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a Dyson sphere begins construction around a star in deep space in Dyson Sphere Program Image: Youthcat Studio/Gamera Games

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Strip-mining the galaxy has never been so satisfying

The goal of Dyson Sphere Program is efficiency, not battle

Dyson Sphere Program is a PC game about strip-mining a planetary system, and it turns out that ransacking planets for their sweet, sweet minerals in order to make a power source for a supercomputer really makes the real-world hours fly by.

You crash-land on a procedurally generated home world with a few supplies and a robot to explore the planet, and then you begin to gather resources. The opening hours are tedious, especially when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. The game relies on you to do just about everything, and the in-game tutorials are only slightly helpful. Imagine being in charge of a space mission with manuals that only kinda explain what you have to do.

At first, you’re stuck collecting resources manually with your mech, until you can climb the tech tree a little bit and build factories to mine the supplies you need, then refineries to turn them into usable raw materials, and storage facilities to keep everything until you’re ready to use it. And you have to make sure all of those buildings are connected, in the right order, so there is one smooth path for the materials to be processed.

Efficiency is the entire point of the game, in fact. It’s not your job to do everything by hand, or to do the grunt work yourself, even if that’s how you begin. It’s your job to set up a system that handles all these things for you, automating the act of mining, refining, and distributing each resource, while keeping the whole thing powered. That dedication to automation, and just automation, is part of the reason Dyson Sphere Program feels so satisfying: The only limit to how smoothly your operation can run is your own ability to plan, iterate, and improve.

The opening 10 hours didn’t get me very far, because as soon as I understood a new way to lay out my base better, I wanted to start over again with that strategy in mind, and see what else I could come up with once I had a grasp of the fundamentals. The game does not make this easy on you, because the opening hours, again, are a grind. There is a replicator you can use to turn raw materials into ingredients and building supplies, which you can then use to create new structures and research new technology, but every step is a drag.

How it starts...

You can’t just select and build a building, even if you have all the supplies. You need to first go to the replicator, select the building, give it time to create the building, and then move back to the build menu, select the building, and place it. If something could be broken down into smaller steps in the early game, it has been, to the point that it feels excessive and almost punitive. You even have to continually feed your mech wood and plant matter to keep it running, and it consumes power like you wouldn’t believe. Making sure you’re setting up processes that run by themselves is the only way out of the grunt work that begins each round.

The first few hours were filled with fiddly moments as I tried to figure out how exactly to connect a conveyor belt to a building so that it could pull supplies in. My initial issue was that I had forgotten to also put in an output so the refined materials had someplace to go. Dyson Sphere Program is a game that requires a little more thought and study than other resource management sims I’ve played in the past; it helps to watch a few tutorial videos when you get started, since the game itself doesn’t help you much.

I’m torn between thinking the first few steps in setting up your base are too much, and respecting the developer for making the opening such a slog, since that’s a major motivation to get your automation set up as quickly as possible. Dyson Sphere Program is also in early access at the moment, and is currently only $19.99, so it wouldn’t surprise me if developer Youthcat Studio eventually adjusts the number of things that you have to handle during the first hours from where they are now.

How it starts to look...

But once you get a few supply lines set up, and you watch supplies be mined, put on a conveyor belt, turned into something else, used to create something further, and then stored until you need them to build something new ... it’s hypnotizing. At some point, your designs and processes and loops just start clicking and clacking away without you needing to do much, and watching your creation come to life in this way is immensely satisfying. And it’s only the beginning of the skills you’ll have to learn and the optimizations you’ll need to work on.

Such as: How do you then do the same thing to another planet, one that may have very different conditions from those of your starting world? How do you make sure that supplies are being sent from world to world as efficiently as possible, as you grow your empire and build more machinery to mine more supplies and generate more energy to continue to grow and grow? Expansion is the goal, because you need a ridiculous amount of energy to meet the needs of the latest supercomputer back on Earth, so by gosh you need to slurp everything you can out of every planet you find in order to make that happen.

I have yet to come close to whatever is going on here, but I’m going to try!

As cold and industrial a goal as Dyson Sphere Program gives you, the act of improving your lines and bases is always satisfying. The loop of trial, error, restarting, and perfecting a design or a strategy chews through time like you wouldn’t believe, and right now, as we’re stuck inside during the cold winter months, that’s not exactly a terrible outcome. It’s no wonder this game is currently sitting near the top of the Steam sales charts with so many positive reviews.

Dyson Sphere Program builds on the ideas behind games like Factorio and other efficiency simulators, as I’ve started to call them, to create something with its own tone and sense of calm as you use the mech to reshape the galaxy to fit your own needs for literal power. There are some flaws here that I hope will be worked out as the team gets feedback — the text is tiny on screen, for instance, and there isn’t an option to customize keybindings yet — but the game itself is in a healthy enough place that I have no problem recommending it to anyone who thinks this kind of high-level organization and steady improvement sounds like a good way to spend an afternoon.

It feels a little weird to be flung across space only to be put in charge of a strip-mining operation, but Dyson Sphere Program is much more calming, cerebral, and fun to watch than the premise sounds at first. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens as I continue to climb the tech tree, but I’m sure whatever I learn is likely going to make me kick myself for decisions I made earlier, and push me to return to the beginning so I can start clean, knowing that I’ve gotten at least a little bit better at my virtual job.