Sunday, October 17, 2010

What's the deal with Minecraft?

(Shamus Young's four phases of Minecraft)

Everyone's talking about Minecraft these days (not just me). But I'm not sure that anyone's done a better job describing this phenomenon than Shamus Young.

I don't mean the Stolen Pixels comic I excerpted above, although that's funny and accurate. He also writes a great gaming column for the Escapist. This is from his latest Experienced Points:
Minecraft is a hadoken-style rebuke to the absurd things the rest of the industry has been doing. It ignores the conventional wisdom of the industry and manages to be fun and profitable. I'm sure you've spotted Minecraft in the news by now. Minecraft is taking the indie gaming scene by storm. It's still in development and it reportedly makes over a quarter of a million dollars a day for developer Markus Persson, who is a guy and not a company. (Although rumor is that he's starting one.)

Lots of games claim to be a "sandbox game" because they'll let you do certain groups of pre-determined missions in a certain order, after you've unlocked them, as long as you've met the prerequisites. Minecraft is a real sandbox game. Dig the earth. Gather resources. Use the resources to craft tools. Build buildings. Make a house. Go all Mines of Moria and see if you can dig to the center of the earth. Grow trees. Hunt for rare minerals. Or turn on hard mode and see if you can build a fortress strong enough to withstand the zombie horde. Minecraft makes the average sandbox game look about as non-linear as Contra.

The world is made out of cubes. Everything. The hills are cubes. The trees are cubes. Even the sun and clouds seem to be made of blocks. Graphically, it gives the impression of an early 90s PC game. The chunky environment is decorated with big blocky pixels. Games have spent the last two decades trying to escape the rigid grid of Wolfenstein 3D, and suddenly a game comes along that not only operates on a huge grid, but embraces it and makes it the center of its art style. It would be effortless to make the textures sharper, but would sacrifice the look that makes the world so charming. Some people say the game looks "primitive," but as someone who has written software to run an immense simulated 3D world, I can tell you this is not a primitive world. It's just spending its computing power on something besides graphics.

But Minecraft isn't just a graphical anachronism. It's also a throwback to those anarchic days of the 90s before our current genres were solidified and developers were eager to try crazy new things. There is no big-budget game out there that even resembles Minecraft. This is a new idea. We don't get to see those very often.

Red Faction might brag that (some of) its walls are destructible. And a few other games let the player morph the terrain within certain limits. But in Minecraft the entire world is mutable. Build castles. Construct a dam. Grow trees. Build a working train. Tear down mountains. (That last one might take you a while.) There is no game more dynamic than Minecraft.

One guy, alone, has made a game which is more interesting, cheaper, and has better replay value than games that took an entire studio full of pixel-pushers and codemonkeys to produce. It's also amazingly popular despite having no marketing behind it at all. And the game is profitable even by AAA game standards. This is exactly the kind of thing you can't pull off when you're enamored of buying development houses for hundreds of millions so you can then spend tens of millions of dollars to make sequels of clones of games that were getting old a decade ago.

I will just point out that Dwarf Fortress is at least as dynamic as Minecraft, with far more options. But Dwarf Fortress has a terrible interface, a killer learning curve, and graphics that, well, hardly even justify the name (even modded with a graphics pack, "minimal" is being generous). It's a superb game, but it's not at all user-friendly.

And although Tarn Adams survives on the voluntary donations from his many fans, and is well-respected in the industry, he's very unlikely to have the kind of runaway, breakout success that Markus Persson is enjoying. Minecraft is making the kind of money that gets noticed by everyone. That has implications for the whole industry, since mainstream game developers prefer to imitate rather than innovate.

I love Dwarf Fortress, and it's already held my attention longer than Minecraft will, I suspect (much as I'm enjoying the latter game, too). But Minecraft is easy to start, while Dwarf Fortress takes some considerable work before you even begin the game. Minecraft is also beautiful, "primitive" graphics and all. Minecraft hits the sweet spot between newbie-friendly and complex.

It's not the perfect game, because there's room for all sorts of great games, diverse games. And there are many indie developers who are doing great work, sometimes in obscurity, like UnReal World and Aurora, sometimes famous in the gaming community, like Dwarf Fortress, and sometimes breaking through to a wider success, like Mount&Blade and - wildly so, these days - Minecraft.

But Minecraft is the game that's getting the acclaim right now. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, give it a try. (Here's my beginner's guide, which might be of some help at the start.)


Anonymous said...

Markus Persson actually didn't make the entire game himself. he owns a company called mojang.

WCG said...

Mojang was founded in May, 2009, using the initial profits from Minecraft (while it was still in alpha).

So yes, he has a company now, but he probably wouldn't if Minecraft hadn't been so wildly successful first.