Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

How to fix research in Production Line’s design…

Although in general I’m pretty happy with the design of Production Line, its clear that there are some issues with the way research is implemented in the game. Something I really like is the idea of a BIG tech tree, and players making decision as where to concentrate their resources in terms of competitive advantage. For example, you may focus on production efficiency, or maybe on product range, or maybe on costs, or on high-technology to making high-end cutting edge cars. Different strategies should work.

The trouble is, despite the big tech tree and different approaches, the research-choice decision (which should always be *interesting* as every decision in a decent strategy game needs to be), tends towards more of a nuisance in the late game than a joy. The reason is that research seems to get quicker and quicker, and the costs of doing it become trivial.

At the start of the game, I really need the player to be able to buy some research facilities, otherwise they cannot progress. The problem is, as we go from a tiny little factory to a big one, the cost of ‘one more facility’ becomes relatively trivial. Of course, I can make later techs more expensive in points to research, but you can’t go ‘too far’ in that direction without it automatically herding the player towards doing ‘lvl 1′ techs first and removing that initial flexibility. The flip-side is that if you *not* scale the tech costs, then later in the game, someone who has ignored a specific branch of the tree can normally just go click click click’ and research it in seconds. again: unsatisfying.

FWIW I note factorio has this problem to some extent too, although generally it works better overall because the mechanics of research there are way more involved, rendering the ‘cost’ of the facilities fairly minor compared to the manufacturing of tech ingredients.

Anyway, how do I achieve the following in my design?

  1. Make tech tree choice interesting from the start, with multiple paths accessible.
  2. Allow tech to continue to be researchable at a reasonable, but not annoying rate.
  3. Prevent tech-spamming where the research cost becomes moot.

I’ve mulled over a lot of possibilities. here are some solutions that I have considered, either together or separately:

  1. Have hard caps on the number of research facilities that can be built before some other (expensive) admin tech unlocks ‘advanced’ research, thus putting the brakes on research in the mid-game
  2. Have variable costs to run or buy research (probably let scientist wages rise as more are hired), making research spamming non-viable in the late-game.
  3. Allow research queueing, so that the player can ignore research for longer periods. (Not ideal, as each research SHOULD be a catalyst for production line and car model re-evaluation).
  4. Have different ‘types’ of research require purpose built facilities. Maybe design-related research requires dedicated design studios? Maybe super-high tech research requires very expensive dedicated and large labs?
  5. Reduce or prevent the immediate construction of any research facility, but require a construction or hiring people for staff. Maybe placing a research facility means it takes 3-4 hours before the staff can be located to fill the facility and start work?
  6. Maybe introduce licenses, or patents that act as gatekeepers for research. To research reversing cameras perhaps you need to license a patent for it ($400,000) AND then research it once you have put that money down.

The problem with 1) is it seems very ‘gamey’ and arbitrary, and not intuitive for the player to understand. 2) sounds like it would actually make sense, although I need a decent way of letting the player know about the changes. 3) seems a quality of life improvement in general, but its also treating the symptom (research-popups are annoying) rather than the true cause (research happens too quickly in the late game, and does not seem to have enough of an impact to demand attention.

4) is interesting, and certainly one I’m attracted to. I like the idea of having to place down a design-studio facility, and to effectively research car designs entirely separately. I like the idea of a purely ‘design’ based arm of research for stuff like interior styling changes, new paint colors and types, and so-on. It also seems unlikely that someone who helps design the tire-making press is also working on voice-recognition software.

5) Sounds like its acceptable because build times for facilities are quite common in games, but then how do I justify the fact that everything else in the game is placed down instantly?

6) Could be interesting, and probably plays into a wider revamp of the research system where I need research-pre-requisites not to be limited just to other research items.

I need to get this right, so I don’t want to rush into a solution. I also feel this post is way too designy, I haven’t even tried to pimp the game. QUICK! Add a steam widget!

17 thoughts on How to fix research in Production Line’s design…

  1. Taking a leaf from the real world, I’d say there should be diminishing returns to new research facilities. Having 10 researchers on a problem isn’t going to get it solved 10x faster than having 1 researcher on it. There’s lots of wiggle room in how the payoff curve looks.

    1. True, although showing that in the GUI and making that mechanic clear to the novice player might not be that easy. Its the simplest method, for sure.

  2. Kinda like #4 something like in SimCity you upgrade key buildings by adding modules to it. So maybe have a single research room/facility (maybe only one can be built or maybe not) but you can research and add-on/upgrade it with new research modules (desks/databanks/staff etc.). This way there is more of a limit and you can’t spam lots of research rooms and researching be more of constant flow through the game. Or just have different research rooms/slots for different research areas but limit to one of each with faster-research upgrades.

  3. #4 is the only one that is desirable by the player, even then only if the dedicated facilities are cool. But the rest are restrictions.

  4. You could consider an experienced-based system. So every part you make makes it cheaper/faster to research that specific field – building lots of high-tech things makes high-tech gadgets faster to research. Tying research to the production lines (which the player has spent time and resources to build) would make them feel more “connected” to the choice of what to research. And it’s (probably?) reasonably realistic.

    1. Thinking out loud here.

      I like the idea of a quality rating of the products made with the research. Experience placed in the research is on a logarithmic scale so that it might be easy to get to 50% quality, but takes forever to get to 99%. The quality rating then carries forth to the end product and changes customer responses to the rating. Patents/License/contracting can then be bought to fill in missing research but requires a fee and is a static quality rating. I cannot decide if experience should be manpower based or production based (the more you make of the product, the higher your experience goes). Next tier technology only unlocks when you have gained enough experience with the lower tiers. Another advantage of experience/quality rating is you can immediately start making a low quality version when you enable the research area, but it’ll may take time to really get it in a state you want to sell it. Naturally, some tech is slower to improve than others (1x, 5x, 10x rating). Synergy bonuses could then change the speed of research of other research areas (like researching welding techniques) — or just call it training.

      Heck, if you wanted to go a little crazy, each tech could have 3 upgrade ratings — speed, quality, and cost — upgrade 1 feature, and the other 2 go down (slowly). It could offer interesting choices, but that probably is getting too complex.

  5. “Of course, I can make later techs more expensive in points to research, but you can’t go ‘too far’ in that direction without it automatically herding the player towards doing ‘lvl 1? techs first and removing that initial flexibility.”

    Would making the tech trees more like a web (kind of path of exile´s advancement system), be an alternative?

    That way if the player is already advanced in a research area he can approach other areas sideways? (e.g.: Fitting Engine technology could help with fitting acessories or body, Paint and material research should make design research easier, a sthe designers have more to work with, and so on). After wall IRL research does not exist in isolation.

    1. This does make a lot of technical sense but I can imagine players getting confused by it, thinking ‘i don’t remember doing any research in this?’ and thinking its a bug :(

  6. A thought —
    1) have different research labs for the different areas (body, electronics, efficiency, robotics, etc)
    2) have a total research budget — just because you have the lab does not mean it is funded
    — total budget is / minute spending
    — allocate the % of the budget that would go to each lab that you currently have
    — budget determines rate of breakthroughs
    3) research can do different things — improve efficiencies, add quality, lower cost, add a feature
    4) the labs will have breakthrough moments
    — mostly not directed by the player
    — can be influenced by player — ex: electronics lab should be focused on lowering costs / accessories on getting a feature
    — breakthroughs would have a higher chance of being the selected item, but maybe not — while trying to develop the in-dash mp3 player they found a way to lower the cost all in-car music options by 5%
    5) allow research to go on indefinitely
    — diminishing returns on cost and efficiency improvements
    — allow features to be researched beyond what you have already named (if you grab any in-game data then this could be used to add more research in the future too) – ex: ‘electronics future research 1’ which is renamed by player to ‘in-dash mp3’

    I think it would also be interesting to model quality problems into the system. Maybe recalls if it is bad enough. Raising the quality slows the entire assembly line down but cars get out with a lower chance of defects. lowering quality could speed up the line, if you need to get some quick cash perhaps, but each car has a chance of having a defect. There would also be a chance for a systemic problem to exist that could affect lots of cars and require a recall — which would have cars come back through the assembly line at $0 profit, and would pre-empt running sellable cars.

  7. I like the idea of patents or licenses. Although I actually think that is could be used as an alternative to research. So you can throttle research speed mid game, but if you urgently need certain tech you can license it from someone else for a fee (per month or per unit) until your research catches up and you’ve developed it for yourself. Having multiple routes to achieve something for me makes it feel more strategic and rewarding.

  8. I think if you are considering tech trees you ought to take a look at Civilizations since it features one of the best designed systems where all techs are interesting at some point depending on the style of play.
    I think some of the previous suggestions would fit in that solution, like in civ an early tech is very valuable at the beginning but as time passes by it’s value diminishes. For example researching ABS or airbags might be game changing on the 90s but on 2017 much less so. Also being the first to research and develop a technology might give you access to patents and “royalties” when your competitors use them at the same time you would have to pay for those than others researched before you.
    Finally if tech spamming is a “problem” towards the end game fix the pop ups or allow queuing multiple techs if the path is unlocked ( again, Civ does that )
    Also good luck with the balancing, tech trees are one of the most difficult systems to properly balance in order to avoid clear dominant strategies because consequences might not be obvious straight away but once someone finds it and posts it on the internet a lot of people will use it basically neglecting all the other options. Gathering player data for this purpose can be really useful.

  9. How about every time a competing manufacturer researches a technology the cost to research that tech increases (justified because you now have to have your engineers design around patents/license them/whatever), each additional manufacturer that researches a particular tech would further increase it’s cost, then perhaps once a technology is considered common place enough to be mandatory it’s just available to buy for a fee (that fee would initially be way higher than if you’d just researched it, but perhaps could diminish over time), the ui could also auto-buy any prerequisites for any particular research item if they’re not yet known to you and available for purchase.

  10. “The flip-side is that if you *not* scale the tech costs, then later in the game, someone who has ignored a specific branch of the tree can normally just go click click click’ and research it in seconds. again: unsatisfying.”

    “4) is interesting, and certainly one I’m attracted to. I like the idea of having to place down a design-studio facility, and to effectively research car designs entirely separately. I like the idea of a purely ‘design’ based arm of research for stuff like interior styling changes, new paint colors and types, and so-on. It also seems unlikely that someone who helps design the tire-making press is also working on voice-recognition software.”

    I was thinking about this topic as well because of Computer Tycoon ( In reality, your company would go bankrupt not developing a whole bunch of technology and missing it from its product. And at the same time, in reality, later your company could simply buy that obsolete technology for pennies (so not like click click click, but a single transaction haha)

    My current design answer to these that your company should be able to buy a license from competitors, and after this kind of technology is too old (so it became a cheap buy or “click click click”) it should be simply there for you to a common knowledge.

  11. Right now you have our Basic Research Office, and one that is Upgradable. Building on that, I know you have mentioned in the past about a Design shop with Clay Models, you could have other departments that would need to be constructed for research as well.

    Basic Research center – would take care of the basic First Tier, and researching other research areas.

    Design Center- New body styles, chosen from a list generated that will depend on scenarios (Compact, SUV, Sports car, Convertible, Pickup, Ute, Van, Minivan, etc)

    Engineering – Mechanical Upgrades to the vehicles

    Electronics – Electronics, Touch screen, etc,.

    Manufacturing – the Make Slots

    Building Maint. – All those upgrades for faster conveyors, faster imports.

    Each one could require their own tile set. Still only allowing one item at a time to be researched, then when you are working on an electronics project, all teams work on it, but Electronics team at 100 percent, and the others at smaller amounts, so that way all 4 or 5 labs can work on a project, but not all at 100 percent.

    I can see a tree in my head for it all… lol

  12. I reckon probably some combination of your suggestions is likely best. I like the more naturalistic ideas, like the specialised research facilities and paying royalties to for patents.

    I would suggest some mechanic of being first in researching a given tech gives the most benefit.

    If there was some kind of artificial research competitor/s running on a timer made apparent to the player, perhaps with a pop-up notification of “Cool Cars Inc. has innovated in renewables integration” after which point the player has to pay royalties and receives reduced benefits on researching that tech.

    The timer should be generous so that the player can get ahead on the specialisations they want to focus on, but by the time they can reasonably return to the ‘tedious’ research items they have lost the competitive edge there.

    Perhaps they could even receive royalties for tech that they research first?

  13. Consider some kind of “achievement” system, where you unlock the ability to research something by performing a task that isn’t necessarily ideal. I’m spitballing here because I don’t know enough to have specific examples,but let’s say the player can accomplish X by doing either A or B. B is cheaper/faster/otherwise better than A. But, they can unlock method C. In terms of flavor, C is a refined version of A. Thus, the player must use A for a certain amount of time before they can unlock C, letting them choose between short-term (B) or long-term (A -> C) benefits.

    This might be too gamey, since there’s a limited number of ways to make that work naturally. I’m inspired by how the board game Food Chain Magnate’s Milestones work, which reward the first player to do something with a permanent bonus, which is then unavailable to other players. Since that’s much less satisfying when playing vs AI companies, I’d use it purely as a way to unlock new techs (or families of techs?) and not block you if someone else does it first.

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