beneath this blocky exterior

Sat Jan-8th-2011 // Filed under: Games

There’s a game I’ve been meaning to write about, but — to be honest — I’ve been too busy playing it to take the time. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I’ve been playing Minecraft for about six months now, I think, ever since a friend at work got me to play it. I’ve put a lot of time into it — a lot more than in any other game this year, easily. I hesitate to estimate it in hours, partly because it’s hard and mostly because I don’t really want to know, but I’m definitely well into three digits here. It really is that good.

If you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t care about games, I guess, in which case your eyes have probably already glazed over), here’s the game in a nutshell: you’re dropped into a world that looks like it’s made out of big blocks. You can dig up these blocks and use them to build tools, and then use the tools to get even better blocks, which you can use to build other things, some of which can be very complicated — there’s some pictures at the end of this post for your viewing pleasure. In light, you’re generally safe, but monsters spawn in darkness, which makes the game’s vast underground caverns and nighttime dangerous. (Why, yes, that does strike me as a somewhat familiar game mechanic, thank you for asking! It’s all good.) And… that’s pretty much it, at least on the face of it.

Minecraft is by no means a finished game. It’s currently in beta, which it only reached last month. There are still plenty of bugs and unimplemented features, which is all fine — if you go in and buy the game, you know that you’re getting the game as is. (More on this later.) And people have certainly been buying the game. They’re about to hit a million sold copies in about a week — a tremendous achievement for any game, never mind an indie game from a studio that has about a half a dozen employees… and which, until very recently, only had one: Markus “Notch” Persson, the guy behind Mojang AB and the pimp daddy of Minecraft.

They keep selling the game at a fairly steady rate of, oh, 7,000 or 8,000 copies a day, at 15 euros a pop (previously 10, when it was still in alpha), with no decline in sight. That’s the kind of financial security many game studios just don’t have and probably don’t even expect to have. I don’t want to dwell on the money itself, but I think it’s important to realize that the reason people keep buying this game is that it’s not just another iteration of the same old thing.

Minecraft stands in stark contradiction to the accepted formula where you keep on pumping out those sequels; people don’t get into it because they liked the previous game, but because it offers something fresh. I don’t mean to harp on the game industry for doing that, either, because hitting that mother lode of success the way Notch has is very difficult, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s something you can plan for. I hesitate to call it an accident, because that seems to imply that he just got lucky, but at the same time, I don’t think this is something just anyone could do — and I’m not at all sure that Notch could do it again if he were to start from scratch with another concept. (And I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect him to.)

The game’s charm may not be immediately obvious, either. To be blunt, in terms of its game mechanics, it’s not really a stellar game at this point. For instance, the combat is pretty clumsy — pretty much all you can do is punch things, and there’s not that much in the way of tactics. The enemies are okay, but there’s not that much variety, and once you’ve got a bow, it doesn’t really make much difference which one of them you’re facing. There’s not a lot of polish, and yes, of course, it’s a buggy game, as you would expect from a game in mid-development. It’s not something worth bitching about, but it can still have an impact on the experience.

But it’s got three major things going for it, which, at least for me, pretty much make the game as enticing as it is.

First of all, there’s the exploration. Because the world is procedurally generated, you’ll never see the same landscape twice. Granted, at this point I’m very rarely surprised by what I see, but whenever I find a cave entrance, there’s still that twinge of apprehension. At times, the game looks gorgeous, which is not what you would expect from a blocky, intentionally low-resolution landscape, but there it is. There’s a tangible atmosphere that kind of sneaks up on you. (Play Minecraft for a while, and you start to dream in blocks. It’s happened to me, and I’ve heard a lot of other people say this as well.)

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s got the exact same charm as a box of Legos — you really are limited more by your imagination than anything else. If there’s a real touch of genius anywhere in the design, it might just be that the blocks are the size that they are. When you’re building with cubes a meter across, you can’t really get too much into the details. You tend to build big, and while you can certainly spend time on the details, you’ll never spend an day just getting the details of a single room right. Or, in other words, you get shit done pretty quickly. I’m at a point where just exploring no longer gets me all that excited, but building things is still a lot of fun. On the multiplayer server I run, we’ve started connecting things together with subways and monorails. There’s a weird sense of satisfaction in just surveying what you have built.

And speaking of that, that right there’s the third thing: there’s a sense of doing stuff together. I’m not really all that big on multiplayer, most of the time; I’ve often remarked that I love multiplayer games, except for all the other players. I’m not that eager to meet new people in general, and less so in an essentially anonymous environment — it’s not that I don’t enjoy being called a faggot by a 13-year old, but it does get old pretty fast. (That’s not to say I haven’t spent quite a bit of time in, say, Team Fortress 2, but it’s not something I gravitate towards.)

But in Minecraft, on my server, I play with my friends, and we’re all building shit together. There’s about a dozen of us, and with that comes a certain critical mass — whenever you log in, there’s something new for you to see, something somebody else made. And there’s quite a bit of cooperation. Digging a long tunnel can be pretty boring, but somehow, doing it with somebody else, it’s fun. Sharing a world like that is fun.

I built a floating disc with a garden on top of it, and then I put a bar on top of the huge tree in the center. I built an underwater science base with staff quarters, labs, meeting rooms, a sauna and a pool, and an arboretum named after Hugo Gernsback. I don’t know, is this the sort of thing that appeals to you? Granted, it isn’t really useful in any way; I can’t do anything with it. But it’s stuff I created.

As a hugely popular game on the internet, Minecraft of course has a thriving community, and as is so often the case, it’s pretty awful. I’ve certainly had to deal with the public myself in various capacities, and there’s always that certain type of person — those whose sense of entitlement overrides all common sense. With Minecraft, that seems to be even more prevalent — perhaps simply because Notch is a fairly accessible guy who puts quite a bit of time into interacting with the fans and has historically been fairly open about his development plans and ideas… a practice that, I suspect, has already changed somewhat, and will continue to do so simply because the headaches outweigh the benefits.

It’s a somewhat maddening situation: Notch cannot win. It doesn’t matter what he does, there’s always going to be someone bitching who believes that his grievance is of massive importance (it never is) and the thing Notch has or hasn’t done has ruined the game (it never does). Typically, these are guys whose narrow tunnel vision doesn’t allow for anything that isn’t directly related to their current topic of interest, who have no real understanding of what game development is like, and who have absolutely no conception of what is reasonable and what isn’t.

A great example of this was a recent Twitter exchange, in which someone responded to Notch’s happy Tweet about being nominated for a number of awards with a snarky message about there not being enough updates. When Notch responded, “You wanted me to update the game during christmas holidays? I’m sorry to disappoint. An update is coming next week, though,” the guy wrote back, “Millions of people work during holidays.”

The arrogance in something like that is fucking astounding to me. Yeah, millions of people do; clearly, Notch didn’t want to. Since he’s his own employer, that’s pretty much up to him. But people feel entitled. They want something, and if Notch doesn’t deliver, he’s a bad person. The thing is, he’s already had amazing financial success, and I would find it hard to blame him if he simply said, “fine, you know what? It’s done! Goodbye!” and went somewhere where he doesn’t have to take shit from ungrateful assholes. He’s got a lot more patience than I do.

That’s not to say that I don’t get frustrated by bugs, but I bought an unfinished game completely aware of the fact that I was paying for it in the state it was at that time (which is what it says when you make the purchase), and that’s what I got — at a discount, too, since the alpha and beta prices are cheaper than the eventual full version. At any rate, I have no doubt that the game will continue to improve, and at least for me, a part of the game’s charm is seeing it develop.

Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling. Here, look at our stuff instead:


  1. I’ve never, ever tried World of Warcraft. Ever. I’ve always feared that A) I’d get too hooked up on it and B) there’s other players you’d have to communicate with.

    But Minecraft. Well, point A is still possible, but darn, I want this one. Badly.

    Watching the videos from the game always remind me of the time when I was a kid and never had enough legos, no matter what. My friend had WAY more legos than I did, but there still was never enough blocks to build what I wanted. The more blocks I could use, the bigger things I wanted to make.

    Minecraft, I salute you.

    Comment by Jarkko F — January 10, 2011 @ 1294623572

  2. Oh no. I’d better NOT touch that one!

    Comment by Eppu — January 10, 2011 @ 1294687902

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