Let's face it: car manufacturing simulation is a bit of a niche. Where any gaming niche is concerned, there's going to be a higher concentration of die-hard genre fans, but, unlike city/empire builders, hospital or hotel tycoon games, or American Civil War grand strategy, the car manufacturing tycoon is a bit of a newcomer.
This game is in a decent state. It's very playable and deeply enjoyable. It has no requirement that you know anything about vehicles or engines, and it's a bit too much like a clone of Big Pharma than I'm comfortable with.
It lacks depth, which is something that could well be fixed with further development, but at the moment, it's hard to see how it will overcome the usual tycoon/management problem: once you have a successful production line and money rolling in, what's the incentive to continue?
Well worth the asking price of £13.99 or your regional equivalent at the current state of development, and updates are regular.
What is this thing?
Whereas the other two main contenders I'm investigating in this series focus more on the design aspects of the motor industry, such as bore and stroke, number of valves, aspiration, and drivetrain configuration, Production Line is much closer to a (this sounds obvious given the name) production line simulation.
It is being developed by the one-man band, UK developer Cliff Harris, under the banner of Positech Games. This is the same developer who brought you Big Pharma, the Democracy series, and Gratuitous Space Battles, although it's worth noting that Steam lists the developer of Big Pharma as "Twice Circled".
The similarities to Big Pharma are abundantly clear from the outset. Thematically, you'll be producing and selling cars instead of pharmaceuticals, but it's the same premise: you have inputs, a large open space in which to manipulate those inputs, and outputs. Your goal is simply to get finished cars to the outputs.
Visual design is important. Not graphics as in shiny textures and photo-realistic faces (although Mass Effect Andromeda is less uncanny valley and more uncanny sheer cliff), but the interface itself.
Like other offerings from Positech, Production Line oozes class and simplicity, with a polished, clean interface and clearly legible text.
The graphics engine itself is strictly isometric, and your only options are zoom and pan. It leaves things feeling easily understandable and responsive. Apple mastered the "feel-good" interface long ago, and it's surprising just how much a well-designed and good-looking interface can keep you invested in a game. It's surprising for a simple reason: good UI is something you don't notice. Bad UI is instantly cringeworthy.
It's a reasonably simple concept: you import raw materials from the "inputs" in the walls of your factory. You set up a conveyor system, starting with the manufacture of a chassis, going through stages like body assembly, paint, and electrics, before a quick quality check and an export of the finished car, again, through the "outputs" in the walls of the factory.
The complexity comes from the technology tree. At the start of the game, your finished vehicles will be missing mod cons like air conditioning, power steering, airbags, folding mirrors, and the like. You will need to unlock these as research items, which will allow you to add to your manufacturing setup so that the customer can, ultimately, get a decent car instead of a basic hunk of crap.
Here's the interesting bit: while you can put down a large "paint" facility, which will go through the stages of undercoat, paint, and finish, each car will spend a very long time in the paint facility, blocking other cars behind until the process is complete.
Instead, it's possible to have conveyors split off into multiple paint facilities, thereby allowing more cars to be handled at once. It's also possible to put down each facility individually: a separate station for undercoat, paint, drying, and so forth.
A lot of the gameplay complexity comes from analysing the bottlenecks in your production line, and working out whether you're better off having parallel tasks happening at once, or simply increasing the throughput by having each facility do fewer things (but take more space overall as a result).
This is a strangely mesmerising process to witness and in which to participate, like some kind of steel and rubber zen machine, as you slowly tweak each part of your assembly line and watch the results either on the factory floor or on the charts that result.
Annoyingly, there does not seem to be a way of moving things in the factory once they're placed. This becomes crucial with more complicated layouts, unless you are the type who likes sitting down with graph paper and planning everything beforehand, and notably, it's a feature present in Big Pharma so it's surprising to find it missing here.
Instead, your only option is to demolish the piece (for which you will receive a partial refund) and place a new one somewhere else. If you have upgrades on it, you will need to remember to upgrade the new copy as well, which is a tedious and unnecessary micromanagement task.
The other big problem is that of moving conveyors, which will often be necessary if you experience a backlog or a bottleneck that requires a sudden evolution of your assembly line. If there is a queue of cars on the conveyors, you will have already sunk some money into their partial production, and it's painful to delete the conveyors, along with the sad, unfinished husks of the cars, and lose that investment.
Research is king: how I learned to love the sedan
I'm not entirely sure on the game design motivations, but the research tree begins with only one car model available: the sedan. In order to unlock other body styles, and therefore expand your market share, it's necessary to research a number of things to unlock the "design center".
The big issue here is that you're limited to one body style for a very long time (it will take a while to get the kind of profitability from sedan sales that will allow enough research staff to unlock all the necessary bits), and then suddenly, all of the other styles are available to be researched, one after the other.
It's even more of a problem because the body style research is in a separate "pool" to the main research tree, so you don't block off other progression by researching body styles. While you will want to capitalise on the market share advantages of further body styles, once they're all unlocked, there's literally no reason to have the "design center" taking up any space.
It's possible there are more body styles planned in the future, but this system feels like it needs some work. Notably, the other games I'll be looking at in this series don't have requirements on non-sedan body styles: they're all available from the start, and it's down to the player to decide how the market will react to your introduction of each style.
One size fits all
Once you have an assembly line that is equipped with all the upgrades you need for the top-of-the-range model, any other model or body style can be prepared using the same assembly line, with no changes required.
This is in contrast to Big Pharma where one production line generally produces one type of pharmaceutical, and you need to invest in more space and more lines in order to expand your offering.
This is a problem for Production Line. There's very little incentive, at the moment, to produce more assembly lines. It's plenty profitable to just have one massive line that develops every type of car imaginable, and it's reasonably easy to increase throughput on a single line.
This will be something Positech needs to address in future updates. How can the design of the game require the player to add more lines but make it engaging to do so?
The model design window is a very cool feature. You can have multiple sedan (or other) models, each with a different set of features. As you research leather seats, climate control, and directional headlights, you might want to add these to your luxury editions but not the base model, which will enable you to span multiple price points.
Unfortunately, the game again falls short at the current time, because although the price expectations of customers are split into four levels, from budget to luxury, there doesn't seem to be a way to know what those prices are, so it makes it hard to plan models.
If you add power steering to the base model, you might accidentally push it into the next pricing category up, and sometimes it's hard to notice.
Worse still, as your competitors research the same technologies, a specific upgrade can become "common", and customers will simply not buy cars that don't have power steering. Eventually, in order to meet the "budget" section of the market, you're forced to sell an expensive car, with many (required) upgrades, at a lower profit margin.
This just doesn't feel like how business should work, even in a simulation like that. There's no way of seeing your competitors' line-up or price points, so I'm hoping that this will be added in the future, and the arbitrary "budget is below X dollars but we won't tell you what that figure is" system will be removed.
This is somewhat to be expected in an early access title, but the tutorial system is very incomplete. You will either need to click around for yourself, figuring it out as you go, or you will need to read guides and forum posts to explain some of the more esoteric concepts.
The tutorial system is also infuriating, because it pauses the game and removes interactivity with anything except the "okay" prompt, but doesn't change the appearance of the screen. This leads to you wondering why clicking on something doesn't work, and feels needlessly frustrating. It's strangely out of place, as well, since Positech are known for strong UI design, and Big Pharma had no similar problems.
Show me the money, and then what?
It's a common problem with tycoon or production line style games: you have set up a successful business that operates on its own without your input, and is raking in profits. What's the incentive to continue playing?
This isn't a Production Line problem; it's a genre problem. I'm sure the end game is not the developer's focus right now, so it's acceptable for this to be an open-ended question. It will need to be answered at some point, though, and the quality of the answer might well dictate the longevity and replayability of the title.
It's a painful feeling: you have just enough money to afford your next major assembly line upgrade. You only have $5000 left, but it's fine, because you know that profitability will increase now your master plan has been built.
But wait, BOOM! Game over. You're bankrupt. Your electricity bill temporarily took you under $0 and you have no options. Literally none. That's the end of the game, there and then.
This is a bizarre game design choice. It's customary to allow the player a set amount of negative balance before ending the game, and the result of not allowing this is that the player is forced to keep around $100,000 in the bank, as a "buffer".
Often, production line changes will mean a short delay in getting further vehicles to the showroom, and this delay can cause a temporary dip in profits. I've spent more time than I'd like to admit, staring intently at the money indicator, praying to the motor gods that it won't become negative and trigger the "game over" screen.
It's possible to take a loan instead of a game over state, but there are not a great deal of loans available at any given time, and you've probably already taken all of them in order to get your business up and running.
I hope to see some kind of monetary buffer introduced to allow a temporary negative balance.
Deeper than a puddle, but how deep?
There's a lot of enjoyment to be had in tweaking your production line and customising new models. But there's a limit. The game lacks, by design, some of the deeper elements such as global trade, engine design, market simulation, and so forth.
How long will you be engaged in a game that provides only basic simulation in addition to the complex assembly line mechanics? The answer is going to vary from person to person, but it's worth being aware that this game is not trying to be a hugely deep simulation. It's designed to be accessible and fun for as many people as possible.
Big Pharma with cars
It's an easy criticism to make, but the game has so many similarities to pharmaceutical production line manager Big Pharma that it's somewhat concerning. Swap cars for pills. Is it a different game?
Yes, and no. It is very, very similar, but typically, while Big Pharma is a balancing act where a single production line can effectively be maximised, but with significant effort, there's no such possibility in Production Line.
You can always produce more cars. You can speed up production either by speeding up each process, or by having more copies of the same process happening simultaneously. It's a much more flexible system.
Should I play it now?
It's a complicated one. Of all the car manufacturing games I'm looking at, this is definitely the most complete, the most polished, and the most fun in its current state.
If you played Big Pharma, how did you feel about it? If you loved it, then Production Line is probably one to get right now. If you had enough of Big Pharma after a while, it's unlikely this game is going to appeal much. It's just too similar.
It also feels that the "cars" you're making here are somewhat arbitrary. You could swap them out for pretty much anything: toys, guitars, computers. You've have pretty much the same game. I can't recommend this to any petrolhead who is looking for a non-driving car game. There's not enough "car" to be had here.
In terms of early access risks and completion, the game is almost certainly going to be finished. It's from a developer with many other titles already released, and updates are frequent. There's no reason to be worried your money will be wasted if the game is abandoned: that's almost certainly not going to happen here.
Honestly, I'm torn. The cynic in me sees this as a Big Pharma clone with cars instead of pills, and lacking the depth and the automotive theme to be interesting. The optimist says it's got great potential to be extremely fun and engaging, while offering enough variety to keep casuals and hardcore production line addicts engaged.
In all likelihood, the end result is going to be somewhere between those two extremes. Time will tell, of course, but I've certainly got no regrets about picking up this particular early access title in its current state.