Let us suppose you were given unlimited power. The world around you expands out over the horizon, and you hold all the cards. There are no laws to hold you back. No authority figure is going to tell you what to do. Death has become at worst temporarily annoying. You could carve out that mountain over there. Chop down those trees over here. Heck, set them on fire. Set everything on fire and watch the world burn. Or blow it to smithereens and create a new one. Or you could design a pretty waterfall tumbling over a cliff and ride a boat over it. Given free reign over a world with infinite possibilities and no consequences, what would you do?
Minecraft, like many great works of art, seems to have gotten really, really lucky. Development was started in 2009 by Markus Persson, a Swedish programmer working for a software company. Persson had been inspired by a game called Infiniminer and wanted to expand on it’s freeform gameplay and blocky aesthetic. An Alpha (unfinished) version of the game was released in the same year and a pre-order system was set up wherein purchase of the Alpha allowed access to the completed game and all updates. Sales and interest grew steadily but remained low up through 2010. The game seemed destined to maintain its niche appeal among the hardcore audience. In 2011 though, interest in the game began to grow exponentially. Persson quit his job in late 2010 and set up Mojang to continue development of Minecraft. The game broke into the mainstream and has since become a cultural icon of the current gaming era.
It’s tempting to speculate over how much of the games success came down to timing. Consider: It was released during the low-point of a Great Recession in which many peoples lives got a lot crummier and their wallets a lot lighter. It also came out at the end of a decade that had seen an explosion in the gaming scene. From 2000 to 2010 yearly sales revenue for video games roughly doubled. Valve went from being a somewhat popular game developer to being the biggest digital game retailer with 25 million people using its Steam service in 2010; they’re at 75 million now. Games had grown so fast and gotten so big that many people began to feel nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, simpler time. Many of the gamers who started playing in the ’90s increasingly turned away from a culture that constantly hyped bombastic, over-produced and expensive titles. An independent games development scene that had previously existed on the margins of the industry began to experience a surge of interest coming from gamers looking for cheap, retro, experimental games. This also occurred during a time when development software had never been more affordable. Tools that had previously cost hundreds of thousands of dollars were now being released for one hundred. A new funding model was slowly becoming more popular too. Games were released earlier in the development process and in exchange for a pre-purchase fee gamers got access to the finished product. All of this fueled an “Indie” games development scene which enabled small developers to work on experimental designs that the big companies had previously written off as unprofitable or too risky. The stage seems to have been set for a sandbox game with retro graphics and a self-funding model to become really, really big.
How big? Well, it has gotten to point where things are just surreal. It’s tempting to just list off numbers when trying to quantify a cultural artifact. But with something like Minecraft, the numbers don’t quite tell the story. Sure, the game sold 1,000,000 copies just a month after entering its Beta version. By the time it was “finished” in November 2011 it had sold 4 million copies and had 16 million registered users. At this point has sold around 35 million copies across the PC, Mobile and Xbox releases with something like 100 million registered users, making it the third best-selling game of all time. (number one is Tetris, of course) But even when considering these numbers it’s difficult to appreciate the depth of the community that has sprung up around the game. There are Minecraft music videos set to billboard top 100 songs. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of 3rd party game modifications (mods). These allow you to do virtually anything. From simulating a nuclear reactors to building a working analog computer and even beekeeping. There are hundreds of servers filled with hundreds of people recreating cities and forging their own kingdoms. There are custom-made maps you can download that tell stories ranging from the hilarious to the macabre. There are people who have quit their day jobs and are making a living uploading videos of themselves playing Minecraft. There are tutorials, game shows, building competitions, international conferences, showcases, fan art, fan sites, T-shirts, coffee mugs…a glorious multitude of windows to peak into filled with people building, playing, experimenting and laughing at their own creations. All of this begs the question: What is it that has people so captivated with Minecraft?
For a piece of entertainment that has enthralled so many people, actually playing Minecraft is a surprisingly low-key experience. Whereas so many games today are criticised for their mindless violence and crudeness, Minecraft is characterised by long periods of peace and tranquility punctuated by brief moments of peril. Upon starting the game we are presented with a menu screen in which the camera slowly pans over an untouched, welcoming landscape as we’re softly serenaded with instrumental music. The game title hangs in the air over the big blocky menu buttons. Next to the title is a randomly displayed message that could be anything from a movie reference to a series of 1’s and 0’s. Overall the feeling is reminiscent of the entrance gates to a theme park, inviting you in for a non-threatening adventure. Selecting the single player option leads us to a world selection screen. Here you can choose to generate a world based on a number of options effecting world generation and play style. Survival mode entails collecting resources and food. Creative gives you full access to infinite amounts of every resource. Hardcore is much like survival except the game is set on the hardest difficulty and if you die your world is deleted. You have the option of randomly generating as many unique and separate worlds as you want. Crucially, you can give them any name you desire. Then when you’re ready you select “Create New World”.
And that’s it. Your computer takes some time to do the calculations, and you just appear in the world. Apropos of nothing. There is no back story. No cut scene or introductory text. You are not given an objective or a mission or told where you are or what you’re doing here. You might spawn in a grassy field surrounded by leafy trees. You might spawn on a sandy beach next to a mooing cow. You might spawn underwater, or on top of a tree or one wrong step away from falling into a pool of liquid hot lava. The fact that there is not even the hint of a structure to your initial gameplay experience is quite jarring at first, and is easy to overlook. But compare this to a Nintendo or Square Enix game, where you can generally rely on the first 30 minutes or so of the game being made up primarily of cut scenes, tutorials and long, long, long sequences of expository dialogue. Compare this with many of the games being released by Electronic Arts and Activision, where gameplay is heavily structured and your hand is held very tightly; you can count on always being told where you should be going and what the next objective is. Starting out for the first time in Minecraft can be bewildering at first. But if you want to you can just watch the giant square sun set over the horizon as a bittersweet melody plays out.
Ah yes, the giant square sun. And the moon is square too! Actually just about everything is square. Minecraft is a Voxel based game, Voxel being a combination of the words Volume and Pixel. What this basically means is that almost everything in the game is represented on a volumetric grid. Individual spaces within this 3D grid can said to be occupied by various game elements. A space might or might not be occupied by a block, which might by a stone block, a wood block, or a water block, or the player. Players take up a space 1 block wide by 2 blocks high. Each block being approximately equal to one cubic meter. The extent of a game world, horizontally and longitudinally, is limited by your hard drive. But given the low level of memory recquired to save a world, you have a practically infinite amount of land to work with. Dig down though, and you will eventually hit Bedrock. Situated at level 0, Bedrock is an unbreakable block that constitutes a hard limit on how far down you can dig. Block height is limited to level 255; sealevel being at about level 62.
There are 153 block as of the latest update, each one unique. And as you can imagine this leads to an enormous variety in the landscape. There are rivers, oceans, forests, mountains, deserts and frozen tundras. And underneath those are sprawling caverns of infinite variety. There are underground ravines filled with lava, forgotten dungeons filled with monsters and treasure, and abandoned mines filled with poisonous spiders. And under that is the hellish Nether. A dark land of smoking rock and lakes filled with lava. A land filled with grotesque and dangerous monsters. Beyond even that there exists an alternate dimension called The End accessible only through a special portal found in a special dungeon. This is a land made up of special End Stone blocks floating in the midst of a black void.
Captured by author
The closest the game has to an antagonist is the Ender Dragon, but he is tucked away in The End and it isn’t all that necessary to defeat him. It’s not like the overworld, with its NPC (non player character) populated villages, is periodically attacked by the Ender Dragon (although I’m sure there’s a mod for that). Instead the main threat the player faces is from other monsters (referred to as MOBs, short for mobile). There are a variety of hostile characters which can spawn in the dark areas of the world, especially at night. Probably the most iconic among them is the Creeper. A silent frowning torso mounted on four tiny legs and a belly full of TNT. Creepers can spawn in the overworld and will try to sneak up to a player. Once they get close enough they ignite their TNT and violently explode, destroying a chunk of the landscape and possibly scaring the bejesus out of the player. The creeper is an inspired bit of game design and perfectly encapsulates the games aesthetic: Colorful, Simple, Playful, with just the right touch of ominous macabre horror. There are also zombies, skeleton archers, zombie pigmen, bats and Enderman (a terrifying riff on the Slender Man archetype).
Given that Mobs only spawn on dark surfaces, a common strategy is to craft torches and put them everywhere. Within an enclosed and well-lit area the player can begin to feel safe. It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this element of the game is. You are literally shining a light into the darkness and holding back the forces of evil with your constructions. But this brings us back to the games seeming lack of purpose. In Minecraft, you are the intruder. The player appears sui generis into a pristine, untouched paradise that exists in perfect equilibrium. Even the NPC villagers seem to regard you as an intruder. A stranger who might be traded with but should not otherwise be communicated with. Nobody has asked you to come here and place torches haphazardly around the landscape. To cut down all the trees and interrupt whatever mysterious business Endermen the are on. One wonders if the antagonist in this story isn’t in fact the player himself.
There is something disconcerting about the way this game simply drops you into the world. This sense of antagonism on your part. Something I cannot shake. In some ways this is a very optimistic, even naive game. It supposes that given the time and the means, a person might “correct” this world. It supposes that the appropriate way to approach your environment is with a shovel and a pickaxe. In this way Minecraft is also very comforting. In collecting increasingly rare items and building grander and grander structures there is a feeling of steady improvement. You’ve come to put this world right and exert your authority over it. There is a certain amount of 19th century progressivism in all this. A sense of marching triumphantly into a brighter better future. Yet I can’t help but find myself gazing across the treetops towards a field of lazily mooing cows and thinking that the proper thing to do might be nothing at all.
Then again this wouldn’t be much of a game if all you did was stand around. But given the increasing appeal of games like Dear Esther, Journey and The Endless Forest, I can’t be the only one who sometimes just wants to wander around in a pristine, if at times treachorous, environment. We in the west live in a land dominated by concrete, cars and watches. Its nice to temporarily inhabit a place where all that is optional. Thankfully Minecraft doesn’t force anything on you and we’re free to simply watch the squids jumping out of the water.
Actual gameplay consists of breaking and collecting blocks, then combining resources you’ve collected to create weapons, tools, and other useful items. Crafting is done through a special window made up of an input grid consisting of 9 spaces, and a output window that displays an item if you have the correct recipe arranged on the grid. The game has a sort of tech progression in which tools made of wood are the weakest, while tools made of diamond are the strongest. This is a deeply intuitive system that just makes sense. In order to craft a cake you need eggs, sugar, and wheat. You can get eggs from chickens you raise. Sugar comes from reeds you grow and wheat from your wheat farm. This further implies that you’ve collected seeds to feed your chickens, planted reeds where they grow fastest (on sand blocks next to a water source), and that you’ve set up an efficient wheat farm. The result is that since you start out with nothing and everything you get has to be earned the hard way, there is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and ownership over everything that you do. That painfully simple 3 block wide “house” you build? That’s yours. That clever auto-hatcher that collects eggs dropped by chickens and automatically hatches them while you’re busy doing other things? You designed and built that. That huge impregnable castle sitting up on top that mountain? Took a while, but it’s yours.
And this seems to be the point: playing and being successful in Minecraft entails breaking, collecting and placing blocks and other resources, yes. But success can also mean accomplishing goals that you’ve set for yourself. What you get out of Minecraft depends on what you put into it. It’s a game that rewards and is responsive to creative expression in a way many other games aren’t. In the beginning this might mean collecting some wood by punching a tree block until it breaks. Later on you might decide to create a house out of the wood blocks you’ve collected. Then after you’ve collected more wood you might decide to build a bridge over the river outside your house so that you can get to your mine faster. Or you might decide to do something else entirely. Whereas in other games success might mean fulfilling game objectives or collecting trophies or having the most kills, in Minecraft progress is measured in the objectives the player sets for himself, whatever those objectives might be. A player with an inventory full of gold blocks isn’t necessarily doing better in the game then the player who has spent his time building a castle. Many people have never reached the end credits, and that’s their prerogative.
Considering that the game is loath to tell you what to do, this can lead to awkward moments where you can’t really think of anything to do. Some people are fairly turned off by this and the game has been criticized for being boring and unresponsive. And although while there is no tutorial in the game, there is a basic sort of “Achievement” system whereby you unlock various icons on an objective tree. These range from opening your inventory to smelting iron, and seem to be meant more as a comment on the Achievement system in other games then as an aid or guide to game progression. This is can be a source of some annoyance with the game. However I think this is a core strength, and provides a hint to the reason behind its success.
As mentioned earlier, Minecraft somehow sparked an explosion of voluntary content creation and involvement. Whats more is it did all of this without any advertising, instead relying on word of mouth and a bit of something else. But what was this “something else”? Well, the fansites, youtube videos, and wiki pages seem to have grown organically out of the players need to figure out how to play the game. Minecraft, unlike almost every modern game today, doesn’t have a tutorial. It doesn’t have any tool tips or help messages. It doesn’t, like so many Square Enix games, have a character whose sole purpose is to provide you with “the lowdown”. Instead the player has to figure out how to do pretty much everything by himself. Consider the process you need to follow in order to craft a pickaxe. You need wood for a crafting bench, which gives you 9 crafting squares to work with. Then you need to array wood sticks and wood blocks into a crude outline of a pickeaxe in the crafting menu, which will output a wooden pickaxe into your inventory. Simple enough. But what about fences? Pistons? Do I use melons to brew healing potions or do I need carrots. How do I get this switch to open my door? Minecraft, whether by design or laziness, does not tell you these things. You either have to experiment through trial and error, or ask someone for the answer.
And this seems to have been the impetus behind what is today a vibrant community; one centered on sharing experiences, creations, tips and tricks for Minecraft. What started out as people asking the same question, led to people posting tutorial videos on Youtube. Today many of these videos have millions of views. People took those ideas and added variations of their own. People naturally felt proud of what they created and wanted to share their personal experience inside the game with other people. Learning and sharing like this created a feedback loop in which the more people learned about the game, the more they created. And the more they shared, the more other people saw the creation and wanted to learn more about the game themselves. All of this is not without precedent of course, but whats incredible about Minecraft is that it all happened organically with no influence from marketing campaigns or the crass manipulation inherent in so many modern titles.
Home of the Tree Creepers-Thornhollow by: c12095
This being said, the community does have a dark side. Since collecting resources is the main element of the game, it is tempting to spend all your time hoarding resources. The multiplayer community is rife with people who have little interest in creative expression and instead spend their time increasing and boasting of their diamond horde. Certain “anarchy” multiplayer servers have no rules governing block ownership or personal safety. The result in some instances is a terrifying “Lord of the Flies” situation in which roving bands of players seek each other out only to kill and loot each others property. New players are killed instantly, and there is no effort whatsoever to preserve the environment, resulting in a pockmarked landscape devoid of trees or food and covered with lava. Players construct elaborate traps and enslave those unfortunate enough to fall into them. You might find a safe spot and manage to squirrel away some resources only to fall victim to a player using an illegal “X-ray” mod that allows one to see through blocks. Such multiplayer worlds give those of us wondering how humanity is going to handle this centuries problems cause to shudder.
Such servers are the exception rather then the rule however, and are thankfully optional. Many multiplayer communities exist in which block ownership (blocks you’ve placed yourself) and personal safety is strictly enforced via special server tools. A multiplayer world might consist simply of two close friends, or it might consist of thousands, or even tens of thousands of players on a single world. Over the years some of these servers have gotten incredibly complex. It’s not an exagerration to say that entire cities have been constructed within these worlds, complete with mass transit, farms, market places, rentable lots and even gladitorial arenas complete with custom rules. A google image search for “minecraft city” is highly recomended.
Minecraft is going on 5 years old now, and that getting quite long-in-the-tooth in game years. Yet the player community remains vibrant and active, even if it isn’t growing at the astronomical rate it once was. Mojang have done an incredible job in continually updating the game. The steady updates made to Minecraft have breathed new life into it each time. One update added an entirely new Dimension, another reworked the way Redstone worked (about which many words could be written). Another added horses. These have all been made available free to the community. And while some elements of the game still seem sparse (villager interaction) that is because while Minecraft is a hugely popular game, the development team is still very small and focused on other games now. While another, lesser, developer might have turned Minecraft into a cash cow and started squeezing..Mojang have presented themselves as a model of ethical games development. And the community seems to have taken this philosophy to heart.
The years since the release of Minecraft have seen new life breathed into an old genre. It used to seem like the only way to make money with a sandbox game was to copy whatever Rockstar was doing. Games like Grand Theft Auto and its subsequent sequals and copy-cats had settled into a comfortable groove by 2008. If you wanted to turn a profit you needed a photo-realistic and exquisitely detailed world, coupled with a huge media budget and lots of explosions. Minecraft turned all that upside down, and in its wake weve seen a succesion of similar games follow it. Games like Ace of Spades, Fortnight, DayZ, Rust, Space Engineers, Terraria, Project Zomboid, Prison Architect, Starbound, Kenshi, Edge of Space and StarForge all feature open worlds, player driven narratives, interactive/destructible environments, and resource collection. This isn’t to say that they are all copying Minecraft, but in them you will find some of the same spirit. Minecraft was also among the first in a wave of games to be community funded. That is: developed through angel investors who simply want to make the game happen. Minecraft paved the way for the success many other games have had with Kickstarter, a project investment platform.
Indeed, Mojang seems to have been at the forefront of an entire movement in the games industry. Minecraft wasn’t the first game in the sandbox genre. Other notable sandbox games include Dungeon Keeper, Sim City, The Sims, and Grand Theft Auto. But Minecraft seems to have struck a certain nerve in the gaming audience. Mojang have demonstrated that there is a massive audience for games that enable players to tell their own stories, unencumbered by the bloated systems that get tacked onto other sandbox titles. They have proven that games can be much more then just a very pretty train ride, and that lots of people care about the integrity of the company they interact with. The widespread and diverse community shows that you don’t always need a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to generate interest. Most of all Minecraft has shown that the future of video-games is up to us, the players. Its for these reasons that I think Minecraft is among the most important games to be released in the past 20 years, and worthy of your attention.
The sandbox is a place of optimism. It is also a place of pragmatism, and even idealism. It is a place full of endless possibility coupled with the immediacy of reality. It is a place to tinker and play in. Yet it has been stripped of the things that make our lives such a chore. There is no racism in the sandbox. Wars are only for pretend. In the land of the imagination the banal platitudes of our politicians and the dehumanizing elements of our society seem like a distant mirage, easily forgotten. It is a place of comfort. A place for those who feel out of control to become grounded. Mostly though, it’s about the diamonds. Minecraft is such a sandbox.
Snow Sunset by BoringPostcards