads across the planet, triggers the insect-like aliens in nearby hives to attack your dirty factories, mines etc. You in turn build various walls, automated gun turrets and other defences to protect your industry.

Except that’s not how I played it. I decided to see if I could create as little pollution as possible. I wanted to know if I could play an eco-friendly run of Factorio. In the process, I found plenty of lessons for tackling today’s environmental crisis, as well as the limits beyond which the real world and Factorio as an analogy for it, diverged.


It’s not possible to play Factorio without creating some amount of pollution, but there are ways to reduce it right down. My first instinct was to scan the research options (tech tree) to see how to do that, and I found technologies both for a green, sustainable power grid, and for increased energy efficiency on top of that. I made them my immediate priorities almost from as soon as I had my first production lines up and running.

Turns out research priorities, like in the real world, are really important. As soon as I was able to deploy solar panels, my overall pollution score dropped dramatically. Just like in real life, those solar panels stopped producing during the night, and pollution would spike as my old backup coal-fired steam generators would kick in again till the morning.

Solar Fields: Also makes great music!

However, I realised I didn’t need power during the night. Unlike the real world, the consequences of a blackout were not at all bad. All that would happen without enough electricity would be robotic arms no longer moving and factories not producing.

Since Factorio has no civilian population to care for, there is no need to keep the lights on overnight. Since there are no shareholders or other profit drivers, not keeping my factories churning out stuff 24/7 simply meant it’d take a bit longer to produce what I needed.

But that was ok. My low pollution factories were only very occasionally triggering the nearby alien hives. The hives would send a single angry alien who would cause minimal damage to a few easily repairable conveyor belts before my in-game character/avatar could kill it with a handful of pistol shots. Cutting out coal as an energy source and not producing at night time meant the aliens sent attacks even less frequently.

Peak pollution!

Plus this was merely a temporary state of affairs. I researched and built an array of giant batteries for storing energy to be used overnight, and then went on to research energy efficiency modules, which not only reduced power consumption when added to factories, mines etc, but also further reduced the pollution those buildings generated.

Sensitive Locations

When I first looked at researching and manufacturing batteries, products like Sulfuric Acid and Petrochemical Gas appeared alongside buildings such as Refineries and Oil Derricks. I wondered if this might spell doom for my eco-friendly playthrough.

Fortunately, the amounts needed were not huge. The catch was I needed a source of oil, and the nearest patch was a long way from my starting location where I had built all my industry. I researched trains and the technologies needed to transport oil by rail. But in the end, I realised that building a single train would require significant amounts of different advanced components. Whereas building a pipeline required only basic steel plates.

Pipeline through the wilderness

I opted for a pipeline and carefully scouted out the route it would take to reach the oil wells. The aliens in Factorio attack your avatar if you get even vaguely close to their hives, so I took a round-about way to avoid getting attacked. High voltage electricity pylons, which I had researched almost by accident while aiming for solar panel technology, meant I could power my oil rig at the other end of the pipeline. Otherwise, nothing else needed to be built at the oil location. The game’s buildings don’t require maintenance and I only placed one oil derrick because I neither needed a large volume, nor was I in a hurry. I even made the pipeline buried for most of its length to not block any wildlife passing.

About as close as I could get to the aliens without triggering them

(This is more of a roleplaying thing. I believe the aliens if the game’s aliens get close enough, they will just attack the occasional parts of the pipeline that come above ground. And in the real world there’s serious debate about whether underground pipelines pose a danger that when they do leak, the spill is less likely to be noticed, and quicker to seep into the ground and pollute groundwater).

Moreover, I realised that by accident, or maybe by design to make the first stages of the game easier, my main base near my crashed spaceship, was in an area devoid of alien nests. None of my polluting activities were anywhere near ecologically sensitive sites.

Time To Reset

By this point, my existing factories and production lines had become a bit of an entangled mess. They were frankly inefficient and frequently got jammed up, requiring my intervention.

As I had no time limit or profit motives, and by this point, no aliens attacking me at all, I decided to simply clear the whole lot and start again. Factorio lets you somewhat unrealistically deconstruct and stick in your back pocket whole factories, mining drills and miles of conveyor belts for no cost.

I cleared my base of almost everything, then spent time carefully planning out how to arrange all my recreated production lines nicely spaced out. This would stop them becoming a spaghetti maze again, and also spread out what pollution was still being produced. (I don’t actually know if more concentrated pollution spreads further, but it felt like the eco-conscious thing to do).

I also did something heretical to automation games. I purposely designed my industrial layout to be inefficient. Or to be more specific, I said that I don’t mind if there are inefficiencies:

The end of all my production in Factorio to this point, was research packs. These little glass flasks of various colours are the in-game item/product that when placed in a research lab building, generate progress towards researching a new technology. Before attempting to even start making a spaceship, I decided to research 100% of the required technologies. So research was my only objective.

Science! Researched by mixing different coloured sciences.

Given that, all I had to do was make sure my chains of factories produced enough research packs to keep the labs humming away.

To make Factorio interesting, the game is not designed to be perfectly efficient. A factory making research packs might say require 1 steel pipe and 2 copper wire spools per manufacturing cycle. But the factory in turn making copper wire might produce 3 spools per cycle. And it’s cycle time might be different. The result is that at each point in the process, there is normally either an excess or a shortage.

This excess produce could be put onto a conveyor belt and taken to another factory that also needs the same input. Or if there’s a shortage, there could be two feeder factories making the more basic input to ensure the third factory is fed enough input it never goes idle.

My kind of efficiency

Or you could do what I did, which was just ignore all that. Instead I decided that I would have just 1 factory for each input / step in the manufacturing process. And build all the factories right next to each other, negating the need for a complex web of conveyor belts. If many factories were not producing much of the time, that was ok so long as the final factory at the very end of the line was never waiting.

To put it another way, I sacrificed production capacity efficiency, and time, for simplicity and material efficiency.

The latter also had a big impact on my pollution levels, and to a lesser degree, my sustainability. I worked out that of all the buildings I needed, mining drills were the most polluting. If my production lines were not always producing, eventually the conveyor belt from the mining drills to the smelters would get backed up with excess ore. The drills would stop and pollution levels would temporarily drop.

Again I was only producing when I needed to. Not trying to scale up the rest of my production to match the one building that was over-producing.

There was another consequence though. There are only certain areas of the map where different ore and mineral deposits are available. And each deposit has a limited amount of those ores/materials. If I were to over-produce, I’d exhaust those deposits much quicker and need to move my whole operation to another part of the map where there the ores were. That might not be in such a convenient place. The different ores might be further from each other, leading to needing more conveyor belts, or to look into setting up trains again. Or potentially in a worst case scenario, having to research weapons so I could clear some of the hives that were too close to the deposits needed. (I figured this is something “normal” players might weigh up, pushed by the way the hives and deposits are laid out across the rest of the procedurally generated map).

What Guns?

There’s a huge portion of the Factorio research tree dedicated to guns, weapons and other stuff to make things explode and/or protect your base. I simply never touched any of that. The furthest I got was researching flammables so that I could research rocket fuel.

In many ways, guns in Factorio are a metaphore for the cost to clean up the mess you’ve made, and/or deal with the consequences. They don’t advance you towards your goal, except in the narrow sense of clearing land for a faster, but less efficient in other ways, victory. They’re otherwise a pure waste of resources.

I’d love to live in a real life world where weapons were just as unnecessary. However just like with the no electricity at night example, we live in a world of people. People with needs and complexities and conflict that Factorio doesn’t have.

Ultra Low Pollution Zone

And speaking of no conflict, without it in Factorio, the game is simply not fun. I never finished my low pollution run. I never bothered to build my spaceship because there was no challenge left. Simply grinding away to produce ever more complex items degraded into an exercise in pointless complexity.

Leaving It Behind

Maybe the spaceship is massively polluting and triggers some end-game scenario where I need to hold off all the alien attacks until I can launch and get out of there? I’ve seen similar “end times” dynamics in other games, despite it feeling artificial.

Or maybe I would pack up all my factories and clear up all my mess in the style of the game Terra Nil. That would be in-keeping with my eco-friendly roleplay. Then launch my spaceship and wave goodbye to the planet, leaving behind only a few depleted ore fields.

Maybe one day I’ll find out.

The Distorted Mirror

Factorio and attempting an eco-friendly run of it did make me think a lot. And even for those playing nihilistically or as a polluting, genocidal baddie, the game still has much to teach:

The importance of research, and of research priorities. The importance of energy efficiency and how energy is sourced, transmitted and used. How location and pollution affect the environment. Mitigating pollution and how polluting, then dealing with its negative consequences is a false economy. And the way trying to produce efficiently can instead suck you into overproduction.

But what Factorio lacks is the human element. Like Terra Nill, it doesn’t make any attempt to reflect the real world problem of balancing human priorities and welfare with environmental ones. Instead humans (or the one lone human in Factorio’s case) are the problem, and the solution is to just get rid of them by blasting them into space.

Ultimately though, on planet Earth, we are not the aliens. We’re trashing our own house. Hopefully I’ll be able to explore that with a few more of the side quest games I’ve got lined up.

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Game developer working for Crystalline Green www.crystallinegreen.com