Automating Minecraft

In my patron-sponsored post on Minecraft I talked about the philosophy of Minecraft mods and play in general, but I didn’t go much into the actual rules or design of the factory and automation play in those mods.

I’ve abandoned the “FTB Resurrection” modpack in favor of “FTB Infinity” (GregTech is just too vague and cruel). This has actually let me get into some limited automation, which has been interesting.

Vanilla Automation

I’d forgotten that there’s a certain amount of automation available in Minecraft already. Beyond redstone stuff, which allows for complex but not always useful behaviors, there are Hoppers, which are very useful. By setting up a column of Chest, Hopper, Furnace, Hopper, Chest, you can get an automatic smelting operation. Ores from the top chest will get pulled into the furnace and their products will get pulled into the bottom chest.

Minecarts also support some interesting behavior. The fact that you can put hoppers on minecarts lets them be a rudimentary item delivery system. They can collect items from one place and deliver them to another.

Modded Automation

I’m mostly looking at three mods from “Infinity:” BuildCraft, IndustrialCraft2, and Railcraft. These work together along with some related mods like Forestry to provide extra functionality.

A lot of these mods help enhance efficiency. Notably, IC2’s Macerator lets you grind ores, doubling the number of metal ingots you get from a single unit of ore. Additionally, Railcraft allows you to construct a Coke Oven, which multiplies the energy of coal by four.

All of this is made easier with Buildcraft pipes, which transport resources from machine to machine and chest to chest. Pipes can be made from different materials, each of which has different properties, from serving as extraction valves to performing sorting.

Added Complexity

If all these mods did was add more efficient options, they would be nice but just feel like cheat codes or difficulty adjustments. However, they also add complexity and interesting goals. The Macerator requires electricity, which must be generated by another device using fuel. The Coke Oven produces Creosote Oil, which you need to put someplace or the oven will fill up and stop working.

Creosote Oil is an interesting example of a nearly-useless waste product. It isn’t good for much, including fuel. However, it can be used to make two useful items: torches and wooden ties. Since it’s a liquid, though, it’s annoying to deal with. Constructing torches requires dipping the oil from the coke oven with a bucket by hand. Forestry comes to the rescue here: its Carpenter machine lets you do automated construction involving liquids, so you can pump the creosote into a Carpenter supplied with sticks and wool and generate torches with limited supervision required.

I mention wooden ties above. Railcraft is one of the few mods I’m discussing which reduces convenience. In vanilla Minecraft, minecart rails are pretty simple to build: put together six iron ingots and a stick on a normal crafting table, which gets you 16 squares of rails. However, in Railcraft, “rails” become “tracks,” which require materials that can only be made in a Rolling Machine, which requires power.

That means that you need more starting resources and infrastructure in order to create a rail system in Railcraft. Once you do, though, tracks are cheaper: you essentially get around 40 squares of track for six ingots of iron (but need more wood).

Design Choices

Each of these mods is a realization of what their creators want Minecraft to be. Tiresome things become more convenient with a bit of initial effort, while additional complexity is added to the interesting bits. Of course, we don’t have to look at this modpack as just a twist on Minecraft. We can examine the final game as its own work.

FTB Infinity, examined as a work, is one concerned heavily with upgrading and planning of processes. Some of these processes, such as the conversion of ore into finished metal, occur frequently enough that you’re encouraged to automate them. Others aren’t worth the effort.

If I only make the occasional Circuit for machines at this phase in my game, it’s not worth setting up automated crafting. I’ll just manually assemble them. If later I decide to make a solar panel farm, I may want to automate the manufacture of circuits for that.

These automation processes make the technology and resource chain of the game concrete. Dependencies already exist in the player’s head: logs become planks, planks become sticks, sticks become ties, ties become tracks. When you set up a series of machines to perform this transformation, those steps become physical machines, each performing a task. The player diagrams the resource relationships with machines.

The fact that machines operate at a certain rate encourages the player to think about resource ratios. If we need twice as much wool as wood for something, that can be disguised if the player is just making the item in batches at a crafting table. However, with an automated factory, the player must pay attention to the fact that their production line is stalled half of the time and is more likely to address that.

Manufacture

The takeaways from this mod pack for game designers is that the constraints and resource relationships that live in your design document can be interesting for players to explore directly. Often we’re inclined to disguise or abstract these constraints and dependencies in the interest of simplicity and accessibility, but by easing the player into familiarity with them we can give the player ownership over their own relationship with the game’s systems.

The principle of Don’t Repeat Yourself can be applied to the player’s experience. Once they’ve demonstrated that they know how to smelt ingots manually, let them automate that process instead of needing to continue doing it the slow way. If something isn’t a core part of your game’s play, let the player skip it once they’ve demonstrated mastery. However, don’t encourage them to skip the fun part.

Machines and complexity are interesting. Players like laying out their own space, thinking ahead, and seeing a plan come together. Give them those opportunities.

Do you have any further thoughts or other lessons to take away from FTB: Infinity? Let me know in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Automating Minecraft

  1. Hello, current BuildCraft developer here. Found your post via Google and am excited that some Minecraft players still pick the more classic, engineering-oriented mods over the recent trend to simplify automation and management as much as possible.

    I wanted to ask if you have any particular thoughts about BuildCraft as a Minecraft mod, if that’s alright.

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting! I’ll admit that, since I have been using Feed the Beast, it’s not always clear to me where one mod starts and another begins. I’m also not particularly hooked in to the Minecraft community at large, so I’m not exactly a representative sample. :)

      I think that, generally, constraints and complexity lead to interesting play, and it seems like players will pick and choose which stuff they’re interested in focusing on. I don’t care for Minecraft combat and never got too far into creative building, so Buildcraft’s the right sort of thing for me.

      I find the Buildcraft pipes some of the more mechanically interesting stuff I’ve seen in mods. The idea of pipes behaving differently depending on what material they’re made out of feels very Minecrafty: better than having a UI or requiring you to repeatedly click on them with a tool to change them.

      I have been frustrated in two different worlds by a lack of nearby desert to get cactus to use for pipe sealant. It would be nice to have a different option for waterproof pipes, maybe also biome-dependent, to use in cases where desert isn’t easily accessible.

    1. Hmm… no processes come to mind. I’ve been frustrated by difficulty finding cactus, as I mention in a comment above, and a similar problem getting clay. I’m not sure if that’s an automation issue, though, instead of just a lack of a cactus- or clay-making machine.

      I haven’t spotted a way to find a certain biome yet. It’d be nice to have some device or tool that would let you say “what direction to the nearest tundra?” But with how Minecraft world generation works, I’m not sure that’s a feasible option.

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