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I am currently designing a video game that is about space industrialization. The gameplay experience I want to go for are multiple star systems sprinkled with small, specialized industrial space stations. Transport ships move between them to deliver wares.

The player and their competitors manage companies which build and manage those space stations and the ships traveling between them. They mine natural resources, turn them into products and either sell those products to inhabited planets for profit or build a military and conquer their competitors.

What I want is an intricate web of production chains to stretch lots and lots of factories in different star systems resulting in busy interstellar shipping lanes. What I want to avoid are megafactories which integrate a whole production chain from raw material to finished product in a single facility and then supply the whole universe with their products, because this makes these supply chains unnecessary and boring.

However, one problem I encountered is that space is big. Too big to give anyone a reason to spread out production chains over several star systems. It is very implausible for a civilization on that level to fill up a whole solar system with space stations so that there is no physical space available anymore to build more. And resource scarcity would not be a reason to expand either. The rings of Saturn, for example, are so mind-boggingly huge that it would be no problem at all to have literally millions of mining ships to operate there without them ever getting in each others way. Which means there is little reason for anyone to expand beyond their home solar system.

One possible reason would be to place resources in other star systems that are impossible to obtain elsewhere. But then you really only need the extraction economy there while you can still centralize the whole rest of the production chains in a single star system, or even the orbit of a single planet. Heck, there is no reason for each faction to not build one single gigantic space-megafactory where all the natural resources go in and all the products come out. And even the extraction economy would probably cluster around the one source of resources that is the easiest one to exploit in the explorable universe.

But I don't want that! I want lots and lots of highly specialized space stations spread out over large distances.

What circumstances could I add to my world to achieve that?

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    $\begingroup$ What is the cost to move between systems, or even just to move around within a system? Given a low enough value, there is no need to clump up. The threat of opposing military powers are going to heavily favor clumping up though. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ In the real world there are lots and lots of things which are not made in the People's Republic, or at least not only in the People's Republic. Bread. Sugar. Rolls-Royce aircraft engines. Cashmere scarves. Apple M2 microprocessors. Jam. Paper. SpaceX rockets. Lots of Android smartphones do not come from the People's Republic. Lots of tee-shirts do not come from the People's Republic. Why does Europe make aircraft? Why does Bangladesh make sweaters? Why does Germany make industrial controllers? Why are there multiple ship builders? Why don't we all buy our glass from the People's Republic? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That's a good question. Perhaps you could elaborate on how these reasons could be transferred to a space-based economy and write an answer based on it? $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid that having multiple different places where multiple different things are made is the default position. Maybe the question could be amended to explain why would anybody even consider building one single gigantic space-megafactory where all the natural resources go in and all the products come out. What is the economic advantage of making window glass and rubber tires in the same gigantic factory? What is gained by collocating the production of cotton sweaters and flash memory? Why is it efficient to make all the cheese on Mars and distribute it by rocket ship? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I see you are more thinking about parallel production processes that have little interaction with each other, while I am more concerned about whole production chains happening in the same location. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 22:28

6 Answers 6

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World Building Factors

Fabs are Expensive

High tech stuff is REALLY REALLY hard to make. Back in the 21st century people used to complain about how expensive it was to make a microchip fabrication center. The places could cost billions of dollars to make, and took thousands of highly trained workers to run. If just a single spec of dust was out of place and you could ruin a several hundred dollar piece of equipment... oh the good old days when things were easy.

See that Xion-B Hyperdrive right there? It is made from over 1000 metamaterials that have to be precisely manufactured down to the atom. Forget a spec of dust, we get too many stray neutrinos go flying through the lab during production and it could turn a several million dollar hyperdrive into an unintentional anti-matter warhead if you get my drift. Every manufacturing chamber must be perfectly shielded against not just dust, but radiation, quantum tunneling electrons, neutrinos, and even dark matter. Do you know how hard it is to shield against dark matter? Let's just say it's not easy... or cheap.

The Xion Hyperdrive manufacturing complex is a multi trillion dollar facility located on Ross 128 B, and it is the only factory of its kind for 2 very simples reason. #1 Making another factory of its kind is too darn expensive, and #2 no one else could build a factory like that if they tried. Ross 128 B has been the interstellar leader in the hyperdrive fabrication business for the past 50 years. The people who live there have more experience and know more about hyperdrive fabrication than anyone else anywhere in the known universe. Even if another planet wanted to invest the trillions of dollars it would take to build thier own fabs, they would not be the same. They would be missing all those little secrete tricks of the trade and raw wealth of experience you find on Ross 128 B, so you'd just be spending trillions of dollars to make an inferior product. There is just no incentive to make more hyperdrive fabs when that one factory makes them so cheap

Concentration of Technology Drives up Production Cost

This of course raises the follow up question, why don't we just make all of our technology on Ross 128 B? When you put a tech company somewhere, it creates all these high paying specialized jobs. But when you start to put too many tech companies in one place, those jobs start to outnumber the people who can fill them, so the tech companies start to struggle to find workers. This means they need to start paying more and more to hang onto thier experienced workforce. These jobs also draw in tons of immigrants which drives up hosing costs as living space becomes scarce which then feeds back into the tech companies having to pay more and more to keep thier work force.

It also causes such massive economic disparity that anyone who does not work at the factories simple can't afford to live. Homelessness, starvation, and domestic terrorism are the 3 biggest problems faced by planets that try too hard to control too many technological sectors.

This also drives up the cost of consumer goods until people on other planets with no tech facilities simply are too poor to buy any of these goods so the tech companies have 2 choices, move off world to find another planet full of poor people willing to offer cheap labor, or go bankrupt from the ever rising production costs.

As you can imagine, at risk tech bubble companies inevitably move off world when the cost of a new multi-trillion dollar factory actually becomes cheaper than trying to stay, and when they do, they bolster foreign economies giving them the buying power to purchase more of the tech that everyone else is selling. In short, the ideal interplanetary economy is one where every planet has a single unique and very specialized production capability because that means every planet will have affordable living conditions, and the buying power to trade for all the stuff being made on other worlds. Of course, this can't always be the case, you'll always have those poor backwater agricultural and mining worlds, but because they are so darn poor, they still have the biggest leg up for providing the food and resources all the other worlds need at unbeatably low prices.

How to work these factors into a game

The way this is normally done

The way you normally see your goal met is to treat all resources and industries as fixed properties of your planets such that you literally can't establish industries that the local population does not have the knowledge and resources to establish. Some games also go more into detail about how developed an industry is on a planet. So, maybe a planet's "resource" list might look something like:

{Meat:1, Grains:7, Iron:3, Silicon:2, Robotics:1, Optics:0, Hardware:3}

Here you have a world with a very expensive and built up grain industry that can produce large amounts of grain at low cost. A few other resources available at common rates that may or may not be worth exporting, and the potential to establish an optics factory, but no actual optics factory yet.

This is an easy to implement abstraction of the above ideas, but it feels a bit artificial since the above planet seems like it should really be able to build a cotton farm and textile factory or what not.

A better way to do it

Instead of hard limiting what you can build on a planet, you can actually model out how local economies are impacted by the industries you develop by tracking things like Per Capita Income, Available Skills, and Cumulative Wealth.

For per capita income, you will look at how much individual workers earn. Some jobs will naturally play a lot more than others; so, if you put a farm on the same planet as a bunch of high tech stuff, the high per capita income of the technology workers will drive up the price of manufacturing food on this planet. So, if the per capita income of planet A is 50,000 where you have a hyperdrive factory, but the per capita income if planet B is 10,000 where you only have farms, then the cost of food on planet A may be 5 times as expensive as planet B; so, it's cheaper to just close down the farms on planet A and rely on importing from planet B. Closing the Farms on plant A also increases unemployment which might reduce per capita income on A to maybe 40,000 instead. Still enough to make buying food from B worth while, but also reduces your manufacturing costs on A so that you can make an even bigger profit from your technology workers. So, by specializing 2 near by planets, you've created all sorts of opportunity for you as the player (who just so happens to own a large merchant fleet) to massively profit from the trade between these 2 worlds.

Next we will look at the planet's Skill Base. Consider this as a measure of the kinds of skills available on a planet. Let's say that all industries fall into 4 categories: Agriculture, Mining, Manufacturing, and Services. Feel free break this up differently, but what these categories will do is make associated skills synergize. By having an established industry on a planet, its knowledge base over time drifts towards that skill set based on the % of the population works in each kind of industry; so, if a planet does nothing but grows food, but decide to open a cotton farm, then the new cotton farm will benefit from the strong agricultural knowledge of the planet's workforce, but if you build a microchip factory there, they will have a lower than average output of microchips due to lack of experience, and it will also risk reducing your farm output as your knowledge base shifts towards Manufacturing. So, if you decided you wanted a planet to be fully self sufficient, you'd have average skills in each area producing less of each thing in total than if you had 4 specialized planets connected by a strong trade network.

Next we will look at the planet's wealth which will be a general measure of how much the planet earns selling stuff vs how much it buys. Imagine you have a planet with a highly centralized production chain. It grows its own food, mines its own resources, manufactures components, and then turns those components into consumer goods. This planet never needs to import a thing, but always has lots of expensive consumer goods to export. This means as merchants buy stuff over and over again without selling stuff to the planet, its wealth will grow. This causes inflation meaning that the planet's per capita income keeps going up increasing the cost of production which makes buying consumer goods from this planet more and more expensive until it just becomes cheaper to buy all of your consumer goods elsewhere. That said, it also drives up the price of consumer goods on the planet itself; so, merchants can make a profit by selling the planet imported goods of the exact stuff the planet is making itself.

By doing this, the game will fully allow you to spend trillions of credits centralizing all your industries on one planet, but you will quickly find yourself unable to recoup the cost as your resulting inflation just make your markets get flooded with cheap foreign goods anyway... just like in real life.

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  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget upkeep. Transactional and time-based costs are critical for guiding players towards interesting logistics. Most players don't care all that much about the initial capital costs of an investment if it makes life simpler - far more will bother doing something about costs that keep accumulating. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ You can get your hyperdrive from Ross 128B, but what about your android engineer? Sure, the bulk of the body is easy, but the eyes are about as tricky as a hyperdrive, and the only guy who knows how to make any worth having lives on Bolton C. They've tried to convince him to move nearer to Ross 128B, but he won't go, cooky old fella - something about his late wife buried nearby or something. Whatever it is, buy his eyes because you want your engineer working right, and those cheaper eyes just don't like seeing the galaxy up close. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan I very much agree. I've added a section addressing how to gamify the ideas into a cohesive system. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:35
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Michael Richardson's comment is on the money, but I'll make it an answer:

Reduce the Cost of Transport to Zero

(Or so near zero as to be indistinguishable.)

The reason industries cluster is because of logistics - if you need four feedstocks to make your product, it makes sense to situate your factory in a location where shipping those feedstocks is cheap, secure, or both.

So the only way to encourage decentralized production on an interstellar scale is to make the cost of transporting goods (in terms of time, money, or both) nonexistent. Since it's a video game, you could just treat any resource extraction as adding to a fungible pool, and not care about the actual logistics.

If you do care, however, then I suggest cribbing from Deathworlders - jump arrays. Structures that exchange their contents instantaneously at any distance, for a small amount of energy. You could even modify it so that living things cannot survive the process, making it impossible to use for personnel transport and relegating that job to ships, but keeping the cost (both time and energy) of transporting materials at effective zero.

Then it doesn't matter where your factory is situated, as soon as you get it connected to the Jump Network.

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  • $\begingroup$ Addendum: as an example of "not caring", take Starcraft. My SCVs might have to bring crystals and gas to my command centre, but that doesn't stop me from building other buildings that ostensibly consume those resources anywhere on the map. I do not have to worry about supply lines. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ But if transportation is free, then wouldn't location be completely meaningless? How would it prevent the player from clustering their whole manufacturing to make it easier to manage and to defend? The only part of the supply chain that would be decentralized would be the resource extraction. But as I wrote above with the "rings of saturn" example, there is little reason to have more than one extraction location for each resource either. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp - if your production is in a single location, then it also presents a single target. Space is, as you say, big. Dispersal means you can't be wiped out with a single hit, and your best defense is then being hidden. I see no reason why the eternal calculus of "it's easier to destroy than to build" would change, and if your opponents only have to be lucky once, your clustered facilities are a giant "kick me" sign. (To draw on the Starcraft analogy, putting a bunch of high value structures all together is practically begging for a Ghost to nuke the place.) $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ OK, you might be right about that. When I add attacks with AoE damage that can damage multiple nearby stations and don't give stations hit points proportional to the number of production facilities, then decentralization might indeed be a viable strategy to improve defense. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp would also suggest that it be something like submarine warfare; have players have to send scouts/spies out even to find secondary factories. If you can sneak your construction ship out to some asteroid without your opponent noticing, you could have a production facility that's not even on their radar. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:57
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Planets and People

Some industry is best done in zero-G and vacuum. That means it can be done in any system. Other industry is best done in a shirt-sleeves environment. That means you need a habitable planet. But too much industry on that planet, especially industry of some types, degrades the environment and makes the planet less habitable. That increases costs. To that, add notable transport costs per ton per parsec for interstellar jumps (not a flat fee).

  • Raw materials can be mined anywhere they happen. Sprinke rich deposits of stuff at random. Most are best refined where they are mined, to save the transport costs of slag.
  • Growing food in a space habitat is more expensive than shipping it from a nearby habitable planet. Sprinkle habitable planets at random.
  • Manpower-intensive industries should be on an earthlike world, or at least in very close proximity to one, to keep the workers happy and to provide food. "Keeping the workers happy" could be simulated as higher wages/production costs without a planet.
  • Power generation is best done in certain systems, which are bad for both industry and living. Say antimatter production from solar power in the radiation hell close to a giant/supergiant star? They export power, import food and parts.
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Increase the Cost of Transport, with raw materials and final products being most expensive, and intermediate products being only moderately expensive.

This will discourage companies from integrating whole production chains and encourage the companies to build processing plants near resources and factories for consumer products near consumers. Factories for intermediate products would need to be placed somewhere that is a compromise between its raw material producers and its consumers.

Make each consuming planet request different products, but limit how much they will take.

This is easily justifiable by planets with different biomes and key industries requiring different resources and planets only having a limited population.

By having each planet only request a limited amount of products, each company will be encouraged to build a processing center tailored for the needs of each planet nearby.

Due to the discount on the transportation of intermediate products over raw materials, companies would be encouraged to build processing plants for intermediate products that are placed at a location that is a compromise between all the raw materials they require. But because transportation is still not free, there is also a pressure to create multiple such processing plants that are more conveniently located for supplying different consumers.

Which will in turn make the companies look for multiple resource nodes to exploit in order to cheaply supply all those different processing centers.

Discourage raw material processing at the same location where they are mined.

This could be justified through labor costs: Resource nodes might have a tendency to be far away from habitable planets, and workers want more money for working so far away from civilization. They might also demand that their employer supplies them with luxury goods which they could otherwise shop for themselves. There is no alternative way to get the raw materials than by employing people to work at the resource nodes, so the companies got to bite the bullet and fulfill their demands. Processing centers, on the other hand, might be a lot easier to operate near planets. So the companies would be discouraged from creating combined resource extraction and processing bases and move those workplaces to more civilized space instead.

Enable and encourage companies to drive away nearby competition through use of force

When stations of different companies are a threat to each other, and that threat gets larger when the stations are closer, then companies who want to avoid costly wars will probably not want their stations right next to the competition. So when an ideal location to accomplish something is already taken, they might want to place their own station doing the same business at a safe distance.

Nearby stations could threaten each other through:

  • The ability to spy on each other through direct observation
  • Through the ability to covertly sabotage each other
  • Serving as operational bases for military fleets
  • Attacking each other directly with station-based weaponry
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  • $\begingroup$ "Discourage raw material processing at the same location where they are mined." <- another way to do this would be to make it so that one processing plant can handle a lot of mines. If one refinery can handle 10 asteroid mining colonies, then you would not want to build a refinery on each asteroid. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 20:52
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Political alliances require interdependent economics

Peace in the galaxy requires a negotiated web of interdependent economies, the specifics of which are outside the player's control negotiated by their governments. For science fiction reasons, shipping un-assembled goods to another star system is a better policy than unemployment and war.

A player develops within an 'economic federation', allowing the game to occasionally make specific offers Sim-City style, designed to re-balance the game. Trans-galactic corporations could also undermine these trade negotiations to benefit themselves and hurt rival corporations – meaning these offers don't always need to make economic sense, and might be rescinded if the corporation loses influence.

Worldbuilding implies there would be new strategies to gameplay, including long-term contracts that allow established routes to operate with less management for longer time periods. 'Enemies of the economy' might include pirates, bootleggers, and free-trade zones that are hazards to these contracted routes, possibly add player options to go rogue.

Star systems that are shut out of economic interdependency may eventually turn isolationist or hostile. Independence from the federation means the other states have no leverage, so the federation could impose sanctions and enforce trade compliance that might dramatically alter the current arena, and provide an ongoing space opera storyline.

For example: the player manages to acquire a monopoly within an isolated system, while simultaneously aiding the economy to pressure the isolated state to join. If the economy wins, the player has an advantage of established manufacturing stations. If the isolationists win, the player's factory stations might be seized.

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Some thoughts:

Regional and environmental specialization

Assume Resource A is predominantly found in Area A, It's most profitable use is by Organization B in Area B.

Both entities are well established and so the cost of picking up the entire organization to move it closer is prohibitive (not in a Money sense, but in terms of Skills, experience etc.)

Think for example - Motorsport Valley in the UK for Formula 1 - it's a cluster of very similar industries and employers in a small area - to move all of that would be extremely difficult.

Now, granted this partially goes against your 'decentralized' notion, but I think there can be a case made for distributed centralization. which brings me to the environmental aspect:

Planet A has a particular set of conditions so that the inhabitants of Planet A excel at thing, they cannot move otherwise they loose their advantage in thing, but Planet A requires resources to do thing from Planet B, across the solar system.

Same concept, but this time it's the environment that is the key driving factor.

With enough thought placed into your world - you can have a situation where you have clumps of industry that rely on each other but are de-centralized because of pre-existing reasons and cannot be moved closer together in the future.

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    $\begingroup$ The thing is, I don't want my industry on planets, I want it on space stations. And space is relatively homogeneous. Which means that there aren't many local circumstances that make one production process easier or harder than another. I think I could get away with some stars generating some technobabble radiation that makes certain processes impossible within their vicinity, but there isn't much variety I can plausibly get out of that. And due to FTL travel, it's also hard to argue that the workers in a certain star system are more skilled at something - they could just move. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp 'They could just move' - they could. But history is littered with stubborn old people who 'I've lived here all my life and I'm going to bloody well die here' - things like Family, Schools, Children and their friends etc. etc. all create a lot of stickiness to keep people in a particular location, even if it's a space station, have a concentrated group of expertise is still possible (and I'd say probable) for a justification. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 0:16

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