Automation Review

Valve Float Detected

19 March 2018
Played on Windows

Automation aims to be an incredibly detailed simulation of car and engine design and manufacture. It's been years in development, so what does Camshaft Studios have to show so far, and what is still on the drawing board?

TL;DR

Stay away! Don't touch this one with an elongated camshaft! One of the most important concepts in game design is fun comes before accuracy. Camshaft Studios have put so much effort into accurate simulation that the fun that emerges from a complete gameplay experience has been totally lost.

The game has recently shifted graphics engine to Unreal Engine 4, and with it, a fracture has appeared. Development has all but stopped, and focus is now on converting the incomplete experience from the previous engine into the new engine, which is currently even less complete.

On top of that, the £22.99 (or your regional equivalent) asking price is outrageous. Most people can probably throw away £5 and not care too much. Some might not care throwing down £10, but £23 is the release price of an indie or "AA" game.

No, sorry. Too much wrong here, and not enough to like.

Automation's car designer UI

A note on the dual versions

The old engine contains the most functionality and has the campaign mode. I'm focusing on that here, because, at the present time, there is no campaign mode in the Unreal Engine version. I'll touch on the changes in the Unreal Engine later on, but everything below, unless otherwise noted, relates to the older engine.

One for the petrolheads

Do you have a degree in mechanical engineering? Okay, that's hyperbole; it's not that bad. However, if you're not versed in the innards of an internal combustion engine, you don't know the difference between a longitudinal and transverse engine configuration, and you have no idea what valve float is or why it matters then you might need to be the type who is eagerly willing to learn.

The tutorial videos do a good job of clearly explaining the concepts behind the vehicle and engine design areas of the game, but I do wonder how many people will find this dry as a bone compared to those who will genuinely be engaged and firing on all cylinders. (Yay, a car pun.)

If everything is new to you, you will be sitting through many minutes, if not hours, of video tutorial, with (currently) no way to skip sections or repeat parts that are confusing. You can skip the entire video on a particular section, but not an individual part.

Vehicle design is split into two disciplines: body design and engine design. You can design as many bodies as you like, and create as many variants on those bodies as you like. The same with engines: design many different engines with many variants, as you please.

Visuals

The old engine does an adequate but distinctly budget job of showing you what you're designing. The car appears in stages, as you add a chassis and bodywork details, as does the engine, as you add a block and then configure cylinder bore, stroke, fuel delivery and the myriad other options.

In addition, it's quite fun to choose a body style, then choose from the wide range of design details such as headlights, grilles and exhausts. Placement of these details is done elegantly, with sensible mirroring so you don't have to manually place a headlight on each side. There's a huge amount of variety here, but it serves absolutely no gameplay purpose that I can tell. The way your vehicle looks is purely for your own entertainment value.

The slider game

Engine design is easily the most detailed aspect of the game in its current state. There are a huge number of options, and each one actually affects the finished engine. A higher compression ratio will mean better performance but more stress on the other parts, while a wider exhaust is better for airflow but worse on noise.

Automation's engine test screen

The problem is that there's just so much stuff here that when you reach the final screen and get to test your engine, it's incredibly difficult to know why there are problems and how to fix them. The dreaded valve float is a prime example. Why are my valves floating? Some kind of witch has invaded the engine and cursed them with black magic?

It descends into a game of "tweak the sliders" until you reach the desired output, which is getting all the engine parts to be green. The problem is, if a part is yellow or red, a message will tell you there's a problem with that part, but since it's just an icon, you need to know about internal combustion engines and iconography to know what part it's telling you about.

The whole process turns into a guessing game pretty quickly, and while the initial experience is full of discovery and excitement, as good gaming experiences should be, the fun is quickly drained when your engine inevitably does not work very well and you're left wondering why.

A painful UI

I've rarely seen a user interface this buggy or messy before. Honestly, the word "travesty" was invented to be used in situations like this. It's just not clear why some things are not clickable and others are, and what the huge range of tabs represent at the bottom of the screen. There are useful tooltips in some situations and not others. Sometimes you press a button and it doesn't even register. The same icon is reused for multiple purposes: sometimes an arrow means "hide this panel" and others it means "go back a page".

It seems that the game doesn't want you to interrupt car and engine design in order to navigate to another area, and come back to it later. If you do, you're not sure which of the dozens of pages of options you need to use to resume where you left off.

Engine design seems to be intrinsically tied to car design. Once you're built a base model, you are taken immediately to design an engine. There's no reason for this at all: you might want to have multiple engines in the same model as different variants, but the game seems to go out of its way to make this difficult.

Compounding this issue is that once you have a base model and an engine, you need to configure further options, like suspension settings and brake configuration. I have no idea why this is required. The type and size of the brakes on a vehicle has nothing to do with the engine choice, so why do I need to choose an engine to be able to get to that part of the interface? Do I even need to do that? I'm not sure, because it's very hard to use.

If you accidentally miss a screen, or even one option on one of the screens, your car will show blank test results at the end of the process, and there is no explanation as to why. You're as likely to think you need to press something in order to get the numbers to appear, as you are to think you've missed an option somewhere.

Worse still, there's no way to know where to find the missing option. Some areas are deliberately locked. You cannot configure turbo settings for a naturally aspirated engine. But if you don't know that already, you will think it's that part that you've missed, and be unable to click on anything in that section.

The UI needs to be redesigned, from scratch. Luckily, some work has been done here in the Unreal Engine version of the game, but more on that later.

Too much complexity, not enough game

The "lite" campaign was supposed to introduce a full-blown game experience, albeit a cut down one. Instead, it's revealed a hodge-podge of incomplete ideas thrown together hastily without enough development resource to pull off each one.

Automation's balance screen

First of all, your finished vehicle needs to have a rating of around 100 (depending on the difficulty of the campaign) to sell any units at all. There is absolutely no feasible way to predict demand when you set up your factories, so it's total guesswork. Which section of the market do I aim for? How much of that market can I expect to take up if I produce 1000 cars? What about the competition?

It's a messy interface that is devoid of useful information. Even the money is displayed in a ridiculous way. You set up shop in one of three fictional provinces such as "Fruinia". The game tells you that you have B$4.000. What is that? Some kind of fake dollar name? It actually means you have 4 billion dollars, despite the fact that across the entire globe, $4bn or $4,000,000,000 is understood to mean 4 billion.

Is that a lot? Not that much? How much does a factory cost? How much can I expect to make from each car? You don't have any of this information until it actually comes time to build factories, or sell cars.

There is a research and development system, but it's unclear whether there's a research tree or just a 5-minute, back of the envelope attempt at checking the "R&D feature" box. You can only see the next technology available. You can put "units" into various types of technology, but there's no indication of what a unit is, or how long it might take to reach a particular technology.

You can also pick staff to join your team at the start of the game, complete with skill points in different areas. These will presumably do something to benefit the areas in which they have most points, but I couldn't fathom how this system works. I can assign some members to a car project, but I couldn't assign any to an engine project. I couldn't seem to discover why.

Additionally, I couldn't find any way of hiring or firing staff members once the campaign had started. I couldn't see how much I was paying any of them, or what their skills were, once the game was in progress.

Iterative development

Nobody expects an early access title to be a complete game. That much is obvious. But compare successfully completed early access titles to Automation and you see a stark difference.

Whereas most successful early access games will start out with a complete game that is lacking additional features, this one features one or two very detailed features and lacks a complete game.

As an example, take a look at Production Line, on which I recently gave my opinions. Although not every feature is fully fleshed out (there are few models of car and the tech tree lacks interesting balance), the entire range of features is represented in at least a minimally fun fashion.

Automation is clearly developed by someone with a passion for cars and engine design. The problem is that it's so fundamentally skewed towards car and engine design, there is just no fun overall game experience to be had.

I could possibly overlook the issues of poor interface, poor tutorial system, and complicated design concepts, if there was a fun experience underlying everything else. Unfortunately, once you've built your ideal vehicle with your ideal twin-cam V8 aluminium block (with no valve float of course), you're pretty much done here.

The best way to encourage people to buy into your game concept is to... provide a game. Sounds obvious, but it's missing here, and you're basically being asked to pay a premium to take part in a guessing game as to whether the full game will ever emerge, whether these flimsy one-shot concepts such as factory construction and R&D will ever turn into something that is playable.

There's even a button in the menu for "multiplayer" which is labelled as "coming soon". It's fine to reach for the moon, but Camshaft Studios had better have long arms, and their customers will need to have a huge amount of faith if that feature is ever going to be fulfilled in a functional and fun way.

From engines to engines

A graphics engine change is a huge decision. I'm pleased to say that the interface is looking better in Unreal Engine, and it feels more responsive, and looks a lot better. Unfortunately, that's where my praise runs out of gas. (Hooray, another car pun!)

It's a huge leap of faith for customers. It is going to be a while before the incomplete game in the old engine is converted to the new engine, and while that's happening, there's an even more incomplete game in the new engine, and no development on the old engine.

Lites on

In my opinion, Automation needs to introduce "light" versions of all of its gameplay features. They should be fully functional, fun, but not yet boasting all the functionality. I want to see a basic car designer, a basic engine designer, a basic factory system, a basic economy model, a basic research... you get the idea.

Chain all these concepts together, with an improved UI that actually makes sense, and you have a decent platform on which to encourage more people to be excited about the future of Automation. Right now, all I see is a woefully incomplete game being slowly converted into an even less complete, slightly better looking game, and two groups of people: those who are no doubt tired of waiting for a game to emerge, and those who just don't have the faith or spare cash to lay down £22.99 at this stage.

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