Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Minecraft

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Minecraft Makes Little Girls Cry.

I've been playing Minecraft a lot lately (when I'm not porting our newest game to Windows and iPad), and I will have several things to write about this truly fascinating game. For example, my nine year old daughter is addicted to it, and I thought her first experience with it was telling.

Here is a brief summary of my daughter's initial Minecraft session:

Starts game at spawn point.

Walks a long way from spawn point.

Builds most of a house.

Tries to make the roof of the house by placing a block of sand directly above her.

The block of sand falls onto her.

She suffocates.

She respawns at the start point.

She can't figure out where her house is.

She cries.

So what have we learned? First, that Minecraft is truly an educational game, punishing lack of foresight with an almost Eve-like intensity. It has much to teach about planning and forethought, and it delivers its lessons in the most painful way possible. Nothing educational can have value without the possibility of crushing failure.

Second, this would be a great bit of ad copy:

Minecraft - It makes little girls cry.

Third, after she went to bed, I logged in and spent a minute finding her house again. This made me a hero with a ludicrously small amount of effort. That justifies the twenty bucks spent on the game right there.

More to follow, once I figure out how to make a cake.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Very Brief Review of Halo: Reach.

Every game should have jetpacks.

(Actually, maybe a little explanation. My wife and I play every Halo and Gears of War game together in co-op. It's happy-close-couple-relationship-time.)

(Sadly, the single-player components of Halo games have gotten painfully phoned in. The kick-ass set pieces of Halo 3 have degenerated into long, tedious sequences of interchangeable roads and warehouses.)

(But Halo: Reach has JETPACKS. And that is AWESOME. For the three minutes it lets you play with them.)

(Every mission in Halo: Reach should give you jetpacks. You should be able to boing-boing-boing all over the dang place.)

(Actually, what's more, every game should have jetpacks. Dragon Age. Minecraft. Farmville. Rock Band. EVERY game.)

(Tetris should have jetpacks.)


Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Whittling Part Of the Brain

(One of the reasons I started this blog, besides pimping my games, was to resurrect some of my old writing that has disappeared from the face of the Earth. For example, about a decade ago, I wrote a column for the late, lamented Computer Games Magazine called The Grumpy Gamer. Here it is, only slightly updated.)

(This was the first column in that series, and, while its basic idea is simple, I still think this piece or writing is True. What still fascinates me is the way some people feel that their way of resting their brain makes them oh so superior to people who rest their brains in a different way.)

The Whittling Part Of the Brain

I have spent the last several years of my life designing computer role-playing games for a living. Thus it came to be that after a friend of mine, who designs board games for a living, couldn’t figure out why anyone found Everquest to be the slightest bit fun, he came to me for an explanation.

For those of you who haven’t experienced this particular brand of delight, most of the Everquest experience tends to involve waiting next to a place where wimpy monsters appear, waiting for them to appear, butchering them once they do appear, collecting their loot, and repeating this process until it’s five in the morning. For the uninitiated, this looks, let us be frank here, like a big waste of time.

But, when he asked me why anyone would want to do this, I had an explanation ready. It’s the same explanation I give whenever anyone asks me what the point of playing computer games is. I simply say that computer games satisfy the Whittling Part of the Brain.

Some of you, in this advanced, techmological age, may not be familiar with the concept of whittling. To whittle, you sit down with a knife in one hand and a stick (or other piece of wood) in the other. Then you take the knife and systematically proceed to carve thin slivers of wood off the stick until there’s nothing left but a pile of wood shavings and your own sense of deep self-satisfaction.

(This sounds, of course, like a pretty dubious source of entertainment, but people do some pretty bizarre things to kill time. Like watch Jersey Shore, for example.)

Of course, this sort of thing is what people did before computers were invented. Or televisions. Or fun. Nowadays, people can do all sorts of low-thought things to pass the time. Knitting and needlepoint. Crossword puzzles. TV. Reading mystery novels. Playing Minesweeper. And playing computer role-playing games.

The human brain just seems to have a need for resting, for passing some time in a low-energy state. Computer role-playing games are perfect for that. When I fight fifty basically identical combats against darkspawn in Dragon Age or spend five hours finally getting my level 13 druid in World of Warcraft to level 14 or piled a hundred bricks on top of other bricks in Minecraft, I’ve done more than waste my time. I’ve given by brain rest that, for reasons I can’t begin to understand, it craved.

And, of course, some of my friends think that I’m wasting my time, both designing the games and playing them. The same friends who don’t think twice about doing their five thousandth crossword puzzle, or reading basically the same damn mystery novel for the billionth time. Or read The Onion, like that’s such an enriching activity. People just like to fritter time away, and computers give us an unusually satisfying way to do it.

The most important thing about these low-brain activities is that they have to be rewarding in some way. They have to give us occasional positive feedback, little flashes of satisfaction. Sometimes, when whittling, you might carve away a particularly long and attractive spiral of wood. (Yeah. I know. Just bear with me on that one.) When knitting, you have the satisfaction of finishing your sweater. With a crossword puzzle, you feel smart when you finish.

And when playing a role-playing game, you get a constant, pleasing form of feedback in the form of gold and experience points. Or upgrading from a +1 to a +2 sword. Or getting a new spell, or completing a quest. Everquest is particularly cunning in the way it rewards the player. It has the character’s skills constantly creep upward, a tiny bit at a time, providing a constant stream of tiny rewards.

Now sure, when described this way, the whole activity sounds a little sad and lame. But really, when you think about it, if it’s such a pointless activity, why do we want to do it? I have found that, in general, our brains our smarter than we are. They want what they want, and if my brain wants to spend a while in front of a computer screen stabbing orcs, who am I to tell it it shouldn’t?

So there you go. In just the first column in this series, I’ve come up with a complete, comprehensive explanation for why it’s good and healthy and productive for us to like to play computer games. And I will recite it to myself, again and again, at two in the morning, when I’m lying awake trying to convince myself that I’m not wasting my life.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Avadon: The Black Fortress Released.

On Monday, after fifteen months of work, Spiderweb Software released Avadon: The Black Fortress.

I'm writing this on Wednesday, after a week spent in a pretty continuous state of total freaking out. I am always nervous when releasing a new game. But a new game in a new world with a new system? After spending an unusual amount of time on it? I've been going kind of insane.

For those who are interested, early sales are quite strong. I'm starting to suspect that we aren't about to go out of business. And yet, most of the early sales are to die-heard fans. The question is how many new people will play it and like it. I think that it's solid, the world is cool, and the game itself is a lot of fun to play. But I might be wrong. It happens all the time.

Releasing a new game also means that I have to read my forums, which, as I have written before, is painful. Even for a solid game, most of the things that are written will be critical. It's only with time that I can get a read on how good the good parts are.

This is also when I have to take the lumps for unpopular but necessary choices I had to make. The biggest complaint is that the game has no keyboard movement. Our other big series, Avernum, takes place on a fairly simple grid, so keyboard movement is easy to implement. Avadon takes place in a larger world with no simple grid for the characters to stand on, and keyboard movement just doesn't work as well as the mouse, especially for distances that aren't very short. But some people really want keyboard movement, and I can hardly tell them they are wrong. I just have to take the criticism and hope that the game is good enough.

I've also been criticized that the game text is too small, and I'm taking that to heart. I am going to work on using a larger font for dialogue and special encounters, which should help a lot.

But now I'm rambling. Releasing a game is only the beginning of a long process. Maintenance. PR. Sequels. I hope you try it out. I hope you like it. And I hope Spiderweb gets to stay in business.

On to the Windows port (hopefully out at the end of April). And the iPad port (I have no idea when this might be ready).