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.


  1. I personally like the idea of torches going out, as long as their is a more expensive torch that does not go out.

    "Around twenty bucks for the beta, and that comes with all future patches. No DRM. No recurring fees."
    From what I understand with the beta you are not guarantied everything developed for Minecraft in the future, not that you will not get most things for free but I remember he downgraded the strength of the promise of future updates when it went beta.

  2. I am still hoping he puts in more of a point to build things, I love the game but after the first few dozen hours I just did not see any reason to play ever again.

    "You Get Stuff Fairly Quickly"
    I don't know, many items are really not that quick. It will be hours of real life before you find you harvest your first diamond and hours more until you have enough to do anything with it.
    And if you wanted to harvest enough stone to actuality build a real size fortress it very well might take over 50 hours (just for harvesting the stone).


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  3. From what I've read, notch is planning on making torches limited, but will also be introducing lanterns, which will last forever. Speculation leads me to believe that the Nether's lightstone will be used in their creation. I personally think that you should be able to mount sticks on the wall and use anything flammable to light them.

  4. @Will: That is an accurate summary of what people suspect might happen. If the change, as you described it, is implemented, I think that's a bad idea, for the reasons given above.

    @Jonathan: The "first few dozen hours"? Sounds like you got your money's worth.

    - Jeff Vogel

  5. But I don't understand your reasons for thinking it is a bad idea.

    The reason I think that it is a good idea is that the vast majority of torches are simply lining tunnels that you went down a long time ago and are not in strategic locations so you will likely never go down them again.

    So I do not think that the change would really effect the gameplay at all. And I don't like the idea of thousands of abandoned caves remaining forever lit.

    [Warning: shameless self promotion]
    Obviously I have a lot of say about Minecraft, if anyone is interested they can check out my blog post about the game at Why I play Minecraft.

  6. I actually do like to revisit old caves/mines occasionally, and I like the torches to stay lit! Though I approve of the idea of lanterns to replace torches. Really, the best improvements to the game will be more items to craft. I've put many hours and days into the game, and I'm not bored yet!

  7. I was watching a guy who played minecraft for 36 hours last weekend and raised 10000$ for Japan.

  8. @Elyse: "Really, the best improvements to the game will be more items to craft"

    Yes. This.

    My suggestion: Chairs!

    - Jeff Vogel

  9. Jeff,
    Consider reviewing Dwarf Fortress next (which I heard was one area of inspiration for Notch). If you can get past the interface. The author of DF lives off the generosity of others to make his game full time(free to download, donate model). Another interesting study of a sandbox fantasy game.

  10. I would say that calling Dwarf Fortress a game is misleading. DF is a simulation of the answer to a simple question "What if I had control of a Dwarven colony and told them to...?". It's all too easy to get into a loose, loose or loose the fun way situation (PROTIP: The fun way includes Adamantium Dragons, monsters made of garbage, lava or any combination of those things)

  11. Cheers to the creator! His game has drawn many people out there, and some are getting obssessed to this game now. Sounds an awesome game!

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  12. I played dwarf fortress a lot and there are core ideas in minecraft that unquestionably resonate with DF. In both you start virtually destitute and must scramble to cover your essentials to survive (shelter in MC, food in DF), rely on readily available resources all around you(stone, wood, plants and animals) to create increasingly elaborate structures and tools that empower you (build better structures, better tools, find increasing more valuable/rare resources, etc)...all while dealing with the dangers posed by wandering monsters. It really has all the addictive elements of a great game, I hope Notch draws more ideas from DF's depth of gameplay and vice-versa for Minecraft's interface.

  13. Am I right in thinking that in minecraft you make your "world" a server and that others can visit it?

    There are a number of ways of making this more interactive.
    For example imagine a team working together to built a fort in one "world" during the day to try and fight off the monsters and survive during the night.

    I think it would be epic. Then the team can work together to improve the fortification/ make it more homely.
    If there was a system of ramping up the monsters with time as well, it would be great multi-player game with a sense of achievement that every other multi-player game lacks. It wouldn't be the same every time, you have to continue with what you would have created.

    I'm sure there are hundreds more possibilities of what can be done with this bare bones but wonderfully ingenious game.

  14. As long as you don't try to add any modifications (mods) to the game, no problem. Try to download and install a mod (there are hundreds) and you will be frustrated to the point of tears.

    No such thing as an import button. You have to open .JAR archives and copy files into them from other archives. And forget standard zip files. You need 7zip or winrar to do these things. And they always seem to require some other module to be installed as well. Some of these, being written by third parties, tend to make the program not run at all. Be sure to back up.

    Mods do seem very useful. You can alter and add to the game. Everything from different ground texture to guns. Too bad they're so very difficult to install.

    I've also read that the developer says this beta version is pretty much it. A few tweaks here and there but he mostly intends to just soak up the cash flow until it slows down and then dump the whole thing. I hope that's just teenage bs.

  15. My 10 year old son is addicted to it, should I be worried? He's also addicted to Roblox.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. @Pop, installing mods is not too difficult once you have done it a few times. And there can be some very very useful ones. Some seem to almost be updates to the game itself, by how flawlessly integrated they are.

    As to no import button for the mods, while Notch is not opposed to mods, in fact encourages them and sometimes takes in the ideas, it doesn't mean he wants people to feel as if they NEED to install mods. Too many mods out there can ruin the game for the first time player, as it lowers the sense of achievement gained by having to find your resources. If it was easy to install mods, new players would be too tempted to install a mod that allows them to fly, add any item directly into their inventory, spawn any mobs, destroy blocks instantly, etc.

    These mods, while they can lower the sense of achievement, are more useful for experienced players, who have already created a couple of mod-free worlds and so can appreciate Minecraft Survival (Beta), but want to create something BIG, that will require flying, inventory hacking, etc. I for one know that creating something huge and awesomely cool gives me a feeling of satisfaction.

  18. Mods can be nice if used properly! Planes mod was really nice with the Biplane, 2 seater and the Foccer- personally the new planes aren't so authentic.

    Some mods are just examples to, anyone seen finite water? It completely revamps the games water engine to be well finite. As in lakes will empty if you take their water and you can flood valleys.

    Imagine that on SMP, to get enough water for a town (crops, reeds, etc) the citizens would have to build a artificial lake and a pumping system to gather the water.

    Or they could build a dam as rain makes water that could fill it.

  19. What I really wish they could do is add like nethermetal or something so you could make hell armor which would be better than diamond. and add silver,copper, and to make redstone that can stick on the bottom of blocks. using redstone with slime or something. also tin so you could have like copper tools, tin tools, Bronze tools made with 2 copper and 2 tin and so on...

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    1. u hear me all the peole who agree comment

    2. Completely bias...

      nothing here provides any opinion of the actual gameplay,this is simply someone who forgot to save a map before leaving it.nothing more.
      it should be common sense to save~
      it was YOUR fault not the game's.
      to have such an opinion over such a small aspect is ludacris.

      clearly you have no real intention of providing any arguement as to why this game is bad, & i dont see why you should have any reason to reply to this either.Being that your "reply" will only be a hate filled comment that further proves my point on how narrow minded your behaiving.

      Audiance,what we see here is not a fault in the game;but in the player.
      play the game right & your experiance will be more enjoyable.


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