Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Since I like to write about Indie game design, it is inevitable that, at some point, I must discuss Minecraft. Written by this Swedish guy commonly known as Notch, it emerged overnight to take over the world and sell meeelions of copies. It has had a level of success my games can never ever hope to match, and it's kind of earned it.
Of course, I could go on, as many others have, about the soul-crushing lack of anything in the game to help anyone actually understand it. Of course, officially, it's still a beta, but it's still super harsh in the early going. Don't try to play it without reading this Newbie FAQ and bookmarking the recipe list, unless you enjoy suffering.
For the few people who haven't played it yet, Minecraft is usually described as a Lego video game. You start out a guy on a deserted island. You can gather cubes of dirt and wood and stone and use them to build, well, whatever you want. Houses. Castles. Roller coasters. There's no plot, per se. It's a creativity tool and an incredibly addictive one. The game system is very simple, allowing for hilarious mishaps, outlandish creations, and manifestations of mental illness.
I made a nice two bedroom house for a family of four. There's a wall around it. It's nice.
But for a no-budget Indie game to sell north of 1.5 million copies? In beta? There is something crazy insane going on here, some sort of true genius. This guy captured lightning in a bottle, with a fairly crude-looking game with no tutorial and a punishingly difficult first ten minutes. I honestly wouldn't have thought it possible. Anyone who cares about game design should look closer and see what this guy did right...
You Have To Earn What You Get
If you want to make a house out of 500 blocks of stone, you first have to dig them up. But then you just have an empty house. If you want something nice, like a clock or a golden pillar or a roller coaster, you have to search more and dig deeper. One of the key elements of Minecraft is the personal satisfaction you get from looking at what you built, which comes in part from knowing that you had to spend your time to earn it. And people do spend the time, because ...
You Get Stuff Fairly Quickly
The guiding principle behind Minecraft seems to be that you have to earn everything you get (by spending time), but practically everything comes cheaply. The stone to make a fortress can be dug up fairly quickly. The key insight here is that, to give a player self-satisfaction, you do need to charge a price (again, paid in your time), but that price can be very small. As long as there is any price at all, even a low one, the player can feel pride in his or her creation.
There Is Danger
On normal difficulty or higher, monsters can spawn anywhere where it is dark. And these aren't candyass, meaningless trash monsters, either. They are skeleton archers that can kill you dead before you even figure out where they are and exploding ambulatory suicide cacti that spend one second hissing in warning before they pop, killing you and destroying everything nearby.
Minecraft was never meant to be a shooter. You can make weapons and armor, but they're tough to make and wear out quickly. The vast majority of foes should simply be avoided. The point of the game is not kicking ass but achieving safety.
Now, to be clear, the danger element is not necessary. Plenty of players switch the game to Peaceful difficulty and never face a worse threat than falling into lava. But for players like me, who need some sort of story element or immediate goal to get into a game, the pressing need to make a Safe Place is a perfect way to feel involved. And, once the game gets you actually playing, it becomes much easier to answer the most difficulty question any creativity toy poses: "I can make anything I want, but what do I want to make?"
But Not Too Much
Minecraft is dangerous, but not too dangerous. Torches are easy to make, they never go out (for now, see below), and monsters never spawn in lit areas. It is easy to make an enclosed place where monsters will never jump you. And yet, if you ever walk outside or if you accidentally leave a dark spot in your house, the danger comes pouring back in.
And, much in the same way that only a tiny amount of effort gives a player pride of ownership, the mere awareness of danger is enough to keep things interesting. Once, when I was modifying my house, I forgot to place a torch in one of the rooms. It gets dark, I go to bed, a zombie spawns in that room, and, when I wake up, it's eating my face.
No matter how safe you make things, a moment of complacency can always kill you. The constant presence of danger can make anything more interesting, even stacking little cubes.
The Game Model Is Incredibly Forgiving
Game designers frequently want to make things too hard for players. There is a constant fear that someone, somewhere, is getting away with something. For example, it must have been very tempting to have Minecraft have a real physics model. Make your wood building too big or unbalanced, and watch as it crumbles before your eyes. Hah! Take that, you dumb gamer!
Minecraft isn't like that. It's a creativity tool. It strongly resists the desire to be hardass about what you can build and gets out of the way as much as possible. Want your giant stone castle to hang in midair? Sure! The game's job is simply to let you create.
With one limitation. Fire is merciless. Try to burn up the patches of brush in front of hour house and I promise, within five minutes, your happy green island will look like Mordor.
And the Developer Is Very Generous
For the amount of entertainment the game can provide, it's amazingly cheap. Around twenty bucks for the beta, and that comes with all future patches. No DRM. No recurring fees. One account serves as many machines as you want to use it on. And once, when their ordering servers were down, Notch simply made the game free.
This is just one example of someone becoming very successful by making something really cheap. See also: Humble Indie Bundle.
But We're Just At the Beginning
One of my favorite things about Minecraft is that it's a work in progress. We can watch the developer's tightrope act in real time, and they might still screw everything up!
For example, they have been flirting for a while with making torches go out. You would have to spend time running around with flint and steel relighting torches, or areas will go dark and "Oh God! Zombies! My face! Aaaahhhh!" This would be a huge change in the nature of the game, introducing a new activity that would pull lots of time away from the core activity: gathering materials and doing stuff with them. This change has been put off for a while, though, so they may have had the wisdom to rethink it.
(In fact, watch for any change that will heavily alter the proportion of time the player spends on various activities - digging, building, etc. These are the changes that will muck up the game.)
They are also considering adding Hardcore mode, where if you die your world is gone for good. I suppose this is a good change, since it is optional and some people love pain.
But I suspect that their design instincts are pretty good. Instead of making torches go out, they are adding cute wolf pets. Genius. My daughters will die of happiness.
So Try It
If you love Indie games, try this one. It takes some work to get into it, but it is a worthwhile exercise just too see how much innovation small developers are capable of. I am on the record as saying that small Indies aren't as innovative as people give them credit for. This is one case when I've been very happy to be proved wrong.