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Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Dig It

So, I’ve been playing Minecraft.

That’s one of those statements that require elaboration. Like “So, I got married” or “So, I spent the weekend fighting ninjas.” Sprung without elaboration or background, it is a statement that elicits a frown and a reply like “You’re doing what, now?”

The easiest place to start would be to tell you that Minecraft is a game, but that would be inaccurate. Minecraft is not a game in the classic sense. There’s no victory condition, very little penalty for failure, and no objective means of tallying up any sort of score or progress. So it’s a game in the sense that World of Warcraft is a game, only much less so (WoW has levels, after all.) A more apt comparison would be Dwarf Fortress, but if you haven’t heard of Minecraft chances are good you haven’t heard of Dwarf Fortress either so that comparison is largely useless.

An even more apt comparison would be Second Life, except that A) I don’t wish to insult Minecraft or its audience and B) as near as I can tell there is no way to craft an animated barrage of floating penises.

Minecraft is largely the work of one man, known as Notch to the web. Notch lives in Sweden and had a dream. His dream, and I’m only extrapolating from what I know of his work here, was to create an expansive world in which players can create almost anything they can conceive of with an intuitive set of in-system tools, which can be downloaded in less than one minute.

He also had a dream to get paid while he was developing it. So he had the brilliant idea to allow users to preorder the game in exchange for unfettered access to the Alpha releases of the game. At last count, he had something like 30,000 pre-orders. At ten euros (that’s about $14 in real money*) a pop. So this dude has raked in over a quarter of a million dollars for something that hasn’t even hit Beta yet.

The truly wondrous thing is that, if Minecraft never makes it to release; or even Beta; it’s still a steal at twice the price.

When you first load into Minecraft, it generates the world you’ll be playing with. From scratch. So your experience in Minecraft’s expansive multiverse will be similar but never the same as anyone else’s experience. Sure, there will be mining and crafting, and you’ll probably encounter trees and the occasional pig or cow, but the world will be unique.

Minecraft doesn’t really have an objective, because it’s not really a game. The closest thing there is to an objective is to survive the night. See, at any difficulty level above the lowest (“Peaceful”) the night is when the monsters come out. There are spiders, skeletal archers, and exploding zombies. And they’re all trying to kill you. You’re only defense is the ability to dig holes, and use whatever you dig out of the holes to make walls and other items.

That’s where the mining comes in. You dig a lot in Minecraft. You can dig in dirt, or in sand. You can even dig in rock, but to do that effectively you’ll need tools. And that’s where the Craft part comes in. Your inventory screen has a section for combining items into four slots in a two by two grid. This is mostly useless, but you can use it to make a workbench, which has a three by three grid and is the most useful thing in the game. With the workbench you can built tools (like shovels, picks and axes) weapons (swords, bows and arrows) or any number of other things (armor, boxes, bowls, carts, ladders, etc, etc, etc.) With the tools, you can get more and better materials with which to make more and better tools, weapons or miscellany.

The craft system is simple and elegant. Using the materials at your disposal, draw what you’re trying to make on the grid. If you’re good at pixel art; or even if you’re just really lucky; the item you’ve crafted will appear in the output window and can be added to your inventory. Some items can be crafted from different materials, and there’s no penalty for experimentation aside from the fact that night may fall while you’re trying to figure out how to use cow hide to make a pair of boots and an exploding zombie might sneak up on you.

To support this level of freedom, the graphics took one for the team. The entire world is made of cubes that are a meter on a side and painted with some fairly low resolution textures. Anything not vegetable or mineral is made of smaller cubes, but not very many (your own character model, which you can view in the inventory screen and can hit a function key to view in the world, appears to be made of fewer than a dozen polygons total). This has a way of adding to the charm, though, as it evokes the old Build Engine days, only without the ugly sprite based populace and casual misogyny.

Needless to say, this isn’t a game for graphics whores.

Survival is quite easy. All you need are walls surrounding you, and a ceiling above you if the walls aren’t tall enough. You can do this in any way you want. The easiest is to dig into the side of a mountain, hollow it out and set up shop there (don’t forget to build a door). But you can build a castle from scratch if the spirit moves you. The level of elaboration and opulence for your palace is limited only by the amount of time you’re willing to put into gathering materials to make it.

Minecraft is, at its core, about exploration. Because the world is procedurally generated every time you start a new world, new nooks and crannies are never in short supply. You can pick a direction and go in it almost without limit, but the real exploration comes from underground. Delve deeply and greedily, and you’ll find caverns, underground lakes and rivers, lava flows and the occasional skeleton archer, zombie or spider.

I haven’t encountered any Balrogs yet, but when I do you’ll know, because the outburst of glee will be audible from Mars.

There is also a multiplayer mode, where you can participate in the kinds of communities that sprout organically when systems like this are put in place to support them. I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, but I’ve heard it works well except for the fact that there are no monsters at night, but that is, according to the developer, coming soon. Remember, this is only an alpha build.

I could go on about Minecraft, but the more I say the more secrets I ruin. Figuring out how to make items without help is one of the great things about Minecraft. If you have ten euros to spend, I can’t recommend Minecraft highly enough. You’ll get a great experience, and support the quintessential indie developer.

Plus, if you do it now, you’ll get to tell everyone that you got into Minecraft before it got all mainstream and popular. Remember, the game is only in Alpha now. By release, it could be a collectible card game.

*I keed! I keed!