Every second in Production Line counts. Lost seconds mean queues, which mean lost profits and, sooner than you think, bankruptcy. This is a game about assembling a car factory like the innards of a clock, where each machine does its job perfectly in-sync with countless others: finishing up its product just as the machinery next in line is freed up. All along the chain every machine must be always working, never waiting.
Building cars may seem like a dull subject matter, but Production Line is entirely engrossing. Twice now I’ve caught myself playing till 3am, tweaking my factory floor to try and get a perfectly-humming assembly line.
You start Production Line with an empty factory floor. Along the walls are dotted the occasional door for exporting cars or slot for importing materials, but the interior is a blank canvas. Opening up the build menu shows a list of machines that handle a different part in the process of building a car — the chassis assembler, the body fitter, the quality assurance station, for instance. You’ll need at least one of everything for your production to work.
Once your stations are connected up in order by conveyor belts, and you’ve linked all the stations to a resource importer, you’re good to go. You’ll watch as car parts trundle in on skylines and get deposited at each station, waiting to be fitted. The chassis appears first then winds along the conveyor belt to be fitted with body panels, sprayed with paint, fitted with wheels, an engine, windows, an interior, electronics — and then it’s shipped out to be sold.
It’s soon clear what’s at the heart of Production Line. Your chassis assembler can put together one chassis in 20 seconds but the next station, the body assembler, takes 35 seconds to fit a body onto the chassis. In short order you have a queue of chassis waiting their turn on the conveyor to be fitted with a body, above each of them a little yellow icon. Time is money, and all that. The assembly line is made up of similar puzzles, where one machine is faster or slower than the others and breaks up the pace of the procession.
The obvious answer to this problem would be to build a second body fitter. That way the chassis assembler, which is roughly twice as productive, always has an open machine to send a chassis to. Soon enough you have even more machinery, with more complex conveyor routes between them, all to make sure the machines are constantly working.
And of course, mo machinery means mo problems. Soon enough you’ll encounter a red flag, meaning a shortage of parts. Each station always needs regular resupplies and the further away it is from your resource import points the longer it takes for parts to arrive. You have to start creating buffer zones, almost, storage points where parts can be held to reduce transport time and, fingers crossed, avoid the delay.
As you start researching new technologies, the factory floor only becomes more intricate, and the problems multiply. Each of the stations can be broken down into individual machines — the accessories station breaks down into lights, horn, seats, and windscreen, each a station with a single task running at slightly different speeds.
Once you’ve broken your stations down into these smaller chunks you can upgrade them, too, adding more robot arms to speed them up or by giving them ability to fit higher tech extras, like electric windows and cruise control, making your cars more competitive and valuable in the showroom. So basically, as you just about master the simpler side of assembly lines, the game offers up a huge amount of granular control.
That’s not even the end of it: you can even start manufacturing the parts for your cars in the factory, bringing down costs but introducing a whole other branch of machines to worry about. It’s a level of complexity I haven’t braved yet.
What I find so absorbing in Production Line is this intangible sense that there is a perfect factory. That if I tinker enough, stripping out one line of machines and replacing them with a different arrangement of stations, I will be able to make a production line that wastes no time. That is perfect. Like Da Vinci trying to uncover the sculpture within a block of stone, I’m chipping away to unveil the pure mechanical heart.
I’ve seen videos of factories that are vast complexes of interwoven machines, producing hundreds of cars an hour, but I always notice a little imprecision. What I want to make is a precise piece of manufacturing clockwork.
When I described this all to Rich he pointed out how, in a world racing towards automation, Cliff Harris has built a game about squeezing maximum efficiency from machinery, and I’ve become a slave to their precision. Swings and roundabouts, innit. What draws me in is a sensation I remember from Oxygen Not Included and Factorio, other games that tease the potential of a perfect creation — then leave you to tear your hair out tracking down the inefficiencies hidden away between the interlocking parts.
As I gaze across my beautiful factory floor, noting the smooth handovers and steady resupplies and constant motion, I sometimes feel a grand sense of contentment. I know there remains more to be done. I think of a quote from Dejan Stojanovic, the Serbian poet and philosopher. “Perfection seems sterile; it is final, no mystery in it; it's a product of an assembly line.” The guy should get himself a Steam account.