The universe of Dyson Sphere Program is vast and empty. There are tons of little ways the sci-fi automation game, out now in early access, separates itself from its titanic predecessors like Factorio and Satisfactory, but the biggest to me is how that universe remains so totally apathetic to your presence.
When you touch down on your first planet, roaming around in a chunky little mech, you’re left to scrap the space-boat you sailed in on to recycle your first building materials. Eventually there are stars to harvest, but you must start with trees, rocks, plants, and raw iron — fractions of the worlds you will eventually grind into dust. Cobbling together whatever you can, eventually, you make some ingots, a magnet, a gear; you’ve got the beginnings of… something. It’s messy, but it’s yours to scrap back down and build back up.
Dyson Sphere Program is a new top seller on Steam from the small Chinese outfit Youthcat Studio. It is an automation game, or put even more simply, a building game. Every moment is spent mining resources to make products, then turning those products into new products, or products that make more products ever more efficiently.
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Iron, for example, can be harvested from a mining machine in its most raw form. Then a conveyor belt takes it to a smelter, which can finally crunch it down into an ingot. If you merge that with copper from your copper belt, you’ve got yourself a circuit board. Circuit boards can make assemblers, and assemblers make more smelters, conveyor belts, miners, and even other assemblers. You always need to feed the beast in Dyson Sphere Program. Every hour or so, you become a little more efficient doing it.
At the end of the escalating science tree is the game’s namesake: the Dyson Sphere. This real-life hypothetical megastructure is an orb that feeds off the energy of stars, reaching levels of power output that could fuel entire civilizations. By using massive guns and solar sails, you can literally shoot batteries at the sun that will in turn orbit the star, sending raw energy back to your receivers — all so you can fuel more factories to make more sun-bullets.
The moment you launch your first solar sails at a local star is certainly a high point in Dyson Sphere Program, but it wasn’t the one that roped me in completely. Dyson Sphere Program got its hooks in me way, way earlier, when I was still cobbling together what little makeshift base I could.
Over time, I realized I needed a way to make blue “science cubes,” which would fuel the research needed to advance towards that goal of firing at the sun. To make my star-gun battery, I needed a steady feed of multiple resources. Naturally these resources were made up of other ingredients, requiring a daisy-chain of interlinking feeds and production facilities.
My first attempt was the most cobbled-together, messy, arbitrary assortment of conveyor belts and little crane arms, called sorters. Somehow it still resulted in blue cubes rolling out of labs. It was terrible! For some reason, I thought a circular conveyor belt, like one of those revolving sushi bars, would work best to fuel a bunch of assemblers. Then I had to build runoff circuits, where I could set a filter to reduce the amount of certain unnecessary resources clogging the belt. My highway was basically rush hour traffic; I had to manually divert it at specific intervals.
That’s obviously not ideal. I took to YouTube and started tumbling deep, deep down the rabbit hole of player-made tutorials and build guides. I found ways to think about this game I hadn’t even considered — lessons learned from those who have already spent dozens and hundreds of hours in other automation games — that I could apply to my own. But they weren’t one-to-one. That was the key difference.
Worlds vary between different, random seeds of Dyson Sphere Program, but there are other, smaller considerations as well. The placement of veins might necessitate longer conveyor belts. Not to mention the plane you build on top of is curved, because you’re on an actual, round planet. The closer I moved to the north or south poles, the more my space condensed. Meanwhile, areas around the equator were vast and open. I could borrow some ideas from YouTube, but as I tore up my old build and laid down a new, optimized version, I had to add a little of myself to each replication.
That’s where Dyson Sphere Program gets me — even more than other automation games. It all feels a little more personal. There aren’t guns to load with bullets (at least not in the conventional sense). The only thing I fire from a conveyor belt is legions of solar sails, hurtling into orbit around the sun. The devs have announced that combat is eventually coming to the game, but right now, the conflict isn’t between me and the universe. It’s between me and my own imagination for what I can build.
I could easily go back and build the most “spaghetti” version of my original base and probably still forge ahead in Dyson Sphere Program. It would be horrendously slow and inefficient, but I could see the endgame someday. The reason I tore everything apart and cleaned it up was because I wanted it to look cleaner. This is my universe, my playground; if I’m going to harvest it for myself, I’m going to do so the best way I can.
By the time I finished, I had a neat layout of assemblers and belts. In one corner of my planet, I expeditiously churned out blue science cubes. In another, I built myself a hub: a common expression in the community for a base within a base where you can automate the production of frequently used buildings and goods. There’s a neat little feeling of making an assembler that can churn out assemblers. It’s like you’ve cracked some code to the universe and expanded to a new sense of scale. The conveyor belts I carefully pieced together with what I found lying around are now produced by the dozen in my automated hub. I’ve created a five-lane highway where my assemblers can build what I need, as I need it.
Maybe this is the appeal of the circuit-like redstone in Minecraft, or even other automation games altogether like Factorio. I’ll admit the visuals of Dyson Sphere Program helped the onboarding process. It’s an incredibly gorgeous game at times. I’ve frequently paused to just watch as the alien sun rises over my horizon, or as massive belts of red science cubes curve over the distant swell of the planet, rolling along to my labs.
Dyson Sphere Program also simply removes barriers to experimentation. I’m not trying to scrape by and survive, as in other games like this. Normally, foregoing that conflict might make work feel tedious. Instead, it instills a constant sense of improvement. Throughout the day, as I write other stories, I’m imagining new assembly lines in my head. I have a scratch pad where I can quickly math out the ratios of refineries to raw product I need for a steady flow of resources.
When I arrived in this universe, I had to tear apart my landing craft to make what I needed. Within hours, I became so much craftier than that. I could turn any planet into a new hub; when I land on a new world, I immediately picture my new, optimized approach to building. This universe is empty, yet filled to the brim with resources. One day it will be my vibrant battery, after one optimization at a time.